Decca’s 55 Great Vocal Recitals

It would only be fair to expect that in the new historic box set, Decca Sound 55 Great Vocal Recitals, there would be a fair number of clunkers amongst the gold. But that is anything but the case. For just a bit more than $2 per CD, you will end up with so many superb performances, recorded by singers in their prime, that unless you already possess almost everything in the box—I do—or you require English translations for most of its contents, purchase is a no-brainer.

Nor are the CDs by any means skimpy in length. The shorter, LP-length recitals that were set down in the analog era are almost always supplemented with other material, sometimes hard to find, from the same artist. Thus, when the collection begins with a 1950 recital of six arias by the wonderful Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco, it also includes slightly later excerpts from Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and songs by Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Schubert. There's no need for supplemental material once we get to the longer digital recitals of soprano Susan Dunn (1987) and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli (1988)—the most recent recital included is tenor Joseph Calleja's from 2010—but the digital material first appears two-thirds of the way through the box.

Okay, Dunn's reputation is hardly as stellar as the still performing Bartoli's. But among the greats, you'll find prime material from contralto Kathleen Ferrier (including three of Mahler's Rückert Lieder with the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler protégé Bruno Walter), soprano Lisa Della Casa (who, had she been given a chance, could have given soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf a run for the money in the art song department), and the great French baritone Gérard Souzay (recorded 1950–1956, when his voice was at its best).

In addition to superb tenor Carlo Bergonzi from his freshest years, you'll find the very first operatic recital from stupendous coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland's. Recorded before she arrived at New York's Metropolitan opera, it catches her when she could still feign a naïve, little girl voice for the famed showpiece from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. If you've never heard the astounding Peter Pears/Benjamin Britten recording of Schubert's chilling Winterreise, this will be your chance. Other gems include Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson trumpeting forth in the early '60s, mezzo coloratura Marilyn Horne's very first and absolutely astounding operatic recital—ask me sometime what it was like to play it in a fraternity house at Amherst College at the start of my very first acid trip—soprano Renée Fleming's breakthrough recital with Solti, tenor Jonas Kaufmann with Claudio Abbado, and more.

Admittedly, for those who don't know opera, this list may not mean a whole lot. But let's put it this way. Between 1950 and 2008, virtually every great singer who did not record for either EMI (now Warner) or RCA Victor (now Sony) did so for Decca. Not everyone was memorable, but a goodly number of them were. Even the singers whose careers were either cut short by vocal abuse or overshadowed by others—soprano Elena Suliotis comes to mind—have much worth savoring. And when you have the defining tenor of the young Luciano Pavarotti, the cavernous bass of Nicolai Ghiaurov, and the authoritative baritone of Sherrill Milnes among the mix, who can complain?

MIAs? If it's Maria Callas you want, grab at least some of her completely remastered hi-res downloads at HD Tracks. For Schwarzkopf, the recent CD remastering of her complete recitals for Angel/EMI, accomplished in 24/96 (downloads not yet available), is a must. Tenors Placido Domingo and Jussi Bjoerling are elsewhere, as is soprano Leontyne Price (whose prime material cries out for hi-res digital remastering). But with so much of value in this box set, and for such a good price, you need not hesitate.

Anton's picture

When I first saw the title of the review, I said to myself, "I will only check these out if it's Jason, and it was!

They owe you one referral fee!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You'll get a commission as my agent.