Callas Recording Recommendations 2019: addendum–revised 2021
—Robert E. Seletsky
At the time I submitted my Recommendations in 2019, I was unaware of a briefly available, localized, but significant complete EMI Callas remastering that immediately preceded the 1997 Callas Edition. This important set was introduced to me by Brian Carpenter, 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 to that date in a 77-disc set entitled ‘Maria Callas: Leggendaria Prima Donna’. It was issued in a luxurious two-level wooden case, a limited edition 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 some of these CD remasterings are the best to be found; while no engineer is listed, the remasterings may have been carried out by Yoshio Okazaki, whose incomparable recital discs, also available as ‘The Art of Maria Callas’ (TOCE 9166-80) are included in this comprehensive set. As in the 1997 Abbey Road-engineered Callas Edition, the recitals were mastered from the analog sources (presented far more faithfully here), but, again like the EU/US 1997 Callas Edition, the 1980s CDs were themselves the sources for remasterings of the complete operas.
The distinction between the 1996 Toshiba-EMI-Gakken edition and 1997 EU/US 1997 Callas Edition is immediately apparent. While the EU/US 1997 venture contained often careless, bizarre reworkings of the material with abhorrent new pitch and editing errors, the aesthetic of the Gakken engineer(s) seems to be a more accurate presentation of the results we hear in Keith Hardwick’s 1980s CDs. Some track divisions have been altered from the 1980 CDs; the Western 1997 Callas Edition used them verbatim. To my ear, not all the Gakkens 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), email@example.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.
Brian Carpenter also most generously gave me the opportunity of sampling the 1997 Toshiba-EMI Callas Edition, issued in parallel with the EU/US version. These bear the logo ‘HS2088’, indicating that the CDs were remastered at a 20-bit sampling rate and 88.2 Hz sampling frequency–identical to the EU/US “ART” system, a rather pointless endeavor as the CD sources were 16/44; it also seems that the use of 20/88 often degraded the sound. The catalog numbers bear the TOCE prefix, as do the 1996 recitals (and all Toshiba-EMI discs). Okazaki is listed as engineer for several of these: all the pre-diet 1953 EMI recordings–Lucia, Puritani, Cavalleria rusticana, Tosca, as well, interestingly, as the 1957 Ricordi Medea. Okazaki was charged with remastering the live CDs as well: Macbeth, Scala Traviata, Berlin Lucia, Anna Bolena, Lisbon Traviata, Il Pirata, and the two new 1997 EMI source thefts: Ifigenia in Tauride and Poliuto. The rest of the Toshiba Callas Edition sets appear to be the same as the EU versions and do not bear Okazaki’s name.
Sad to say, only one of these is successful: Tosca (1953). It is the first appearance of the alternate analog source which was issued very flat in the west as a GROTC in 2002, while the EU/US 1997 CE version is a tweak of the earlier Hardwick source. The volume level of the third “Mario” at Tosca’s entrance is correct; there is no tape squeal before “Vissi d’arte”; and the volume at ‘Piùttosto giù mi avvento’ is corrected as in the 1997 EU Callas Edition from the older, Hardwick source–but interestingly, not in GROTC. Unlike GROTC 2002, TOCE is pitched accurately. It is almost identical to 2014 Warner, but not as artificial-sounding, and the splice at “Piùttosto” on Warner removes a split second of music while TOCE does not (nor does EU CE 1997). That makes Okazaki’s 1997 TOCE 3906/7 perhaps the most desirable of all the CD Toscas, though the EU CE version is also an excellent choice, the best version of the Hardwick source. AV has made both available.
The rest are, frankly, quite poor. Lucia, Cavalleria, and Medea are thin and unsatisfying; Puritani runs two minutes faster than any previous version, truly a mess. The remastered live ones are no more worth bothering about than their Western predecessors or EU/US CE tweaks. The horrible source for Ifigenia is the same, and Poliuto is muffled with too prominent bass–a very unsatisfactory feature we hear in other Okazaki remasterings from 1997, not even Callas. Poliuto is considerably less appealing than the EU/US CE version (US is actually rather good, but with Divina DVN-24, from the original tapes, having been released last year, there’s no point in any other version).
Of the 1997 Toshiba Callas Edition, only Tosca (1953) is worthwhile, but however disappointing, it was fascinating to learn about and hear these sets, for which, again, I am most grateful to Brian Carpenter who called my attention to their existence and provided copies with unstinting generosity.
So I return to the 1996 Gakkens, which may or may not have been remastered with the “HS2088” system; it is not listed on any of the Gakken discs, but the recitals are identical with the TOCEs of the same year. The Gakkens deliver some operas with revised sonic ideas and others with minor tweaks like some of the Western 1990-95 EMI Classics, and some virtually identical with the 1980s EMI-Angels.
*Norma 1954 (GCC 1011-13) is noticeably less muffled than the 1986/93 EMI CDs. While it lacks the transparency of the 1997 EU CE, 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 fitting that description.
Norma 1960 (GCC 1056-58) is most like the 1989 EMI-Angel set, though perhaps 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 1986 West German EMI-Angel but a bit more concentrated vocally without losing the welcome warmth, and more open in overall texture. Actually, the 1993 US EMI Classics pressing sounds more like some LPs, but I prefer the 1986 EMI-Angel and Gakken. 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 Gakken. 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. Gakken seems to be the best choice, though the LPs are all preferable.
**Carmen (GCC 1059-61) is brilliant, and to my ear, clearly the best CD version of all. It retains the presence of the 1985 EMI-Angel 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. 1997 CE 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 issuance, Gakken is presented on three discs so there is no break in Act 2. This set is a necessity.
*(*)Medea (GCC 1045-46) is terrific: more crisp than 1990/3 EMI, not as thin as 1997 EU CE (though I still like its sense of artificial excitement despite its inaccuracy); Warner 2014 doesn’t even register. Gakken is the best overall choice if one can’t find 1997 EU CE or doesn’t like it.
(*)Lucia di Lammermoor 1953 (GCC 1003-4) is similar to the 1989 West German EMI-Angel set but the instances 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 1986 Japan-pressed EMI-Angel 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—though not in the concurrent mono mix–which was toned down in later masterings (though not on US Angel LPs). The Japanese LP set of the late 1970s (EAC 47137-38) was without any reverb and sounded lovely. Gakken follows a different aesthetic, restoring a touch of air to the 1986 digital tapes. By contrast, the 1997 CE version makes them even more claustrophobic and grey. Japanese-pressed 1986 EMI-Angel and Gakken, quite different from each other, are the two best choices.
**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: Gakken’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 1987/93 EMI, no still-reverbed, recessed Callas like 1997 EU/US CE, no 96/24 lack of directness and added bass like Warner 2014. This has the direct human grittiness of the first LP, never experienced on a digital disc. If this wasn’t mastered by Okazaki, some other Japanese engineer also knew how Maria Meneghini Callas’ LPs sounded. The Gakken is absolutely essential.
**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.
*(*)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: the early LPs are awful–as is the 1997 CE in a different way. Gakken is more articulate than Warner as well.
La bohème (GCC 1031-32) stays close to the muffled 1987 West German EMI-Angel CDs though it may remove some 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 possiblt a bit more detailed. The crisp, clear 1993 EMI Classics pressings (US or German) of the same CDs 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 1985 West German EMI/Angel with greater articulation, but no shrillness like 1993 EMI Classics, no thinness like 1997 CE, no thumping bass like 2014 Warner. Gakken and the 1985 West German EMI-Angel set are the best choices–and Gakken is now again easily available from AV.
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) to the Hardwick CDs. However, as I said above, 1997 Toshiba TOCE 3906/7, like 2014 Warner, both from an analog source other than Hardwick’s, have more of the LPs’ vocal plush, even if Warner’s surrounding digital sonics make the voices seem slightly out of place. I prefer TOCE (or, I suppose, Warner) for vocal richness and corrected 1997 EU CE for a leaner, taut orange-label Angel LP-style sound. Either can be had from AV.
Tosca 1964 (GCC 1062-63) is more articulate than any of them but unfortunately, bass is increased beyond even Warner (an indication that Okazaki, not named, is the engineer). The ambiance is wrong: there’s an overly spacious, empty feeling not in the LPs. I like 1997 US (again, not EU) CE because it backs us away from Callas’ failing voice, and sounds most like the LPs. The Gakken is disappointing.
Turandot (GCC 1041-42) adds cushion, trading the incisiveness of 1987 West German 1987 discs for space; 1997 EU/US CE pushes Callas behind the curtain. Gakken has more color than the more articulate but tonally less accurate 2014 Warner. My first CD choice remains 1987 West German EMI-Angel.
Il barbiere di Siviglia (GCC 1035-36) opens up the sound but loses that satisfying presence of the excellent 1986 West German EMI-Angel. This is another example where the early stereo LPs are troubled: harsh and thin, with a lot of record rumble (that continued through Angel’s last pressings). Different solutions have been attempted (on LP, the UK SLS-853, while a bit reverberant, is quite good). Warner is seductively incisive but cold. I prefer 1986 West German EMI-Angel all around.
*(*)Il Turco in Italia (GCC 1017-18) is brilliant. The 1987 EMI-Angel pressing is muffled and heavy while the 1993 (reunified) German EMI Classics, ostensibly from the same master, is clear and articulate without losing presence. The Gakken is even clearer and more LP-like, less sweet, making it a matter of preference whether one prefers 1993 German or Gakken (I prefer 1993 German by a small amount). 1997 CE and 2014 Warner are awful; Warner actually has distortion not in any other version, LP or CD.
*(*)Aida (GCC 1023-24) is a triumph, with the clear but luscious forward presence of the 1987 West German EMI-Angel, 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 1987 EMI-Angel or Gakken.
**Un ballo in maschera (GCC 1033-34) is excellent: more articulate than 1987 West German EMI-Angel but retaining the lushness which is reduced in 1997 CE and 2014 Warner (fairly good though they are; Ballo has never been treated badly). Gakken emerges as the optimal choice.
*La forza del destino (GCC 1008-10) brings a bit of cushion to the sound of the excellent 1987 West German EMI-Angel CDs but retains everything. It astounds me what a disaster the Abbey Road crew made of this one, both in 1997 and 2014. If you can’t find the 1987 West German EMI-Angel or want to supplement it, Gakken is the way to go.
*(*)Rigoletto (GCC 1025-26) is gentler than 1987 EMI-Angel, with better detail (you can actually hear the trilling violin passages during the first Rigoletto-Gilda phrases); the voices are not so heavy; it’s articulate without losing warmth–more LP-like. Along with 1986 UK EMI-Angel, Gakken is the best choice.
Il trovatore (GCC 1029-30) improves on the EMI 1987/93 versions: warm and present but not as blanketed. The best will always be the1997 US (not EU) CE which is brighter and crisper, but Gakken is not bad. 2014 Warner pumps the bass, making the balance with the otherwise accurate voices lopsided. Nothing sounds like the amazingly beautiful mono (not rechanneled stereo) LPs in any pressing, but 1997 US CE remains the CD choice.
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.
*Lisbon La traviata (GCC 1047-48), the only live Callas legitimately owned by EMI, is less veiled but slightly less sweet on Gakken than earlier versions; still lush, and 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 Gakken 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:
 Berlin Lucia (GCC 1027-28): still missing opening percussion, applause abbreviated, from unknown, purloined CD sources.
 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.
 Anna Bolena (GCC 1039-40) is still a semitone flat and muffled. EMI uses the bad source, a theft from Fonit Cetra’s abominable release. There is no way for the Gakken engineers to get around it.
 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.
 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.
©2021 Robert E. Seletsky