Un Ballo in Maschera  (Bruno Walter;  Zinka Milanov, Jan Peerce, Leonard Warren, Kerstin Thorborg, Frances Greer)  (2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1148)
Item# OP3412
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Product Description

Un Ballo in Maschera  (Bruno Walter;  Zinka Milanov, Jan Peerce, Leonard Warren, Kerstin Thorborg, Frances Greer)  (2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1148)
OP3412. UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, Live Performance, 15 Jan., 1944, w.Bruno Walter Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Zinka Milanov, Jan Peerce, Leonard Warren, Kerstin Thorborg, Frances Greer, etc.; HELEN TRAUBEL, w.Bruno Walter Cond. Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra: Tristan – Liebestod; Götterdämmerung – Immolation Scene - Live Performance, 8 July, 1947, Los Angeles. (Canada) 2-Immortal Performances IPCD 1148, w.Elaborate 48pp. Booklet. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Booklet notes by James A. Altena & Richard Caniell. - 787790581383


“This is a major addition to the Bruno Walter discography as well as to the Verdi discography. While this 1944 Met performance of UN BALLO IN MASCHERA has circulated before, this is the first time it has been available in its entirety and in acceptable sonics. I own the versions on AS Disc and The Forties but would never have guessed it could sound as good as it does here. An earlier broadcast (December 14, 1940 [OP2865]) of the same production has been widely circulated, its fame enhanced by the only opportunity to hear Jussi Björling’s Riccardo in a complete performance (well, almost complete, since he cut the big aria from the final act). That performance also featured Zinka Milanov and exciting conducting by Ettore Panizza, but Alexander Sved is a gruff Renato. Many of us had longed to hear the later performance in acceptable sonics, particularly because Bruno Walter was on the podium, but only now, because of Richard Caniell’s superb restoration work, has the wish come true.

What must be said at the outset is that the major revelation of this performance is Bruno Walter’s conducting. FANFARE colleague James A. Altena’s valuable notes that accompany this set make clear that the conductor had considerable experience with Verdi, but there is very little recorded evidence of it. Exciting as Panizza’s conducting was in the 1940, it was more a moment-to-moment excitement. Walter sacrifices none of the drama while adding an overall sense of architecture and shape to the opera. His tempo adjustments are better integrated, allowing for almost imperceptible shifts from one tempo to the next. BALLO comes off less like a string of highlights, more as a musical and dramatic whole. In addition, Walter seems more concerned with matters of color and balance, providing a richer and more varied orchestral sonority - this is audible even through the sonic limitations of a historical radio broadcast.

A perfect point of comparison is the orchestral introduction to the second act, preceding Amelia’s recitative ‘Ecco l’orrido campo’ and aria ‘Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa’. Under Panizza, with overly incisive attacks and bright sonority, the introduction sounds somewhat clattery. Under Walter the darkness of the drama and the richness of Verdi’s scoring become much more evident.

On the whole, Milanov is preferable here to her 1940 performance. In the earlier broadcast she didn’t seem totally at ease. Whether she felt rushed by some of Panizza’s tempos, or whether this was an example of a certain lack of consistency that was always true of her singing, the fact is that in 1940 a generally fine performance was compromised by moments of throaty sound and pitch instability. One reason, perhaps, for her improvement here is Milanov’s musical relationship with Walter, which began in 1936 when she substituted at the Vienna State Opera as Aida in a performance under Walter, who then recommended her to Toscanini for a Salzburg Verdi REQUIEM.

The way that Milanov and the orchestra play off of each other is very special, and her greater comfort allows her to float her pianissimi and expand her long phrases beautifully. She also characterizes the music with more specificity of vocal color and inflection than she exhibited in 1940. The melismatic passages at the end of ‘Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa’ are a master class in Verdi singing. Her singing of Amelia’s other great aria, ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’, is also more secure and beautiful here.

Jan Peerce was, to be sure, no Björling. His long Metropolitan Opera career, 1941 - 1968, was a testament to his reliability and to the even, secure sound he produced in a wide range of repertoire. He is a strong partner to Milanov in the ecstatic Riccardo-Amelia second-act duet, but the difference between the good and the great is apparent as we hear them together. Peerce was never imaginative in the area of vocal shading, and he tends to spend much of his time in the dynamic range between mezzo forte and fortissimo. He even sings Riccardo’s dying phrases at that dynamic level.

Additionally, he has a tendency to lunge at the music rather than spin a line. For instance, at Riccardo’s ‘O qual soave brividi’, in that duet Peerce sharply articulates virtually every note in the phrase. When Milanov responds with ‘Ahi! sul funero letto’ in the same passage, she spins a long line. However, Peerce’s voice is an instrument of importance. The timbre is distinctive, pitch and rhythm are always secure, and his vocal production remained secure and strong not only through his long Met career but even after. During his time at the Met the first tier of tenors included Björling, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, di Stefano, Tucker, and Corelli (can you imagine such a time?), but Peerce was very high in the second tier, and his presence in this performance is certainly an asset. There is also one key aspect where he is actually preferable to Björling, namely in the great third-act aria, ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti’, which Peerce sings, unlike Björling’s inexplicable omission in 1940.

When it comes to the baritones portraying Renato, the competition is not even close. The gruff Alexander Sved in the 1940 performance was clumsy in his phrasing, and his voice, although powerful, was grainy. Leonard Warren had been singing at the Met since 1939, and by 1944 he was on a career arc as one of the truly great Verdi baritones in the middle portion of the 20th century. He had a voice of great size and richness, but he could also tone it down to a whisper. Musically Warren had an innate sense of how to shape Verdi’s lines, and he was a very intelligent vocal actor.

Here he shades and inflects the words remarkably well for a non-Italian and brings a real face to the character. Warren never made a commercial recording of this role, so his appearance here is an important addition to his discography. (He reprised his Renato on a 1947 Met broadcast but had to put up with Daniza Ilitsch’s squally Amelia.)

The other main character is Ulrica, one of Verdi’s great mezzo roles. Bruna Castagna was electric in the 1940 broadcast. Kerstin Thorborg is, like Warren, surprisingly idiomatic for a nonItalian, and she brings an even richer voice than Castagna’s to the role. Thorborg and Walter had worked together in Vienna, including an historic live recording of Mahler’s DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, which doubtlessly helped their partnership in this BALLO. Ulrica’s great scene is a dramatic high point, and there is something almost possessed about how Thorborg carries it off, particularly in her interaction with the orchestra.

Frances Greer is a vivacious Oscar, with a much better trill than her 1940 counterpart, Stella Andreeva. Greer also brings a crisp rhythmic spark to her portrayal. The rest of the cast is fine as well.

There is a fabulous bonus. In 1947 Walter led an all-Wagner concert at the Hollywood Bowl, from which Immortal Performances gives us the ‘Liebestod’ from TRISTAN UND ISOLDE and Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG. Helen Traubel’s shimmering voice caresses Wagner’s music, and Walter supports her beautifully. There are a few top notes in the Immolation Scene that sound a bit hard-pressed, but Traubel was a great Wagnerian soprano, and the combination of her and Walter is to be treasured.

This release is one of the major achievements of Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances. While it does require a listener with a tolerance for historical sound, I cannot imagine anyone interested in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA or in Bruno Walter who would not want to add this to their collection.

As is the norm for the label, the 48-page booklet is its own treasure, with Altena’s program notes, informative recording notes by Caniell, a detailed plot synopsis, bios of the major artists, and wonderful production photos.

Five Stars: A truly great performance, with much-improved sonics.”

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March / April, 2021

“The regimes of Metropolitan Opera General Managers Edward Johnson and Rudolf Bing were rich and storied, blessed with great performances by the finest artists of the time. But to some degree, those years were also ones of missed opportunities. For various reasons, Johnson and Bing frequently pigeonholed artists into particular repertoire, depriving Met audiences of experiencing the full range of the musicians’ artistry. For example, Lauritz Melchior was never allowed to sing Verdi’s Otello in a complete performance on the Met stage. The same is true for Giovanni Martinelli and Wagner’s Tristan. These artists performed the roles at other major opera houses, but not the Met. Great conductors were not spared from this myopic approach. Despite Bruno Walter’s deep and varied operatic repertoire, and his desire to explore that range at the Met, his performances focused primarily on Mozart and Beethoven, with a few exceptions. In his superb liner notes for a new Immortal Performances release of a January 15, 1944 Met broadcast of Verdi’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA led by Walter, James Altena recounts that among the German conductor’s 119 Metropolitan Opera appearances, 77 were collectively devoted to Beethoven’s FIDELIO and Mozart’s LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, DON GIOVANNI, and DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE. With regard to 19th century Italian repertoire, Walter, in addition to the aforementioned BALLO, also led Met performances of Verdi’s LA FORZA DEL DESTINO and MESSA DI REQUIEM. There are Met broadcasts of the two Verdi operas Walter conducted there; the January 15, 1944 BALLO and a January 23, 1943 FORZA. Of the two, the BALLO provides the greatest musical interest and satisfaction. It is wonderful to hear Walter’s way with LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, but the cast is a variable one (Stella Roman, Frederick Jagel, Irra Petina, a past-his-prime Lawrence Tibbett, Ezio Pinza, and Salvatore Baccaloni). As I’ll discuss, the 1944 BALLO has a superb cast, brilliantly led by Walter. However, the source discs for the broadcast, a private, off-the-air recording, contain many flaws, including omissions of some music, pitch fluctuations, cramped and sometimes distorted sonics, and the recordist’s modulation of dynamic levels. Richard Caniell has done a superb job of addressing all of these shortcomings. The result is the finest reproduction of this broadcast I’ve heard to date. The recording is not equal to commercial discs of the time, or even to the finest broadcasts. But thanks to Richard Caniell and IP, we are finally able to appreciate fully the beauties and subtleties of this performance, including the marvelous vocal and instrumental colors Walter inspires from his artists.

Walter’s interpretation of UN BALLO IN MASCHERA is remarkably imaginative, one that demonstrates the keenest understanding of Verdi’s musical voice and the drama it serves. I’ll cite one of innumerable examples as illustration. In the opera’s first scene, Renato, Secretary to Riccardo, the Governor of Boston, sings the aria ‘Alla vita che t’arride’. It is Renato’s heartfelt reminder of how so many lives are bound to Riccardo and his safety. This is the lead baritone’s first solo in the opera, and many singers use the aria as a sort of warmup or muscle-flexer, performing it in a straight ahead, metronomic fashion. But in the 1944 broadcast, the great baritone Leonard Warren, sympathetically and fully supported Walter, employs a masterful application of rubato, and a vast array of dynamics and vocal colors. It is a glorious rendition, the product of two great artists, in complete sympathy with each other. Immediately following the aria, Oscar, Riccardo’s Page, enters and announces the appearance of the Chief Justice (‘Il primo giudice’). Riccardo tells Oscar to let the Justice approach (‘S’avanzi’). In a typical performance, this exchange is conducted in strict time, with Riccardo’s line following hard upon Oscar’s announcement. But in the 1944 broadcast, Jan Peerce as Riccardo hesitates momentarily before his forceful declamation of ‘S’avanzi’. The point is clear; Riccardo, greatly moved by Renato’s plea, finally recovers his senses and need to be a strong leader. These kinds of individual and imaginative touches appear time and again throughout the broadcast. They are aligned throughout with the rich and glowing sound, precision of execution, and compelling energy Walter inspires from the Met Orchestra.

We are fortunate that Walter’s magnificent interpretation is a collaboration with a firstrate team of vocal soloists. Tenor Jan Peerce was also the Riccardo in the 1954 NBC broadcast performances of BALLO, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and issued as a recording by RCA. Peerce is quite fine in the later performance. But in the 1944 broadcast, Peerce is in richer and freer voice. Walter’s more flexible approach gives Peerce greater opportunity to explore Riccardo’s three-dimensional character; a warm and caring political leader, a lover, and a man of considerable humor. Peerce’s clear and incisive diction is also a plus, although his tendency to fashion diphthongs on open vowels at the end of words is a bit grating. All told, Peerce is an excellent Riccardo, no small achievement in one of Verdi’s most challenging lead tenor roles. As Amelia, Zinka Milanov is in radiant form, her rich and silvery soprano voice easily surmounting Verdi’s challenging music, all the way to blazing top Cs (Peerce does not join her in this note at the conclusion of their great Act II love duet). At her best, Milanov was not just a stunning vocalist, but a supremely committed actress. Here, she throws herself completely into the role, conveying Amelia’s desperation and sorrow in heartbreaking fashion. Leonard Warren is also in prime form, which is to say that of one of the greatest Verdi baritones on records. Warren sings Renato’s music with breathtaking technical ease, all the while aligned to an interpretation of the utmost conviction and subtlety. As with ‘Alla vita’, Act III’s ‘Eri tu’ is a highlight of the performance, a rendition that embodies Shakespearean dimensions of intensity and variety of expression. Kerstin Thorborg’s grand and rich voice, pungent declamation, and imposing demeanor make the most out of the fortuneteller Ulrica’s relatively brief appearance. Frances Greer is a fine Oscar, in clear and attractive voice, and fully embracing the Page’s lighthearted character. Norman Cordon and Nicola Moscona are appropriately menacing and sonorous as the pair of conspirators, Sam and Tom. All told, this is a very individual and superbly executed account of one of Verdi’s finest middle period operas. As such it is not only essential listening for fans of Bruno Walter, but for anyone interested in the work.

As a welcome bonus, IP includes Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ and Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. These are taken from a July 8, 1947 all-Wagner concert at the Hollywood Bowl, with soprano Helen Traubel, and Walter conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Here, Traubel provides the primary interest. Traubel is in stunning form, her voice rich and secure from top to bottom, and she sings with a spine-tingling intensity and abandon. Walter’s pacing is exceptionally alert and dramatic. But as the recorded balance favors the soprano, Traubel’s contribution provides the greater interest. This becomes even more evident in the orchestral postlude to the Immolation Scene, taken from Walter’s 1952 performance with the NY Phil (the Hollywood Bowl concert featured an abrupt, truncated conclusion). Here, Walter elicits playing of arresting grandeur and power. All in all, the Traubel excerpts are a fine addition to this compelling release. James Altena’s liner notes offer impressive and engaging history and analysis regarding Walter, his operatic experience, Met career, and the included performances (along with a detailed comparison of the 1944 BALLO with a prior and celebrated 1940 broadcast starring Jussi Björling [OP2865]). The booklet also includes a detailed plot synopsis for BALLO, Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes, and artist bios. Thanks to IP, we are able to hear Bruno Walter at the height of his powers and in the service of Verdi, at long last in recorded sound that does this priceless document justice. Recommended to all who love this conductor and composer. 5 Stars: Walter’s majestic 1944 Met BALLO beautifully restored by Immortal Performances.”

- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, March / April, 2021