Warner Classics now holds the key to the Maria Callas official recordings treasure chest. Recently that key was taken out, and the original masters were carefully removed and transferred to computers for high-definition remastering. Carefully is the right word, for just placing the tapes on the machines caused some splicing to come apart at the original edit points. In fact, one of the tasks during this latest remastering was to perfect the edits in a way that was impossible with tape and glue in the '50s and '60s. The earliest discs Callas made for the Italian label Cetra were wax recordings.
Another consideration was to remove ambient noise, such as the Vespas whizzing past the La Scala Opera House or the rumble of the underground trains at the Kingsway Hall in London.
Some surprising decisions from the past have been overturned: for the 1957 Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Kingsway Hall, it was decided that the acoustic was too lively and so it was deadened with giant cloths to produce a more intimate sound. However, during a subsequent remastering, an artificial echo was added. This wrong has now been righted, and the recording has been restored according to the wishes of the conductor and engineers of the time.
Previous remasterings have been of CD quality – 16-bit/44.1 kHz – but now at Abbey Road the recordings have been lovingly transferred at 24-bit/96 kHz, resulting in more high-frequency content and better sound definition. The engineers were not looking to obtain an overclean sound, and certainly not to de-hiss things if it really wasn't necessary, (an accusation against past attempts), but to preserve all the harmonics that the equipment of the time was capable of picking up.
Grammy Award winning producer Andrew Cornall, was assigned to the Callas Remastered project at the Abbey Road Studios. When Robert Gooch, a former sound engineer who worked with Callas on a number of her recordings, heard some of the remastered tracks, he was pleasantly surprised:
I'm amazed, I'm absolutely amazed. My goodness me, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up… It's a revelation. I was practically in tears listening to Casta Diva. It's remarkable. I am absolutely knocked over.
It was in 1953, under the supervision of EMI's legendary producer Walter Legge, that Callas made her first commercial recording for that company, a Lucia di Lammermoor in Florence. Her final complete recording of an opera was made in 1965, which was her second version of Tosca, made in Paris.
The 69-CD deluxe box set contains all the studio recordings that she made for both EMI/Columbia and Cetra between 1949 and 1969 and will be available from September 2014. The 26 complete operas and 13 recital albums contained in the box will also be made available as separate releases.
Collectors wishing to splash out will be pleased to find that Callas Remastered presents each individual opera or recital CD in its original artwork and contains a 136-page hard-back book with essays, a biography and chronology, rarely-seen photos and reproductions of revealing letters written by Callas, Walter Legge and other EMI executives, whereas the opera librettos and aria texts are provided on a CD-ROM. The box set and the individual operas and recitals will be available at mid-price.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.