This first complete studio recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, made between 1958 and 1966, was a groundbreaking technical and artistic achievement, the most ambitious and intricately involved opera recording project of the 20th century. Produced for Decca by John Culshaw, whose vision and untiring devotion brought the gargantuan project to completion, the 14 ½-hour release set a new standard for opera recordings. The details Culshaw lavished on the production, which included building new musical instruments, precisely calculating the placement and choreography of each singer to maximize the theatricality of each scene, and creating an array of fabulous special effects resulted in a landmark recording that has lost none of its power with the passage of time.
Although apart from Nos. 3 and 4 Mendelssohn’s Symphonies turn up surprisingly rarely in concert programmes there are now many complete recordings from which the collector can choose. For anyone with a special interest in the composer the chance to compare the approaches of, say, Karajan, Abbado, Sawallisch and Masur may well be irresistible, and when versions by other distinguished conductors who have recorded only individual Symphonies, including Toscanini, Norrington and Gardiner, are added the choices seem endless.
Mention Giacomo Puccini's name and opera-lovers all over the world will think of grand opera and passionate love stories. One of the world's most famous arias comes from the composer's final opera, Turandot: "Nessun dorma" none shall sleep because by morning the Chinese princess is determined to have discovered the name of the unknown prince. The work is remarkable for its Chinese local colour, its opulent crowd scenes, its powerful choruses and its characters overwhelmed by their emotions. Enthusiastically acclaimed by its audiences, the present production combines spectacular and touching scenes on the Bregenz Festival's vast lakeside stage.
Conductor Jascha Horenstein has long been regarded as one of the finest exponents of the music of Gustav Mahler. His 1952 studio recording of the Ninth Symphony was the first such recording to be commercially released (the 1938 Walter was partly or entirely live; a 1950 studio effort by Scherchen only appeared long after it was recorded). A small handful of other recordings, made between the mid-1950s and the late sixties and generally live, have appeared over the years, but never this particular rendition from the Vienna Festival of 1960 which, over three weeks, celebrated Mahler's centenary.
Between 1961 and 1986, Herbert von Karajan made three recordings of the Mozart Requiem for Deutsche Grammophon, with little change in his conception of the piece over the years. This recording, from 1975, is, on balance, the best of them. The approach is Romantic, broad, and sustained, marked by a thoroughly homogenized blend of chorus and orchestra, a remarkable richness of tone, striking power, and an almost marmoreal polish. Karajan viewed the Requiem as idealized church music rather than a confessional statement awash in operatic expressiveness. In this account, the orchestra is paramount, followed in importance by the chorus, then the soloists. Not surprisingly, the singing of the solo quartet sounds somewhat reined-in, especially considering these singers' pedigrees. By contrast, the Vienna Singverein, always Karajan's favorite chorus, sings with a huge dynamic range and great intensity, though with an emotional detachment nonetheless. Perfection, if not passion or poignancy, is the watchword. The Berlin orchestra plays majestically, and the sound is pleasingly vivid.
This will be the Magic Flute chosen by most people who want to live with just one. It finds Georg Solti in a relatively relaxed state of mind, with an excellent if not particularly famous cast, and an orchestra and chorus that any conductor would give his left arm (not the one that welds the baton) to work with. The singers are not particularly well-known (London seems to have set up Solti as the star of this production) but a lack of celebrity attitudes and close attention to the conductor have paid substantial dividends in this production. Sumi Jo, in a spectacular and dramatic performance of the Queen of the Night's two arias, attracts special attention, as do Uwe Heilmann (Tamino) and Michael Kraus (Papageno). –Joe McLellan