Robert Merrill II
Arias, duets, and songs by Verdi, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Foster. Robert Merrill, baritone (with Jussi Bj–rling, tenor, Emil Markow, bass, and Licia Albanese, soprano). Boston Pops Orchestra, RCA Victor Orchestra, Arthur Fiedler, Renato Cellini, Jean Paul Morel, and Ted Dale, cond.

 
PREISER 89534 (F ) (AAD) TT: 74:39
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Last year I reviewed a Preiser CD devoted to the great American baritone, Robert Merrill praising his rich, beautiful voice, as well as his tasteful, elegant approach to the music. On the other hand, I found little in the recordings that offered much in the way of dramatic insight or nuance. As a result, I commented: "Given this sameness of approach, I found the CD better enjoyed a few selections at a time, rather than straight through."  The vast majority of the recordings on that initial Preiser CD dated from 1946-7, coinciding with the baritone's early years at the Metropolitan Opera (he made his Met debut on 15 December 1945). The years that immediately ensued were busy ones indeed. By the close of 1950, Robert Merrill had appeared in more than half of the 21 roles he would sing at the Met during his three decades with the company.

All of the featured recordings on the second Preiser Merrill CD were made in 1950. Merrill was then in his early 30s and in sublime voice. The timbre is perhaps just a shade darker than on the mid-40s recordings, but without any evidence of strain throughout the registers. The clear diction, elegant vocalism, and flowing legato are still very much in evidence.  It seems clear Merrill benefited tremendously from his additional stage experience. In these 1950 recordings he is far more dramatically committed than on the mid-40s discs. He does a fine job of differentiating between the two central portions of Rigoletto's "Cortigiani." Likewise, Renato's anger and sadness over his wife's supposed adultery are both convincingly projected. Merrill's Iago is more than sufficiently evil to convince us that he has both the energy and cunning to engineer Otello's downfall.

Still, I find Robert Merrill at his best in music that allows his gorgeous voice to caress an extended, legato phrase. The Count's aria in Il trovatore, Rodrigo's death scene in Don Carlo, and Tonio's Prologue all approach the ideal. In superb duet recordings with Jussi Bjoerling (Don Carlo) and Licia Albanese (I Pagliacci), Merrill also proves himself a sympathetic and involved colleague.

The disc concludes with eight Stephen Foster songs in glossy arrangements that add nothing to the composer's unaffected genius. Nevertheless Merrill sings these selections with beauty and enthusiasm. Unlike its predecessor, I had no difficulty in listening to "Robert Merrill II" straight through. I will return to this disc frequently and with great pleasure, as it documents some of the finest work of one of America's great voices.

K.M. (April 2003)