Callas Recording Recommendations 2019: addendum

—Robert E. Seletsky

At the time I submitted my Recommendations earlier this year, I was unaware of a briefly available, localized, but very significant complete EMI Callas remastering that immediately preceded the 1997 Callas Edition. This important set was introduced to me by a very knowledgeable and generous Callas enthusiast in May 2019, to whom I express profound gratitude.

In 1996, Toshiba-EMI released all the EMI studio Callas material, and the live material issued by EMI available to that date, in remasterings possibly carried out by Yoshio Okazaki, whose incomparable recital discs, also available as ‘The Art of Maria Callas’ (TOCE 9166-80) are included in this monumental undertaking. As in the 1997 Abbey Road-engineered Callas Edition, the recitals were mastered from the analog sources (presented far more faithfully by Okazaki/Toshiba), but the 1980s digital tapes were the sources for remasterings of the complete operas. The 77-disc Toshiba set was entitled ‘Maria Callas: Leggendaria Prima Donna’ and issued in a luxurious two-level wooden case. It was a limited edition distributed by Gakken–a company which generally specializes in educational materials–as GCC 1001-77. Printed materials were only in Japanese, as the set was evidently never intended for export–a pity, as many of these CD remasterings are the best to be found.

The distinction between the 1996 Toshiba-EMI-Gakken edition and 1997 Callas Edition is immediately apparent. While the 1997 venture consisted of often careless, bizarre reworkings of the material with abhorrent new pitch and editing errors, the aesthetic of the Toshiba engineer(s) seems to be an even more accurate presentation of the original sound than Keith Hardwick’s 1980s versions. Some track divisions have been altered from the Hardwick CDs; interestingly, the 1997 Callas Edition used them verbatim. To my ear, not all the Toshibas can be preferred to versions that I cite in my principal Recommendations 2019 article but many can, and others, while different, are equally valuable.

These nearly unavailable masterings have once more been released as downloads or burned CDR sets by ‘Ars Vocalis’ (AV), info.ars.vocalis@gmail.com, and are well worth investigating. Those that match my recommended versions in quality are marked with a single asterisk. Those that supersede them are marked with two.

Complete Operas

Bellini
*Norma 1954 (GCC 1011-13) is noticeably less muffled than the ‘80s CDs. While it lacks the transparency of the 1997 CDs, it also lacks its artificial added reverb and has better presence, again like the early LPs. The overload distortion is no more unpleasant than on the LPs, the only CD version that fits that description.

Norma 1960 (GCC 1056-58) is most like the 1989 EMI-Angel set, but not quite as harsh and ugly. I still find the US (not EU) 1997 Callas Edition version easiest to hear.

*I puritani (GCC 1005-6) is very like West German EMI-Angel 1986 but a bit more concentrated vocally without losing the welcome warmth, and more open in overall texture. Actually, the 1993 US pressing sounds more like some LPs, but I prefer the 1986 and Toshiba. And really, even EU CE is not terrible. Only Warner is awful, misrepresenting Callas’ voice and exaggerating the upper bass.

**La sonnambula (GCC 1037-38) is made sweeter, like the LPs, but the double basses are still too present as in every CD–though less edgy on Toshiba. I think the raw tapes must have sounded this way, and the digital engineers thought that the balancing of the basses on LP was simply a means of avoiding groove-jumping instead of a way to achieve musical accuracy, which was clearly its object. Toshiba seems to be the best choice, though the LPs are preferable.

Bizet
**Carmen (GCC 1059-61) is brilliant, and to my ear clearly the best CD version of all. It retains the presence of the first (1985) AAD mastering but adds articulation and air; it no longer sounds covered, and every consonant is presented naturally and intelligibly like the LPs, not accomplished in any other CD. CE 1997 is thin, recessed vocally, yet still less articulate, and Warner restores presence but has a grey sound, less articulation, and, of course, digital glare. Like the 1985 EMI-Angel issuance, Toshiba is presented on three discs so there is no break in Act 2. This set is a necessity.

Cherubini
*(*)Medea (GCC 1045-46) is terrific: more crisp than 1990/3, not as thin as EU CE 1997 (though I still like its sense of artificial excitement despite its inaccuracy); 2014 doesn’t even register. Toshiba is the best overall choice if one can’t find EU CE 1997 or doesn’t like it.

Donizetti
*Lucia di Lammermoor 1953 (GCC 1003-4) is similar to the 1989 West German EMI-Angel set but the instants of distortion have been reduced without harming the articulation, vocal size, or presence. It is, however, a touch less ‘fat’-sounding.

*(*)Lucia 1959 (GCC 1051-52) retains the great presence of Japan-pressed EMI-Angel 1986 but adds spaciousness that removes some unpleasant metal in Callas’ 1959 sound. This set has always been an interesting matter: the original LPs had a great deal of reverb in stereo (but not in the concurrent mono mix) which was toned down in later masterings (though not in US Angel). The Japanese LP set of the late 1970s (EAC 47137-38) was without any reverb and sounded lovely. Okazaki (?) has followed a different aesthetic, restoring a touch of air to the 1985 digital tapes. By contrast, the 1997 CE version makes them more claustrophobic and grey. Toshiba and Japanese-pressed EMI-Angel of 1986, quite different from each other, are the two best choices.

Leoncavallo
**Pagliacci (GCC 1014) is heard here in a way that no other CD version–or, for that matter, later LP versions–ever achieved, including the de-reverbed 2014 Warner: Toshiba’s close, tense presence actually sounds and grabs the listener like the old UK-pressed Columbia/Angel LPs with what I described as ‘almost obscene realism’. Welcome back after 65 years! No reverb-added, filtered Hardwick 1987/93, no still-reverbed, recessed Callas like EU/US CE 1997, no 96/24 lack of directness and added bass like Warner. This has the direct human grittiness of the first LP, never experienced on a digital disc. If this isn’t mastered by Okazaki, some other Japanese engineer also knew how Maria Meneghini Callas’ LPs sounded. The Toshiba is absolutely essential.

Mascagni
**Cavalleria rusticana (GCC 1007) is excellent; it’s the only instance in which the overload distortion is no more intrusive than it was on the LP; all other CDs magnify it. Again, essential.

Ponchielli
*(*)Gioconda 1959 (GCC 1053-54) follows the same pattern as Lucia 1959, adding cushion to the 1987 EMI-Angel without loss of articulation, though it’s difficult to know what the original analog tapes sounded like, as the early LPs are awful–as is the 1997 effort in a different way. Toshiba is more articulate than Warner as well.

Puccini
La bohème (GCC 1031-32) stays too close to the muffled 1987 West German EMI-Angel CDs. It does, however, remove some of the unwanted heaviness. Curiously, CD-1 runs 17 seconds shorter. The brighter 1993 US EMI Classics US pressing is still clearly preferred. CE 1997 and Warner 2014 are unpleasant.

Madama Butterfly (GCC 1021-22) is also too much like the 1987 West German CDs, but a bit more detailed. The crisp, clear 1993 EMI Classics pressings (US, German) of the same master are again to be preferred. And again, CE 1997 and Warner 2014 are dreadful in every conceivable way.

*(*)Manon Lescaut (GCC 1043-44) is lovely, combining the richness of West German EMI/Angel 1985 with greater articulation, but no shrillness like 1993 EMI Classics, no thinness like 1997, no thumping bass like Warner. This and the West German 1985 EMI-Angel set are the best choices–and this is now available.

Tosca 1953 (GCC 1015-16) is better balanced than its predecessor, removing the heaviness and muffled quality of the 1984 digital master and adding some non-digital LP-style ‘air’ (similar in sound to the 1957 pressing). However, Warner has more of the LP’s vocal plush and crispness, even if its surrounding digital sonics make the voices seem slightly out of place. I prefer Warner for the voices and corrected EU CE 1997 for a leaner, taut orange-label Angel LP-style sound.

Tosca 1964 (GCC 1062-63) is more articulate than any of them but unfortunately, bass is increased beyond even Warner. The ambiance is wrong: there’s an overly spacious, empty feeling not in the LPs. I like US (again, not EU) 1997 because it backs us away from Callas’ failing voice, sounds most like the LPs. This one is a surprisingly disappointing for Toshiba.

Turandot (GCC 1041-42) adds cushion, trading the incisiveness of West German 1987 discs for space; 1997 pushes Callas behind the curtain. Toshiba has more color than Warner which is more articulate but not as accurate tonally. My first CD choice remains West German EMI-Angel 1987.

Rossini
Il barbiere di Siviglia (GCC 1035-36) opens up the sound but loses some presence compared with the excellent 1986 CDs. This is another example where the early stereo LP is troubled: harsh and thin. Different solutions have been attempted. Warner is seductively incisive but cold. I prefer West German 1986 EMI-Angel all around.

*(*)Il Turco in Italia (GCC 1017-18) is brilliant. The 1987 EMI-Angel pressing is muffled and heavy while the (unified) German 1993 EMI Classics, ostensibly from the same master, is clear and articulate without losing presence. The Toshiba is even clearer and more LP-like, less sweet, making it a matter of preference whether one prefers German 1993 or Toshiba (I prefer German 1993 by a small amount). CE 1997 and Warner 2014 attempts are awful and Warner actually has distortion not in any other version, LP or CD.

Verdi
*(*)Aida (GCC 1023-24) is a triumph, with the clear but luscious forward presence of West Germany EMI-Angel 1987, a little added air, and on two CDs. CE 1997 is atrocious–one of the worst–and Warner, where Aida is one of the better entries, misses the sonic opulence and front-row presence of EMI-Angel 1987 or Toshiba.

**Un ballo in maschera (GCC 1033-34) is excellent: more articulate than West Germany EMI-Angel 1987 but retaining the lushness which is reduced in CE 1997 and Warner 2014 (fairly good though they are; Ballo has never been treated badly). Toshiba emerges as the optimal choice.

*La forza del destino (GCC 1008-10) brings a bit of cushion to the sound of the excellent West Germany EMI-Angel 1987 CDs but retains everything. It astounds me what a mess the Abbey Road crew made of this one, both in 1997 and 2014. If you can’t find West Germany EMI-Angel 1987 or want to supplement it, Toshiba is the way to go.

*(*)Rigoletto (GCC 1025-26) is gentler than 1987 with better detail (you can actually hear the trilling violin passages during the first Rigoletto-Gilda phrases), the voices are not so heavy, articulate without losing warmth–more LP-like. With UK EMI-Angel 1986, this is the best choice.

Il trovatore (GCC 1029-30) improves noticeably on the 1987/93 version: warm and present but not blanketed. It is really between this and US CE 1997 which is brighter and crisper. Warner pumps the bass, making the balance with the otherwise accurate voices lopsided. Nothing sounds like the amazingly beautiful LPs, but US CE 1997 remains my CD choice.

Recitals

As I said, these (GCC 1064-77) duplicate the brilliant discs in the Toshiba-EMI set of the same year ‘The Art of Maria Callas’ (TOCE 9166-80), mastered by Yoshio Okazaki.

Live

*Lisbon La traviata (GCC 1047-48), the only legitimate live Callas owned by EMI, is less veiled on Toshiba than earlier versions; still lush, and somehow more concentrated in sound. I recommend it.

In EMI’s later live ones, the problems of pitch, omissions, and distortion were not corrected from the digital tapes, any more than they were the following year at Abbey Road. If the Toshiba versions sound marginally better, they are limited by the terrible EMI digital tapes used, and are entirely eclipsed by versions like Divina and AV from far superior source material. I detail them here briefly for completeness:

[1] Berlin Lucia (GCC 1027-28): still missing opening percussion, applause abbreviated, from unknown, purloined CD sources.
[2] Scala La traviata (GCC 1019-20): a re-EQ from Hunt CDs (cat. no. 501) from the “bad” source for Acts 1-2–and that with Hunt’s replaced opening 30 seconds in Act I from an unrelated source. Again, there was no way to alter it appreciably.
[3] Anna Bolena (GCC 1039-40) is still a semitone flat and muffled. The digital tape uses the bad source, a theft from Fonit Cetra’s abominable release. There is no way for the Toshiba engineers to get around it.
[4] Macbeth (GCC 1001-02): Hunt/Arkadia theft for which EMI was successfully sued in Milan during 1995 (but never discontinued it, reusing it for subsequent issuances). It has the by-then unnecessary Gencer substitution for almost three minutes in the Act I ensemble-finale. Nothing has changed.
[5] Il pirata (GCC 1049-50): Source based on a very distorted generations-removed CD theft (possibly Verona, which sounds better). A semitone flat for fifteen minutes, not addressed.

©2019 Robert E. Seletsky