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CD Review

The Very Best

The Very Best Of Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills, soprano
Various accompaniments
EMI Classics 5 86317 2 ADD 2CDs: 76:28, 77:26
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The Very Best Of Thomas Hampson

Thomas Hampson, baritone
Various accompaniments
EMI Classics 5 86332 2 DDD 2CDs: 77:26, 78:06
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The philosophy behind a "greatest hits" compilation is that it will (1) encourage you to buy a recording by an artist whose work you are relatively unfamiliar with, (2) encourage you go to out and buy at least some of the complete recordings excerpted therein, or (3) both (1) and (2). These "Very Best of" collections, priced very reasonably by EMI Classics, succeed on all counts.

The many admirers of Beverly Sills, myself included, had to wait a good long time for the bulk of her recordings to become generally available on CD. Fortunately, the situation has greatly improved in the past several years, and there are few Sills recordings that have not been reissued. Many of these have turned up on Deutsche Grammophon. The present compilation from EMI Classics is a good complement to two (!) collections from DG in that nothing has been duplicated, apart from the end of Act One from La traviata. These excerpts all come from complete recordings that "Bubbles" made in the 1970s. Rather than taking a bits and pieces approach, EMI Classics has given us generous excerpts from Barbiere, Rigoletto, Don Pasquale, and La traviata, and so we are given a very definite idea of Sills's interpretation of each of these roles. For example, we hear how she treats Rosina (Barbiere) and Norina (Don Pasquale) as intelligent soubrettes – she squeals and giggles her way through both roles delightfully. (Of course her Rosina is done as a soprano role, with all the upward extensions.) Her skills as a tragedienne come forward in Rigoletto and even more so in La traviata, where she is an unforgettably poignant Violetta. It's also good to have an extended excerpt of her Pamira from Rossini's L'assedio di Corinto, the role in which she made her long-delayed debut at the Metropolitan Opera. These recordings were made somewhat late in her career, and she is not as secure as she was in her absolute prime, but no one who loves Sills will be disappointed. She is joined by some very capable colleagues throughout, including Nicolaï Gedda in Barbiere and La traviata (also a little past his prime), Sherrill Milnes (Barbiere and Rigoletto), and Alfredo Kraus (Rigoletto and Don Pasquale).

In compiling their collection devoted to baritone Thomas Hampson, EMI Classics has taken an almost completely different approach. Very few of the selections come from complete recordings – most come from live or studio recitals. Hampson's winning personality is allowed to work in his favor. For example, the collection begins with Figaro's "Largo al factotum" from Barbiere, but instead of taking it from their complete recording, EMI Classics has used a live recording that Hampson made in New York City. As he would do onstage, Hampson begins singing his "La ran la lera"s offstage on this occasion, much to the audible amusement of the audience. Good thinking! Also good thinking was EMI Classics' decision to take advantage of Hampson's willingness to involve himself with unusual projects. Therefore, we get not only excerpts from the French version of Verdi's Don Carlos, but also from Le Trouvère (Il trovatore). Also included is a rarely heard aria ("Ove son io?… Vada in fiamme") from the 1847 version of Macbeth. Less clever, to my thinking, was the decision to include excerpts from song cycles that really should not be excerpted: Schumann's Dichterliebe, Schubert's Winterreise, and – most painfully – Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. (This version of "Von der Schönheit" is from the Rattle recording, where the songs usually sung by an alto are sung by a baritone – an alternative approved but not necessarily encouraged by the composer.) More than the Sills compilation, however, The Very Best of Thomas Hampson gives us a good feeling for the singer's breadth, if not for his depth. (And it doesn't even include any of his numerous recordings of works from the American musical theater!)

No new digital remasterings have been done for these releases, but the transfers are up to current standards. (Having recently reissued her Barbiere in their dirt-cheap "Gemini" line, perhaps EMI Classics do the same for the other Sills recordings excerpted here.) There are no texts and translations either; this is more of a problem for the Hampson compilation than for the Sills. Never mind, though, because both of these releases are extremely enjoyable, and are within almost any collector's price range.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle