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In Search of the Ten Best Recordings of “Nessun Dorma”

by Jan Neckers
 

 

 

Lucky me that Puccini wrote this aria in 1921-1922 and that it was only published in 1926. Otherwise maybe fifty or sixty tenors more would have recorded the aria.

In discussing the recordings of "Nessun dorma" I've put the following brakes on. Only recordings commercially available on LP or CD are mentioned. So the odd 78 that is still untransferred is missing. No live-performances on reel-to-reel tapes or audio-cassettes are treated unless someone put them on CD and made them available commercially.

Even more stringent is my decision to discuss only the recordings in my own collection. So that may mean that your cherished version is missing here. However this chance is somewhat remote as I've got some 130 versions.

So on with our quest.

 

1. The Anglo-Saxons (yes, Commonwealth included)

 

"What would you do if your average tenor sounds like a strangled capon?" Conrad Osborne once asked in High Fidelity, speaking of British tenors.

Capon is not the right word; ox-like, dull and beefy sound more right the way messrs. Charles Craig, Donald Smith and David Hughes sing, simply lacking natural talent. Kenneth Collins, Dennis O'Neill and Edmund Barham are marginally better but their thick tone too (Collins spitting out consonants, O'Neill and Barham spreading their top notes) remind us that theirs are mostly 'artificial' voices. Kenneth Neate made a career in Italy in the sixties with a slender but well-focused voice and a good top. The greatest talent of them all was Alfred Piccaver but by the time of his recording (1930) he had been singing for 23 years and his nasality, sloppy pronunciation of Italian consonants plus a problem with a top B that starts as a cry doesn't make listening an exciting experience. All these singers nevertheless were honest musicians, a thing that cannot be said of Tom Burke . He sounds exactly what he always was: a raw barking uncut diamond. The strange thing of course is the fact that the best British version is sung by a real amateur; the late musical clown Sir Harry Secombe . He brings legato, an immediately recognizable timbre and clear shining tone to his version.

 

When it comes to the North-Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent (well, according to their names a few Germans and Italians crept in), they have somewhat the same deficiency of their cousins: not very exciting colours in the voice ( Albert Da Costa, Barry Morell, Ermanno Mauro and even Ben Heppner ). A pity as the top is usually more free than with the British and as Heppner e.g. succeeds in caressing the phrases far better than most Italians. Listen to his soft "che ti fa mia", a romantic guy and not a raper. On the other hand, notwithstanding his baritone-background and mostly German career, James King  succeeds in sounding more ardently Italianate than expected. That's a quality not shown by Eugene Tobin in his utterly German-sounding "Keiner schlafe". Not only the language but the style too reminds one of Ernst Kozub.

Four singers are somewhat light-weight. When I heard the agreeable sunny interpretation by Walter Alberti, my first thought was:"Isn't this a very talented comprimario, as the voice is too light and goes very flat on the top note?" The same can be said of Charles Davis though he sings less flat. (I was right as Mr. Alberti sung a lot of second-tenor roles at Cincinnatti). Richard Margison pushes his once lovely lyric tenor pityless and has trouble above the stave.The other Richard (Leech) has the far more attractive youthful glowing timbre but he had an off-day when he made his solo recording because I've heard him sing better in live performance. Another light-weight succeeds very well. The sleeve-notes on a Charles Kullmann -record dryly state that his was a voice cherished by the mike. Even so this German-language version of 1933 is warmly phrased with a gleaming top. None of the German or Austrian tenors will better his performance. And then there is the unexpectedly first candidate for the top ten; youthful exuberance but still stylish singing, warm rounded tone, maybe only a little thickening on the top B. What a pity that a major talent as Frederic Kalt fell foul of a disease (MS) that cut short a brilliant career.

 

2. The Germans (Austrians included)

 

There are two tenors with worldclass-voices among them and neither is very good here. Fritz Wunderlich was too young when he recorded the aria during one of the many sessions he did to earn a few extra marks. There is no deeper feeling for the situation, just a young and gleaming tenor voice with still a few technical problems. He takes the top B from below and then glides upward. A pity he didn't re-record the aria. Knowing his voice on his last records he could have been a competitor for Luciano Pavarotti. The other mighty German suffers (or let us suffer) the same fate. Ernst Kozub has a formidable sound. No wonder Solti wanted him for his Siegfried and no wonder Decca-producer Culshaw had to oust him out and bow knee-deep for Windgassen to take over. Kozub gives the impression of not knowing what he's singing which is a pity because there is real steel and beauty in the voice.

There is a resemblance with two other tenors. Martin Ritzmann has a fine spinto but he too glides under the note towards the top. Moreover he spoils his aria by his ugly open vowels. Hanns Nocker (Felsenstein's favourite tenor) too has the right impressive voice but succeeds not only in doing what several Italians do (shouting) but even in what few others do (sobbing). Rudolf Schock is a case. I've never understood his popular success. The phrasing is wooden, the German bark is omnipresent and there is no ring at the top: an artificial voice grounded on will-power not on talent. Somewhat less wooden and with a warmer sound is Heinz Hoppe , but with his explosive singing he seems to be a successor of Helge Rosvaenge. The same can be said of Waldemar Kmennt though the basic sound is purer. Alfons Fügel has not even that and the less said, the better. Fügel's contemporary Peter Anders is altogether on a different level. His singing resembles somewhat Wunderlich's: beautiful but immature He is still a pure lirico and had only sung professionally for two years when he made this record in 1934 . With Anders however we know that he would never get better than in the thirties. Josef Traxel too is a lyric tenor but the basic grainy though not unattractive voice-colour is better suited to this heavyweight aria.The last German to record it, is also the first one to do it in Italian . Peter Seiffert is free from the German bark and could easily pass for an American tenor but he too lacks colour in the voice and the high B is simply squeezed out. No one in this lot has ambitions for a place amongst the ten best.

 

3. The French

 

For one reason or another French tenors were or are loath to record the aria. I've only got three. José Luccioni who as a Corsican is more Italian than French, sang the aria on television in the late fifties. One hears the impressive ruins of a mighty voice, but he is short of breath and the once formidable metal has deteriorated in a kind of bleat. A few years older than Luccioni was Georges Thill , the creator of the role in the Verona arena in 1928. Like Luccioni he sings in Italian but he remains totally French. Collectors have always speculated how it came about that somebody who studied with De Lucia had nothing at all in common with his teacher. This is vintage Thill. Stylish, a beautiful and personal middle voice but white and too open above the stave and little fire: every inch a gentleman. And then there is the case of Tony Poncet , incidentally the only one to sing in French. There is the well-known mighty roar but as always with Poncet there are some fine diminuendos as well where greater tenors sail without any feeling. He is however severely handicapped by a pedestrian French translation. His main weapon, his brilliant top, is blunt because instead of the 'vinceró' he has to sing 'victoire' with the two syllables of 'toire' in place of the Italian 'o'. No winners here.

 

4. The pre-war Italians

 

Enter the big boys, though the biggest of them all are rather disappointing. Gigli, Martinelli and Lauri-Volpi , all at one time considered by Puccini for the première, were forbidden the race by Met-manager Gazzi-Cassaza who had fallen afoul of Toscanini so that they didn't risk their American career and the ensuing big bucks. Therefore they refused the assignment and maybe out of spite neither of them recorded the Calaf-aria in his heyday. The Gigli-recording of 1949 (so after the war) is one of his worst. If he is not crooning he is whining and all silver has gone out of the voice. Giovanni Martinelli had been singing strenuous roles for 27 years when his voice was recorded during the Turandot -performances of the London Coronation season in 1937. A high strung metal thread accurately describes his performance. Nor is Giacomo Lauri-Volpi's rendition acceptable. Though only 5O years when he recorded the aria in 1942 there is already the ugly bleat in the middle voice that will mar his performances for the next fifteen years. Above the stave there is strain and it is only in a wonderful diminuendo on 'splenderó' that we recognize the singer of genius of the twenties and thirties.

 

Two lesser endowed tenors who couldn't compete with 'the three tenors' stayed in Italy but give far better performances. Of course both were younger when they recorded the romanza. in 1926. First there is Aureliano Pertile at his very best. Either you like (I do) or you don't like the extreme metallic sounds he produces but there is no denying the beautiful legato, the way he sings like a well-tuned cello. The voice as always is quivering with emotion but it suits this particular aria well. As his score is probably still wet from the printer's ink, he still sings the culminating phrase as Puccini wrote it, barely tipping the high B instead of sustaining it. A definitive candidate for the top ten. Francesco Merli is marginally less impressive but still a formidable contender with his big though musical voice, less individually coloured than his best contemporaries. He too only tips the high B. He will later sing the Calaf in the first complete recording Still impressive is the version by Antonio Salvarezza .With his smooth shining tenor so even from bottom to top, he is only hampered by his somewhat wooden almost reticent delivery. He always sounds a bit like an immensely talented conservatory student doing his final examination, maybe due to his extremely late début at the age of 33.

 

Then it is slowly downhill. Augusto Ferrauto has a weak lower voice which reverts in a powerful muscular sound in the middle and at the top. Not a refined singer but one we would nowadays give our right hand for..Now we come to two almost identical singers. Both Giuseppe Lugo and Alessandro Ziliani are lyric tenors but with a lot of squillo in the voice, both real knights of the high C, Lugo probably having the highest extension of all Italan tenors before Pavarotti. Neither of them is very subtle (Ziliani more than Lugo but he compensates with a sob) but both are exciting performers. And then there is the one Italian pre-war version which ought to be heard to be believed. If one should not know that Nino Piccaluga was of Italian extraction, one would wager money on a career in the smallest German provincial town; chopping up all phrases, even resorting to a kind of sprechgesang. Downright ugly.

 

There remains the very famous recording by Alessandro Valente . Only misplaced jingoism can lead a connoisseur as Alan Bilgora to exclaim that this first recorded version (in England; Merli and Pertile's versions were recorded a year earlier) is still the very best of the lot. Valente was a predecessor of Harry Secombe and though Italian had a music-hall career in Britain and it shows. There is indeed some raw power and a good top note but it is clear that performing four times a day during many years had taken its toll and the voice is clearly worn. Conclusion: Pertile and Merli are the names for the shortlist.

 

5. The postwar Italians

 

Enter not only the big but also the numerous boys. In the eighties LP's became relatively cheap to produce and numerous firms proliferated which, urged by collectors and the artists themselves (who sometimes paid for it), produced a lot of records from less famous tenors, often culled from live performances. Happily this continued after the appearance of the CD. The problem of course is the staggering amount of versions.

 

Some are easily discarded. Andrea Bocelli' s is quite acceptable. The colour of the voice is not disagreeable and the top is here not so tight and throaty. The problem is that by now we know too well that the gentlemen behind the knobs earn half of the credits. Tonino Carlino is the real thing: an old fashioned provincial bawler without style at all who made most of his career in the Antwerp Opera. Another bawler who doesn't deserve further discussion is Marco Bianchi. Antonio Annoloro 's effort belongs to that painful category of "sit at the piano and let's hear how much voice that old chap still has left 45 years after his début". Well, quite a lot though nothing of beauty in it any more. Almost the same can be said of Luigi Infantino in a late recording. Little is left of the sweet voice which has hardened and sings horribly flat above the stave . Umberto Borso was quite a lot younger when his performance was recorded and he starts not too badly, phrasing well. But from 'dilegua o notte' on, the voice is squeezed out like bad tooth paste. The same good basic quality of the true Italian tenor and the same stylistic insufficiency are to be found with Luciano Saldari and even more with Renato Francesconi , together with a small crack in his top B which doesn't restrain his audience from hysterically claiming an encore.

 

Time for the more promising guys. Gaetano Bardini was one of the substitutes Czech Supraphone engaged for a lot of records as they couldn't pay the licences for records of the truly great. The lyric voice is basically fine; he doesn't handle the passaggio too well but then it's smooth sailing. A better version than expected. Bardini's successor at Supraphon was Bruno Sebastian , not an improvement with open and crude sounds and sliding over the notes. Far better is Gastone Limarilli with a clear and very pure sound which one reminds of the best Hungarian tenors. His diction is fine but he uses aspirates to overcome an aria which taxes him to the limit.What scorn was heaped upon Franco Bonisolli for his peacock-attitudes and his clinging to high notes. But he could be exciting as Calaf as when I heard him at the Verona arena. In a recording of a live concert in 1983 he is very fine. His explosive singing is under control and he proves that he can sing legato as few others. In fact he takes almost all phrases in one breath whereas greater singers use two or employ 'fiato rubato'. It's only the lack of a truly outstanding timbre that he didn't get at birth that denies this rendition a place in the top ten. Rich vocal colours were part of Daniele Barioni' s heritage but he squandered his outstanding lyrical talents on an impossible imitation of Mario Del Monaco. By the time of this recording, only twelve years after his début, he is already whining with far too open sounds. Whining was the word most often used in accordance with Gianni Poggi . Sloppy phrasing, slurring, is more to the point which is a pity as the basic qualities of colour and easy top notes are there. Barioni's and Poggi's voices during their good years had a lot in common with Salvatore Fisichella's . Here is the true mystery tenor of the eighties. At a time of shortage it is almost unbelievable that he didn't make a bigger career Was it his love for his family and his native Sicily so that he preferred staying at home? Were it his high fees when he had to leave home? Anyway his "Nessun dorma" is a real winner. There are the noble colours in the voice, the rich overtones and the formidable squillo. His was not an overbig voice but it projected immensely well. And we forgive him an extra-breath for the sake of these splendid ringing high notes. Mario Filippesschi basically had the same qualities except for his pedestrian style which is not helpedby his vibratoless steely voice at the time of this recording (after a strenuous 2O year-career).

Though Fisichella was the greatest talent of his generation, other tenors were far better known. Lando Bartolini is a not very imaginative singer of the 'Beaufort 8'-category but his true Italian voice was always welcome in opera houses after a dose of stylistically superior Anglo-Saxon tenors. Much the same can be said of Nicola Martinucci though his live recording is unexpectedly more subtle which a few nice pianissimo's.

 

The only Italian tenor of the post-Pavarotti-generation to share with Fisichella a golden talent was Giuseppe Giacomini . But he never succeeded in completely taming that whale of a voice, always singing on the brink of disaster and often ending in the ravine; indeed so often that no editor in his many 'live' records has succeeded to avoid his many cracks. But in this "Nessun dorma" he for once stays away from vocal problems and then he is a formidable contender. Another tenor specializing in singing near the brink was Piero Visconti , though this may be due to his exposed vibrato in the middle voice and his explosive bursts of sound when under pressure but there is no denying the colour of the true Italian tenor. A parallel voice, as Lauri-Volpi would say, is to be found with Giorgio Merighi , who is severely handicapped by his piano-accompaniment But he too is the real Italian tenor which we miss sorely these days.And then there is Aldo Filistad , a tenor who made quite a career in France by singing the operetta roles of Luis Mariano . His voice is less personal but also far more refined, less vulgar than Mariano's. But he is essentially a very lyric singer and his voice literally quivers under the pressure the aria puts on him. It is a painful reality that the least talented of them all is also the youngest: Fabio Armiliato , though he had 'par faute de mieux' a bigger career than most of his predecessors. But apart from the metal in the voice there is little to recommend him: he pushes the middle voice almost to a thick-sounding high A, there is a lisp and less than wanted legato.

 

Time for the big names. Mario Lanza , a 100% American who nevertheless was still 100% genetically Italian, is his usual self though he proves that he didn't need a Caruso-record to learn an aria. As always the basic quality of the voice is miraculous and we have to accept the bad Italian pronunciation, the overdue emphasis. If Lanza had sung his arias with half the sense of style he displayed in The Student Prince he would have had no competitors. The one rival he had in his time (or so the movie moghuls would us have wanted to believe) is that other Mario. Del Monaco's voice was still youthful with a fresh noble colour in 1948. Moreover his explosive style of singing hadn't fully developed and he still had exciting and long held high notes and the weight of the voice is just about right. Speaking of a parallel voice, if ever there was one it was Gianfranco Cecchele 's. Almost everyone confuses him at first hearing with Del Monaco's. But at second hearing it's clear that the actual sound is far less pure, the explosives more pronounced and the top more difficult. No matter how beautiful Giuseppe Di Stefano 's voice still sounds in 1952, his last year of grace, he is overcome by the aria and his refusal to cover is already noticeable. Eugenio Fernandi too was a shade too lightweight and far too nasal to make a lasting impression.

Three lesser luminaries offer very rewarding listening. The small man with the big voice is almost ideal on record. Flaviano Labo' s has a chestnut brown colour and a small tear in his sound. He is expansive and the only fault is his aspiration before taking his high B. Almost the same can be said about Bruno Prevedi . The only difference between these two fine recordings is that Labo was a born tenor, the basic tessitura lying slightly higher than with Prevedi who could never hide the fact that he started as a baritone and who had to use too much force on his notes above the stave. Very underrated is Gianni Raimondi 's version: straight clean singing without any deeper insight but full of plenty sunny tone.

 

Two absolute winners though quite contrary in voice are Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti . I too well remember when as a fourteen year old I heard (on the radio) the opening concert of the Brussels World Exhibition in 1958. The Flemish public had been led to expect a promising young tenor and instead they got the most impressive post war-voice. Corelli sang a "Nessun Dorma" that shook the rafters and took the breath away from an astonished public. With some trepidation I played his 1956-recording again but youth memories have not deceived me. It's still all there. The immediately recognizable bronze timbre with the characteristic small vibrato at that time, the overwhelming volume, the white-heat intensity and the glorious top B which he always made sound like a real C. Corelli is 'the Calaf of Calafs' as an editorial in Opera News once wrote. Pavarotti may not be in the same league with his smaller voice but he has his charms too: the natural exuberance still much alive in 1972, the perfect diction, the smoothness of the well-rounded tones and the glorious high note which is far from the end of his extension. And where does that paragon of tenors , Carlo Bergonzi , come in? He is no match for Corelli and Pavarotti. He is a little bit overtaxed as the music is somewhat too high lying for his tessitura and at the time of recording (1974) there are the first signs of flatness above the stave with which we will have to live for the next seventeen years. Incidentally this version was recorded at a Puccini-tribute in Philadelphia where only acts 2 and 3 of the opera were performed. The performance nevertheless was described all over the world as Bergonzi's first Calaf, which is not true. He had sung the role in Catania 21 years before. Being a Bergonzisto, may I cheat for once? There exists a live recording (not on LP or CD) of a 1968 Berlin-concert where the tenor brings his usual poise and glorious sound and which would be a definite candidate for the ten best.

And the nominees are Franco Bonisolli, Giuseppe Giacomini, Mario Del Monaco, Flaviano Labo, Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti.

 

6. The Jews

 

Of the 'three pre-war tenors' only one rises to the occasion. Jan Kiepura sounds harsh, charmless and his open sounds and stultified German pronunciation doesn't make his recording easy listening. Richard Tauber is quite the opposite but the voice is completely unsuited to the role and all his charm in the world (and his tipped B) cannot hide it. Joseph Schmidt is the real thing. Though a few phrases show the weakness in the lower register, the soft plangent colours of the voice are most moving and from the moment the going gets high and rough for most tenors Schmidt comes into his exceptional self. Few tenors have so brilliantly realized the dreamlike trance Calaf is wandering in.

I've never understood the contempt Jan Peerce is kept in. True the voice is nasal, but the recording by a still young tenor also clearly reveals a manly tenor with a nice vibrato that would later disappear, a thrilling top, though with a small breath in the final phrase. His detested brother-in-law Richard Tucker is, at least in this aria, not in the same class (how Peerce would have loved this judgment). Though he is somewhat more subtle than Peerce, he chops up a few phrases and aspirates too much too show his emotional fervour. And no, Kurt Baum is not the unabashed bawler he is always described as. Granted the basic timbre is not very beautiful, a kind of poor man's Wittrisch or Tauber, but he sings far more stylish than expected Then there is Robert Ilosfalvy , the most beautiful voice in this category. There is an agreable lightness in the voice combined with real morbidezza and a formidable top; all things which should have carried him to a world career if he hadn't had the misfortune of living his best years behind the iron curtain. When he became belatedly to the West he had to learn his roles in Italian and he brought with him some stylistical deficiencies due to the lack of contact. Therefore his early glorious recording in Hungarian is to be preferred to the later (still very fine) Italian one.

Joseph Schmidt and Robert Ilosfalvy make it to the nominee list.

 

7. Middle and Eastern-Europeans

 

Though they are not of Jewish stock, Ilosfalvy's countrymen show much of his qualities: pure, rounded and high-lying voices. Janos Nagy and Jozsef Simandy would be welcome nowadays in any world-class house. These too are the qualities of the one Hungarian who fled to the West just after the war and who indeed made it. Rudolf Bing once said that he often was on the stage....to offer his excuses for an indisposed Franco Corelli. What he didn't tell was the sigh of disillusion that swept through the house followed by an even bigger sigh of relief when the announced replacement was Sandor Konya . Konya too is the typical Hungarian tenor voice but the sound is even richer than Ilosfalvy's with an in-build tear that some Anglo-Saxon critics took offence too. Konya who sang for fourteen years in Germany before going to the States, was the envy of all German tenors because he succeeded to bring Italian flavour to every German-language utterance and because as with Corelli his high B's always sounded like real C's. Somewhat unjustly forgotten is the fine voice of Miklos Gafni ; he too with the same basic colour as the other Hungarians, yielding in beauty only to Konya but surpassing Nagy and Symandy.

 

Polish tenors too have much the same qualities. The best among them was Wieslaw Ochman , a slender very lyrical tenor but with a hint of steel who, thanks to his regular appearances in the West, didn't show off the pedestrian style of most behind-the-curtain tenors. Ochman's predecessor as Poland's leading tenor was Bogdan Paprocki , much the same voice but a little bit more throaty, less pure; maybe a consequence of being recorded late in his career.With Jozef Homik we come to the heavier tenor of the rough-and-ready breed.

Rumanians and Bulgarians excel in big, healthy though often raw vocal equipment and that's it. Several sound like they have studied with Mario Lanza, without Lanza's technique, sense of style and finesse. (Not fully meant as a joke. Lanza's movies were widely regarded by communist authorities as innocent and where shown everywhere so that many aspiring singers thought this was the way to sing). Ion Buzea, Nikolai Nikolov, Michael Svetlev and Ludovic Spiess belong to this 'école de chant'. So does Emil Ivanov who cannot put the blame on the commies as he had more than enough opportunity in the nineties to profit from some councel on style and voice production.The first exception to the rule is Vasile Moldoveanu who combines voice, style, phrasing (pianissimo included) and top. The second is even better. Todor Mazarov had the ill luck to start a career on the wrong moment, in the wrong city (Vienna 1937). This too is a parallel voice: Aureliano Pertile's but more brilliant, even more impressive. Mazarov is handicapped by the bad live-recording in the Vienna-opera and the German language but even then one hears this wonderful Italian voice with its rich overtones and gleaming top.

 

The Czech Beno Blachut is disappointing. He made his début before the war recorded the aria too late in his career but even then one hears that his lyric tenor was unsuited for the music. Slovak Adrej Kucharsky is even worse. His throaty and constricted voice sounds ugly thirteen years after his début.

With the Russians (and former inmates of the Soviet Union) we're still more downhill. The putsch of 1917 severed all links with the West and the light went out 4O years earlier than in the rest of Middle and Eastern Europe so that by the fifties even the singing teachers had never heard or met great Western singers. Sinowy Babiy is the worst sinner: a big unwieldy sound (very much like Buzea) but with a vibrato that goes towards a tremolo. Stylish and ugly roaring is the realm of Zurab Andzhaparidze . A companion in sin is Vaghan Mirakian (probably Armenian) Lioeftigar Imanov is less crude though he too is without much sense of style. Better is the big voiced Vladislav Piavko though there is an disagreeable cutting edge to the voice. The pronunciation of all these gentlemen is a problem. Not their fault as they had to learn the arias with the use of phonetics and never had the chance during their studies to hear the living language. Only the Latvian Janis Zabers escapes this fate because he was allowed to study in Italy. It shows in his sense of style. He died tragically young at 38 years of age but compared with his earlier recordings the bloom of a not very distinct timbre was already disappearing at the end of his career.

Happily the best is the youngest of them all. Sergei Larin could pass for one of the better Italian tenors: volume, agreeable and homogenous voice though lacking metal in his top notes..

Two nominees: Vasile Moldoveanu, Todor Mazarov.

 

8. The Scandinavians

 

Except for the Wagnerians, Scandinavia automatically means Jussi Björling for the vocal buff. His wartime-recording is a classic with its beautiful shimmering sound, the way he artfully - without being unstylish - lengthens the note-values on 'tramontate stelle' and the gloriously held (aspirated) high B. He is in a class by himself though there will be one that comes near. The first Swede to record the aria was Carl Martin Oehmann in 1926. The voice has metal above the stave but is not very distinct otherwise and he produces his high notes in short breath-bursts. Conductor Georg Szell made this version a very slow slog, but the slowest of all is a 1944 Swedish Radio broadcast conducted by Tor Mann, with Björling showing impressive breath control.

Aroldo Lindi starts tentatively, vainly trying to suggest aimlessly wandering but he comes in his own in the second stanza, although one soon tires from the too open manner of singing. Nobody thinks of Nicolai Gedda as of a born Calaf but if one forgets all wisdom about repertory and strength in the theater and just concentrates on the recording, one is in for a surprise. Here is a youthful but nevertheless strong Calaf, with ardour and exuberance: not a somewhat effete white voiced tenor in wrong repertory. And the high B is of course as beautiful as Björling's and not aspirated. The fifth Swede is not bad either. Gösta Winbergh starts very dreamlike but then thickens the sound when the going gets higher.

 

The Icelander Kristjan Johansson reminds me of Renato Francesconi: a high-lying open voice with a not very agreeable cutting edge and no much sense of style. He was young when he made this record but the older fuller-sounding Johansson whom I heard at the Met was not much of an improvement. Danish Helge Rosvaenge has a warmer voice but as always, at least with me, much is spoiled by his explosive singing, by his spitting out of consonants.

Finnish tenor Raimo Sirkiä sings as he looks like: bullish with thick tones, always hovering near the flatness-brink and falling into it with his high register. Far more convincing is Pekka Nuotio , the last tenor to sing a complete performance at the old Met. He sounds like a better James King and the legato, the phrasing and the roundness of the voice is not what one expects from a tenor who was best known for his Wagnerian roles. A pity that continued illness so influenced his career.

Two clear nominees: Björling and Gedda.

 

9. Spain (and its colonies)

 

The moment Spain is mentioned in this context, one of course thinks of the main – and almost incredible – gap in this discography: the absence of Michele (as he was called) Fleta . We know that HMV recorded some of those first performances after Toscanini had left and that the results were not publishable but that nobody later on asked Miguel Fleta to record his solos verges on the incomprehensible. Anyway every vocal collector has enough Fleta-records to imagine how he must have sounded and I for one cannot believe that he would have superseded the wonderful version by Antonio Cortis . Here is the most-dream like version together with that of Josef Schmidt. The colour of the voice is so rich, indeed so Caruso-like that one immediately realizes that this is a version for the ages which is a thing that with all due respect cannot be said of Hipolito Lazaro 's rendition. The sound of the voice is exciting, almost as beautifully rounded as Cortis and he is on his best behaviour with good soft singing but the nasal whining pops up stronger and stronger and mars a lot of pleasure. Peruvian Alessandro Granda 's beautiful lyric voice shakes with emotion or strain in the best tradition of the thirties.

 

In the postwar period the harvest is particularly rich. Alfredo Kraus isn't very convincing because that kind of sexual ardour was not his forte. Gedda hasn't a bigger voice than Kraus but he believes in it. Kraus just sings the notes and remains bland. Conviction, that was always one of the gifts of José Carreras and it surely is in this fine live-version of 1978. He employs his too seldom used pianissimo on 'splenderó' and he even overcomes the handicap of a piano on this bright evening. One small fault: he has given himself too generous and is a little bit short of breath on his last oo. My copy of Placido Domingo 's "Nessun dorma" was the first Domingo-record to be sold in Flanders. Two years later I heard his début at the Verona-arena and was even more impressed by the stunning beauty of the voice and the sang-froid of the tenor who tripped over his feet while running on the stairs, all the while singing without missing a beat. By now we know too well the many chinks in Mr. Domingo's vocal armour and with historical hindsight it's easy to point to the weaknesses which he would never remedy. The same happens when listening to young Carreras but the record has to be discussed on its own merit and there is no denying the blazing intensity, the roundness of the sounds, the full bloom of youth, baritonal but with magnificent silver overtones. The only small fault; a short spreading of the voice on the high B. By 1969 he had overcome it but this victory wouldn't last ten years. It's difficult nowadays to believe that when Jaime Aragall burst on the scene, he was hailed as a far greater talent than his rival Luciano Pavarotti. Still he was an underrated major tenor. When he recorded his version in 1986, twenty-three years after his début, the voice was still astoundingly fresh without rough patches. Don't look for new insights, indeed all the arias in this recital sound exactly the same, but it's clear honest singing.

 

Over to the muscle-boys. José Sempere' s recital is called 'Il do di petto' and that's what you get plus the bonus of a more stylish big-sized somewhat unpersonal voice than you would expect . José Cura' s thick throaty sound which so seldom comes free, never particularly appealled to me but his "Nesssun dorma" is one of the best things on his Puccini-recital: clearly a role that suits him and there is the nice touch of the beautiful pianissio on 'che ti fa mia'. Still there remains the lingering impression of Giorgio Gualerzi's remark in Opéra International "Del Monaco without Del Monaco's technique".A nice surprise among the heavy-weights is Bernabé Marti. The voice is less constricted than we know from the duets with his wife and though it never was a thing of beauty it still impresses with its natural flow and force. A few steps lower stands Miguel de Alonso : a small not very distinguished lirico with however an easy top of pure steel, somewhat like young Kraus. The Chilean Tito Beltrán too is somewhat too light for the aria. It's no co-incidence that on this same CD is to be found a (splendid) 'Tribute to Mario Lanza'. Beltran seems to have modelled his sympathetic voice a lot on the great Italian-American tenor and he comes quite far untill the end of the aria when the choir once more takes over the refrain and to our astonishment we hear Mr. Beltran sailing for a second time into 'Dilegua notte' and a high B. Improving on Puccini's score is a thing which Mr. Lanza never did and which is somewhat out of turn in the year of our Lord 1998.

My shortlist remembers Cortis, Carreras and Domingo.

 

May I add three exotics for the sake of completeness. The Dutchman Adriaan van Limpt is just an ordinary local bawler. The Afrikaander Johan Botha has lots of volume but not much suppleness or colour in the voice and the top is squeezed. And then there is the Chinese Deng in the best tradition of East-Asian male singers: big or pumped-up voices, pedestrian style and a wish of the listener that all these talents (for talents they are) wouldn't get lost due to their bad tutoring and mostly their overburning ambition that despises the bel canto-repertoire and goes directly for the Verdi-Puccini-jugular. Incidentally Mr. Deng beats all records by holding his last 'ooo' for a full seventeen seconds while the orchestra completes the whole postlude. I wonder how much belongs to Deng and how much to the sound technician.

 

Conclusion: The nominees are Kalt, Pertile, Merli, Del Monaco, Bonisolli, Giacomini, Corelli, Pavarotti, Labó, Fisichella, Ilosfalvy, Schmidt, Moldoveanu, Mazarov, Björling, Gedda, Cortis, Carreras and Domingo. That makes eighteen and so I have to drop eight. My ten are: Pertile, Del Monaco, Corelli, Pavarotti, Fisichella, Ilosfalvy, Schmidt, Björling, Cortis and Domingo.

 

J A N N E C K E R S

Oude Putse Baan 48

314O Keerbergen

Flanders (Belgium)

 

Nessun dorma: references to consulted recordings (in the order of entry in the text)

1. The Anglo-Saxons

Charles Craig (CLP 1271 1959), Donald Smith (EMI-OASD.7584 no date), David Hughes (EMI-Two 319 197O), Kenneth Collins, Dennis O'Neill, Edmund Barham (CDRPD 9OO6A 1990), Ken Neate (VDS 9432 no date), Alfred Piccaver (Heliodor 88O13 193O), Tom Burke (VIP LP1O4 no date), Harry Secombe (Philips WL122O 1957), John McHugh (DB 2328 9.4.1947) Albert Da Costa (Allegro 1599 no date), Barry Morell (WST-17158 no date), Ermanno Mauro (HRE 397-1 no date), Ben Heppner (RCA O9O26-625O4-2 1993-94),James King (Angel S 36715 no date), Eugene Tobin (Telefunken UV 135 no date), Walter Alberti, Charles Davis (Everest SDBR 3O12 1958), Richard Margison (SMCD 5158 June-July 1995), Richard Leech (Telarc 8O432 December 1995), Charles Kullmann (Columbia DW 3068 1933), Frederic Kalt (Preiser 93411 1995), Thomas Harper (Naxos 855O497 June 1991)

 

2. The Germans (Austrians included)

Fritz Wunderlich (Eurodisc 7O259 KR), Ernst Kozub ( Philips 839529 VGY no date), Martin Ritzmann (Eterna 825836 no date), Hanns Nocker (Eterna 826293 no date), Rudolf Schock (DA 5512 May 1949), Heinz Hoppe (Telefunken NS368 1974), Waldemar Kmennt (Philips SO6O76R no date), Alfons Fügel (Uracant 972 no date), Peter Anders (Telefunken KT 11OO7 21.1O.1934), Josef Traxel(CDM 769681-2 1O.11.1956), Peter Seiffert (EMI CDC 555O1O-2 May 1993)

 

3. The French

José Luccioni (CDGC 3), Georges Thill (Columbia 13O42 1927), Tony Poncet (Philips 837493 GY 1963)

 

4. The pre-war Italians

Beniamino Gigli (DB 21138 October 1949), Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (DA 5413 15.5.1942), Aureliano Pertile (Fonotopia 168O29 1926), Francesco Merli (Columbia D 12718 1926), Antonio Salvarezza (Cetra AT-O131 1949), Augusto Ferrauto (Clama CD-10 1937-194O), Giuseppe Lugo, Alessandro Ziliani(HMV DA 1483 1936), Nino Piccalugo (Parlophone P8916 1928), Alessandro Valente (HMV B 2458 25.4.1927)

 

5. The post-war Italians

Andrea Bocelli (SGR 4428-2 1995), Tonino Carlino (Tadisca TAO54 no date), Mario Bianchi (Felmain FM4O no date), Antonio Annoloro (Tima 63 1987), Luigi Infantino (Columbia CPSQ 5O4), Umberto Borso (Felmain FM 19 no date), Luciano Saldari (Felmain FM O4 1986), Renato Francesconi (Felmain FM 11 no date), Gaetano Bardini (Supraphon SUA 1O917 1968),Bruno Sebastian (Ljublana RTVLP 1138 no date), Gastone Limarilli (LPGL 1OO2 no date), Franco Bonisolli (FE 123(1) May 1983), Daniele Barioni (Bongiovanni GB 1O77-2 22.1.1966), Gianni Poggi (FFRR OO1 no date), Salvatore Fisichella (Felmain FM OO1 no date), Mario Filippesschi (Bongiovanni GB 1O59-2 1956), Lando Bartolini (Felmain FM 36 no date), Nicola Martinucci (HRE 387-1 no date) , Giuseppe Giacomini (LR 172 1981), Piero Visconti (Felmain FM O7 1985), Giorgio Merighi (Bongiovanni GB 4 12.5.1978), Aldo Filistad, Fabio Armiliato (Kicco KC O22CD 1994), Mario Lanza (RCA 74O623 1955), Mario Del Monaco (DA 113O5 22.11.1948), Gianfranco Cecchele (no label no date), Giuseppe Di Stefano (CDMR 5O24 8.12.1952), Eugenio Fernandi (EMI 5563O7-2 1957), Flaviano Labo (London 54O8 1957), Bruno Prevedi (Decca SXL 6114 1964), Gianni Raimondi (Ricordi SHRI 1OO5 no date), Franco Corelli (Cetra AT O411 1956), Luciano Pavarotti (Decca 414274-2 August 1972), Carlo Bergonzi (Bongiovanni GB 11O6-2 8.1.1974).

 

6. The Jews

Jan Kiepura (Odeon O-96O4 1927), Richard Tauber (XXB 75O8-1 5.11.1926), Joseph Schmidt (Parlophone R 2O98 29.6.1934), Jan Peerce (RY 8 9.8.1944), Richard Tucker (Columbia MS 6O94 June 1959), Kurt Baum (Remington 199-63 no date), Robert Ilosfalvy (Hungaroton LPX 12638 1964).

 

7. Middle and Eastern-Europeans

Janos Nagy (Hungaroton SLPD 12479 1984), Jozsef Simandy (HCD 31726 1969), Sandor Konya (Favorit 449927-2 1962), Miklos Gafni (Tap T 1OOO1 no date), Wieslaw Ochman (Mizar SX O465 no date), Bogdan Paprocki (Muza XL O17O no date), Jozef Homik (Muza SX 2O81 1985), Ion Buzea (Electrecord ECE O174 no date), Nikolai Nikolov, Michael Svetlev (Balkanton BOA 1O428 no date), Ludovic Spiess, (LT O386-26O2 197O) Emil Ivanov (Gega GD 19O 1995), Vasile Moldoveanu (Intercord 815221 1976), Todor Mazarov (Koch 3-1454-2 Y4 2.6.1941), Beno Blachut (Su 3423-22O1 no date), Andrej Kucharsky (Opus 9912OO97 December 1969), Peter Dvorsky (Acanta 43239 1988) Sinowy Babiy (Eurodisc 8OO39 ZR date unknown), Zurab Andzhaparidze (Melodia O23OO5-O6a date unknown), Vaghan Mirakian (Melodia C1O-O4999-5000 no date), Lioeftigar Imanov (Melodia CMO2157-8 no date), Vladislav Piavko (Melodia 33C 047O3-04 no date), Janis Zabers, Sergei Larin (RCA 74321-066172-2 1998)

 

8. The Scandinavians

Jussi Björling (OSB 2399-2 27.3.1944 & Bluebell CD 078 10.11.44), Carl Martin Oehmann (Parlophone P 9821 9.11.1926), Aroldo Lindi (DQ 1116 no date), Nicolai Gedda (Electrola 1CO37-O27O3 1968), Gösta Winbergh (SK 61973 17.9.1994), Kristjan Johansson (Idunn no number 1988), Helge Rosvaenge (Polydor 1O447 1927), Raimo Sirkiä (Ondine ODE 798-2 February 1992), Pekka Nuotio (Ondine ODE 9OO-2 1973)

 

9. Spain (and its colonies)

Antonio Cortis, Hipolito Lazaro (Columbia Italia WBX-29-2 4.11.1926), Alessandro Granda, D 1644 no date) Alfredo Kraus, José Carreras (HRE 233-1 19.2.1978), Placido Domingo (Decca SAD 22O28), Jaime Aragall (Eurodisc 2O6513-425 May 1985), José Sempere (Diputacion Provincial Alicante October 1997), José Cura (Erato O63O-18838-2 June-July 1997), Bernabé Marti (Vergara 812-STL no date), Miguel de Alonso (Discontoria DCL-OO2 no date), Tito Beltran (Ede-records LC666 1998)

 

1O. The exotics

Adriaan van Limpt (Philips 6624O64 3.6.1982), Johan Botha (Conifer 756O5 550132 February 1995), Deng (Sinequanon 3982O222 1992).

 

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