FESTIVAL OF MUSIC - Volume I
Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Isaac Stern, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Zinka Milanov, Roberta Peters, Marian Anderson, Blanche Thebom, Mildred Miller, Rise Stevens, Jussi Bjoerling and Renata Tebaldi; Showcase Symphony Orch/Max Rudolf, cond.
VAI DVD 4244 black & white / mono sound TT: 89 min.
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FESTIVAL OF MUSIC - Volume II
Andrés Segovia, Artur Rubinstein, Victoria de los Angeles, Barry Morell, Marian Anderson, and Boris Christoff; Showcase Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Alfred Wallenstein, cond.
VAI DVD 4245 black & white / mono sound TT: 89 min.
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EILEEN FARRELL - An American Prima Donna
Arias from Alceste, Madama Butterfly, Aida, La Gioconda and La forza del destino; songs by Fauré, Debussy, Poulenc and Gershwin
Eileen Farrell, soprano; Radio Canada Orchestra/Jean Deslariers, cond./John Newmark, pianist
VAI DVD 4272 color / black & white / mono TT: 51 min.
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GREAT SINGERS OF RUSSIA - Volume I
Feodor Chaliapin, Alexander Pirogov, Valeria Barsova, Ivan Kozlovsky, Sergei lemeshev, Maxim Mikhailov, Natalia Shpiller, Pavel Lisitsian, Georgy Nelepp and Mark Reizen
VAI DVD 4257 color / black & white / mono TT: 75 min.
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All of these are fascinating videos. The two Festival of Music programs were telecast live January 30, 1956 and December 10, 1956. Although telecast in color, unfortunately they were archived only in black and white. Both can be programmed so you can watch the entire original telecast with commercials and commentary, or just the musical excerpts. Bruce Burroughs' notes tell of incredible problems that developed as the concept of a televised gala classical concert progressed. Apparently impresario Sol Hurok came up with the idea but Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Met, and RCA Victor had much influence in the project. Bing didn't want Renata Tebaldi (in her American TV debut) to sing music from La traviata as she was going to make her first Met performance in that opera the following season. Bing also didn't want Roberta Peters, then a sensation at the Met, to sing anything "too strenuous" as she was going to sing her first Lucia at the Met two days later. RCA initially didn't want to have any Columbia artists on the program. Fritz Reiner was first choice to conduct but he declined when told he could not conduct an overture, and he would not be there just to accompany singers, so Max Rudolf was selected. The telecast took place in a large "barn" on Long Island, with two rehearsals. The orchestra was at one end, the various sets, all very basic, in the rest of the building. Singers could not see or hear the orchestra except through an offstage speaker. Charles Laughton was chosen to be narrator, but his participation doesn't add to the presentation. He is very ill-at-ease, stumbles often on words, and on occasion seems loses his place—and one can hardly blame him as program content and text, which he was to read from cue cards, were constantly being changed and the distinguished actor had to ad lib most of what he said—and he didn't know very much about classical music.

Leonard Warren's Prologue to Pagliacci is magnificent, and Jan Peerce's Vesti la giubba outstanding although, being myopic, he couldn't see the director's instructions and had to fend for himself, which he did quite successfully. Milanov is superb in Vissi d'arte, Roberta Peters mostly accurate in the stratospheric role of Olympia in Tales of Hoffman. Blanche Thebom and Mildred Miller are seen in the Barcarolle from the same opera. Risë Stevens presents a dramatic Card Song from Carmen. Marian Anderson sings three spirituals accompanied by Franz Rupp. The most important operatic segment is the final part of act one of Puccini's La Bohème with Jussi Bjoerling and Renata Tebaldi, both in their prime, so we have "Che gelida manina," "Mi chiamano Mimi" and "O soave fanciulla.". The good old days! Isaac Stern plays the finale of Mendelsson's E-minor concerto, Gregor Piatigorsky plays Weber's Adagio and Rondo, and Artur Rubinstein ends the program with a stunning performance of Chopin's A-flat Polonaise. What a showman he was, dramatically lifting his hands very high over the keyboard! It's fascinating to watch a true giant of the keyboard at his best.

Producers of Volume II of Festival of Music wisely decided to have fewer artists but longer segments for each. Marian Anderson returned for three more spirituals, and Artur Rubinstein also returned to play superbly a slightly truncated version of Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody (17 minutes instead of 23 in his recording with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony made in January 1956). Andrés Segovia plays short works of Bach and Torroba, and we have the opportunity to see soprano Victoria de los Angeles, with tenor Barry Morell (the latter at his best), in extended excerpts from Act I of La traviata, an opera she would record in its entirety for EMI in 1959. For many the high point of this DVD will be Boris Christoff's magnificent Death Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (with Nicola Moscona as Pimen). José Ferrerdoes a fine job as host. As the entire telecast is included, one also can view commercials for television sets, washing machines, clock-radios and stereophonic sound, which was new at the time—this is when RCA began to make their legendary series of stereo recordings with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Eileen Farrell's DVD is a 1968 Radio Canada production of performances with the Radio-Canada Orchestra directed by Jean Deslauriers. Although 48 at the time, the Farrell voice is always reliable—and beautiful. She sings Divinités du Styx from Gluck's Alceste, Un bel di from Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Ritorna, vincitor! from Verdi's Aida, Nessun v'ha visto?...Suicidio from Ponchielli's La Gioconda, Pace, pace, mio Dio! from Verdi's La forza del destino and, in a display of her remarkable versatility, But Not for Me by Gershwin. John Newmark is accompanist in songs of Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc. As a "bonus" we have the Liebestod from Tristan from a 1959 Bell Telephone Hour telecast (which also is available in Volume I of VAI's Great Stars of Opera). It's a pleasure to hear the glorious Farrell voice but it's unfortunate the program isn't longer; even with the "bonus" we have but 51 minutes playing time. I keep hoping many of the soprano's performances from her weekly radio broadcasts will appear on CD.

The DVD Great Singers of Russia is a revelation. It contains rare films of some extraordinary Russian singers of the past, "From Chaliapin (1873-1938) to Mark Reizen (1895-1992)." Documentation leaves much to be desired—there are no timings for the 38 tracks, and no dates are provided. An attractive young Russian soprano, Ljuba Kazarnovskaya, heavily made-up and with her blonde hair in buffont style (she rather resembles Charo, once married to Xavier Cugat!), is the narrator. Kazarnovskaya is now at the beginning of her career (she has recorded all of Tchaikovsky's songs for Naxos). Her comments are informative and insightful.

Those who believe all Russian sopranos have wide vibrato and unpleasant voices should listen to what is seen/heard on this DVD. Famous soprano Valeria Barsova (1892-1967) is seen singing a Russian song filmed outside before factory workers (one of whom looks like Tchaikovsky!) and she also sings part of an aria from Glinka's Ivan Susanin. Natlia Shpiller (dates unknown) sings a Russian song and Rachmaninoff's I Wait For You. Another famous soprano, Nadezhda Obukhova (1886-1961) is filmed a few weeks before her death singing a magnificent duet with tenor Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-1993). Kozlovsky was a great favorite for many years; he is also seen in his silent screen test, music from Rigoletto, Boris Godunov, an exquisite unidentified Russian song, his 85th birthday celebration—and a duet with Paul Robeson. Another tenor, Sergei Lemeshev is seen in arias from Werther, La Bohème and Eugene Onegin. Tenor Georgi Nelepp (1904-1957) is seen in an excerpt from Boris Godunov. Baritone Pavel Lisitsian (b. 1911) is magnificent in Di provenza from La traviata.

Prime focus on this DVD is the Russian bass voice. And the sounds we hear and the images we see! Famous bass Ivan Petrov is co-host discussing (in Russian with most of it translated in subtitles) most of the singers seen on the DVD, and we hear Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) singing part of Boris Godunov, and see him in an excerpt from the movie of Ibert's Don Quixotte. Alexander Pirogov (1899-1966) is magnificent in several excerpts from Boris Godunov. Bass Maxim Mikhailov (1893-1971) is astounding in an excerpt from the 1943 Eisenstein film Ivan the Terrible, and an aria from Glinka's Ivan Susanin. Another famous bass, Mark Reizen (1895-1992), although famous for his Boris, is seen in an excerpt from Rachmaninoff's Aleko and an astoundingly well sung aria from Eugene Onegin from a performance given when he was 90!

Thank you, VAI VIDEO!

R.E.B. (March 2004)