Carlos Kleiber's 1977 La Traviata is a rare gestalt among studio opera recordings, and it is one of the conductor's finer achievements. Kleiber knits the score together with unwavering rhythmic and dramatic intensity, never allowing any single moment to eclipse the larger scene or musical structure. The singers are kept on a tight leash – given enough room to shape phrases and cadences, but not to indulge in sheer vocal display. The orchestra is similarly focused on realizing every detail of rhythm, melody, and articulation with vivid intensity. As a result, favorite arias, duets, and ensembles melt into the surrounding scenes in a way that invites curiosity about the drama at large while propelling it relentlessly forward. The general pace may strike some as a bit fast, but it's never boring, and frequently brilliant.
Given the depth, range and quality of the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue, it’s hardly been difficult to put together another anthology of great recordings and great artists. The structure is as before – here are 53 original albums (including three double-sets), featuring the great names of Deutsche Grammophon’s recording history, presented, once more, in alphabetical order of artist. Claudio Abbado leads off with a complete Carmen and Krystian Zimerman rounds off with his memorable account of the Chopin Ballades.
The Vienna Carmen from 1978 is a sensational filmed document from the musical legacy of Carlos Kleiber: the meticulous conductor only ever conducted a highly selected repertoire, and among his very few audio and video recordings are only seven complete operas.
It is appropriate that the first recording of the first version of Forza should come from St Petersburg, where the work had its premiere in 1862. However, whilst the premiere was predominantly an Italian affair, this set is given entirely by Russian artists. The differences between this version and Verdi's 1869 revision for La Scala are marked: they are delineated by two essays in the accompanying booklet but even more discerningly in Julian Budden's indispensable The Operas of Verdi (in this case Vol. 2, Cassell: 1978). So it isn't necessary for me to rehearse here all the changes (even if I had the space to do so), only the main ones.
Der Freischutz is one of the great milestones in the history of opera. The resounding success of its premiere in 1821 practically made it a manifesto for German Romantic opera, one that would become a significant formative influence on Wagner. Although it has its roots in the Singspiel tradition exemplified by Mozart's Die Zauberflote, Der Freischutz cut new ground with its potent mixture of supernatural elements, dreams, folk melodies, evocations of nature, and symphonic tone painting.