New Era is the name proudly taken by a classical label now establishing itself in the intensely competitive American and international markets. The name seems to refer to the era of the compact disc, which has given classical recording a surge of energy not seen since the invention of LP records in the late 1940s or stereo sound in the late '50s. This new era is also expanding the tastes of music-lovers, throwing new light on large areas of repertoire and developing mass audiences for special interests, such as nonstandard repertoire and historic instruments, that were once limited to small connoisseur audiences.
Actually, the new label's name is Nuova Era, and one of the things it is doing is destroying old cliches about Italian musical tastes. The label, part of the Nowo group, began modestly in Italy in 1985, with two chief sources of material: live performances of relatively unknown music in Italian opera houses and broadcast recordings from the archives of Italian Radio (RAI). Today, while it is still especially interested in Italian opera and Italian performers, Nuova Era has grown into a highly diversified international label with interesting material by such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Shostakovich as well as operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi and Antonio Salieri. It also has an impressive catalogue of historic performances, a promising series of baroque recordings and some interesting pieces of contemporary music.
Traditionally, the world has looked to Italian record labels for opera and not much else. The cliche that Italians are not interested in abstract music or music by non-Italian composers is still strong despite the work of such conductors as Toscanini, Muti and Abbado, such performers as Pollini and Michelangeli, who have ranked among the world's leading interpreters of the great Central European repertoire.
One release that puts Nuova Era solidly in touch with contemporary music is the premiere recording of "Ecstasy and Nirvana" by the young Italian composer Hubert Stuppner, recorded in Bolzano last year with Stuppner conducting the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (Nuova Era 6881). The music has a strong affinity to the familiar "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," but it uses that music as the point of departure for its own chromatic, slow-paced, sometimes almost motionless excursions and elaborations. For Wagner enthusiasts, the composition's subtitle explains its structure: "King Ludwig's Tristan-Fantasies with death and nirvana overlooking the Starnberg Lake on 13th June 1886." The music is an attempt to explore the mind of Wagner's patron, poor mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, just before his death by drowning (accidental or suicidal? nobody knows).
The "Memories" series issued by Nowo presents broadcast recordings of a wide range of repertoire, including a lot of Central European music that is not usually associated with Italy. Viennese conductor Karl Boehm can be heard, for example, in magnificent performances, ranging in date from 1950 to 1968, with three great orchestras: the RIAS Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic (HR 4159). One item, Richard Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration," is among Boehm's specialties and the quality of his interpretation is hardly a surprise. In Hans Pfitzner's Symphony, Op. 46, and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, the depth and precision of the conductor's vision is less predictable but no less dazzling.
"Death and Transfiguration" is also a highlight in a set of live performances by Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic, dating from the early 1960s (HR 4152/53, two CDs). The repertoire is standard Vienna Philharmonic material, including Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and "Leonore" Overture No. 3, Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 and Schumann's No. 4. The sound is mono and clear but rather drab; the performances have a highly distinctive personality, as convincing as it is individual. There is also strong personality in two Bach interpretations by that magnificent eccentric Hermann Scherchen: the Magnificat and Cantata 106, in live performances with the RAI Orchestra (HR 4160). These should not be the only performances of these works one hears, but in their romantic, operatic style they give Bach an impact and fervor that serves him well.
Operas in the "Memories" collection include some good unfamiliar works. One is Alessandro Scarlatti's "La Griselda" (HR 4154/55, two CDs), which tells in high baroque style a medieval story of wifely patience and obedience that also has been told by Chaucer and many others. The recording, of a 1970 performance in Naples, is well cast, with Nino Sanzogno conducting such singers as Mirella Freni, Sesto Bruscantini, Luigi Alva and Rolando Panerai. It is not flawless, being subject to the unevenness of a live performance, but it serves as an excellent introduction to an unfamiliar opera. Rossini's eccentric but exquisite "Armida" is not exactly unknown, having been revived for Maria Callas in 1952, but the Memories live recording (HR 4152/53, two CDs with text), taped in 1970 at the La Fenice opera house in Venice, is the first stylistically accurate and musically well-balanced production on records. Except for Dutch coloratura soprano Cristina Deutekom, there are no big names in the cast conducted by Carlo Franci, but the musicianship is excellent throughout, and the opera, a musically exquisite tale of love, sorcery and military heroism during the Crusades, deserves to be much better-known.
Some of the operas on the Nuova Era label are more familiar. Both Puccini's "Turandot" (Nuova Era HMT 90002/3, two CDs with text) and Handel's "Giulio Cesare" (Nuova Era 6863/65, three CDs with libretto) already have been well-recorded more than once, but there are good reasons to make room for the Nuova Era editions. This "Turandot," recorded in Torino in 1938, is a classic performance with Gina Cigna, Francesco Merli and Magda Olivero giving memorable performances. In "Giulio Cesare," a strong cast led by Martine Dupuy and Patrizia Orciani gives a vigorous, expertly styled performance, with Marcello Panni leading the Orchestra Pro Arte, Bassano. The sound is digital and generally good despite occasional extraneous noises.
Nuova Era's non-operatic material is as interesting as its operas. Its "Epoque" series, devoted to historic recordings, has a sure winner in Beethoven's complete piano sonatas (HMT 90034/41, eight CDs) performed by Artur Schnabel. Recorded between 1931 and 1935, this was the first complete set of these works and is still considered the prime model by many pianists. It now shares the field with many other recordings, including quite a few that show more secure technique, but it still gives enormous satisfaction.
Anyone looking for a sensitive performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 will find it in the 1931 recording by the pianist Solomon (that's the only name he used) with Hamilton Harty conducting the Halle Orchestra (HMT 90004). Sensitivity is more appropriate in Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, which fills out the disc in a 1927 performance, but there are so many other good recordings of this music and the sound is so limited that this disc has mainly historic interest. The sound is digital and excellent in a set of 15 Schubert songs performed by soprano Gundula Janowitz with pianist Charles Spencer (Nuova Era 6860, with texts), but the range of material and expression are not sufficiently contrasted for uninterrupted listening. Janowitz's voice is radiant, but an hour of unrelieved radiance is a bit much.
In its vocal issues, by the way, Nuova Era shows an inconsistency of packaging that one does not expect in a major international label. The Schubert disc has notes in Italian and English but texts only in German. "Giulio Cesare" has the text in Italian and English; "Turandot" and "Armida" in Italian only, and "Griselda" has notes in Italian and English that call the libretto "extremely popular" but do not include it. When the company decides whom it wants for customers, it should do a better job of keeping them informed.
Fortunately, since there are no texts, there are no such problems in two issues in the company's "Ancient Music" series: six harpsichord sonatas by Luigi Cherubini (Nuova Era 6867) and three violin sonatas by Francesco Maria Veracini (Nuova Era 6900), both digitally recorded and both delightful.