RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra (Thomas Martin) & The Columbus Boychoir (Herbert Huffman), Sir Thomas Beecham
This release might well be called “The Ultimate Beecham Bohème,” as it brings together for the first time the conductor’s prewar and postwar recordings of the score as well as his spoken comments on the work, taken from a promotional LP issued at the time of the release of the complete recording
“One of the great classics of recording, expertly restored. Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling are an incomparable pair, and Beecham's conducting is, as ever, inimitable.”
“The disadvantages of this famous Beecham Bohème are obvious. It's a mono recording and restricted in dynamic range. The sense of space for the complex crowd scene of Act 2 is to emerge with the maximum impact is inevitably lacking; the climaxes here and elsewhere are somewhat constricted; no less important, it's sometimes harder to focus on the subtleties of Puccini's orchestration. It was also made in a great hurry, and this shows in a number of patches of slightly insecure ensemble, even a couple of wrong entries. But there's no other important respect in which it doesn't stand at least half a head (often head and shoulders) above its more recent rivals. Nobody has ever been so predestinately right for the role of Mimì than Victoria de los Angeles: right both in vocal quality and in sheer involvement with every word and every musical phrase that Mimì utters. Beyond a certain point (usually a certain dynamic level) most sopranos stop being Mimì and simply produce the same sound that they would if they were singing Aida or Tosca. De los Angeles rarely does this; even under pressure (and Beecham's unhurried tempos do put her under pressure at times), the very difficulties Opera Puccini 872 themselves are used as an expressive and interpretative resource. Hers is the most moving and involving Mimì ever recorded. And Björling's is the most musical Rodolfo. He has the reputation of having been a bit of a dry stick, dramatically (on stage he looked like the other Bohemians' elderly, portly uncle), but on record he's the one exponent of the role to be credible both as a lover and as a poet. His voice is fine silver rather than brass, it can caress as well as weep, and his love for Mimì is more often confided than it is bellowed for all Paris to hear. This, indeed, is one of the most conspicuous differences between Beecham's account and most others: its simple belief that when Puccini wrote pp he meant it. Beecham (whose spell over his entire cast – in which there's no weak link – extends as far as teaching his Schaunard, John Reardon, an irresistibly funny, cut-glass English accent for the parrot-fancying milord) makes one realise what an intimate opera this is, how much of it is quiet, how many of its exchanges are sotto voce, and he thus enables his singers to use the full range of their voices and to employ subtleties of colour, phrasing and diction that are simply not available to a voice at full stretch (and in the process he largely cancels out the disadvantage of his recording's restricted dynamic range). It's the same with his handling of the orchestra: one would expect Beecham to seem understated, but again and again one turns back to his reading and discovers nothing missing – he has achieved as much or more with less. This is as complete a distillation of Puccini's drama as you're likely to hear. (The EMI set is not currently listed in the UK, and the Naxos is not available in the United States, Australia and Singapore due to possible copyright restrictions.)”
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