Sunday, 5 October 2014

Callas Re-mastered

Some of you will no doubt know that I am a huge Callas fan. What you may not know is that the reason I am a huge fan has very little to do with the usual gay preoccupation with her tempestuous career and love life, and everything to do with her musical genius. Genius is not too great a word for this woman who was, as Zeffirelli once said, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Her voice fit into no conventional category of soprano, but it was a large voice, with unusual flexibility. In her early career she sang the diametrically opposed roles of Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani, in the same week, deputising for the indisposed coloratura soprano Margarita Carosio. In fact she learned the role of Elvira in a few days, whilst still singing Isolde. This feat alone catapulted her to stardom. But she would never have been the great artist she was without her incredible technique or her deeply innate musicality. The esteemed conductor Victor De Sabata once said of her, "If the public knew as we do, how deeply musical she is, it would be amazed."

It was a short career and her voice started to let her down in the mid to late 1950s, after a spectacular weight loss. Callas went from everyone's idea of the fat lady who sings to a svelte Audrey Hepburn lookalike in a matter of months. Ever the perfectionist, Callas had decided she needed to look more like the characters she was portraying. How could a fat soprano be a convincing tubucular courtesan? It made no sense to her dramatic sensibilities. So the weight came off.

Some time ago I joined a forum called Talk Classical. After a while, one of the members befriended me because, he (or she, I didn't know at the time) had noticed from my posts that I knew a fair amount about singers and singing. I won't divulge too much about how our "pen" friendship evolved, other than to say that, as a thank you, for introducing him to so much great music making, he would send me the odd Amazon voucher. At first I demurred, telling him that it was my pleasure, that his enjoyment was pleasure enough, and that I expected nothing in return, All to no avail.

Where is this leading, you might ask? Well very recently, Warner records, who now own all of EMI's back catalogue, have reissued all of Callas's studio recordings, including the Cetra issues, in new re-masters, going back to the master-tapes and original recording notes and correcting, as much as possible mistakes made on many of the subsequent CD issues. Callas fans everywhere were getting quite excited. I even attended a preview event at Kings Place in London, where we got a chance to view the set and hear samples. We were also given a CD with excerpts of the new masters, with some of the old ones included for comparison.

Unfortunately my budget was not able to stretch to the £200 asking price, and I had my family lined up to club together and get it for me for Christmas.

At this point, my pen friend, who had already acquired the set himself, intervened, opining that of all the people in the world, I really was the one who should have it. He sent me a voucher for the whole amount, and I now have the set. Such generosity I find overwhelming. I have not met, and may not ever, meet my fairy godson (for he is quite a few years younger than me), but I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

The only condition is that I write a review of each recital and complete opera, and this is what I am doing, as I listen through the set. The results, I will publish here and on Talk Classical as I work my way through them.

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