As we all know, the world of classical music recording is in a state of crisis, with a recent major reorganisation at Decca and Deutsche Grammophon being another sign that things aren't as stable as they should be.
But at the budget-priced label Brilliant Classics, business continues to thrive. The latest initiative is the launch of a new 'Brilliant Opera Collection', the first fifteen titles of which have just been released. Another ten are due in September.
Some of the recordings are already available on so many cheap labels that one wonders why they're included – for instance, the Callas Tosca, the Schwarzkopf Rosenkavalier and the Flagstad Tristan – but the rest consist of more unusual titles. It's surely a pleasant surprise that relatively recent, hitherto expensive opera sets such as Dohnanyi's Fidelio, Sinopoli's Ariadne auf Naxos and the period-instrument Cosi fan tutte with Isokoski and Groop are now available at a relatively low cost through Brilliant.
Admittedly, the packaging is very basic, and the librettos are only available through online downloads and in the original language (and I noticed a huge section missing from the Anna Bolena .pdf file), but it's a small price to pay for many of these releases.
A rarity is the only current CD release of Daniel Barenboim's recording of Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict, the composer's take on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Dating from the early 1980s, the recording features an all-star cast led by Ileana Cotrubas' utterly charming Héro. Combining (as ever) an alertness to the text with vocal suppleness, Cotrubas gives the finest performance here and is not matched by Placido Domingo (Bénédict) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Somarone), both of them sounding like fish out of water. Yvonne Minton's Béatrice is more acceptable, but overall neither the singing nor the playing of the Orchestre de Paris is any competition for Colin Davis' classic account on Philips. And for a non-native speaker, the long stretches of spoken narration will be off-putting when no translation is provided.
At the other end of the scale is Schubert's Die Freunde von Salamanka, one of the composer's many forgotten operas. It's a Singspiel for which the dialogue has apparently been lost, so we're treated just to the seventy-five-minute score, which is a total delight. Recorded live at the Hohenems Schubertiade in 1978, it boasts some of the finest singers of its day: Hermann Prey, Robert Holl, Kurt Moll and Thomas Moser are in strong voice for the men, while Edith Mathis' sparkling Olivia and Christine Weidinger's superb Eusebia make outstanding contributions from the women. This is the perfect way to rediscover Schubert's achievement in the operatic genre, showing that he not only totally assimilated conventions into his work but that he could also reinvent them for his own expressive means.
Had Beverly Sills been representative of the cast for her Anna Bolena recording, the set would have to receive an unqualified recommendation. The mixture of technical assurance and multifaceted interpretation is delicious, indeed her final scene is a textbook example of how to approach this repertoire. But the tenors are just not of the same quality, with both Robert Tear and Stuart Burrows showing signs of strain at different points. Robert Lloyd is a dignified Lord Rochefort and Paul Plishka is in his element as Enrico VIII, however, so when the LSO and Julius Rudel are racing through the big concerted numbers it's easy to overlook the overall shortcomings.
Not so Christoph von Dohnanyi's recording of Fidelio. This time, the orchestra and conductor are world-class, but the singing of Gabriele Schnaut isn't up to scratch in the role of Leonore. The wide vibrato and insecure top are the main problems, and are such a distraction that it is difficult to judge the other merits of her performance. Nor is Josef Protschka's Florestan outstanding, though he's scarcely less respectable than other recent interpreters of the role. Some of the smaller roles are more attractively sung – Falk Struckmann's Prisoner and Kurt Rydl's Rocco stand out – and the Vienna Philhamonic is beyond impeccable, but Schnaut's performance is a major setback.
Of the major works on review here, the most even recording is Sigiswald Kujiken's account of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte, made special by the appearance of a young Soile Isokoski as Fiordiligi. As much as we all have our favourites, surely her fresh-voiced performance is the equal of any other on record, easily rising to the challenges of 'Come scoglio' and 'Per pietà'. The rest of the cast is nicely balanced too, if less distinguished and distinctive: Monica Groop (Dorabella), Nancy Argenta (Despina), Markus Schafer (Ferrando), Per Vollestad (Guglielmo) and Huub Claessens (Don Alfonso) all deserve mention. With the riveting playing of La Petite Bande Orchestra, this is the absolute bargain of Brilliant's new collection. And if there are shortcomings in some of the other sets, the economical packaging is surely a good enough encouragement to sample them regardless of individual criticisms.
CD Review: Anna Bolena with Leyla Gencer (Andromeda)
CD Review: Herbert von Karajan conducts Fidelio (DG)
CD Review: Purcell's complete chamber music on Brilliant Classics
CD Review: Galliard's Pan and Syrinx on Brilliant Classics