Recently I thought I had requested a Blu-ray recording of Verdi’s Aida, but it turned out that I read the listing incorrectly and Aida was only one of five operas in a deluxe box. The five performances varied too much in quality for me to be able to give the set a recommendation, but they are all available separately and a 2008 performance from Parma of Verdi’s Rigoletto turned out to be uncommonly fine. In fact, it is very close to sheer perfection. Leo Nucci stars in the title role of the court jester who, in trying to get back at the wicked Duke of Mantua, puts his own daughter in harm’s way. There have perhaps been performances in the past as good as Nucci’s (Ettore Bastianini, Robert Merrill, and Leonard Warren come to mind), but none better. In fact, his performance on this Blu-ray is a Rigoletto for the Ages.
Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, is perfect as passionately sung by Nino Machaidze, then only in her mid twenties. She not only sings the role perfectly, she looks it as well. Her cad of a lover, The Duke of Mantua, is sung by a light lyric tenor, Francesco Demuro, who could use a little more swagger, yet produces some lovely moments. The rest of the cast is fine and the production is a model of how minimal sets, good lighting, and sumptuous costumes can be used in a small opera house to create the desired effect. The Parma orchestra and chorus couldn’t be better and Massimo Zanetti conducts without one misstep., with every tempo exactly right. The HD images are crisp and colorful, the DTS sound is excellent, and the English subtitles easy to read. If you have yet to experience grand opera on Blu-ray, this is the one you should start with. I bet you’ll get hooked.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has perhaps recorded more holiday albums than any other organization, on their own and in conjunction with various brass ensembles and symphony orchestras. To my mind, their very best was The Joy of Christmas, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, recorded at the Mormon Tabernacle in 1963. The 16 cut album was abnormally long for a vinyl album, but we are blessed that it was, since every track is a jewel. It’s the cuts arranged by Eddie Sauter and Robert De Cormier that are home runs. Sauter had formerly been half of the Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra and knew the instruments backwards and forwards.
We find him arranging such inspired moments as the horn calls that announce “The Twelfth Night Song” or using tuba obbligato for the cow’s verse of “The Animal Carol,” and his arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” goes a long way to making it the classic version. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings with more precision for Bernstein than for other maestros and Bernstein seems totally involved. The recorded sound is a bit cavernous but that was the Mormon Tabernacle. I think Seymour Solomon was the only producer that conquered it in his Vanguard Recordings of the Utah Symphony. The album was issued on CD, then later on a CD which added excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Humperdinck’s “Children’s Prayer,” and the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The Joy of Christmas was and is a holiday recording that lives up to its title. The original LP cover is pictured. Copies exist at bargain prices.
Sooner or later every pop or jazz artist feels required to record an album of holiday favorites. These seldom seem to be labors of love and are more likely to be popularity payoffs. But a few good ones do slip through, and Lena Horne’s Merry from Lena is surely one of the best. Horne was in her best voice at the time it was recorded (1965, released in 1966). Most of the tunes are standard secular fare – “Jingle All the Way,” “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!” But we also find “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night,” the latter givne a unique and effective performance that plumbs the glory of the tune, rather than celebrating it’s intimacy.
Merry from Lena was originally on the United Artists label.The CD re-releases of the album, on the Capitol, Razor & Tie, and DRG labels all add a bonus track, a very playful rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” complete with the oft omitted introduction. The album was produced by Ray Ellis. Arrangements were by Jack Parnell, who also conducted. There’s lots of punchy brass on the upbeat numbers and sweet, not saccharine strings on many of the slower ones. You can find the Razor & Tie CD at Amazon for a very attractive price. Also the original LP. This warm, witty, and wonderful album should be in every holiday music collection.
E. Power Biggs was one of the greatest organists ever and though he recorded a lot of “lofty” music, he played to the public as well. His Music Of Jubilee albums brought Bach to many who might not have heard him otherwise and he did a couple of holiday albums in which he brought quality and unlimited joy to the audience while keeping things relatively simple. His Music for a Merry Christmas on Columbia Records was possibly the best of his Christmas-themed sets. Playing with the Columbia Symphony, conducted by Zoltan Rozsnyai, Biggs and the orchestra trade simple yet effective variations on 17 familiar carols.
There are some moments of brilliance. I think of the idea to start “The First Noel” with solo bassoon, and the snake charmer bits added to “We Three Kings” to make it sound “eastern.” But by and large the arrangements were comfortable enough to create an all purpose holiday disc that would appeal to everyone. Sad to say, Sony has pretty much let go of this 1963 jewel. You can still find a few on vinyl at Amazon. But you can still obtain the program from High Definition Tape Transfers which has used a Columbia 4-track tape as source material and offers the concert in several download, CD, and DVD versions. The reverberant sound is a little boomy but in the end charm triumphs over sonics. The cover pictured is from HDTT. Note that HDTT has changed the title from Music for a Merry Christmas to A Very Merry Christmas, but it’s the same program.
17th and 18th century composers wrote a lot of music for the holiday season. Over the past 57 years we’ve discovered how Baroque music should be played and there have been dozens of recordings of period compositions written for Christmas. For me, the pioneering An 18th Century Christmas, recorded in stereo in 1957 with the chamber orchestra I Solisti di Zagreb conducted by Antonio Janigro is still the best. It includes Arcangelo Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto (Op. 6. no. 8 of 12 concerti grossi), Giuseppe Torelli’s Op. 8 No. 6 concerto for two violins (“Pastoral Concerto for the Nativity”), three Bach chorales lovingly arranged by M. Kelemen, and Haydn’s Toy Symphony, which we now believe was written by Leopold Mozart as part of a larger divertimento.
Janigro and his players are stylish enough and bring a verve and joie de vivre to this music that is sadly missing from more “correct” and dour performances. Anton Heiller, the harpsichord player, shows great imagination in the way he fills in the continuo. And the recording is quite simply gorgeous. The strings have a bright sheen but never sound forced, the cello and bass lines are beautifully delineated. The toy instruments in the faux Haydn delight – toy trumpet and drum, cuckoo, nightingale, and ratchet – have amazing presence without overbalancing the ensemble. It’s shocking to have to say that others have not revered this recording as I have. There are precious few at Amazon and those carry bargain prices, which is lucky for you. I’ve reproduced the vinyl cover here, the CD cover is far less magnificent.