Pierre Bernac & Francis Poulenc – Mélodies

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Poulenc:
Banalités
Chansons villageoises
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Tu vois le feu du soir
Main dominée par le coeur

Debussy:
Beau soir
L’écheonnement des haies
Le Promenoir des deux amantes

Ravel:
Histoires naturelles
Mélodies hébraïques

Satie:
Trois mélodies

Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc had a long and fruitful working relationship, going back to 1926 when Bernac gave the first performance of Poulenc’s Chansons gaillardes (not included on this disc). They first appeared in recital together in 1934 and continued to do so until Bernac retired from public performing in 1960. In fact the majority of Poulenc’s songs were written for Bernac and I suppose one could say that they enjoyed a similar relationship to that of Britten and Pears, without the emotional attachment, apparently always using the polite ‘vous’ with each other at all times.

Bernac’s voice was evidently not large but he had an enormously varied tonal palette which enabled him to capture every shift in mood, every emotion, implied or overt, in each song. Though the voice was not of itself of great natural beauty, its range was wide and Poulenc exploited this to great effect. Bernac was also a great teacher, numbering Gérard Souzay, Elly Ameling and Jessye Norman among his pupils, and he wrote with great insight about the art of singing. His The Interpretation of French Song is an absolute must for anyone interested in performing this repertoire.

Bernac and Poulenc left behind quite a legacy of recordings, most of them recorded for EMI and RCA in 1947. However these Columbia sessions took place in 1950. The Poulenc selection is self recommending, but he is equally at home in the songs of Debussy, Ravel and Satie, embracing the lyricism of Debussy’s Beau soir, the slightly detached irony of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles or the parodic wit of the Satie songs.

Anyone who enjoys the subtle art of French song should definitely hear them.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Unpublished Recordings 1955 – 1958 Bach & Mozart

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Schwarzkopf and her husband Legge loved recording, often making several different recordings of the same repertoire and in their case there was almost as much unpublised material in the vaults as they actually issued. Reasons why so much languished without a home could be manifold. It could be that at the time a slightly different emphasis was preferred, or it might simply be that a coupling could not be found, which surely must have been the case with the performance here of Mozart’s Ch’io mi scordi di te, an aria Schwarzkopf returned to in 1968 with Alfred Brendel, George Szell and the LSO and a performance that has been much admired.

However Schwrzkopf herself had misgivings about the 1968 performance. Ever an astute assesor of her own performances, she told John Steane in her retirement years,

You can hear that it’s too late, if you have a discerning ear, but it is musically good, fine, but it is not the young voice any more, and for Mozart that is not so good – it should be the voice in fuller bloom.

In 1955 the voice certainly was in full bloom and the mid 1950s might arguably be considered the high watermark of her career, vocally at least. This was when she recorded the champagne operettas, Strauss’s Ariadne and the Marschallin and Alice Ford in Karajan’s Falstaff. 1955 was also the year in which she made her US debut in San Francisco as the Marschallin.

Geza Anda, like Brendel in 1968, was a fine Mozartian and the the two artists blend and intertwine with each other deliciously. Ackermann, as so often with Schwarzkopf, is a master accompanist, shaping the music beautifully. The 1968 performance with Brendel and Szell is excellent but, if pushed, I think I would go with this one.

Thurston Dart, teacher of Christopher Hogwood and Sir John Eliot Gardiner among others, is in charge of the Bach items, and, though the instruments used are modern, the style is a million miles away from some of the over-Romanticised performances often heard around this time. Indeed Dart could be considered to be one of the pre-cursors of the HIP movement. Tempi are well chosen and Schhwarzkopf’s singing, though expressive is admirably clean and clear, her tone bright and joyful for the Wedding Cantata, but darker for Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut.

The disc also gives us the chance to hear two performances of the recit and aria Schafe können sicher weiden, the first recorded in 1957, the second the following year. To be honest there is very little difference between the two performances of the aria, but in the recitative Schwarzkopf adopts a slightly more expressive style in the later version.

Hardly anything that Schwarzkopf recorded is without interest and it is good that so much of this unpublished material has now become available, though this does mean a fair amount of duplication for Schwarzkopf completists. I’d say that this disc was worth having for the Mozart alone, but the Bach items are very welcome as well.

Crespin’s Shéhérazade

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Crespin’s recording with Ansermet of Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is now so famous, so universally acclaimed that there can surely be no more to say about it. Even today, almost 60 years since they were recorded, the performances are still cited by many as a first choice in both works and for many they were no doubt their first exposure to the works, so maybe that is all that needs to be said about them, but is it really so simple?

Both Shéhérazade and, especially, Les nuits d’été are great favourites of mine and I now have ten different recordings of the Berlioz, six of the Ravel. Let us then start with the Ravel. From the thrice repeated call of Asie at the beginning, the third sung with the equivalent of a flirtatiously arched eyebrow, we are in her thrall. She makes a bewitching storyteller, drawing us in with her thrillingly colourful descriptions of the Orient. As I often feel with Crespin, there is a slight air of detachment but here it suits the narrative superbly. She is suitably languid in La flûte enchantée and deliciously ambiguous in L’indifférent. There have been finer versions of the orchestral score (not least the New Philharmonia under Barbirolli for Janet Baker), but Crespin at her best is still a prime recommendation. There is something just so inevitably right about her singing and it places her (just) ahead of the other versions I own, (Teyte, Baker, De Los Angeles, Berganza and Hendricks).

That air of detachment I mentioned also makes her an ideal interpreter of the songs of Poulenc and also Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis with John Wustman on the piano, from a 1967 recording, which are here included as a makeweight, and very welcome they are too. However it works against her in the Berlioz, which requires a degree of involvement and passion that I find lacking in Crespin’s delivery. However musical and tasteful her singing, however elegant her phrasing, she remains aloof and uninvolved. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose from paradise, no sense of longing in Absence. She is at her best in the final song, L’île inconnue which is blithely insouciant and responds better to her air of suave sophistication. I have no idea why she decided to place Sur les lagunes after Absence but it upsets the balance of the work too.

No, for the Berlioz my prime recommendations would be Baker either with Barbirolli or live with Giulini, Hunt Lieberson with McGegan, Steber with Mitropoulos or De Los Angeles with Munch, Crespin trailing quite a way in their wake.

Essential I would say for Shéhérazade and the Debussy and Poulenc, but look elsewhere for the Berlioz.

Renata Scotto – Italian Opera Arias

 

The majority of this disc is taken up with Scotto’s first recital for CBS, recorded in 1974, a recording that might be considered the one which spearheaded the second stage of her career, when she became a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Having been absent from the catalogues for some time, an intense recording schedule followed. There would be another recital (of Verdi arias) for CBS, and throughout the seventies and early eighties she features on many complete opera recordings for CBS, EMI and RCA, often alongside Domingo, with whom she also recorded a recital of duets.

Scotto’s voice always had a slight tang to it. Admirably clean, it would never charm with the full rich tones of a Caballé, a Moffo or a Te Kanawa. The top of the voice, even in her earliest recordings, could glare and it was never the most comfortable part of her range. Nor was it ever a sensual voice, though she could sound sensual enough if necessary (not the same thing), but her command of line, impeccable diction and range of colour are most attractive. She may not quite ravish the ear in the high lying phrases of, for instance, Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta from La Rondine as does Te Kanawa in the famous recording which was used for the movie of A Room with a View, but she shades the line most beautifully and her control of her pianissimo is quite gorgeous. She characterises well too, so that each of these verismo heroines emerge as quite different characters. Occasionally intellect gets in the way and the interpretations can sound too studied, as they never do with Callas, but it would be true to say that, though she has absorbed the lessons of her predecessor in some of this material, she never copies her. Her interpretations are all her own.

In the 1974 items she is wonderfully supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Gavazzeni and it is good to have some less well known items such as the Mascagni arias and the aria from Le Villi, as it is to have the excerpts from the complete recording of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna and Puccini’s Edgar. Her Butterfly is better served by the Barbirolli recording and the duet with Obraztsova from Adrianna Lecouvreur makes very little sense out of context.

Nonetheless one of Scotto’s best recordings, and one that is worth returning to quite often.

José Carreras – Canciones españolas

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Falla: Siete canciones populares españolas
Mompou: Combat deil somni
Ginastera: Canción al árbol del olvido
Guastavino: La rosa y el sauce
Guastavino: Se equivicó la paloma
Obradors: Corazón, porqué pásáis
Obradors: Del cabello más sutil
Turnina: Poema en forma de canciónes

It certainly makes a change to hear Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas sung by a man, and why not? It is not so unusual to have a father sing a lullaby to his son, and drovers are usually men, aren’t they? Though I might ultimately prefer to hear the cycle sung by Victoria De Los Angeles or Conchita Supervia, I rather enjoyed Carreras’s sensitive performance.

The Mompou cycle, also a favourite of De Los Angeles, also goes well and I especially enjoyed his gently melancholic version of the lovely Damunt de tu nomes los flors. Elsewhere he can be caressingly sensitive or ebulliently passionate, as in the Turina Poema, which brings the recital to a splendidly forthright close.

He is miked fairly close and his diction so precise you can almost taste the words. Martin Katz makes a terrific collaborator rather than accompanist, some of the piano parts being quite fiendishly difficult.

A really enjoyable disc.

Callas sings Rossini & Donizetti – Revisited

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I confess that when it comes to some of these late Callas recitals I have equivocal feelings and my reactions to them can vary from one listen to another.

On the one hand it cannot be denied that this is a voice under stress. Notes above the stave often emerge stridently, or she will tread so carefully that they seem just touched in rather than sung with confidence. This diffidence is more evident here than in the contemporaneous Verdi recital I reviewed a couple of months ago, possibly because Rossini’s and Donizetti’s orchestra offers her less solid support than Verdi’s. Whatever the reason there is a pervading air of caution throughout this short disc. She is more comfortable in her middle and lower range, though even here vowels are sometimes discoloured. There is a world of difference between her defiantly triumphant singing of Rossini’s Armida in 1952 and what we hear in these discs, though only thirteen years separates them.

Taking all these problems into consideration, what is left? Well, her superb musicality, her unparalled sense of style and her ability to get to the heart of all these various arias, not least the way she finds a different voice character for each one, though she never sang any of these roles on stage.

The recital starts with Cenerentola’s final aria, which suits her quite well, the tessitura being a little bit lower. Aside from a couple of strident top notes at the end, it is also vocally quite fine, the scale passages sung smoothly and accurately (no sign of an aspirate here). Though the aria is the summation of the subtitle of the opera (la bonta in trionfo), Callas does not let us forget she was born to “sorrow and weeping”. Is is just my imagination that I hear in her figlia, sorella, amica, tutto trovate in me a reproof to her sisters at the way they treated her.? Those who like their Cenerentolas to be more charming and coquettish might find her wanting, but there is sound dramatic justification for Callas’s more serious interpretation.

There are more pronounced vocal problems in Matilde’s Selva opaca, which follows (what a pity she didn’t sing it in French), but the recitative is brillianty done and she captures a sort of sighing loneliness that is most attractive. I can’t really imagine Callas as the tomboyish Marie in La Fille du Régiment (again I wish she had sung this in French), but convien partir has a lovely, gentle sadness about it. The tessitura bothers her more here, but again her phrasing is exemplary.

Semiramide is a role Callas should probably have sung when she was in her prime and she is suitably imperious and grand from the start of Bel raggio. What is lacking here is the dazzling freedom we hear from Sutherland (especially in her version from The Art of the Prima Donna album) and indeed from Callas herself when she sang Armida. Ornamentaion is altogether too chastely applied and one misses the addition of a cadenza between the two verses of dolce pensiero.

Lucrezia is another role that would have suited her well a few years earlier and, yet again she can’t hide the strain in high lying passages, but the aria has a poignancy and poetry heard in few others. According to Max Loppert in Opera on Record 3, despite her vocal difficulties,

she manages to explore, in the lingering, legato shaping of the semiquaver tracery, a vein of expression, a range of timbres, unknown to other recorded Lucrezias.

The final piece is Adina’s Prendi, per me sei libero from L’Elisir d’Amore,an aria she sings without artifice, her manner direct, simple and charming.

Ultimately, I feel, I am prepared to put up with the parlous state of the voice at this time in her career for the undimmed musical immagination and interpretive detail, but I accept that this will not be true for many and I would advise those people to steer clear.

R.I.P. Mirella Freni

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The renowned soprano Mirella Freni has died at the age of 84. She had a long and illustrious career spanning around 50 years.

In her early career her chosen roles were Mimi, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Nanetta, Micaëla, Margeurite in Faust and Juliette, for which her charming stage presence were well suited. However the turning point in her career was perhaps her assumption of the role of Desdemona for Karajan in Salzburg in 1970. This led to her taking on other dramatic Verdi roles, like Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida and Leonora in La Forza del Destino. She also added Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to her repertoire, though both Tosca and Butterfly were only confined to disc. She once said in an interview in Opera News in 1987

I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice. Some singers think they are gods who can do everything. But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities.

No doubt this pragmatic attitude was the reason her career lasted so long. She resisted Karajan’s request for her to sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, and though she recorded Butterfly for him, and appeared in his film of the opera, she resisted all requests to sing the role on stage.

I only once saw her on stage, as Fedora at Covent Garden rather late in her career, but I did see the films of her as a sparkily sexy Susanna and a charmingly diffident Mimi. I also have recordings of her singing Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Aida. Some say the voice lost quality when she took on these heavier roles, but I don’t really agree and she never sounds to me as if she is forcing her naturally lovely sound. The only thing that I miss is that last degree of individuality. Though beautifully sung her performances are not always particularly memorable.

None the less, she was a major artist of the latter half of the twentieth century and she will be missed.

Let us now see Freni as Susanna singing Deh vieni in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Le nozze di Figaro under Karl Böhm. Just click on the following link Freni as Susanna

 

 

Victoria De Los Angeles sings Chants D’Auvergne

 

Many of my generation will no doubt have got to know Canteloube’s gorgeous arrangements of Auvergne folk songs through the recordings of Victoria De Los Angeles. On LP I only had the first album recorded in 1969, which had a selection of songs on one side and her recording of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer on the other, but this reissue couples only the Canteloube songs to the second all Canteloube album entitled Pastorale and recorded in 1974. Some might also remember that famous Dubonnet advert which used an arrangement of the gorgeous Baïlèro, lazily and yearningly sensuous in the performance under review. I can’t now think of this song without the De Los Angeles version coming into my mind’s ear.

De Los Angeles is in many ways the songs’ ideal interpreter, steering a sort of midway course between the more abrasive style of Madeleine Grey and the senusality of Anna Moffo. She has great fun with the colourful language and folk elements, exuding the bright eyed charm for which she is famous, but is also wonderfully expressive in the more melancholy songs, and the Lamoureux Orchestra under Jean-Pierre Jacquillat provide excellent support, all bathed in a warm acoustic.

There are now a lot of recordings of these songs out there (when the first album was released, I’m pretty sure there were only the early recordings of the aforementioned Madeleine Grey, a small selection by Anna Moffo and a couple of discs on the Vanguard label by Netania Davrath) and there are now a lot more sets out there by the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa, Jill Gomez, Dawn Upshaw, Véroniqe Gens, Frederica Von Stade and others, and all of them have their attractions, but these performances by De Los Angeles will always have a special place in my heart.

Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna

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So what more can one say about this famous two disc recital? It was recorded in 1960, not long after Dame Joan had enjoyed a spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1959, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was already 33 and had been a member of the company since 1952, when she had sung Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the Priestess in Aida. She had sung a wide number of roles there, including Agathe, the Countess, Gilda, Pamina, Eva and even Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, but none of these undertakings had prepared anyone for the spectacular success she would have as Lucia, with Serafin, Callas’s mentor, in the pit. The role became her calling card and shortly afterwards she sang it in Paris, at La Scala and at the Met, performances that put her firmly on the map and paved the way for the direction her career would take. Thereafter she concentrated almost exclusively on the bel canto repertoire and many operas were resurrected specifically for her.

Let us try and listen now with fresh ears, as if, for instance, this was the work of a singer new to us today. First impressions would be of the beauty of the voice, the fullness of tone, the ease on high and the way those top notes ring out with brilliance but without a hint of shrillness. We would also notice the rocketing virtuosity and the stunningly accurate coloratura. She also sings with feeling, but the first impressions are definitely vocal. This is an exceptional instrument used with great technical accomplishment. What I don’t think we quite get is a true impression of the size of the voice, which, according to all who heard her in the theatre, was quite exceptional.

Some of the arias (particularly the opening track, Arne’s The soldier tir’d, Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim and Semiramide’s Bel raggio) have become yardsticks against which all subsequent comers might be judged, and almost all the others would no doubt be considered amongst the best versions available. Vocally she has few limitations, though these might include a relative weakness in the lower register. Nor is she ever likely to suddenly throw into relief a word or a phrase and her diction, though a lot better than it was later to become is not particularly clear. We might also note that characterisation is not her strong point. As one aria follows another there is little to distinguish one character from another. We do not get a gallery of different people, as one would with a Callas or a Schwarzkopf.

For many these reservations will not be a problem and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the purely visceral experience of hearing such a beautiful voice in full bloom tackling with accomplishment a wide range of music. For others, and I would count myself among them, that certain sameness of interpretaion will be a problem and I for one prefer to listen to the recital piecemeal rather than all in one sitting. When listening in sequence, I start out being stunned by the singing but, after a while, my mind starts to wander as one interpretation emerges much the same as the one before. The best arias are, as I intimated above, those in which Sutherland can display her amazing vocal dexterity.

Going back to first impressions, though. There is, as far as I’m aware, nobody singing today who can even approach the accomplishment of what Sutherland achieves here. This two disc set stands as testament to her greatness, before the mannerisms (the poor diction, the mushy middle voice, the droopy partamenti) became apparent and should be in the collection of all those interested in singers and singing.

Callas sings Verdi Arias (Revisited)

 

By 1964 Callas had all but retired from musical life. In 1961 she recorded her first disc of French arias, sang in performances of Medea at Epidaurus in Greece and at La Scala and made a single concert appearance in London. In 1962, she did even less; a short concert tour, taking in London and cities in Germany, plus a couple of arias for a BBC TV appearance. 1963 saw more concerts in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, London, Copenhagen and Paris, plus more recording sessions of French arias at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year and at the beginning of 1964 she embarked on more intensive recording activity, possibly in preparation for her upcoming return to the operatic stage in Tosca and Norma. Three discs were issued in 1964, one of classical arias by Mozart, Beethoven and Weber, one of arias by Rossini and Donizetti, and one of Verdi arias, with more of the Verdi sessions being released in 1972, shortly after she emerged from self-imposed exile to teach a series of masterclasses at the Juilliard School in New York. Though more of these sessions, plus some made in 1969, were eventually released after her death, these were the only ones she agreed to.

Though all three of the discs issued in 1964 revealed some pronounced vocal problems, the Verdi disc is by far the most successful. She seems less preoccupied with her vocal problems, more engaged with the material and consequently the singing has a freedom that is lacking in the other two discs, though this does mean we also get quite a few squally notes above the stave.

Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria might be considered an uncharacteristic piece for Callas, but she is alive to every shift of mood. As it rarely strays above the stave it also presents her with the least problems vocally. It is a great pity EMI didn’t think to employ someone to sing Emilia’s lines, but Callas skillfully uses a different tone for the comments to Emilia from the one she uses for Barbara’s song. Throughout one feels Desdemona’s anxiety, which erupts with a sudden passionate outburst when she bids Emilia goodbye. The Ave Maria profits from her deep legato, the final Ab spun out in the best tradition.

Both of the Aroldo arias are thrilling, especially Mina’s Act III solo, a superb piece which Callas fills with drama and significance, bringing the cabaletta to a rousing conclusion.

Elisabetta’s Non pianger mia compagna from Don Carlo doesn’t really come off. Though her legato is still excellent, she sounds strained here and she can’t float the climactic phrases as she should. Eboli’s O don fatale, though, is another matter entirely. The whole aria brims with contrast and drama, and one registers each change of expression. She vehemently launches into the opening section, spitting out the words ti maledico, but then moulds rather than sings the o mia regina section, her legato line superb, her rich lower register digging deep into its melancholy. Finally as she realises she still has time to save Carlo, she brings the aria to an ecstatic close. OK, so there are a couple of off centre high notes, but they fade into insignifance next to the thrilling commitment of the singing.

When I reviewed all three of these 1963 recitals here back in January 2017, I mentioned that my wobble tolerance could vary from listen to listen. Sometimes I find the acidulous tone and stridency hard to take; on others I barely notice them as I get wrapped up in the musical imagination. It’s safe to say that on this occasion the latter reaction was in play.