Puccini: La bohème

Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni; Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (Decca 478 0254)

28 October 2008 4 stars

PavarottiMirella Freni and the late Luciano Pavarotti were the dream team for La bohème for years, and for many this recording of the Puccini warhorse is the ideal way to sample the work.

With voices this ravishing, it's not difficult to understand why. Such sheer beauty has rarely been matched, and with two Italian singers in their vocal prime singing with the utmost commitment and understanding, it's a pleasure from start to finish.

The really marvellous thing about both performers is that they aren't just interested in the showcase moments – 'Che gelida manina', 'Si. Mi chiamano Mimi', 'O soave fanciualla', 'Donde lieta' and so on (though these are all performed with an astounding purity of line and sense of style) - they're just as alert in the conversational parts, the scenas, the ensembles.

This reissue does not miss the opportunity to remind us that the recording has been acclaimed as 'one of the greatest opera recordings of all time', and well-deserved, unstinting praise has certainly been granted to the account in many quarters. However, for me this is not quite a perfect reading of the piece, especially where the conducting is concerned, and even the singing is not the total perfection that it is often claimed to be.

To my ears, Freni easily takes the honours here, because although there are parts where she sounds like she could be in danger of being taxed slightly beyond her limits, the interpretation of the character is more engaging than Pavarotti's take on Rodolfo; she's purely enchanting. As is sometimes the case with the great tenor, I find that his amazing vocal powers and incredibly natural sound come at the expense of the final ounce of musicality. The first-act aria is sung with gorgeous tone, yet I sense a little tension in the voice that mars both the precision and the line.

However, I'm inclined to lay some of the blame for that at the door of Herbert von Karajan, whose rather broad conducting results in uneven co-ordination between singers and orchestra in all four acts, though it almost seems like heresy to criticise so esteemed a recording. While it's luxury to have the Berlin Philharmonic let loose on this score, there's something very studio-bound about the whole thing; I have a live recording of Pavarotti and Freni doing the opera on the stage, and I must confess I prefer it. The vigour with which the Berliners attack the beginning of the opera and their emotional violence during the final bars is wonderful to hear, but elsewhere their playing feels less than Italian and almost symphonic – souped up, even. Karajan's pacing of Musetta's aria and the music that follows it, for instance, is wayward to my ears, and Elizabeth Harwood's rendition of the number is not as alluring as it could be. Where virtuosity and quality are wanted, the Berlin Phil is perfect: the blasts at the end of the second act are thrilling, and the loud tutti throughout are consistently exciting; for me, it's just the shaping of the solo vocal passages that is wanting.

Decca have cleaned up the recording for this anniversary release, and it sounds wonderfully fresh. At the same time, this does tend to emphasise the fact that the singers were standing in a static position in front of their microphones, and for me Pavarotti just doesn't sound like he's making love to Freni; the force, style and panache are unmatchable, but I've heard him sound more tender and engaged with the words on other recordings. As noted, Harwood's Musetta is not quite as dominating and flirtatious as she needs to be; her vocal performance is more than adequate, but I prefer Anna Moffo in the part. Rolando Panerai's Marcello is almost without fault, and Nicolai Ghiaurov's Colline plays a vital part in the success of the performances of the outer acts, but the other small roles are played by relatively unexceptional singers.

The reissue comes with a bonus disc featuring an interview with Freni by Catherine Bott, who draws from her a charming and interesting conversation about her relationship with Karajan. The recording has been remastered in 96kHz 24-bit sound, and the presentation is exceptional: the discs are housed in the outer boards of a CD-sized book, with the libretto held in the middle. These features make the reissue an ideal way to experience so classic a recording if you've not already got it in your collection, and it remains a benchmark of its type. Nevertheless, it's not perfect, and the presentation and enhanced sound quality of this particular issue are certainly not reason enough to duplicate it if you already have the previous standard format.

By Dominic McHugh