“The Decca Sound: 55 Great Vocal Recitals” is a deluxe box set that presents many of the leading singers of classical music recorded between 1950 and 2010.
The collection comprises only studio recordings, and the sound quality (even from the mono era) is excellent.
Each CD has a reproduction of the original album cover, and Decca generously adds bonuses that give a fuller picture of each artist. For example, the Gérard Souzay CD has his 1956 LP “French Operatic Arias” plus a delightful group of songs by Gabriel Fauré.
The charming Jennifer Vyvyan “Mozart and Haydn Recital” (1957) is supplemented by two scenes from Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” a role that the singer originated, with the composer conducting.
Régine Crespin’s 1957 recital of songs by Schumann, Wolf, Debussy, and Poulenc (1967) is filled out with opera arias.
The set includes debut recitals by such spectacular talents as Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Angela Gheorghiu, and Cecilia Bartoli. Some of the most familiar singers appear in unexpected ways, such as a duet album by Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto or Kiri Te Kanawa singing art songs.
Listen to the CDs of Robert Merrill and Sherrill Milnes and ask yourself if there are any baritones with voices of this quality singing Italian and French operas today.
Others who defined an era on this collection are Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson and Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi.
Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco overwhelms with his power while Carlo Bergonzi impresses with his style.
The Giuseppe Di Stefano album of arias and Neapolitan songs was recorded in 1958 when the most beautiful tenor voice of the postwar era was already in decline.
There are opera singers whose careers flamed out, such as Elena Souliotis, or went into teaching, like Susan Dunn. The recitals here, recorded at the singers’ peak, show what caused the excitement when they appeared on the scene.
How often have I put on a recital of a singer whose name was vaguely familiar with the intention of puttering about my apartment and found myself transfixed by the artistry of a Paata Burchuladze or a Paul Schöffler. Some of the exciting recordings are by artists better known in Europe, for example, Maria Chiara and Sylvia Sass.
The set comes with a booklet on glossy paper containing a history of Decca’s classical vocal albums by Raymond McGill and track lists and information about each recording, as well as photos of the artists.
For an idea of the importance of some of these singers, consider their accompanists: pianist Vladimir Ashkenazi with Elisabeth Söderström, Jean-Yves Thibaudet with Brigitte Fassbaender, Benjamin Britten performing Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Peter Pears, or conductors like Claudio Abbado with Jonas Kaufmann, Sir Georg Solti with Renée Fleming, and Sir Roger Norrington with countertenor Andreas Scholl.
The set has quite a bit of variety. In addition to Italian, French, German, and Russian opera arias, there are collections of operetta (Hilde Gueden), Scandinavian songs (Tom Krause and Barbara Bonney), as well as German lieder (Hermann Prey, Hans Hotter, and Lisa Della Casa) and Russian songs (bass Martti Talvela, who was a towering Boris Godunov at the Met).
Another great bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov, sings Verdi and Mussorgsky while Fernando Corena exemplifies Italian buffa style and Leo Nucci bel canto.
The unforgettable contralto Kathleen Ferrier performs Bach and Handel arias in 1952, one year before she died from cancer. Kirsten Flagstad sings Wagner and Sibelius toward the end of her long career, while mezzo-sopranos Giulietta Simionato, Teresa Berganza, and Huguette Tourangeau are captured at their peak.
Some singers I have seen live are fondly remembered with collections here: native New Yorker Regina Resnik (my first Carmen, albeit in a concert performance), English soprano Gwyneth Jones singing Verdi here (“Der Rosenkavalier” when I saw her), or Pilar Lorengar (who in a Lincoln Center concert at one point took out a guitar and accompanied herself while she sang Spanish songs). On this collection, she sings a range of opera arias.
Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja displayed his golden voice in “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met this past season, and Juan Diego Flórez seems to have succeeded Pavarotti as the “king of the high C’s.”
The set is an incredible bargain, selling on Amazon for as little as $2 per disc. Lovers of vocal music should not miss it.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.