He's been called the greatest Italian tenor of the past 50 years, and with good reason. And if you have previously fought shy of Luciano Pavarotti on CD and don't fancy stocking up on the numerous complete opera recordings available, then Decca's carefully compiled The Pavarotti Edition should fit the bill perfectly.
The 10 well-filled discs (their average playing time is 77 minutes) open with Donizetti before taking in two volumes of Verdi and one-and-a-half of Puccini. They also include baroque arias, mixed arias, and Italian and Neapolitan songs. Buy the set complete and you'll get a bonus in the form of a reproduction vinyl "extended play", or EP – you even get some slightly discoloured lamination – of Pavarotti's first recording. The CD of the record (Puccini, Verdi) is tucked inside the booklet casing, and the voice, though strikingly youthful on this piece, is easily recognisable as the one that dominates the rest of this handsome and, in so many respects, epoch-making collection.
And yet, in a way, DG's collection of Verdi tenor arias with Placido Domingo is even more remarkable, and not only because it includes over one-and-a-half hours' worth of brand new recordings (music from Aroldo, Attila, Un giorno di regno, and so on). Universal has been enterprising enough to trawl beyond their own archives to the catalogues of Sony, BMG and EMI. What they give us, in fact, is a synoptic survey of Verdi's writing for the tenor voice, sung with consistent nobility, authoritatively conducted (by some of the leading Verdi maestros of the stereo era) and superbly presented.
Personally speaking, I love the idea of taking in whole areas of recorded repertoire that I had previously avoided either through lack of funds, or because the time needed to sort the chaff from the wheat has not been available. In the case of Gilbert and Sullivan this problem is neatly solved by a presentation of the entire canon of Savoy operas in the one 16-disc, super-budget set.
With good "Sixties" stereo sound, strong musical direction from Sir Malcolm Sargent and some wonderful singers – including April Cantelo, Elizabeth Harwood, Heather Harper, Elsie Morison, George Baker, Richard Lewis, Owen Brannigan and many others – this must surely be the definitive Gilbert and Sullivan starter pack. But that's not all. EMI additionally throws in the Overtures In Memoriam and Di Ballo, the Irish Symphony and the Cello Concerto (with Julian Lloyd Webber).
Staying among national favourites but moving nearer the festive season, Universal have reissued a wayward but riveting 1958 stereo recording of Handel's Messiah that alternates some of the slowest and fastest tempos that this Christmas perennial has ever sustained. Which means that, while the German-born conductor Hermann Scherchen just about pips the period-instrument Marc Minkowski (DG Archiv 471 341-2) to the post in "For Unto Us", he then goes on to halve Minkowski's tempo for the closing "Amen" chorus.
Indeed, Scherchen's Messiah plays for well over three hours, compared with Minkowski's two. But the pay-off – aside from the sheer novelty of those speeds – comes with some truly wonderful singing. Pierrette Alarie, Nan Merriman, Léopold Simoneau and Richard Standen join the variable forces of the Vienna Academy Choir and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra for a performance that, if nothing else, fits beautiful voices into a decidedly unusual interpretative context. It's nicely packaged, too, as part of Universal's recently launched – and much welcome – mid-priced "Westminster" series.
The Pavarotti Edition, Decca 470 000 2 (10 discs, plus short-play bonus)
Verdi: the tenor arias, Placido Domingo, DG 471 335-2 (four discs)
Gilbert and Sullivan, Savoy Operas etc, Sir Malcolm Sargent etc, EMI Classics CZS5 74468 2 (16 discs)
Handel Messiah Pierrette Alarie, Nan Merriman, Léopold Simoneau, Richard Standen, Vienna Academy Choir, Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen, Westminster 471 232-2 (three discs)Reuse content