Eileen Farrell Sings Verdi Presto Sony MHK62358

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Eileen Farrell Sings Verdi
Eileen Farrell (soprano)
Richard Tucker (tenor)
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Max Rudolf & Fausto Cleva
rec. 1960-61, Manhattan Center, New York. ADD
Presto CD
Sony Classical MHK62358 [68]

This is a straight re-issue by Presto of the 1996 remastered CD in Sony’s “Masterworks Heritage” series, the only difference being the substitution on the front page of the booklet of a rather more flattering photograph of Eileen Farrell from its reverse; otherwise, both the sound and the booklet contents are exactly the same.

The standard critical lament when surveying Farrell’s career is that despite having one of the most beautiful and flexible dramatic sopranos ever heard, she recorded comparatively little and was utterly determined to prioritise her family life and concertising before the demands of the operatic diva lifestyle. Thus, her recorded legacy is all the more treasurable and this disc of ten tracks from seven Verdi operas, including three duets with the reigning Metropolitan tenor of her era, Richard Tucker, bears witness to her astonishing gifts. She was equally impressive in Wagner – as her two recordings of the Wesendonck Lieder with Stokowski and Bernstein attest (see my survey) and I especially prize her 1962 live recording of La gioconda with Corelli (again, see my survey) but this compilation showcases her eminence as a Verdi soprano.

Despite the amplitude of her voice, she could be remarkably delicate and nuanced, as the opening aria from Simon Boccanegra demonstrates. In addition to the floated high notes, the steadiness of her line and the impeccable legato, one immediately notices the effulgence of her lower register; she is as captivating as is Mirella Freni in the famous Abbado studio recording. The Aida aria is as fine as any I know, with none of the vocal frailties which mar the versions even of great interpreters like Callas, and her attention to verbal inflection is striking. The duet “Pur ti riveggo” with Tucker is thrilling stuff; expressive nuance is not neglected despite the amplitude of their voices. Farrell’s contempt for the passivity of Leonora in Il trovatore, as reported in the notes, was clearly set aside in favour of infusing her two arias with maximum drama and pathos; I am particularly struck by the ease and bell-like sonority of Farrell’s top notes, achieved with nary a hint of scratch or strain. The Don Carlo duet is likewise sung with passion and the palpable interaction between her and Tucker is very evident; it conveys real and credible tension: she is struggling to retain her dignity and composure, while he frequently lapses into a desperate near-hysteria. The Otello aria is sung with great poise and plangency, Farrell reining in her voice. At eleven minutes, it is in fact the longest item here and she sustains intensity and thus the listener’s attention throughout by the manner in which she deploys the colours and textures of her voice. One realises that its timbre is unfailingly beautiful regardless of the trials of the character she is embodying, yet she is never vocally bland, even if she was not a natural stage animal.

That combination of dramatic acuity and vocal agility is amply demonstrated by the brilliance with which she despatches the opening to Leonora’s “Pace, pace” – surely one of the most challenging in the canon. The same is true of the aria from Un ballo in maschera – some lovely portamento and again, those top notes are stunning. The concluding duet with Tucker is suffused with fervent emotion and puts the cap on as fine a recital as any devoted Verdian could wish.

The conducting throughout by both conductors is utterly idiomatic, engaging and flexible and the spacious sound is excellent, the very faintest hiss and pre-echo – audible only on headphones – notwithstanding.

Ralph Moore

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01. Simon Boccanegra – Come in quest’ ora bruna;
02. Ritorna vincitor;
03. Pur ti riveggo ;
Il Trovatore:
04. Tacea la notte placida;
05. D’amor sull’ ali rosee;
06. Don Carlo – Io vengo a domandar;
07. Otello – Ave Maria;
08. La forza del destino – Pace, pace, mio Dio;
Un ballo in maschera:
09. Ma dall’ arido stelo divulsa;
10. Teco io sto.

Tracks 3, 6 & 10: Richard Tucker & Fausto Cleva