Pavarotti remastered!

Pavarotti Remastered: hmmmmm, must be a theme this year…

Decca has just released three remastered opera recordings by the late great Luciano Pavarotti, et al., a move representing perhaps the tip of a very very large iceberg…who knows? He was a big star, after all.

Different from the source material for the Warner Classics’ Callas Remastered project (see OperaMetro’s Callas Remastered posted below this one), the Decca recordings were already considered sound spectaculars back in the day, first released on vinyl in the early 70s, then on CD in the mid 80s, and now, drumroll please, for the 10s, wait, how many years later? Is this even possible? Now we’re offered the original studio tapes remastered with the latest technology and issued as deluxe combo albums of 2 CDs (for conventional CD players at home and on the road) and also the complete opera on a single bomber surround sound Pure audio Blu ray DVD (for Blu ray DVD players only). The discs are in sleeves which serve as book covers for the thick glossy cast list, track listings, happily-Decca-discovered-Pav kind of hype, historical program notes, who did what when, synopsis and the complete libretto in four languages sandwiched between them.  

The three Pavarotti remasters follow the 2012 release of the completely remastered Der Ring des Nibelungen on Decca, Georg Solti on the podium, surely one of the major sonic booms of the mid-1960s. Here is Birgit Nilsson in her glorious prime, each opera cast (mostly) to strength, and if not to strength, at least 'seasoned,' in short a real wow! In Solti’s hands Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung (side 12 as I recall) literally shook my windows, probably also those of my neighbors, in the spring of 1965, the year of its release on London ffss LPs in the USA. Every subsequent reworking of this baby has been a mover and shaker in context: my windows rattled again doing the comparison of the LPs with the first CD release in the mid-80s; the de-hissed remastering of 1997 was major (I still swear by it); one can only imagine the sound of this new CD/audio Blu ray DVD combo. I haven’t heard them yet. But I shall.

The 2012 Solti remastered Ring came in a big box, also with, as I recall reading the ads, books (among them John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding), a DVD of The Golden Ring (a thrilling documentary on the recording of Götterdämmerung: watch Nilsson do the Immolation Scene!), CD’s of Deryck Cooke’s enlightening analysis of Ring’s Leitmotifs with examples, Solti conducting Wagner overtures and assorted things, maybe even a shard of Nothung, one of Fafner’s bones for conjuring, or half of the friggin’ anvil. Anything’s possible. But this here is not about the Ring. I shall regroup.

Of the three new Pavarotti releases, each has something special to offer above and beyond better sound. John Ardoin, referring to Maria Callas’s 1955 recording of Cio Cio San, said of its conductor “[Herbert von] Karajan seems to view Butterfly as an orchestral poem with voices as much as [it is] an opera” (The Callas Legacy, Scribners, 1977, p. 101). If perhaps EMI’s monaural sonics weren’t quite up to the maestro’s snuff in ’55, in '74 Decca gave HVK and Vienna Philharmonic the green light to show their stuff and realize his vision: under his direction Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, and Robert Kerns is indeed a symphonic poem, perhaps, for better or worse, the most spectacular Butterfly you’ll ever hear. And that’s before it was recently remastered.

Those familiar with a more ‘Italianate’ reading of the work might find the whole thing pretty heavy going, fearing that, say, Richard Strauss had somehow changed the dynamics of Puccini’s score or Richard Wagner, rising from the dead but remarkably fresh from composing the aforementioned Funeral March, had somehow altered the tempi and the cumulative weight of the Act III Interlude…this Butterfly, in other words, is huge, which, if you like huge, will be most satisfying. But if you like huge (and you go back that far) you also know HVK’s La Boheme (Decca, 1972) with Pavarotti and Freni, quite huge too in its way relative to the competition. For that matter, so is HVK’s Tristan und Mélisande (EMI, 1978)…just kidding, it's the Debussy love triangle with von Stade, Stilwell, and van Dam, just heavier than the French style. Bottom line, his Butterfly is not really surprising if you’re familiar with HVK’s other recordings from his mid-70s period, particularly his Bruckner and Strauss. Happily all of the singers are in excellent voice.

I, for one, prefer Sir John Barbirolli’s conception of Butterfly, and especially Renata Scotto (my first Butterfly at the Met) and Carlo Bergonzi (EMI) but, always important: there’s room for other Butterflys on my shelf. I love the HVK with Callas too. The Pappano with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, also on EMI, isn't half bad either.

For the record (or rather for the big screen) HVK again conducted the Vienna Phil and his singers for the soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of Madama Butterfly, again with Freni, Ludwig, Kerns, but this time with a young Placido Domingo. Ponnelle now and then resorts to his familiar directorial opera-on-film gambit of characters ‘Yo! I'm only thinking this, not really singing it’ as they can do on film but can't get away with on stage. I think that, in addition to the symphonic weight, it gives the performance an additional chill. The DVD, available since 1990, has recently been released on Blu ray. Probably sounds wonderful.

Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland star in remastered    Turandot  from Decca

Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland star in remastered Turandot from Decca

And then there is Puccini’s grand Turandot, which a reviewer from Gramophone called “one of the finest of the many operas made in London’s Kingsway Hall.” It was released on LP in 1973, on CD in 1984. Though I’m completely in Birgit Nilsson’s corner for this role (she was my first Turandot on stage at the Met and sings on three CD recordings on my shelf), I have to say that Joan Sutherland’s take on the ice-princess is powerfully chilling yet ultimately affecting and vocally secure right up to the very top. Pavarotti is in his absolute prime, Nessun dorma at its best, years before The Three Tenors; having Montserrat Caballé as Liu, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Timur, Tom Krause as Ping, and Peter Pears as the Emperor in the cast is simply luxurious. Zubin Mehta, never my very model of subtlety, weaves a very fine sonic framework with the London Philharmonic Orchestra: he creates an aura of timeless ethereal magical spaces between the larger, more showy numbers. Turandot, after all, is based on a Commedia fairy tale, albeit a grim one, scripted in the 18th century by Carlo Gozzi. There’s already room on my shelf for this recording.

The third is a less well touted duet for Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland (with her husband Richard Bonynge at the helm), released in 1970, but no less an achievement. Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore is an Italian opera buffa, but its longevity in the repertory (since its premiere in 1831) is due to its differences from others in the genre. The characters in this one have subtle personalities that peek out through the conventions. These were the days of Decca's re-recordings of the Bellini/Donizetti repertory, Sutherland and a young Pavarotti, she the Margot Fonteyn and he the Rudolf Nureyev of the opera world; Sutherland wastes no time in demonstrating her vocal prowess. Consistent with the new depth of character she brought to this second round of recordings, she gives an air of intelligence and authority to Adina; Pavarotti is straightforward and pleasantly, not to say 'peasantly' unaffected. Also vocally brilliant. As if to make a point of the depth of their research into the performance history of the bel canto repertory, Bonynge and Sutherland insert an aria different from Adina’s traditional and simple (and very touching) Prendi; prendi, per me sei libero in Act 2. The new aria apparently was inserted by the great Maria Malibran. Yes, singers often did these things back then. And Donizetti approved. Why not? Malibran is singing his music! Depending on how attached you are to Prendi, the ploy is either a welcome and an historically informative substitution or a distracting mistake, but, this said, it’s certainly well sung. Though not my first choice for L’Elisir, this is a fine recording as well as the two above.

And now for the sonics: recalling the wisdom of my father’s silk purse and the sow’s ear saying (quoted in the Callas Remastered post below), recall that, as mentioned above, the current Decca project has far more recent “state of the art” source material to remaster. The three Pavarotti recordings are remastered at 24-bit, “ultra-high-quality” 96 kHz, under the technical supervision of Philip Siney, with the assistance of sound engineers from Abby Road Studios, Finesplice, and British Grove Studios.

The sound? Wonderful, of course, as stored on the disc. So unless the physical CD/DVD has a crack or is covered with finger smudges and so it snags or skips, everything you’ll ever need to hear, given the original source material, is right there in your hands.

But, digressing here, the degree of aural satisfaction, as always, depends a lot on essentially three things under your control: 1) the quality of your player; 2) the quality of your sound system, including connections, particularly player to amplifier and amplifier to speakers, the speakers themselves (however many you have), as well the programming of your amplifier (i.e., how you’ve configured the sound field); and 3) certainly related, the acoustical characteristics of your cave, including the dimensions, the placement of the speakers therein, as well as the walls, floors, furniture, drapes, etc., and also, the throne, i.e., where you tend to sit in the room.

Some things you most likely can’t control are the amounts of extraneous noise both in your house and from the world outside; something you may have difficulty controlling is the amount of time you can dedicate to undisturbed focused, in-the-zone quality listening. It depends on your family situation, your position on the dominance hierarchy, and your negotiating style. As I write this my home theater surround sound space is in Downton.

Listen, though, these parameters are critical: audiophiles, like wine tasters, attend to aspects of the sound picture most of us often miss, in part because of the playback. One of my friends claims he can tell the relative humidity in the studio on the day a recording was made. How many arguments do you need to hear to be convinced? Don’t you know that Carnegie Hall has better acoustics than Avery Fisher Hall? The Met always had better acoustics than the State Theater (it still does); Symphony Hall in Boston has better acoustics than Carnegie, I’m told, especially after the latter’s stage renovations; some say the Academy of Music in Philadelphia has the best acoustics of any concert hall in the country; and just wait until you hear the sound in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Unbelievable! For every point there’s a counterpoint. But I digress even further.

Cut to the chase here: the remastered CDs (2 channel stereo still) sound better than my older CDs when played back to back on every sound system in my world, including those in my automobiles and they certainly sound better than the LPs (alas, on this medium in my collection only Turandot is left) on the same amp and speakers. On the new ones there is far more orchestral detail, more aural space, more layers of sound, the voices seem more natural, less edgy, less in your face, more embracing.

As for the Blu ray surround sound audio DVD, it's not true 'surround sound.' The fine print doesn't actually list it as 5.1, 7.1 or whatever. It's 2 channels on my amp. To quote Dottore Dulcamara in L'Elisir d'Amore: "e Bordo, non elisir." But it can be pushed to 'surround' with the proper options. It depends on the number of possible sound fields your amplifier offers you. Experiment with this: there’s probably one that will make everything close to wonderful for the Blu ray audio DVDs. Of the 28 different sound fields I could muster with my amp, three or four were very good, but ‘normal surround’ (or its equivalent) seemed to work best, though, after my first test run, I increased slightly the volume of my center speaker and two rear speakers. You have to play with it.

Decca’s three remastered Pavarotti recordings, two Puccini operas and one Donizetti are well worth sampling, especially if you’re new to these: he, as each of the principal singers, is in great form. Having heard all of the principals live on stage I can tell you that the recordings don't exaggerate. But if you already have these or any of the big man’s other operas on CD, I’d wait until the remastered pure audio Blu ray DVDs are sold separately, especially if you listen to the CDs in environments fraught with outside noise. The bump up in quality is compromised by a noisy environment.

Related, and referring back to Solti’s Ring: I’ve already parted with two different media formats of the complete epic, one the originally released LPs, purchased one by one as they came out, and the other the first CD releases. I’m very content with my 1997 CD remastered Solti Ring and I've had all of the books and the Cooke LPs to refer to when I need them…don’t need the box, in other words. I feel as if I've invested lots already in the Solti Ring. But the remastered Ring in surround sound on a single pure audio Blu ray DVD, sold separately, could come over and sit on my shelf any time it wants to, assuming, of course, that the price is right. I'm running out of arms and legs. Likewise the Sutherland/Pavarotti/Bonynge Lucia or Puritani on pure audio Blu ray is moste welcome, but, again, I don’t need the CDs or another libretto.

Enjoy. The recovery of a glorious past is a blessing. Especially when it is wonderful!