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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The classic (1952) EMI recording now arrives as one of EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’, given a miraculous new transfer which, while not bringing stereo, gives a clear and refined yet full sound to voices and orchestra alike. With texts included, this can now rank alongside the finest of the stereo versions, and EMI have added as a bonus Flagstad’s earlier (1948) recording of Dido’s Lament. The recording also emerges with striking freshness in Mark Obert-Thorn’s new Naxos transfer, if not sound quite as fine as in the latest EMI remastering. Flagstad’s magnificent portrayal of Dido ranks alongside that of Janet Baker, and she scales her voice down superbly in her noble reading which brings beautiful shading and masterly control of breath and tone, so that the famous Lament touches the listener deeply. Schwarzkopf is brightly characterful as Belinda, and though Thomas Hemsley is not ideally sweet-toned as Aeneas, he sings very intelligently; even in this age of period performance, this traditional account under Geraint Evans sounds lively and fresh and not at all heavy. For a bonus we are offered three extra items from Flagstad: her earlier (1948) recording of Dido’s Lament, Handel’s Ombra mai fu and Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion. This must be recommended alongside the EMI version, for it is more than worth its modest cost.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2007

Under the watchful eye of Geraint Jones, the period expert of his day, two famous sopranos, Kirsten Flagstad and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, were brought together in March 1952 in London's Abbey Road studios to record Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in the version held in the Library of St. Michael's College, Tenbury. It followed some highly publicised performances that Flagstad made at London's recently created Elizabethan playhouse, the Mermaid Theatre. Our understanding of period style has come a long way since then, and many will look back at this early effort with an indulgent smile, the well padded sound of violins, singers sliding up to notes as a performing practice being just a few of the anachronisms, though at least it offered a harpsichord among the accompanying instruments, a rare enough attribute at that time. The part of Dido did not sit all that comfortably on Flagstad's voice at this late stage in her career, the top notes in the famous When I am laid in earth sounding stressed and pinched. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was not included in that stage version, but was brought specially into this recording, with the bizarre result that singing the double role of Belinda and the Second Lady involves taking both parts in one air. Arda Mandikian's Sorcerer was much over characterised and more akin to a pantomime witch, while baritone,Thomas Hemsley, is no more than adequate as Aeneas. The chorus was well-rehearsed, the playing neat, and Jones's tempos nicely urgent. It is a timely reminder of the stepping stones we have taken in reaching what we believe is today's informed view of Purcell. As a bonus we have Flagstad in Erbarme dich, mein Gott, from Bach's St.Matthew Passion, Ombra mai fu from Handel's Serse and a 1948 version of When I am laid in earth which sounds just as strained as in this complete Dido. The original sound of the opera was always rather boxy, this transfer doing everything possible to rejuvenate it.

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