Magazine article Gramophone

Gramophone Recording of the Month

Magazine article Gramophone

Gramophone Recording of the Month

Article excerpt

Richard Osborne welcomes Sir Antonio Pappano's fine new recording of Verdi's great Egyptian opera with Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann leading the cast


Anja Harteros sop        Aida
Jonas Kaufmann ten       Radames
Ekaterina Semenchuk      Amneris
Ludovic Tezierosr        Amonasro
Erwin Schrott bass-bar   Ramfis
Marco Spntti hass        King of Egypt
Eleonora Buratto sop     Priestess
Paolo Fanale ten         Messenger

Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale
di Santa Cecilia / Sir Antonio Pappano

Warner Classics (S) (3) 2564 61066-3 046' * DDD * S/T/t)

Aida is the most classically concise of the great 19th-century grand operas yet it remains the one most closely associated with theatrical excess. To savour its qualities, it should be heard first, seen later, which is why the gramophone has played so important a role in its performing history. Nowadays record companies mainly serve up opera on DVD or in cheap-to-record concert performances. Yet, as Antonio Pappano has had the courage to insist, you cannot record Aida in concert. Set in temple and tomb, by river and city gate, the sound planes are too various, the range of dynamics too complex to replicate in concert-hall conditions.

Aida received its first complete studio recording in Rome in 1928 but it was the 1959 Decca recording--produced in Vienna by John Culshaw with Karajan conducting a largely Italian cast--that finally gave us what Andrew Porter, writing in these columns, called 'a sound-realisation of the score which transcends any shortcomings inherent in physical staging and brings us a step closer to that ideal imagined performance'. Not that the Decca set displaced the theatrically thrilling, albeit more conventionally produced, 1955 Serafin recording with Maria Calks as Aida and Tito Gobbi as a near-definitive Amonasro.

The new recording, produced by Stephen Johns, stands within that broad EMI tradition, albeit with a larger stage picture and a greatly enhanced dynamic range beautifully accommodated to the opera's need, and the listener's. Where the new set resembles the 1959 Decca is in the quality of the conducting. Pappano's direction, like Karajan's, is organic as the work is organic: each episode finely shaped within itself (the Triumphal Scene is beautifully judged) yet built unerringly into the larger whole. I don't hear this to the same extent in Muti's 1974 EMI recording and certainly not in the 1961 RCA set, where a strong cast headed by Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers has to do battle with Solti's brazen and occasionally thoughtless conducting.

Karajan has the Vienna Philharmonic but it is arguable that Pappano goes one better, with orchestral playing of rare accomplishment from an Italian ensemble which is alive to the opera's every word. (And motion: the ballet sequences are superbly realised.) In both performances the orchestra is a powerful additional player which supports the singers at every turn. The result is a vocally lyrical Aida with Pappano's cast, like Karajan's, never needing to force the moment. We hear this at the very outset in Jonas Kauffnann's account of 'Celeste Aida', less visceral than some but wonderfully mellifluous and crowned by a rarely heard quietly diminishing high B flat.

Anja Harteros is arguably the most interesting Aida on record since Callas, albeit differently characterised. …

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