Although he's in the twilight of his career Sir Thomas Allen shows no signs of slowing down, as this new CD of arias and duets amply proves. Thirteen of the fourteen tracks showcase him in a wide range of Verdi and Mozart roles, with 'September Song' from Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday as a filler at the end.
If there are moments where Allen's baritone seems slightly worn due to the passage of time, his admirably clear diction, potent interpretations and sheer professionalism more than make up for it, and some of the tracks show the artist – one of the greatest of the last half century – at his very best.
The Verdi tracks come off better than the Mozart, on the whole. The absolute highlight is a truly wonderful nineteen-minute extract of the complete Violetta-Germont duet from the second act of La traviata. I can't sing Allen's praises enough here: the voice is in formidable condition and his understanding of the psychological processes of this extensive, loose-form number is impeccable. It helps that in Claire Rutter he has a seasoned, intelligent and refined Violetta; I particularly admire her attention to the details of Verdi's articulation markings. Listening to this extract stirred memories of having seen Allen's Giorgio Germont in a July 1996 revival of the Covent Garden production with Gheorghiu and Alagna, and it would be good to see him reprise the role. Meanwhile, the Rutter-Allen combination seems to demand a complete recording.
Also of interest here is Allen's performance of the Ford monologue from Falstaff, a gut-wrenching account in which one really senses the character's horror at being cuckolded; again, it would be a good part for him in the theatre even today. I hadn't previously associated the singer with Macbeth, but Sir Tom's Shakespearean gravitas is perfect for this poignant aria late in the opera. And if the voice sounds momentarily strained in the Carlo-Posa duet from Don Carlos, the poignancy of his interpretation of Posa's death scene more than makes up for it.
The Mozart is more of a mixed bag. On the plus side, one has to admire the way in which Allen encapsulates the irony of Figaro's first-act aria and the unusual air of wisdom he brings to Leporello's. The two duets involving Papageno from The Magic Flute are also extremely charming, helped by radiant contributions from Susan Gritton as Papagena ( in 'Pa-pa-ge-na Papagena') and Pamina ('A man in search of truth and beauty'). However, The Figaro arias are undermined by a lack of warmth, and Don Giovanni's two solos are too strained to be believably virile. I also don't really understand why Weill's 'September Song' was included amongst a Mozart and Verdi recital, and it doesn't show what the singer is capable of in this lighter repertoire at his best.
Nevertheless, there's much to enjoy here, with stylish accompaniments from David Parry and the Philharmonia, and the Traviata duet is a 'must-hear'.