Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Julia Varady, Luciano Pavarotti, Stefania Toczyska, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Matti Salminen, Harald Stamm, Ruthild Engert, Volker Horn.
Orchester und Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, cond.
Recorded live at Berlin, March 22, 1982
Ponto – 1028 (2 CDs)

Now, who needs another Aida? There are (or there have been) available 65 complete recordings (commercially available pirates included) and I don’t take into account the staggering amounts of non-commercial recording now widely circulating among collectors. Another Aida therefore can only interest buyers interested in specific singers. Happily, this set indeed fills a gap and it is not centered upon il divo himself, as the nice sleeve notes make clear. This set is for the admirers of Julia Varady, though not only for them.
The Hungarian soprano has a reputation. As the fourth Mrs. Fischer-Dieskau, she was undoubtedly helped in her career in the early seventies by this connection. But I presume this asset soon turned into a liability. Allow me to digress a few moments.
There is a website by a devoted fan of Dieskau who followed her hero all over the globe. She tells the story of a rather aloof man, pretending to live in the artistic clouds, whose wife has to do all the dirty deeds (protesting a hotel room, wiping away the fans etc) to enable him to attain his artistic goals: somewhat like the story of Kleinchen and Lauritz Melchior, though I suspect the German baritone is far less naïaut;ve than the Danish heldentenor.
Of course this wheeling and dealing doesn’t endear Varady to a lot of people. A few years ago she was to give two concerts in Antwerp and Ghent. Though everything went fine on rehearsal day, she became ill on the day of the first concert and cancelled the second one as well. She left and gave the management the cryptic message that “they needn’t look any further for a substitute at short notice if ever they had problems with a soprano”.
The enraged management, which had found no traces of illness, asked some discreet questions at her hotel and learned that she had received more and more frantic phone calls from a German speaking gentleman. So it dawned upon the concert organizer that Mr. Dieskau was in need of assistance and didn’t want to be without his wife. Thus the alliance Dieskau-Varady has probably not helped her in her stage and recording career. Probably there had to be something for Dieter as well, like there always had to be something for Nicolai whenever one wanted to engage Freni.
Though, in his own admission, he was fully unsuited to anything less exalted than Schubert, he sang a ridiculously bad Peter Homonay on the Der Zigeunerbaron recording with his wife. And in this Aida, too, he succeeds in making a travesty of Amonasro. He hectors and shouts, though this has probably more to do with his age and shortness of breath than with bad style. Still, no provincial Italian baritone would dream of taking such liberties with note values. His high baritone had by 1982 lost all colour in the lower register and he sounds like another lover of Aida. Only now and then is there a fine phrase reminding us that he once was a good Verdian.
But, it’s Varady who is the raison d’etre of this recording and she surely deserves it. Once more, was it Dieskau’s fault or had most record producers hampered ears in the seventies and eighties? So many Verdi recordings are handicapped by less inspiring singing of Caballé or Millo and are downright worthless when Ricciarelli or Plowright sing roles far too heavy or too difficult for their instruments or technique. And all the while there was this formidable soprano who had to do with one Santuzza on a major label (Decca with Pavarotti) and nothing of Puccini and Verdi. First of all, there is the fine rounded and exciting sound of her voice; not an instrument of torrential power but nevertheless able to come through in all concertati. But she is a subtle artist as well. When the score asks for a piano or a mezza-voce she is almost as fine as the young Leontyne Price. Moreover the top is free and that soprano-terror, the high C in O patria mia, is no problem for her. In this live recording I was struck by the fact that the voice had a little bit more vibrato than on her official recordings. Nevertheless this is a set worth investing in just for this magnificent Aida.
But there is more. When I first heard Polish mezzo-soprano, Stefania Toczyska, I was sure she would have a world career. Well, she had a good career but a household word among collectors she has not become and listening to her magnificent singing I fail to see where it went wrong. The voice is magnificent: a cross between the bright shattering sound of Fiorenza Cossotto and the more sensual one of Agnes Baltsa. The top rings free. She succeeds in making us understand that Amneris loves deeply and has a right to be understood and sympathized with. She goes fearlessly into the Temple Scene and makes it one of the high points of this set.
And then there is the great man himself. He starts somewhat tentatively. The Celeste Aida is well sung though he takes the high B forte and if there was a tenor in his generation who could sing a messa di voce, it was Pavarotti. And that remains the problem for the rest of the evening. He is in fine ringing voice; indeed he sounds fresher and more involved than in his official Decca recording which was produced three years later and in this business three years can make a big difference. But he seldom goes down to a mezza-voce and misses opportunities where lesser voiced tenors as Bergonzi always scored: no hint of soft sung regret in La, tra le foreste vergine where Varady is at her most Milanov-like. He never sounds overtaxed by the role though he has not the guns of Corelli or even Domingo. Agreed, he was a lirico unlike Gigli who took Radames on when he was in his late forties as well, Pavarotti always had a hint of steel in the voice. Only in the last act does he use the fine pianissimo he has at his disposal. Still, Pavarotti fans will be glad with the recording for the sheer healthy amount of voice and the perfect (as always) enunciation.
Harald Stamm is a good king and Marti Salminen markedly improves through the evening: wobbly at first, steady in the Judgment scene. Daniel Barenboim has a nice grasp, though he sometimes mixes up quick tempi with excitement. The sound of the recording is very fine though it markedly favours the voices. I wonder at the source of this sound as it is so wonderfully clear. Was this meant to be a recording? I have the impression that the applause is not genuine and was mixed in afterwards. Anyway, apart from three formidable soloists, the recording has the advantage of 2 CDs instead of the usual three.
Jan Neckers