Pavarotti and us

John Steane Sat 5th August 2017

John Steane surveys the recorded career of Luciano Pavarotti through the pages of Gramophone (October 1997)

Luciano Pavarotti as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon (photo: Decca/Erio Piccagliani/Archivio Fotografico, Teatro alla Scala)

Luciano Pavarotti as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon (photo: Decca/Erio Piccagliani/Archivio Fotografico, Teatro alla Scala)

'The voice is firm, unstrained, even lustrous. He is not exactly a delicate or imaginative artist, but he is not a brute.' In these terms And rew Porter welcomed Pavarotti's presence in the cast of Beatrice di Tenda (9/67): 'distinctly good,' he thought, adding 'as tenors go today'. His qualities were not such as to attract the special attention of Desmond Shawe-Taylor, whose ' Quarterly retrospect' (1/68) merely observed that 'Luciano Pavarotti does well as the tenor hero'. Then later that year (10/68) came the Verdi Requiem, in which Alec Robertson preferred Nicolai Gedda ('even if his sheer vocal power is less than Pavarotti's'): and the following March brought an operatic recital containing an aria from Donizetti's Dom Sebastien, in which AP preferred Caruso. Very shortly after this another new name appeared in the record-lists, and reviewing his record (6/69) AP made the first of many comparisons: 'My feeling is that Domingo is somewhat the more interesting artist, and that Pavarotti makes a somewhat more beautiful sound'. Drawing the threads together in his Retrospect (7/69), DS-T concluded that 'the art of the Italian tenor, which had lately seemed to be in the doldrums, is certainly looking up'. 

That, essentially, is where it all began, this remarkable development of talents that in their own spheres (often meeting, sometimes diverging quite sharply) became so central to the output of the record industry over the next 30 years. Domingo's merits were acknowledged from the first; Pavarotti's were of the kind that critics were apt to approach with caution. It was as well then that his next opera was La fille du régiment. DS-T, in that same ' Quarterly retrospect', referred to him as 'the delightful Tonio of Covent Garden's Fille' (he loathed the tomfoolery of the production and, characteristically, found Sutherland's hearty humour embarrassing). The famous solo in Act 2 ('Ah, mes amis') he listed, as well he might, among the best things in the recording, and turning to the recital record found much to admire, including the 'real differentiation of dynamics and feeling for words' in the solo from Act 4 of Un ballo in maschera. He liked too the 'taste and charm' of Pavarotti's singing in the complete L'amico Fritz (10/69), and admired the ring of his voice as the Italian tenor in Der Rosenkavalier (Retrospect, 1/70) even though it was exercised 'at a pitch of loudness that would never have been tolerated at an 18th-century levée'. 

Over the next years, as success turned to fame and fame to popularity, the critics stiffened a little, declining to be swept away, insisting on the presence of distinct limitations and yet at the same time recognizing merits that extended well beyond the gift of a splendid voice. Of his first Un ballo in maschera, that curiously ill-matched recording with Bruno Bartoletti conducting and Renata Tebaldi as Amelia (4/71), AP wrote that Pavarotti 'sings through it all most agreeably; nothing is in bad taste, nothing is forced or strained', yet 'he touches no more than the surface of this marvellous role' and, in conclusion, 'we seem to have a fine Riccardo in the making, who needs more imaginative coaching in the role'. Alan Blyth struck a similar balance in his comments on another recital record that same month, and AP, analysing in more detail Macduffs solo in the complete Macbeth (9/71), noted that the score's markings which specified only a single forte went for little, as did the modulation to the D flat passage, pianissimo. Edward Greenfield too expressed reservations: in L'elisir d'amore (11/71) the 'phrasing and tone-colour always illuminate the words' but in both of the principal solos the legato was 'not immaculate', and in Lucia di Lammermoor (5/72), despite a 'transformation' in the last scene, he seemed 'for much of the time...reluctant to shade his voice down'. Rigoletto (5/73) marked an advance: 'a special flair with line and characterful vocalising' (EG) and 'Pavarotti gets better and better...excellent both in the long recit that begins Act 2 and in 'La donna è mobile' besides leading a first-rate account of the Quartet' (DS-T). 

It was with the Puccini operas that he earned his warmest reviews in Gramophone up to this date. Indeed, listening many years later to a reissue of La bohème, MEO (11/87) reflected that it was 'probably the best thing he has ever done'. Welcoming the whole performance on its release in April 1973, EG wrote of the spontaneity 'glowingly taken up by Luciano Pavarotti who here gives what is probably his finest performance yet on record'. His single regret was the unison in place of the harmonized ending to Act 1, but the emotions ran deep and the characterization was complete. The Turandot, he felt (9/73), 'set the seal on his expanded reputation'. The tone here was 'tougher, more incisive', and yet 'il mio nome nessun sapra' sounded 'charmingly confidential'. As for the Madama Butterfly (11/74), here, said EG, was a totally credible Pinkerton, 'a far more engaging fellow than is common' and so vivid that 'you actually believe that he is genuine when he sings 'Io son viI', the horror of realization upon him' . 

Pavarotti's next role on record was a very different one, and another critic greeted him with comparable enthusiasm. Reviewing I puritani in July 1975, RO wrote: 'The glory of the new set is Pavarotti 's Arturo...The bel canto style is finely accommodated with sweet ringing tone, deft fioritura...and firm, beautifully moulded lines'. The present writer (hereafter impersonalized by initials) had by then inherited from DS-T the retrospective 'Gramophone and the Voice' series and shared RO's plea sure in the performance up to a point. Comparing Pavarotti's singing of 'A te, o cara' with that of Alessandro Bonci and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, he concluded that the difference lay not so much in technique as in style, particularly in the attention which the earlier tenors paid to 'the play of light and shade, the little lingerings and diminuendos'. Similarly in Luisa Miller (5/76) JBS found Pavarotti's performance as Rodolfo 'intense and creative ', and yet comparisons, this time with Carlo Bergonzi, again brought some dissatisfaction, but now with both style and voice. 

By this time heavier roles were in sight. In an interview with AB (7/76) Pavarotti spoke of his first Manrico in Il trovatore. There was a real gratification, he said ('You don't find one tenor in the world who is not happy after singing Trovatore'). Nor was it such a terribly difficult role (far less so, for instance, than Arturo). It was, however, a fearsome test of stamina: before the 'Di quella pira ' Manrico has already had a lot to sing, and 'Well, I made the top C but I was really to the limit'. The next station along this line, of course, would be Aida, and 'I scare myself when I think about that'. He remarked that Jussi Björling had sung both Manrico and Radames, and that his voice, a Iirico-spinto rather than a robusto or eroico, was somewhat similar in kind. 'Now you've guessed my secret desire to do that part', he concluded. 

The next major role on record (Leicester in Maria Stuarda, 'ripely satisfying' in EG's opinion, came between) was indeed Manrico (10/77). Here EG became less enthusiastic, picking intrusive 'h's out of the "pira" and preferring Domingo in "Ai nostri monti". For JBS too the great achievement of this period lay not so much in the Trovatore as in the return to Donizetti with La favorita. In fact the Quarterly of October 1978 contained a veritable eulogy: 'Among the singers of our day, Pavarotti is not just remarkable; he is phenomenal'. The voice 'shines through the concentration of tone without any admixture of breathiness or scratch. In La favorita he sings with a grace he did not command in his recording of I puritani and his "Spirto gentil" has just the kind of poise and poetry that his "A te, o cara" lacked.' 

The foretold progression continued, not directly from Trovatore to Aida but with Pagliacci and William Tell preparing the way. The Pagliacci (4/79) was coupled with Cavalleria rusticana, and neither was entirely to the liking of EG: 'more than in most of his previous recordings Pavarotti has begun to fall into the bad habit of singing loud too consistently'. His Arnold in Tell (1/81) appeared to RO as 'a mixed blessing', the voice 'full of splendour, now trumpet-toned, now honey-sweet' yet often carelessly used. 'O muto asil' particularly wanted 'subtler shades and half-tones': there was nothing here to match the poetic touch of Tamagno's soft G in bar 3. JBS agreed, marvelling nevertheless at the ease of the high notes in company with the lower register's amplitude: 'there is a true heroic quality which makes him suit this role as very few singers in its history can have done'. In between had come a Petite messe solennelle of Rossini (3/80) in which AB found him 'unwontedly gritty' and a Tosca (5/80) with a 'loud and uningratiating' 'Recondita armonia' but a 'ravishing' 'O dolci mani' (EG). In that month Pavarotti also appeared for the first time on Gramophone's cover, with a broad smile, a bright red jumper and a suggestion of the painter Cavaradossi about his beret and Sunday-afternoon oils. 

If a low point was reached in Pavarotti's critical acclaim it was probably about now. The warning note was sounded in AB's review of his part in the Donizetti Requiem and Rossini's Mass (4/81): 'the present climate of near-worship surrounding anything concerned with Pavarotti' is the phrase of a critic to whom enough has become more-than-enough. EG liked his Alfredo in La traviata (4/81) but appreciated that some would find him overemphatic. The Gioconda (12/81) had its impressive moments, the conductor (Bartoletti) 'allowing him latitude to spin out a phrase at will'. But AB thought poorly of his part in La sonnambula (4/82), and whatever 'his many followers' may be prepared to accept, 'the youthful, somewhat shy and impressionable Elvino of Bellini's intentions ' was not to be found. In his place there stood 'a star tenor in just another role'. 

Perhaps it is worth recalling at this point that Domingo also went through a period when for one reason or another his work on record forfeited critical interest. Maybe the middle period naturally tends towards dullness; perhaps it is the critical perception that has dulled; possibly the fame itself is boring. It could also be that while a certain air of routine settles upon the public performances the really creative activity is taking place behind the scenes preparing for the next phase. The complete opera sets continued to appear, though less frequently now. None came up for review in 1983, but then in 1984 we had Mefistofele in the February and Andrea Chénier in November. AB reviewed both. 'The ardour and ecstasy of Faust's passions and poetry' impressed him in the first, and in Chenier, though he ' tends to rasp hi s way through the Improvviso' he then 'improves no end'. September 1985 brought his second recording of Un vallo in maschera, with what has 'always been one of Pavarotti's happiest roles'. AB especially admired the way in which he 'just suggests the famous ridi at the start of the quintet without having to add anything to the vocal line'. Nothing then till November 1987, with a new Verdi Requiem under Muti ('more individual and subtle in utterance...than for Solti', AB). 1988 filled one relatively minor gap in the recorded repertoire with a Pollione in Norma, passed by JBS as 'cleancut and vigorous', and then a major and totally unexpected one in Idomeneo (4/88). The review of this went to HF who disliked the performance as a whole ('Iongwindedness is its hallmark') and, though finding Pavarotti 'deeply committed ', thought him somehow 'outside the scale of the work while bringing no more thrills to "Fuor del mar" than are provided by either George Shirley or Werner Hollweg'. The 'Quarterly retrospect' of July balanced this with a more favourable account: 'At a time when the better part of his reputation is not in best repair, a genuine artistic effort like this deserves recognition: the performance is a fine one irrespective of background, and I cannot think of a precedent on record for a popular Italian tenor achieving genuine artistic distinction in Mozart'. 

Curiously, the critical positions were reversed over the Rigoletto which followed at the beginning of 1990. The April Quarterly Retrospect described Pavarotti's Duke in this as 'overwhelmingly ebullient...a manic character, emphasizing, energizing, heightening the contrasts, minimizing the easy race of his melodies, a man in a hurry and all with tiring insistence on being the life and soul of the party'. AB , the original reviewer (1/90), found the portrayal 'delightfully airy and confident' and, all in all, 'the best reason for acquiring this set'. 

And then came the long-expected Aida (5/90). Here there reigned pretty general agreement. Pavarotti 'combines elegance and fire' (AB) and (JBS, 10/90) 'he also acts with his voice (the cry of "Fuggiam!" for instance is as vivid as if he had added "The very idea of it!")'. 

L 'elisir d'amore (2/91) produced 'a genuine characterization...well integrated into the performance as a whole' (JBS), and came as a prelude to the still more keenly anticipated Otello (11/91). 'Forget the hype,' wrote AB, 'forget the larger-than-life figure of outdoor events, listen to the sincere and serious musician.' Like Giovanni Martinelli in the role, he 'achieves the illusion of power through the focus of his tone, its incisive quality and, above all  by his precise attention to note and word values...Whether in authority, joy, or despair, this Otello is superbly articulate and moving.'

The conditions of that Otello were described by the singer in an interview with Nicolas Soames (11/91), and the December issue carried a tribute by the MP Gerald Kaufman, who went so far as to declare that 'Pavarotti possesses the most beautiful tenor voice in the world, perhaps the most beautiful tenor voice there has ever been'. I daresay that in ordinary circumstances we might all have had something to say about that, but on this occasion there was no controversy. Pavarotti had been declared Gramophone's Artist of the Year, and it was generally conceded that he deserved it. 

This was probably the climax, the artistic climax at any rate, of his career. Not that the Otello was necessarily 'greater' than the Boheme Rodolfo, but it represented, at that date, the furthest reaches of his endeavour and of his resources, vocal and dramatic. It coincided too with those 'outdoor events' to which the review alluded. Those marginal and even somewhat comical as they may be in the eyes and ears of a musician - nevertheless brought him and his art to a wider fame. The Three Tenors concert of 1990 in the Caracalla Baths at Rome (10/90) became Best-Seller of the Year No 3: 'The Essential Pavarotti ' was No I, with Vivaldi's Seasons in between. The sequels to that first concert, like the so lo events in London's Hyde Park and New York's Central Park, also brought their pleasures and were duly chronicled in Gramophone. The many compilations, including that 'Essential Pavarotti', were not among a reviewer's most cherished commitments, yet they too afforded useful occasions for reassessment, and there were also recitals which deserved their issue and reissue. The programme of songs reviewed in March 1987, for instance, included a performance of Respighi's Nebbie deemed by JBS 'a piece of concentrated, finely modulated, great singing'. 'Pavarotti at Carnegie Hall' (11/89) extended the recorded repertoire with Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets, while a recital with James Levine as accompanist included another surprise, the aria 'Un'aura amorosa' from Così fan tutte (2/92). Programmes shared with other artists, such as the one with Mirella Freni in their home-town, Modena (3/81), were enriched by the evident enthusiasm of the audience. Some even held significance for the future, as when the Love Duet from Otello was sung first with Sutherland (12/77) and then with Ricciarelli (4/80). 

More operas followed, most of them second versions. In La traviata (11/92) AB played 'the innocent ear' and observed the presence of 'a Verdi tenor to be reckoned with'. The concert performance of Pagliacci with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Muti (4/93) incensed JBS to protest at Muti's literalism and 'the vulgarity of over-refinement'. 

The video of a L'elisir d'amore in New York (7/93) seemed to the same reviewer more remarkable for 'geniality of presence' than for stylistic distinction. EG found that in Manon Lescaut (11/93) Pavarotti pointed the 'word meaning with a bright-eyed intensity'. MEO (12/93) preferred his earlier Cavaradossi to the overloud live performance of Tosca at Rome. In a second Trovatore (7/95) AB saluted 'unfailing musicality of line'. In a first Don Carlo, recorded at La Scala in the season of first-night boos, 1992, and an important addition to the discography, RTF found 'joy in hearing Italian words perfectly enunciated on a liquid, flowing line'. 

Since then we have had an interesting anthology called 'Pavarotti: the early years' (10/95), comprising excerpts from performances in Italy during the 1960s, and 'Pavarotti Plus', a Gala evening at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1995. That, incidentally, included the duet 'Invano, Alvaro' from La forza del destino, the opera most conspicuously missing from Pavarotti's recorded repertoire. And it ended with Verdi 's Hymn to the Nations, the demands of which were so heroically confronted by the 60-year-old tenor that JBS was moved to write: 'We can only marvel at the stamina and be grateful that in such a performance this most popular, and so most influential of living opera singers sets so wholesome an example' (2/96). 

Pavarotti has paced himself very carefully, in spite or more probably because of which he has had a massive recording career. It began not quite where we started this survey, in 1967, but a few years before that, almost as inconspicuously as possible. Pavarotti is reported telling of his manager's call to come to London to make some records at 7 o'clock that evening. He arrived to find the Covent Garden orchestra assembled with Sir Edward Downes ready to conduct, and in three hours ('Not enough,' he says) they recorded five arias, 'Che gelida manina', 'E lucevan le stelle' and three from Rigoletto. Pavarotti later had the record withdrawn, and the seven-inch original must now be a collector's piece. Philip Hope-Wallace (11/64) rather liked it. 'He is a pleasant and useful artist,' he wrote, 'still, I would say, in the making.' 

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£67/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018