New Year, New Blog

Well it’s a new year and I’ve decided it’s time I got some of my jumbled thoughts and ideas down on paper, or rather on line.

Don’t worry, it won’t be too personal. I’m not really prone to public navel gazing, or outpourings of personal angst, which isn’t to say I don’t have my own problems to deal with. I just don’t think the internet is the best place to air them.

So this blog is probably going to be more about music, theatre, movies, places I’ve visited, and (hard to avoid) politics. Well, one has to admit that the world we are living in isn’t quite the one I thought I lived in a few years ago. According to Adam Curtis in his brilliant film Hypernormalisation, we are living in a post-truth world. We know it’s not real, but we accept it as normal. How else can one explain Trump, and Brexit? Liberal is now a dirty word, intellectuals are derided and experts ignored. Anything that departs from the norm is suspect, and creativity, in so many walks of life, at an all time low. If it doesn’t make money it’s worthless, seems to be the message of the present generation.

However to begin with, I’m going to be indulging my passion for opera and, in particular, Maria Callas, with a group of reviews of all her studio recordings, which I will publish one by one over the next few weeks. A few of you may find them interesting, those who don’t know anything of Callas may choose to investigate, or not. I don’t expect everyone to have the same passions as me, so I will have to ask a little forbearance.

Happy New Year.

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Ljuba Welitsch – Complete Columbia Recordings

 

 

Ljuba Welitsch, for the short time her star was in the ascendant, was undoubtedly a star, glamorous both of voice and personality. Renowned the world over for her Salome, a role in which Strauss himself had coached her, she was also known for her Tosca and Donna Anna. Unfortunately she had developed nodules by 1953 and thereafter, though she didn’t retire completely, confined herself to character roles, like the Duenna in the Schwarzkopf/Karajan recording of Der Rosenkavalier.

This two disc set showcases her Salome, Donna Anna and Tosca, as well as Johann Strauss (the Czardas from Die Fledermaus and Saffi’s Gypsy Song from Der Zigeunerbaron). The rest is devoted to Lieder and songs by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Darogmizhsky, Mussorgsky, Marx, Mahler and Strauss, all with piano accompaniment, even the Vier letzte Lieder.

Whilst we get a good impression of the glamour and the silvery purity on high, the recordings do also rather show up her limitations. Best of the items is the 1949 recording of the Final Scene from Salome under Reiner, though, even here, I prefer the earlier performance she made under Lovro von Matacic in 1944, which, to my mind, has a greater degree of specificity. There is just the suspicion here that she had sung the role too many times; there is a touch of sloppiness in the delivery, which is complelely absent from the earlier recording.

She makes an appreciable Tosca, and something of her stage personality comes across here, but, I hear little of Callas’s detail or Price’s or Tebaldi’s vocal opulence. A tendency to be careless of note values is even more evident in the Donna Anna excerpts, where we also become aware of an unwillingness to vary the volume or colour of her singing. John Steane had similar misgivings in his book The Grand Tradition.

It is hard to think of a voice with a brighter shine to it, or of a singer with greater energy and more sense of joy in that sheer act of producing these glorious sounds. Even here, however, one notes that subtlety is hardly in question; there is little of the lithe seductiveness which Schwarzkopf and Güden bring to the [Fledermaus] Czardas, for instance. And this limits much of her best work, even the Salome in which she made such an exciting impression on her audiences.

 

These limitations are even more evident in the songs with piano, and, though there is still much to enjoy in disc one, I found much of disc two something of a trial to listen to, the voice just too bright and unrelentingly mezza voce. The Strauss Vier letzte Lieder can work with piano, as witness a recording by Barbara Bonney, but here I just longed for the greater subtlety and range of expression of Schwarzkopf or Popp, of Norman or Fleming. The Mahler had me thinking of the shattering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the piano accompanied version, and the Schubert and Schumann songs hardly begin to challenge versions by a range of different sopranos from Welitsch’s time onwards.

If I were to choose but one representation of Welitsch’s art, it would absolutely be the 1949 live recording from the Met of Salome under Reiner, but, for a recital I’d go for EMI’s old LP and CD transfer of the 1944 Salome Final Scene, which also has on it a glorious version of Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, a disc I reviewed a couple of months back here. This present two disc set is, I’m afraid, a mite disappointing.

Les Introuvables du Chant Wagnérien

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What a treasure trove of great singing this is! Indeed four well filled discs of absolutely amazing singing.

The layout pretty much makes sense too. Disc one is given over to Der fliegende Holländer and Die Meisteringer von Nürnberg, disc two to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, disc three to Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and disc four to more from Die Walküre, plus Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. No texts and translations, but detailed information on the recordings and biographical notes on all the singers.

With a few exceptions (Birgit Nilsson and Hans Hotter in Wie aus der Ferne from Der fliegende Holländer recorded in 1957, Lotte Lehmann singing Euch Lüften from Lohengrin in 1948) all these Wagnerian excerpts were recorded in a relatively short period of time between 1927 and 1942; a mere fifteen years, with the majority taken from the 1930s. It rather puts paid to the lie that, when comparing singers of today to those of the past, people are drawing from a much greater time period. How many singers active between 2004 and today can compare with the illustrious voices we hear on these discs?

Only Marta Fuchs, singing Senta’s ballad in 1940 gave me limited pleasure, especially when set next to ELisabeth Rethberg’s 1930 account which follows. There are some famous names here of course, like Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Meta Seinemeyer and Elisabeth Rethberg, but some of the less well known names are still startlingly good, for instance Florence Easton and Walter Widdop gloriously ringing and firm toned as Brünnhlide and Siegfried in the Prelude from Götterämmerung. The warm voiced Marjorie Lawrence’s career was mostly confined to France and it is in French that she sings a wonderfully malevolent Ortrud, with Martial Singher as Telramund. Though she also sang other mezzo roles, like Brangäne, she is a superb Brünnhilde in both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, again in French, singing with rich, beautiful, unforced splendour throughout her range. Her Immolation scene is quite one of the best I have heard.

There are other fine examples of Wagner in the vernacular. Again in French we have Arthur Endrèze as the Dutchman, Georges Thill and Germaine Martinelli as Walther and Eva and Germaine Lubin as Brünnhilde, and in Italian we have Aureliano Pertile (Lohengrin’s Nun sei bedankt) and Hina Spani (Elsa’s Euch Lüften).

There are some well known names among the conductors too, like Leopold Ludwig, Albert Coates, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham, Eugène Bigot, Rudolf Moralt and Leo Blech etc and indeed there is hardly a track that doesn’t have some interest.

Only the 1957 Holländer duet is in good stereo sound (Nilsson’s top notes bursting forth from the speakers like laser beams) but few allowances need to be made for the recorded sound, and one’s ears quickly adust.

Anyone with an interest in Wagner and/or singing needs to have this set in their collection. Both as a historic document and a source of great listening pleasure, it is absolutely essential.

Janet Baker – Chausson, Berlioz and Schoenberg

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These are all live performances of material Baker recorded in the studio (twice in the case of Les Nuits d’Eté, so one might wonder if they are really essential listening.

Well, though Baker was a superb recording artist, who never really made a bad record, she was also a great communicator and collaborator and these performances, all with different conductors from the studio ones, bring with them the added frisson that comes with a live event, and the sound, though not as clear as in her studio performances, is more than acceptable.

It starts with a 1975 performance of Chausson’s almost Wagnerian Poème del’amour et de la mer, which she recorded two years later under André Previn. This one has, somehwat suprisingly you might think, Evgeni Svetlanov at the helm, who takes great care over dynamics and shapes the work beautifully. Baker’s range of expression, her concenration, her breath control and command of the long line are exemplary, filling its pages with rapt expression. A marvelous performance.

Baker’s recording of Les Nuits d’Eté with Barbirolli, recorded in 1967 is justly famous and has hardly been out of the catalogue. She recorded it again under Richard Hickox in 1990, but by this time her voice was beginning to show signs of wear (more noticeable in a recording than when I heard them perform the work together in concert at around the same time) and the second recording has never enjoyed the acclaim of the first. This performance under Giulini was taped at the Royal Festival Hall a month after the Chausson and it is good to hear how Baker’s interpretation changed depending on whom she was singing with. Giulini’s speeds are expansive (Le spectre de la rose at 8’29” must be one of the slowest on disc) and would tax most singers beyond their limits, but here they never flag and Baker luxuriates in the extra room she is given to make her interpretive points. As in the Chausson, her breath control is astonishing and the range of expression wide. My notes are peppered with words like searing, delicate, passionate abandon, yearning. Though it doesn’t entirely supplant the Barbirolli in my affections, it is nonetheless a performance I would never want to be without.

The earliest performance here is a 1963 recording of the Song of the Wood Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a work she recorded five years later under Janos Ferencsik. Baker was not yet 30 when she gave this performance and, superbly supported by Norman Del Mar, her singing is urgently free and impassioned, even better than that on the Ferencsik.

Essential listening then? Absolutely and unequivocally, yes.

Fritz Wunderlich -Live on Stage

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This issue passed me by when it was first released in 2010, but what a treasure it is. Always a pleasure to hear Wunderlich’s glorious tenor, here we have the added frisson of hearing him live in the opera house.

His Tamino is well known from the Böhm recording. These excerpts are taken from a 1964 Munich performance, where he is joined by Anneliese Rothenberger as Pamina and Karl-Christian Kohn as Sarastro under the baton of Fritz Reiger. As on the Böhm recording, he is an ardently lyrical but also heroic Tamino and remains my touchstone for the role. Don Ottavio’s two arias from a performance of Don Giovanni, conducted by Karajan in 1963 are also superb and Ottavio emerges as a more positive character than he often does, benefiting from Wunderlich’s golden tone, his superb breath control and ease of movement. As in the Jochum recording he is also an ideal Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

The excerpts from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with Hermann Prey as Figaro, are unfortunately sung in German, but the language does not impede Wunderlich’s superb legato, nor the warmth of his tone, and we get to hear his wonderfully light touch in comedy.

For me, though, the Strauss items are the biggest eye opener. I feel sure that, had Strauss heard them, it would have reconciled him to the sound of the tenor voice. The duet for the Italian Singers in Capriccio (with Lucia Popp, no less) has probably never sounded more gloriously, well, italianate, so beautiful that it elicits a spontaneous round of applause from the Vienna audience. The same could be said for his singing of Di rigori armato from Der Rosenkavalier, which is sung with burnished tone. I doubt any Italian tenor could sing it better. So too, in the excerpts from Daphne and Die schweigsame Frau his liquid legato stays in tact, however tough the going. Did Wunderlich ever make an ugly sound? Somehow I doubt it. Truly he was a prince among tenors.

Fritz Wunderlich – A Poet Among Tenors.

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As well as for DG, Wunderlich recorded extensively for EMI and this 6 disc set, now on Warner, has very little overlap with the DG set I reviewed earlier. Indeed it is amazing how much Wunderlich recorded in his relatively short career. Most of these EMI recordings were all made in the years 1959 to 1962. The exceptions are the excerpts from Klemperer’s Das Lied von der Erde, which was recorded in 1964. Some have doubted Wunderlich’s ability to ride the Mahlerian orchestra, suggesting that he might have had some studio assistance. Well we now have two live recordings of the work (under Krips and Keilberth, both with Fischer-Dieskau singing the lower songs) to refute that. Whether large or not, the voice had a fine ring to it and its heady beauty remained unimpaired whether at piano or forte. I think there is a discernible increase in its carrying power between 1959 and 1964, and I have no doubt he would have gone on to sing certain Wagner roles – Lohengrin and Walter von Stolzing at least.

So what do we have here? Well disc 1 starts of somewhat surprisingly with early German fifteenth century songs, then progresses through Bach, Handel (a sublime Ombra mai fu), Mozart arias from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte (Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön slightly more diffident here than it is on the later Böhm recording), and excerpts from Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann and Der Wildschütz which rather outstayed their welcome for me. It finishes with excerpts from Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, including his glorious version of Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain.

Discs 2 and 3 are mostly operetta, with the addition of ecerpts from Flotow’s Martha and Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. Wunderlich’s infectious joy in the act of singing made him ideal for operetta and though there is admittedly rather a lot of it here, he makes no concessions to the music; like Schwarzkopf and Gedda, he can make the music sound much better than it is.

However, for me the jewels of the set, with a couple of exceptions noted above, are all to be found on discs 4 and 5. Though all sung in German, we get some ideal performances of excerpts from Italian, French, Czech and Russian opera. Disc 4 starts with the Act I duet for Donna Anna and Don Ottavio (with Elisabeth Grümmer no less), in which he is both aristocratic and ardent, with a touch of the heroic often missing from singers of Don Ottavio. Wunderlich’s Mozartian credentials are further strengthened by the inclusion of both Don Ottavio’s arias and Ferando’s Un aura amorosa from Cosí fan tutte. Nemorino, the Duke and Alfredo’s arias are all treated to his golden tone and winning manner, his liquid legato hardly impeded by the fact that he is singing in German rather than Italian. There are more extended excerpts from La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, in which he is an ardent Rodolfo and Pinkerton (a glorious top C in Che gelida manina), whilst disc 5 gives us some lovely excerpts from French operas (Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, Thomas’s Mignon and Massenet’s Manon and wonderful Smetana (The Bartered Bride). Best of all perhaps is his plaintive singing of Lensky’s Kuda, kuda, but he is also superb as Hermann in The Queen of Spades.

The last disc concenrates on Lieder; Schubert, Wolf, some glorious Strauss which might just have reconciled the composer to the sound of the tenor voice, and of course his headily free singing of the tenor songs from Das Lied von der Erde. It finishes off with a song cycle by his friend Fritz Neumeyer, which unfortunately rather outstays its welcome. No matter, these are wonderful reminders of a gorgeous tenor voice that shot through the operatic firmament only to be silenced too soon.

It remains to be said that the orchestral contrubutions are fine and it is good to also encounter the voices of Aneliese Rothenberger, Lisa Otto, Pilar Lorengar, Rudolf Schock, Hermann Prey and Gottlob Frick in some of the duets and emsembles.

Dame Janet Baker sings Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

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Essential listening, I’d venture to suggest, even for those who already have the Philips Originals box set I reviewed here. Here we have the whole of Baker’s 1977 Beethoven and Schubert recital, of which three items appear on the Philips box, coupled to the Mozart items from her 1974 Mozart and Haydn recital, none of which do.

The prize of this CD is Dame Janet’s superb rendering of Sesto’s arias from La Clemenza di Tito. Not only is it a technical tour de force, the rapid triplet figures at the end of Parto, parto tossed off with breathtaking ease, but the range of expression is extraordinary and personal. I have never heard another singer differentiate so much between the repeated cries of Guardami!; in the first she pleads almost angrily, but in the second her tone changes completely, becoming meltingly beseeching, as if Sesto realises he has gone too far. Furthermore she has the ability to get to the emotional core of the music without ever disrupting its Classical style. Pure genius.

Elsewhere she is in enviable form in a programme that ranges wide, including rarities like Beethoven’s No, non turbati and arias from Schubert’s Lazarus and Alfonso und Estrella. Leppard’s accompaniments, whether conducting the English Chamber Orchestra or on the piano or harpsichord are discreet rather than revelatory, perhaps happy, with such a patrician artist, to let his soloist take the lead.

The recordings, originally made for Philips in quadrophonic sound, are here issued in SACD, though I was listening in simple stereo. They are wonderfully clear and lucid.

Highly recommended.

Valerie Masterson – Song Recital

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  1. Arne – O ravishing delight
  2. Arne – Under the greenwood tree
  3. Arne – The soldier tir’d
  4. Handel – Nel dolce del’oblio
  5. Bishop – Lo! Here the gentle lark
  6. Gounod – Le premier jour de mai
  7. Gounod – L’absent
  8. Gounod – Sérénade
  9. Bizet – Vieille chanson
  10. Bizet – Pastel
  11. Bizet – Tarantelle
  12. 12 – Satie – La diva de l’empire

The English soprano Valerie Masterson was a mainstay of my early opera going life and I saw her on stage quite a few times. A light lyric soprano with great flexibility and an immediately recognisable voice, she was also much admired in France, having made her French debut in Toulouse in the role of Manon. The following year she created quite a stir at the Aix-en-Provence Festival singing the role of Matilde in Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra opposite Montserrat Caballé. She was an arrestingly beautiful woman with a charming stage presence and I well remember her Semele at Covent Garden which was both vocally and visually stunning. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see her ravishing Cleopatra in ENO’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar (sung of course in English) with Janet Baker, but at least it was filmed. I did however see her as Manon, Juliette, Margeurite, the Governess in Britten’s Turn of the Screw and as the Marschallin, a role she took into her repertoire quite late in her career, having had enormous success as Sophie when she was younger.

Recorded in 1986 when Masterson was approaching 50, this recital probably catches her just past her best. There is just the suspicion that the lovely voice is thinning out, a trace of a slight taint on its silvery purity. Nevertheless the recital is something of a treasure, especially considering Masterson was so little recorded.

With piano accompaniment provided by Roger Vignoles, it splits neatly into two halves, the first being of music from the baroque era (Arne, Handel and Thomas Bishop), where she is joined by Richard Adeney on the flute, and the second of songs by Gounod, Bizet and Satie. The baroque items display her neat and deft coloratura as well as her ability to shape the long line. When she sings O ravishing delight in Arne’s song, the words mirror exactly the sounds coming from the speakers. It is good also to have the Handel cantata, reminding us of her many successes in his works.

The French items are all fairly light. They are a sung with elegance and style but a little more variety in the material might have been welcome here. She finishes with a delightful performance of Satie’s La Diva de l’Empire which captures a coquettish smile in the voice.

A lovely reminder of a lovely singer.

Karita Mattila – German Romantic Arias

 

 

The programme is an interesting one, though including Beethoven in a recital called German Romantic Arias might be thought to be stretching the definition a bit, and it’s good to see some rarer items are included amongst the well-known. Accompaniments are in the safe hands of the Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis and Mattilla might be considered to be at her mid-career peak when the disc was recorded in 2001, eighteen years after she was the first winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World at the age of 23.

Unfortunately the recital doesn’t really satisfy. I enjoyed most the scene from Euryanthe and Mendelssohn’s concert aria Infelice!, but this might have more to do with their unfamiliarity than anything else as I had little else to compare them to . In the more familiar items I found myself constantly thinking of versions by other artists. One or two moments of smudged coloratura apart, Mattila gets round the notes easily enough, but her singing can be a bit rigid and lacking in colour and her legato is not always perfect, nor does she ever illuminate a phrase or bring something personal to the piece she is singing in the way the greatest of the past have done. There is no sense of desperation in Leonore’s Abscheulicher! or radiance in the Komm, Hoffnung section, no real appreciation of the contrasting emotions in Ah perfido!. Agathe fares no better. There is no real poise and serenity, such as that achieved by Schwarzkopf, Grümmer or Janowitz. When Schwarzkopf sings Er ist’s in Leise, leise we register the change of expression, the quickening of the pulse, where here the moment passes almost unnoticed.

Commendably she sings Rezia’s Ocean, though mighty monster in English. It is more comfortably vocalised than Callas’s late recording, also in English, but Callas fills its pages with significance where Mattila just sings the notes. She conquers its tehcnical challenges, but makes little impression dramatically.

Something of a disappointment then and a disc that is probably making for the jettison pile

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Songs by Mahler, Handel and Peter Lieberson

 

There are some singers whose emotional connection to the music they are singing is so complete, so all-embracing that such minor details as vocal technique and beauty of voice are completely forgotten. Not that either of those two qualities are in the least bit lacking here, but they don’t really register, so intense, so all-enveloping is the experience of listening.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was one such artist and, more than once during the course of this marvelous recital, she managed to reduce me to tears. In her voice, the act of singing becomes as natural as the act of speaking. There is no artifice, no show, just total commitment to the music and that rare gift of communication.

The disc starts with a highly personal and emotionally shattering performance of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. I prefer Mahler’s orchestral version of these wonderful songs but even with piano accompaniment (wonderfully realised by Roger Vignoles here) I would place this performance with Janet Baker’s of the orchestral versions under Barbirolli as the pinnacle of Mahler interpretation. Indeed the desolation of Um MItternacht is utterly overwhelming and the performance of all the songs totally gripping, with the audience sitting in rapt silence.

The Handel items, though more theatrical, more outwardly dramatic, are no less sincere. She makes musical sense of the vocal leaps in Scherza infida and pours calming balm on the ears in As with rosy steps from Theodora, a reminder of her devastating Glyndeboure performances of Irene.

She married Peter Lieberson the year after this recital and she sings here two of his Rilke settings, written specifically for her as well as an aria from his opera Ashoka’s Dream, which she performed in Santa Fe the previous year. The lovely Rilke songs were recorded complete at the Ravenna Festival in 2004 but it is good to have this tantalising extract from Lieberson’s opera.

To close we have two encores, a stunningly heartfelt performance of the spiritual Deep River which became something of a Hunt Lieberon speciality and a radiantly ecstatic performance of Brahms’s Unbewegte laue Luft.

Hunt Lieberson died at the age of 52 when she was at the absolute height of her career, which makes every recording she made, most of them from live performances, absolutely essential. This one is no exception

Barbara Hendricks – Spirituals

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Fifteen years separates these two discs of Spirituals by Barbara Hendricks and the intervening years have done little to tarnish the voice’s beauty. I suppose if one listens carefully and with a highly critical ear, a slight wear on the top register is detectable, a little of the gloriously rich bloom has gone but, for the most part, the consistency is remarkable.

However the two discs differ quite a lot in other ways. The first one might be seen to have a more sophisticated approach, treating the spirituals more as art song with piano accompaniments beautifully realised by classical pianist and winner of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1975, Dmitri Alexeev, whilst the second adopts what one would consider a more traditional approach with the contribution of the Moses Hogan Singers. You might think, therefore that the second would be the more satisfying, but I prefer the approach of the first, which brings more concentration on the songs and Miss Hendricks’s glorious singing. More than once the second disc, though beautifully executed, has a whiff of Hollywood, and it is the first disc I listen to most often. You might have different preferences.

The first disc has a good cross section of slow and up tempo songs, of the not so well known and favourites like Swing low. sweet chariot and Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. Hendricks gorgeous voice is in prime condition here, velvety and rich in the lower and middle registers and opening out into that gleamingly individual top register. Her diction is superb too and she makes no concessions to the music, singing with a burning conviction that suits the material well. Her exhortation of The lord loves a sinner in Roundabout da mountain would convince any sinner to repent whilst her beautifully lulling Swing slow, sweet chariot would rock any baby to sleep. She also has the voice for joy in such songs as Ev’ry time I feel de spirit. A wonderful disc and on its own well worth the price of the two disc set, which closes a disc guaranteed to lift the spirits.

The second disc provides variety by including songs for unaccompanied solo voice and for just the choir, but, for my money, there is more musical variety in the first one.