Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fritz Reiner, Risë Stevens and Jan Peerce Carmen by Bizet

   Fritz Reiner is one of these great conductors who became legendary performers before the era of long playing phonographic recordings. He was born in Budapest in 1988, a year before Emile Berliner started marketing of disc records, which can be considered as the date of phonographic record has born. He was studied in his native city in Ferenc Liszt Academy, where during last years he was student of Béla Bartók. He was working with Richard Strauss in Dresden Semper Opera and with Opera House in Budapest. In 1922 he immigrated to United States where he took post of principal conductor of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
   In 1928 he became naturalized citizen what gave him chance to work as a teacher in Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of his students was Leonard Bernstein. In 1938 he became conductor of Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, recording with this orchestra some early records. His career as recording artist started to grow after 1948 when he became conductor in Metropolitan Opera. In this period he recorded two renditions of Carmen, in 1951 with RCA Victor Orchestra for RCA Victor Red Seal label and in 1952 with Metropolitan Opera for Columbia Company. Both castings share the voice of Risë Stevens singing the role of Carmen. Although Columbia recording has in collective memory the position of legendary masterpiece, one year earlier RCA edition is still worthy of discovery.

Georges Bizet - Carmen - Fritz Reiner (1951, ed. 1974)

   This monophonic recording has unbelievably good space. It was republished in 1974 in original mono version and this pressing shows full master range of 1951 performance and recording mastery. Orchestra sound is clear, perfect in articulation, tempos are the best one can dream on. No effort at the uniqueness or pretending towards the originality – this performance is as clear in intentions as attractive in sound. Silence between the notes just can be heard what makes the energy of the orchestra just tangible. RCA Orchestra and The Robert Show Chorale merge into a spectacular narrative. Perfect articulation gives crowd scenes tremendous power. The sound of choral scenes is huge and in top of dynamic range sounds distorted but this may be my copy failure. Balanced solo voices in ensembles and perfectly directed solo arias drawing reliable pictures of different characters.
   Every Carmen performance demands at least four soloists to be stars. And in this recording all four are brightly shining. Risë Stevens as Carmen is great. Nothing new – she sung Carmen in years 1945-1961 with many conductors and singers. And her Carmen was one of most acclaimed in the history of Bizet’s masterpiece renditions. Her mezzo-soprano is deep and powerful, firmly positioned, warm and rich in sound and free of mannerisms what gives listener esthetic pleasure and full emotional satisfaction. This Carmen is warm blooded woman and strong believer. It’s one of best Carmen ever and really hard to stop listening.

   In RCA recording partners of Risë Stevens are Jan Peerce as Don José and Robert Merrill in the role of toreador Escamillo. Both are daring and brave. Jan Peerce sings with great culture, his tenor sounds little bit darker than average and dramatic skills give the character more depth than usual. Of course Don José character is a way more complicated than Escamillo. Toreador is in fact second plan role although his famous narration is one of iconic triumphal opera scenes. Robert Merrill in 50’s and early 60’s he was number one for baritone dramatic roles what can be perfectly clear considering this recording. Singing and playing the role of Micaela is important in the production. Licia Albanese, owes great fame her lyric soprano especially roles in Puccini operas as Cio-Cio San, Mimì, Liù and Manon Lescaut. Nice, smooth voice sounds as much different from Risë Stevens as Micaela differs of Carmen. Fritz Reiner’s 1951 rendition of Carmen despite the past 60 years is still engaging and worth to remember.

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