Limelight Featured Recording – November 2014

Maria Callas was one of the very greatest artists of all time – a woman whose life mimicked her art and vice versa to such an extent that she captured a public’s imagination above and beyond the bounds of most opera singers. She was fortunate to fly her highest at a time the gramophone record was coming of age, straddling the 78, to mono LP, to stereo era. But, and it’s a big but, her fortunes over the years have been mixed. Her legacy has been nipped, tucked and generally madeover a bit like an aging celeb going under the knife – it can sound fine across a crowded record store but up close and personal it’s a fright. 

The 1997, 2000 and 2002 EMI remasters focused on removing tape hiss but took a degree of life and immediacy with it. Many fans were up in arms, screaming about artificial enhancement and false ambience. With the subsequent demise of EMI, Warner Classics have become keepers of the flame as far as the Callas recorded legacy is concerned and what we have here is their first back-to-basics attempt to put the record straight. Let me say at the start, it’s superb.

This box set contains all the recordings that Callas made in the studio, beginning with the three arias that she made for the Italian company Cetra in Turin in 1949 as 78rpm records. Two other Cetra operas are included (Traviata and Gioconda) while the remainder were recorded under the auspices of Walter Legge for EMI/Columbia from 1953 to 1969. Each disc has been lovingly remastered in 24-bit/96kHz sound at Abbey Road Studios, this time using the original tapes and engineers’ notes. 

“The privilege of hearing the development of a supreme artist over an entire career, and in the very best sound that we have had at our disposal to date, cannot be overemphasised “

Listening to the results, in every instance there are gains – some of them slight, many of them substantial, quite a few revelatory. Of course the earliest recordings have the most to gain – the 1949 Liebestod (in Italian) sounds light-years younger. With 20 operas and 13 recitals I could go on for pages but I’ll pick three examples that highlight some of the finest pieces of aural restoration herein. First try the Act I finale of the 1953 I Puritani – one of EMI’s more congested recordings. The new mastering puts the voice back where it belongs in the aural foreground without unnecessary reverb, but when the chorus and orchestra come in there’s more depth with sparkling percussion you can really hear. Turning to the dénouement of the 1957 Medea and the acid quality to the string sound has been virtually eliminated, allowing for a far more realistic listening experience. Finally, listen to Mira, O Norma from the sublime, yet still controversial 1960 set. In EMI’s later recordings the voices were not given the artificial prominence they had in mono times but even here the engineers have found added depth to the orchestral sound while any unpleasant astringency of the voices has been tamed. 

Comparisons over, there are so many, many reasons here to be cheerful. Over the last few weeks I have had the great pleasure to listen to each and every one of these discs, allowing myself the luxury of starting in 1949 and progressing step by step to 1969.

It was an epic journey. The privilege of hearing the development of a supreme artist over an entire career, and in the very best sound we have had at our disposal to date, cannot be overemphasised. From the thrill of the 25-year-old with a voice that seems capable of anything, through the rich harvest of the mid-1950s where Callas redefines so many of the great roles – Mimì, Aida, Leonora, Gilda, Manon, Turandot, Amelia, Rosina – to the deeply searching later assumptions – Medea, Norma and Carmen. 

If you’ve run the Maria marathon, then the final recitals yield their greatest riches, heart-breaking though they can seem in terms of hearing the vocal wear and tear. Having done just that, I feel both newly enlightened and blessed to live in such bounteous times. It’s a trip that every opera lover should find the opportunity to go on – no matter how many times you think you’ve heard Maria Callas. 

The whole shebang comes in an attractive presentation box with each recording in a smart original jacket. Libretti come on a CD-ROM and there’s a gorgeous 132-page hardback book full of glamorous photos and insightful essays. Now if only Warners might do the same with the live recordings, many of which are in notoriously poor sound but capture Callas in roles she never put down in the studio… In the meantime, this will do more than nicely.

Purchase this album through the iTunes Store: The Complete Studio Recordings (1949-1969) [Remastered] – Maria Callas 
Purchase this album from: Fish Fine Music

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