Arias of Verdi, Puccini, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Bizet, Gounod, Flotow, Giordano, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Donizetti, Cilea; leider, songs and Swedish folk songs
Jussi Björling, tenor; various orchestras/conductors
EMI CLASSICS 17313 (B) (5 disks) TT: 73:25 / 74:53 / 76:42 / 73:34 / 75:53

Arias of Verdi, Puccini, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Bizet, Gounod, Flotow, Giordano, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Donizetti and Ceilea; leider, songs Massenet, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet; lieder, songs, Zarzuela arias; Canteloube Chants d'Auvergne
Victoria De Los Angeles, soprano; various orchestras/conductors
EMI CLASSICS 17308 (B) (7 disks) TT: 76:04 / 75:58 / 77:53 / 79:48 / 70:33 / 74:32 / 78:39

Arias of Rossini, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Thomas, Bizet Giordano, Leoncavallo and Puccini
Robert Merrill, baritone; various orchestras/conductors
PREISER 89711 (F) TT: 76:24

Arias of Wagner, Strauss; lieder of Schubert, Wolf
Marta Fuchs, soprano; various orchestras/conductors; pianists Michael Raucheisen and Gerald Moore
PREISER 89710 (F) TT: 79:19

STRAUSS: Elektra
Birgit Nilsson (Elektra); Leonie Rysanek (Chrysothemis); Astrid Varnay (Klytemnestra); Richard Lewis (Aegisth); Hans Sotin (Orest); Paris Opera Orch/Karl Böhm, cond.
GOLDEN MELODRAM 3.0008 (F) (2 disks) TT: 59:07 & 43:44

Here are two remarkable issues in EMI's Icon series—major recordings by important artists issued at budget price in excellent sound. For me, the greatest treasure is the Jussi Björling set of 5 disks that contains many of his earliest recordings. This includes his first major recording made in 1936 immediately after his operatic debut in Vienna, a 78 rpm disk coupling "Celeste Aida" and "Che gelida manina." The set also includes many of Björling's earlier recordings of Scandinavian songs. Throughout we hear absolute perfection in singing. If you don't already own these recordings, this is an inexpensive way to acquire them. The final CD contains highlights from three of the tenor's eleven complete operatic recordings, Pagliacci (1953), La bohème (1956), and Madama Butterfly (1959—one year before his death of a heart attack). John Stearne's informative program notes (in three languages) are included, along with complete information of recording dates and venues, but no texts.

Of equal merit is the 7 disk set devoted to Victoria de los Angeles. It includes her in her greatest operatic roles including her first dating from 1948, two excerpts from Falla's La Vida Breve. We also have her definitive recording of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 (with the composer conducting), Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, Zarzuela arias, Spanish songs and lieder, all performed with the soprano's consummate artistry. Tony Locantro wrote the program notes, and the set includes information on recording dates and sites. Essential!

American baritone Robert Merrill (1917-2004) already is well-represented in the CD catalog; Preiser has three disks devoted solely to him, and two others where he collaborates with other artists. Merrill made his Met debut in 1945 and sang about 800 performances with the company. He was a favorite with leading conductors including Reiner (Carmen, 1951), Karajan (Carmen, 1963), Beecham (Bohème, 1956), Toscanini (Traviata, 1946), and Solti (Aida, 1962; Rigoletto, 1963). Recordings on Preiser's new issue were made during Merrill's prime: 1951-1956, and he produces glorious sounds.

German soprano Marta Fuchs (1898-1974) was a major dramatic soprano on the operatic scene from her debut in 1924 through her final appearances in 1952. She was a favorite in Bayreuth for many years, also in Berlin and Vienna. A throat infection ended her career in 1954 and she lived reclusively in Stuttgart until her death two decades later. In spite of her importance, she made relatively few recordings. Preiser's issue offers Wagner and Strauss plus lieder in which she specialized.

Elektra was one of the greatest triumphs of soprano Birgit Nilsson; her famous Decca recording conducted by Sir Georg Solti was made in 1967 and remains one of the finest ever made, and her 1980 Met performance is available on DVD (REVIEW), although this hardly represents Nilsson at her best. This Melodram release does show her in her prime, surrounded by a splendid cast, and conducted by Karl Böhm whose presence vitalizes the Paris Orchestra. Sound quality is good enough, and this was, indeed, an exciting night at the opera. There are no program notes: instead we have a transcription from a 1997 German television production of a conversation between Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay and Martha Mödl, three of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos of the century. It's highly entertaining, but is even better if you see the video, available from Berkshire Record Outlet (DVD5961).

R.E.B. (November 2008)