The best audio recordings?
Two related questions are relevant to this particular inquiry. What's the best that exists, and what's the best of what's easily obtainable.
There have been two major recordings of the entire canon (Argo/London on LP and tape, and Arkangel on tape only), one major series that recorded most of the plays (Caedemon), and any number of individual recordings both of entire plays and abridgements. Virtually all of these recordings feature English actors. There is an incomplete series of Canadian tapes which has appeared recently in some American stores and libraries--the examples of this which I have heard have been competent but not noteworthy--and there are a few wonderful American oddities: most notably a series of hour-long abridgements broadcast on radio which feature Tallulah Bankhead's Viola, Edward G. Robinson's Petruchio, and Humphrey Bogart's Hotspur. Robert Vaughn also recorded excerpts from "Hamlet," and Orson Welles' "Macbeth," "Merchant," "Twelfth Night" and "Caesar" for radio have all been recently re-released on CD as has Paul Robeson's 1940's "Othello." There are also excerpted readings available by both Maurice Evans (a transplanted Brit) and John Barrymore.
As to availability, much of the Caedemon catalogue has been re-released on tape and some CD's, and the Arkangels are in virtually every bookstore with a decent audio selection. Bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble will also carry some offerings from Naxos which include Branagh's "Richard III" and Paul Scofield's most recent "King Lear" (He also recorded it for Caedemon while or shortly after performing the role in Peter Brook's famous production.) It's also easy to find the three recordings ("Hamlet," "Romeo," and Gielgud as "Lear") that Branagh did for the BBC with his Renaissance Theatre Company. Sadly, the Argo/London series is now difficult to find in the United States, although I often see individual LP sets at used record shops. Anybody interested in finding truly wonderful material is condemned to cherry picking, since none of these series are particularly consistent. Most recordings begin life as straight-forward interpretations of the text, and many are notable for individual performances rather than for over-all brilliance. Again, there are exceptions. Zefferelli's "Much Ado" is on LP with a dream cast (Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Frank Finlay, and in smaller roles Lynn Redgrave, Michael York, and maybe Edward Petherbridge), and virtually everybody speaks in broad Chico Marx-esque Italian accents which make the whole production difficult to understand.
I've heard virtually everything by Caedemon and Argo/London, many individual recordings, and several of the Arkangels. These last are newer, and feature actors like Brian Cox, Trevor Peacock, Simon Russell-Beale, Cirian Hinds, Harriet Walter and Niamh Cusack. I've found much of what I've heard in this series over the top and difficult to listen to for long.
My recommendations are as follws:
1. Caedemon "Coriolanus" w. Richard Burton and Jessica Tandy. A spectacular record of an electric performance which Burton gave at the Old Vic in 1954. Michael Hordern as Menenius doesn't hurt either.
2. Argo/London "King John" w. Michael Hordern. These recordings can be difficult to find, and when you have them, they do not always list the casts. There is a booklet that used to come with the LPs which lists all of them, and since many of the smaller roles came out of the Marlowe Societies of the 1950's, you'll find John Barton, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, and Ian Holm in minor roles. I remember this "John" as a fast-paced., compelling reading of this difficult play. Hordern played the role at the Vic in 1954 with Burton as the Bastard.
3. Caedemon "Henry V" with Ian Holm (Henry), John Gielgud (Chorus), Ian McKellen (Dauphin), and Janet Suzman (Katherine.) It's unusual to hear this play in its entirety, and Holm is a fascinating Henry.
4. Argo/London "Much Ado" with Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. Enough said.
5. Argo/London "Hamlet" second series with Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, Barbara Jefford and the Old Vic/Prospect company. Argo completed the cannon, and then released a several second recordings. I can call to mind "As You Like It" with Janet Suzman, "Julius Caesar" with Holm as Cassius, "Othello" with Richard Johnson as the Moor and Holm as Iago, "Twelfth Night" with Eileen Atkins and this magnificent "Hamlet" which is, I believe, a direct recording of Toby Robertson's Prospect production of the late 70's. I wish I'd seen it.
6. Caedemon "As You Like It" with Vanessa Redgrave (Rosalind), Max Adrian (Jaques), Stanley Holloway (Touchstone), and Keith Michell (Orlando). Redgrave and Adrian are as good as I've ever heard in these parts, and the over all production is brisk and funny.
7. Caedemon's "Henry IV 1 and 2" with Anthony Quayle (Falstaff), Harry Andrews (Henry IV), Richard Johnson (Hal), Michael Redgrave (Hotspur), Edith Evans (Quickly), and Max Adrian (Shallow.) There are several alums of the 1951 Stratford Histories here, and the whole is
intelligent, entertaining, and moving.
There are also a number of noteworthy individual performances preserved on record. Gielgud recorded Leontes, Angelo (with Ralph Richardson as the Duke), and Richard II for Caedemon, and full (although not uncut) productions of Hamlet at least twice. There is also a series of single disc recordings most often found as Living Shakespeare that feature hour-long condensations with some remarkable performances: Peter O'Toole as Petruchio, Sean Connery as Hotspur, Vivian Leigh as Cleopatra, Maggie Smith as both Rosalind and Viola, Sybil Thorndyke as Volumnia, Michael Redgrave as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard II, Donald Wolfit as Lear, Ralph Richardson as Iago and many more. Olivier released the complete soundtrack (dialogue included) to his film of "Richard III" and there is also a studio recording with the National Theatre cast of his "Othello." Both of these are of course less interesting since the advent of video tape.
Anybody interested in more information of this kind is, of course, welcome to contact me privately, but since this is a subject I've never seen covered on the list, I thought an overview, however biased, might be of interest.
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