Renée Fleming – I Want Magic

 

 

Renée Fleming was at her peak when this recital was recorded and this is, without doubt, one of her most successful records. The programme is a varied one too, with familiar items like Gershwin’s Summertime and Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay rubbing shoulders with items from more rarely performed works like Hermann’s Wuthering Heights and Floyd’s Susannah. The inclusion of Anne’s No word from Tom from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress rather stretches the subtitle American Opera Arias a bit, but is possibly justified as Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky were all resident in the US at the time of its composition.

The disc opens with a short extract from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, which was written in 1943 but never staged in Herrmann’s lifetime. In fact it was only premiered in 1982 by Portland Opera, but with the ending changed to one Julius Rudel had proposed several years earlier. It wasn’t performed in full until 2011, by Minnesota Opera. I have dreamt, lusciously sung here by Fleming, woud suggest the opera might be worth further investigation.

The excerpts from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Menotti’s The Medium are both lovely in every way, but the Gershwin items from Porgy and Bess suffer from a lack of spontaneity. Fleming introduces all sorts of jazzy slides and glottal attacks which simply sound affected. Leontyne Price sings this music much more simply and allows it to blossom on its own.

The considerable difficulties of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are tossed off with ease and here she captures the irony in the piece marvellously. It’s a piece that, unsurprisingly, many opera singers have added to their repertoire but few of them challenge the original interpreter, Broadway star Barbara Cook, who created the role and whose diction is a good deal more clear. To be honest, the only “operatic” version I’ve heard that does is Dawn Upshaw’s, but Fleming’s is certainly amongst the best.

Next we have two pieces from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which brought back happy memories of seeing Fleming in the role at the Met shortly after she recorded these exceprts. She is at her considerable best here, flooding the gratefully lyrical lines with gorgeous tone, but also capturing the character’s longing for adventure in the first, her loneliness in the second.

Finally we have a reminiscence of her Anne Trulove, which she sang at the Aspen Music Festival in 1987 and a taster of her Blanche Dubois in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she premiered soon after making this recording. She has a richer voice than most Annes, but negotiates its complexities with ease and her Blanche is simply hors concours. The aria I want magic was an obvious high spot when she sang the role in London with the LSO, but I rather wish they had also included the final aria, I can smell the sea air, which had a huge effect on me each time I heard it whilst waiting in the wings to make my entrance as the doctor. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

Sandwiched between the Stravinsky and the Previn we have Vanessa’s passionate Act I aria from Barber’s opera, which left me wondering why nobody had thought to revive the opera with Fleming in the title role. It would have suited her perfectly.

If I have any reservations, aside from those I mentioned about the Gershwin pieces, I’d have to say that her diction could be clearer. Other than that, this is an absorbing and rewarding programme stunningly sung and beautifully executed. Don’t hesitate.

A Spanish Songbook – Jill Gomez

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What an utterly charmng and delightful disc this, cleverly planned and beautifully executed.

With her distinctive timbre and wonderfully expressive voice, Gomez’s personality fairly bursts through the speakers and she is superbly supported here by John Constable on the piano, who unerringly captures the mood of the songs. You feel as if these two artists really enjoy making music together, and indeed their association is a long one, having first appeared on disc together twenty years earlier. Gomez would have been in her early fifties when the present disc was recorded but the voice has hardly changed in the intervening years.

What we have here is a compendium of Spanish inflluenced songs by German, French and English composers, as well as songs by Spanish composers, covering a wide range of styles and eras. The programming is eminently sensible and makes for very satisfying listening.

We start with a group of sixteenth century Villancios from the courts of Charles V and Philip II in piano arrangements by Graciano Tarragó., which encourage the kind of decoration and improvisation of the 16th century vilancico. Fuenllana’s De los alamos vengo, madre is no doubt better known from Rodrigo’s orchestral arrangement, but Gomez sparkles quite as much here.

From thence we turn to a group of Spanish influenced songs by Wolf and Schumann, in which Gomez captures perfectly the deep melancholy of Schumann’s Tief im Herzen trag’ ich Pein as well as the girlish coquettishness of Wolf’s In dem Schatten meiner Locken. Spain has always provided a deep vein of inspiration for French composers, so we are next treated to a group of songs by Bizet, Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Délibes in which Gomez’s sense of style is impeccable.

Next come the three Granados Tornadillas, in which we are probably more used to hearing the fuller, chestier sound of someone like Conchita Supervia. Gomez intelligently, rather than copy her style, is more languorous. I might prefer Supervia’s vibrancy, but Gomez’s way is just as valid.

The two Walton songs, both taken from Façade, find Gomez pointing the Sitwell’s lyrics deliciously and lead us into the final group, which Gomez calls “Seven Other Popular Songs”. The first three songs are by Roberto Gerhard, who, s an exile from Franco’s Spain, had relocated to Cambridge in the UK in 1942, where he lived until his death in 1970. These are his versions of folk-songs collected by his teacher, Felipe Pedrell. bittersweet souvenirs of a composer in exile. The others are by Tarrago, Rodrigo, Guridi and Obradors. Gomez is yet again is a wonderful guide through this musical journey of Spain, brilliantly capturing the mood of each song.

An excellent recital that should be a lot better known than it is.

Barbara Hendricks – Ravel and Duparc

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What a gorgeous disc this is. Quite why Hendricks’ version of Ravel’s Shéhérazade is not as famous as those by such as Crespin, Baker and De Los Angeles is beyond me for not only is the singing ravishing, but the orchestral playing under John Eliot Gardener superb, and quite a lot better than that of the Suisse-Romande on Crespin’s recording. Furthermore, though born in America, Hendricks has lived in Europe since 1977 and in Basel, Switzerland since 1985 and her French is virtually flawless.

The disc opens with Ravel’s Shéhérazade and the opening measures of Asie are sung with a gorgeous sensuality, which then gives way to girlish delight when she sings of sailing away on a schooner. What a vivid story-teller she is, alive to every change of mood and how beautifully she is accompanied by Gardiner, who brings out fabulous detail in the orchestral score, without losing its sensuous exoticism. In la flûte enchantée she is suitably languid, until the voice breaks out with a real burst of joy, when she describes the flute alternately pouring forth sadness and joy, whilst L’indifférent is deliciously ambiguous.

The rest of the Ravel programme is hardly less fine. My notes are peppered with words like gorgeous, sensual, exotic for the Mélodies hébraîques, which perfectly suits their colourful musical language, but the singer of the Mélodies populaires grecques is evidently younger, more innocently coquettish, the tone more forwardly produced, though I do slightly miss Victoria De Los Angeles’s delightful simplicity in the final song, Tout gai. The Vocalise en forme de Habanera returns us to the sensuality of the Hebrew songs and is absolutely ravising.

The Duparc songs are not quite up to the standard of the Ravel, but still very worth having. Both L’invitation au voyage and Au pays oû se fait la guerre really require a greater range of tone colour and Le manoir de Rosemonde lacks a little in drama. Best of all are a flowingly lyrical Chanson triste and a sexily indolent Phydilé though others, like Teyte and Baker, have encompassed its climax with greater ease.

Nevertheless this is a gorgeous disc, one of the best versions of the Ravel pieces around and, if the Duparc songs aren’t quite at the same level of excellence, they are still very fine indeed.

Renée Fleming – Night Songs

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Where does the time go? I can’t believe it is almost twenty years since I worked with Renée Fleming when the London Symphony Orchestra put on a semi-staged production of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Barbican Hall with Previn himself conducting. I only had a very minor role, but I found Fleming to be a very gracious lady, an arch professional and a conscientious artist. The rehearsals and performances are amongst my fondest memories and I will never forget the experience of hearing that voice close to, with her literally singing into my ear on occasion. The final Korngold-like aria Blanche sings before being taken away to the asylum was possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

I mention this to put into context my reactions to listening to this recital, which I wanted to like much more than I did. The recording was made in 2001 when the voice had acquired a new richness in the middle and lower ranges whilst retaining its beauty and ease up on high, even throughout its compass and admirably firm, with no trace of hardness when singing at full tilt. As it seems now we have said goodbye to Fleming, the classical arists it is good to be reminded that this was one of the most ravishing instruments of the last thirty years or so. She has always had a fairly eclectic repertoire which embraced both opera and song, covering a wide range of different composers and styles, but I’ve always thought her best suited to the music of Mozart and Strauss.

Hence it is the songs by Strauss and Joseph Marx which make the stongest impression, especially Cäcilie, its radiant close easily and ravishingly voiced. The Marx songs suit her well too, their sensuous expressivity responding well to the heady beauty of Fleming’s voice. Thibaudet is also superb in the tricky accompaniments, tossing off their difficulties as if they are the easiest things in the world.

Elsewhere I am not so sure this operatic vocal effulgence is what I want to hear. I found myself longing for the greater simplicity and cleaner vocal production of a Victoria De Los Angeles in the Fauré, the slight touch of irony and cool detachment brought to Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis by a Régine Crespin. The Rachmaninov, with their heavier accompaniments, perhaps respond better to this operatic treatment, but I find it just too sophisticated and even here I prefer a slightly simpler, more direct approach.

However enjoyable it is to hear one of the most beautiful voices of recent times whatever the circumstances, ultimately there are other discs I would pull out first when wanting to sample Fleming at her best.

Furore- Joyce DiDonato

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This disc was, I think, DiDonato’s first ever recital record. It was recorded during and after performances at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2008, though there is precious little sign of any audience. Since then of course DiDonato has become a major star with quite a few recital discs under her belt.

DiDonato first came to my attention when the Aix-en-Provence festival brought their superb Luc Bondy production of Hercules to the Barbican in 2006. Her Dejanira was a compelling study in irrational jealousy and eventual mental degradation, all perfectly at the service of the music, so, when this recital was issued, I eagerly snatched it up. However, at the time, I found it a little disappointing and couldn’t quite work out why. The singing is wonderfully accomplished, her command of coloartura quite superb, with none of that awful rat-a-tat explosiveness that one gets from Bartoli.

The problem would appear to be one of communicatin. The voice itself, at least as recorded here, just lacks that last ounce of individuality and, possibly a fault of the recording producer rather than the singer, she had as yet not learned to project character and emotion solely through sound. Predictably, and no doubt because she had stage experience of the role, the solos from Dejanira are the most vivid, especially the dramatic outbursts in Where shall I fly. Another highspot is Ariodante’s Scherza infida, which she sings with melting tone and imbues with a sense of utter, aching desolation. What is missing elsewhere is that last degree of exitement.

The excellent accompaniments are by Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset and I am reminded that shortly after acquiring the disc I attended a concert at the Barbican, in which these same artists performed most of the music on this disc. The diminutive DiDonato came onto the stage looking a little like a young Bette Midler, wearing a tight long black skirt and sequined boob tube, her hair a shock of blond curls round her shoulders. However any thoughts of Midler were soon dispelled the moment she began to sing as we were treated to two hours of magnicent singing with DiDonato running the gamut of emotions. Clearly DiDonato needs an audience.

Lucia Popp sings Mozart Arias

Lucia Popp was, still is, one of the world’s most loved soprano. I only had the pleasure of hearing her live once, in the mid 1980s at a recital at the Barbican at which she sang Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben at around the same time most of this disc was recorded. Though she didn’t speak until introducing her encores at the end (gorgeous Strauss songs, if I remember correctly), she had a winning personality and a sort of relaxed, casual manner that made you feel you were one of a few friends she had invited into her living room for an evening of song.

She was an accomplished Mozart singer and the first part of this recital was recorded at the time she was making the transition from roles like Zerlina, Blonde, Despina and Susanna to the Countess, Konstanze, Fiordilgi and the two Donne in Don Giovanni. She had an immediately recognisable sound, the voice bright and silvery, though, by the mid 1980s, it is possible to detect a slight tarnish on its purity at the very top, which I don’t hear in the sacred arias recorded in 1967 when she was in her late 20s. Nonetheless she makes a convincing Fiordiligi managing the wide leaps with dramatic aplomb. Both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira also go well. Not surprisingly, considering her early prowess as a coloratura, she tosses of Anna’s flourishes with an ease that would be the envy of most dramatic sopranos.

I don’t know if she ever sang Cherubino on stage, but his character is caught beautifully in a wide-eyed Voi che sapete, whilst the Countess’s Porgi amor is not only sung with poise but captures her aching loneliness. However, my favourite tracks in this first recital are the opening L’ameró, saro constante from Il ré pastore, Illia’s ideally floated Zeffiretti lusinghieri and, best of all, Susanna’s Deh vieni, non tardar, which captures to perfection the tender ambiguity of the piece.

When we move to the sacred arias from 1967, it is to hear a voice which is brighter, firmer and purer, perfectly suited to the music she is singing here, but it is still recognisably the same voice. Occasionally one is aware, both in 1967 and 1983, of what John Steane referred to as the “tooth-paste squeeze” method, her legato not quite perfect, but for the most part this is a lovely voice, well schooled and with a strong personality.

Dame Janet Baker – The Great Recordings

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This exhaustive twenty disc box was, when it was first released on EMI, more properly called The Great EMI Recordings. The deletion of the word EMI from the titele has something to do with the conditions of the sale, of EMI to Warner but the original title is more representative of the contents, as Dame Janet also made “great” recordings  for Decca, Philips and Hyperion. Aside from Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and the final scenes from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, this set includes no opera. Still, the range is wide, covering music from Monteverdi to Schoenberg and, as it also includes excerpts from various complete recordings of orotorios, covers just about everything she ever recorded for EMI and later Virgin Classics. The quality is extrordinarily high and it is safe to say that she never made a bad record and many of them are out and out classics.

The lay out is mostly logical, starting with early music and moving forward in time, but cramming shorter LP recordings onto twenty well-filled CDs has inevetably led to the occasional odd juxtaposition. Most of the recordings cover her vocal prime, from 1966 through the 1970s. Shortly after she retired she made a few recordings with Richard Hickox in 1989 and 1990 and only these show a slight decline in her vocal resources, though the artistry remains undimmed.

Disc one starts with a 1969 recording of music by Monteverdi, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti with the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard rounded off by excerpts from a duet recital with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970. Leppard’s souped up arrangements of the Monteverdi might seem anachronistic now, but Baker’s impassioned singing of Arianna’s Lament and Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from L’Incoronazione di Poppea transcends any matters of style. The duet items (music by Schütz, Schein and Lilius) have continuo realisations by George Malcolm, who plays the organ with Kenneth Heath on the cello and are delightful in every way.

Disc two gives us the first side of an LP called A Pageant of English Song, which had songs by Dowland and Campion accompanied on the lute, and by Purcell, Monro (I can’t think of his My lovely Cecilia without having Baker’s smiling tone in my head) Boyce and Arne, with accompaniments by Martin Isepp on harpsichord. More duets with Fischer-Dieskau round off the disc, some of these taken from a 1969 Queen Elizabeth Hall recital with Barenboim on the piano.

From here we move to Bach for the next two discs, the wonderful performance of Ich habe genug under Menuhin being particularly noteworthy. A Bach recital, which she recorded wit Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner is spread over the two discs, which finished with the alto arias from Klemperer’s 1967 recording of the Mass in B minor. What a superb Bach singer she was.

We move onto Handel, a composer with whom Baker was particularly associated. Mackerras’s recording of Messiah was one of the first to make a stab in the direction of HIP. It was also the first one I ever owned, Baker’s contribution being particularly memorable. Her version of He was despised is incredibly moving. The two Handel cantatas are listed as arr. Leppard, but I’m not sure what those ‘arrangements’ involve. Baker is, as always, a superb Handelian.

The Haydn and Beethoven Folk Song Arrangements, which follow on the next disc, rather outstay their welcome, for me anyway, even in performances as special and imaginative as these, which means that the ensuing Schumann and Brahms duets from the QEH concert come as something of a relief.

Discs seven and eight are all Schubert, taken, for the most part, from a two disc set she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1971, which included quite a few rarities and a 1980 recital with Geofrrey Parsons of more popular fare. Amongst so many great performances, it’s hard to name favourites, but I doubt I’ve ever heard a better performance of Du bist die Ruh, which is not only deeply felt but also displays the perfection of her tehcnique and her superb breath control.

A few more Schubert songs start the ninth disc, which then continues with a Mendelssohn recital with Geofrrey Parsons and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben with Daniel Barenboim. One of the first records Janet Baker ever made was of the Schumann cycle, for the Saga label before she was contracted to EMI. It was released to much acclaim, but this one delves that much deeper and is indeed one of the greatest recordings of Schumann’s cycle in the catalogue. The Mendelssohn songs are perhaps not so memorable or so wide ranging as Schubert’s but Baker makes the best case for them, but the Schumann cycle is the real prize of this disc.

The tenth disc gives us the second side of her Schumann LP with Barenboim, a wonderful performance of the Opus 39 Liederkreis, and the whole of an all Brahms programme with Previn at the piano, the two songs for alto and viola (Cecil Aronowitz) and the Vier ernste Gesänge are deeply felt and wonderfully accompanied.

A Liszt recital (with Geoffrey Parsons) starts disc eleven, an excellent selection of songs, which are not performed as often as they should be. Baker and Parsons make the very best case for them. These are followed by a small selection from Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch and a couple of Mahler’s youthful songs.

Disc twelve is something of a mixed bag and brings together recordings from the beginning and end of Dame Janet’s career, a selection of Strauss songs from an early EMI recital disc, the Song of the Wood Dove from Ferencsik’s 1968 recording of Gurrelieder and Respighi’s La Sensitiva from recording sessions made for Virgin Classics in 1990, a gap of some twenty-three years. I suppose you can detect a slight loosening of the vibrations, but the voice is still very firm and the artistry undimmed. Some may hear a slight lack of spontaneity in the 1967 Strauss songs (absent from the 1973 recording of Ständchen) and I’d have to admit I prefer the sound of a soprano in these songs, but I’d still rather too much care than too little. The Schoenberg might seem an unexpected piece for Dame Janet, but she is absoutely superb here, wonderfully intense and dramatically involved and the Respighi, recorded just after she had retired from the concert platform, is a lovely performance, warmly sung and senisitively phrased.

Disc thirteen is all of song with orchestra. The Brahms Alto Rhapsody was originally used as a filler for Boult’s Brahms Symphony cycle, then reissued as a makeweight for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and a selction of Strauss songs Baker and Boult recorded in 1975. The Alto Rhapsody and the Wagner are absolutely superb, indeed among the most recommendable versions of these songs. The Strauss songs suit her less well, but I’m still glad to have them.

This legendary recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures has never been equalled. It was originally issued with Du Pré’s equally legendary recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and is one of the best selling classical records of all time. The disc finishes, fittingly enough with Dame Janet’s wonderfully consoling and radiant singing of the closing pages of The Dream of Gerontius.

Now if I were allowed just one Janet Baker record on that proverbial desert island, I’d be hard pressed to choose between her Mahler and her Berlioz and  the next two discs are dedicated to these two composers.

Disc fourteen gathers together all the Mahler recordings she made with Barbirolli and adds Urlicht from Rattle’s acclaimed recording of the Second Symphony. All three cycles are amongst the best recordings of these songs ever made. The Rückert Lieder were originally issued on the fourth side of Barbirolli’s famous recording of the 5th Symphony with the New Philharmonia, the other two cycles having been recorded a couple of years earlier with the Hallé. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was recorded at the same time and used as a fill-up, which explains why they recorded the song twice. If I were to use one piece of music to illustrate the genius of Janet Baker, then it would undoubtedly be one of these two versions of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The song is not so much sung as experienced and you can really feel the connection between singer and conductor. To be honest, there is very little to choose between the two performances; maybe the later one is even more withdrawn, even more self-communing. When I listen to either I feel as if I too am lost to the world.

Disc fifteen is also one of the most desirable discs in this set. Baker was a great Berlioz singer and it has always been a huge cause for regret that she never recorded the role of Didon, making these excerpts more treasurable than ever. She recorded La mort de Cléopâtre again for Philips under Davis, another superbly impassioned and dramatic performance, but she is in slightly fresher voice here.

This Barbirolli recording of Les nuits d’été is, I think, her finest and indeed one of the greatest performances of the songs ever committed to disc. In his survey of the then available recordings for Song on Record 2, David Cairns makes it a top recommendation alongside Steber/Mitropoulos. She is possibly a little stiff in Villanelle but all is glorious after that and, with the inestimable help of Barbirolli, she unerringly captures the mood of each of the four middle songs especially. Le spectre de la rose is taken slowly but never drags, and the tempo gives her ample time to fill out the phrases, its climax gorgeously radiant.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade, which opens disc sixteen, was recorded at the same time as Baker’s superb Les nuits d’été and is wonderfully sung, though I’d say she misses that hint of inuendo in the last song that you get from Crespin. Nonetheless this is a beautiful performance of the cycle. The Chausson and Duparc were recorded ten years later, and there is a slight detioration in the quality of the voice, the vibrations have loosened a bit and there is a slight feeling of strain. She sings the Chausson with a greater sense of freedom in a live performance under Svetlanov only a few years earlier, but this is still a great performance with Previn and the LSO offering superb support as they do in the Duparc.

D’amour l’ardent flamme from La Damnation de Faust, which closes the disc, is one of the greatest ever recorded and it’s too bad that it is taken from a not very recommendable performance of the work under Georges Prêtre. If only Baker had been the Marguerite on Davis’s Philips recording of 1973, in which Gedda got to reprise his Faust under much happier circumstances. Baker joins Callas and Verrett as my favourites for this piece.

Baker was also a renowned interpreter of French song with piano and the lion’s share of disc seventeen is given over to A French Song Recital, which she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1969, songs by Duparc, Fauré and Debussy. It was logical to add the French items from a mixed bag recital of a couple of years later. These songs by Hahn, Massenet, Chabrier and Gounod demonstrate Baker’s prowess in a lighter vein. The Berlioz orchestral songs were originally coupled to her final recording of Les nuits d’été, recorded right at the end of her career. The voice is not quite the same as it was twenty years earlier, admittedly, but to be honest, very few allowances have to be made for the passing years.

One of the first discs Baker ever recorded was a recital of British songs, for the Saga label, and English song would often be a part of her concert recitals. This eighteenth disc brings together the second side of A Pageant of English Song (you might remember the first side was included on Disc 2). This time the composers are Parry, Stanford (a superbly impassion performance of La belle dame sans merci), Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Ireland , Gurney and Warlock, and the English items from her Favourites album. She was also much associated with the music of Benjamin Britten, but all her recordings were made for Decca, so it is good to have this one excerpt from Previn’s recording of his Spring Symphony.

When Walton’s Troilus and Cressida was revived at Covent Garden in 1976, Walton re-wrote the role for a mezzo, specifically so that Baker could sing it. The performances were recorded and the disc is filled out with three excerpts from that recording.

The penultimate disc starts with the remaining item from her 1972 Favourites album (Mendlessohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges) and continues with two arias from the 1968 Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Elijah, her singing of O rest in the Lord sung with a sincerity and compassion that enfolds you in its warm embrace.

It was perhaps an unfortunate idea to present the Mendelssohn Psalm of twenty years later straight after, for she sounds uncharacteristically tentative and strained in the solos, which are, in any case, designated for soprano. The concert aria that follows fares a little better as the tessitura lies slightly lower, but these are not performances I would want to listen to often. On the other hand, the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, recorded the same year, is rather wonderful and probably the gem of these late sessions. It lies a lot lower of course, so the sounds a great deal more comfortable, and it is a wonderful memento of the moving performance I heard these same artists give of the work at the Barbican round about the time of this recording and shortly before she retired. As in the live performance, the moment when the music shifts from the minor to the major is a moment of pure magic. This is definitely the prize of these late recording sessions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the final disc in this wonderful set is the only one I would call dispensable, though I was actually pleasantly surprised by this 1990 performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. She takes a little less time over the songs now, and this performance comes in around three minutes shorter than the Barbirolli. She still has an innate understanding of Berlioz and the way to shape and mould the phrases, but there is also a slight feeling of her husbanding her resources where the Barbirolli (and the live Giulini) find her in full vocal plenitude. They are still the ones I would reach for when wanting to hear Baker in this work.

The remaning items are from a 1980 disc called Songs for Sunday which will no doubt be more to some people’s taste than to mine. She sings with her customary sincerity and generosity of spirit, but I don’t really respond to the religious sentimentality of the material.

However these twenty discs have confirmed for me Baker’s place as one of the greatest singers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Her records continue to educate and enthral. There is something so personal about Baker’s art, a sense of total identification with the composer in question and an innate ability to capture the right mood of each song. This goes hand in hand with a gift for communication which is vouchsafed to only a few. Just occasionally one can be aware of the huge amount of thought that has gone into each interpretation, but I’d rather too much intelligence than too little. It has been  interesting too to hear her collaborations with so many different musicians. How lucky we are that she left behind her such a rich and varied legacy.

 

Leontyne Price – The Ultimate Collection

In many ways this is an infuriating compilation, not because of anything to do with Mme Price herself, but because of the shoddy presentation, which does her, and her colleagues on this disc, no service whatsoever. The skimpy booklet lists the arias on the discs, bit not one word about their provenance, who is conducting, what year the record was made or indeed anything at all to place them in context. Even Manon Lescaut is spelled wrongly on the front cover. All we get is a puff about her career and the unhelpful information on the back of the disc that the compilation was issued in 1999. Texts and translations are hardly to be expected these days, but I do like to at least know a bit about the date of the recording, the orchestra, conductor and other singers who appear.

There is a good chance of course that I am not the target audience. Maybe most people who buy the set are happy just to put the discs on, sit back and let the gorgeous voice pour out some familiar tunes, which, for the most part, is what we get, the least well known piece here being the excerpt from Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

At least the selection concentrates mostly on her strengths, so we get fine examples of her Aida, both the Leonoras, her Carmen and a liberal sprinkling of Puccini arias, which are beautifully sung if not particularly specific in character. The weakest items here are the Mozart arias and Dido’s Lament, regally voiced but impassively emotionless. However there are some very impressive performances here, particularly those taken, I assume, from complete performances of Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino and Aida, roles for which she was well suited. The voice was certainly one of the glories of its age, with a dark plangency particularly suited to the melancholy of characters like Aida and Leonora.

That said, I would have to say that, personally, I find this hotchpotch kind of compilation, which concentrates on the singer rather than the music, completely unsatisfactory. As it happens, I am, at the moment, also working my way through the Janet Baker twenty disc Great Recordings box, which I suppose one could also legitimally call a hotchpotch. If I am finding this a much more rewarding listening experience, it presumably has something to do with the better, more logical programming, and also the greater specificity of Baker’s art.

Dipping in and extracting arias here and there from this set will proabably afford the most pleasure and maybe that is what one is supposed to do with a compilation like this.

Callas sings Medea – Dallas, November 1958

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This is another of those Callas performances that has acquired legendary status and so first a few details to set it in context. In the weeks prior to her appearance in Dallas Callas had been in dispute with Bing over the scheduled programme for her next Metropolitan Opera season. Though they had agreed the operas (Macbeth and La Traviata) they had not agreed the schedule and it transpired that Rudolf Bing had programmed the two operas to alternate with each other. Callas argued that this would be too hard on her voice, as the requirements for each were so different, asking that all the performances for one should be over before she embarked on the other. Bing avered that he was giving her ample time to rest inbetween operas and that he wasn’t prepared to change the schedule. His complete lack of understanding of the different needs of the tw roles was further exemplified by his suggestion that they replace La Traviata with Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera even further away from the demands of Macbeth. The wrangling continued for some time until Bing very publicly “fired Callas”, issuing a statement to the press in which he was photographed tearing up her contract. This on the eve of her first performance of Medea in Dallas.

Callas was incensed, granting a press conference to give her side of the story in her dressing room as she prepared for the prima, in which, as can be heard on this recording, she sings with a security and power that had recently eluded her. It was as if she was determined to show Bing and New York just what they were missing. The result is a performance of incredible fire and attack and, along with live performances from Florence and La Scala in 1953, one of her greatest recorded performances of the opera.

Dallas was certainly in a high state of excitement and the audience as heard on this recording can be noisy, applauding the sets at the opening of each act and granting Callas an ovation on her entrance that almost stops the show completely. She had opened the season with a beautiful new production of La Traviata directed by Zeffirelli. For Medea a completely Greek team had been assembled. The opera was to be directed by the eminent theatre director, Alexis Minotis (husband of acclaimed classical actress Katina Paxinou) with designs by Yannis Tsarouchis. Minotis, who was famous for his productions of Greek tragedies, in which he sought to recapture the style of expression and gesture used in the time of Aeschylus, was startled one day in rehearsal to see Callas do a movement he and Paxinou had been discussing for future use. Callas was kneeling in a frenzy, beating the floor to summon the gods. Minotis asked her why she had done it. “I felt it would be the right thing to do for this moment in the drama,” she replied. How she felt this, Minotis could not explain but he felt that certain things just flowed in her blood. Certainly one gets a sense of the sheer physicality of the performance from photographs and snippets of film from this and subsequent productions of the opera Callas did with Minotis in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala.

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Nicola Rescigno, who prepared his own edition of the score, conducts a tautly dramatic performance, less classically inclined than Gui and Serafin, more akin to Bernstein at La Scala, and his cast is arguably the best ever assembled for a Callas Medea. Jon Vickers, who sang Giasone to her Medea not only here in Dallas, but in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala, easily outclasses the tenors in any of her other recordings and one senses the deep rapport that existed between them. Nicola Zaccaria is a firm, sonorous Creon and Elizabeth Carron, with her clear, bright soprano characterises well as Glauce. One also notes the presence of Judith Raskin, the soprano soloist in George Szell’s famous recording of Mahler’s 4th, as the First Handmaiden, making sure the performance gets off to a fine start. As Neris, the young Teresa Berganza (she was only 25 at the time) was making her US debut, singing her aria with a grave beauty. In later years, she related how Callas took her under her wing and how generous she was in making her acknowledge the applause after her aria. So much for the capricious, unreasonable prima donna, sacked by Rudolf Bing.

Callas herself is in blazing form, her entrance carrying with it a threat of menace that makes not only the people of Corinthrecoil in fear , but the listener too. However in her exchanges with Giasone (Ricordi il giorno tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta?, which was always a special moment in Callas’s performances, wreathed in melting sounds) and in her plaintive singing of Dei tuoi figli we are made aware that it is love, not vengeance that brings Medea to Corinth.

As usual with Callas, her performance is cumulative and she will give  as much attention to a line of recitative as to the evident high spots. As John Steane says in The Grand Tradition,

She will seize the moment, say of noble or tragic decision, summoning all the dramatic force of what has gone before, evoking our knowledge of what the consequences are to be and focusing precisely upon the moment on which all depends.

He was talking generally, but a superb example of this is in the two Act II duets with Creon and Giasone. In the duet with Creon, when she sings Che mai vi posso far, se il duol mi frange il cor? Come mai rifiutar un giorno al mio dolor, un sol dì al mio dolor? you know that she is formulating a plan, and then subsequently the duet with Giasone is a masterstroke of dramatic timing. Having got Giasone to demonstrate his love for his children, she sings the aside Oh gioia! Ei li ama ancor! Or so che far dovrò! with suppressed joy, before she launches into Figli miei, miei tesor in the most beseeching tones imaginable.

The last act is a lesson of contrasts. Momentarily weakening in the scene with her children, her cries of O figli miei, io v’amo tanto lke those of a wounded soul are silenced by the triumphal viciousness of La uccida, o Numi, l’empio giubilo. From there to the end of the opera, she is a cauldron of evil and revenge, the like of which you will never hear from any other singer.

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The only alarming thing about this performance is that it is the last time we hear her sing with such power and confidence. There are still some wonderful performances to come, but nowhere does she display the kind of vocal security she does here, which makes it doubly fortunate that the performance has been preserved in sound.

Callas’s Norma – 7 December 1955

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1955 had been a spectacular year for Callas, though its beginning was inauspicious. She had been scheduled to start the year singing one of her speciality roles, Leonora in Il Trovatore, at La Scala, but Del Monaco, who was to have sung Manrico pleaded indisposition, though oddly he felt well enough to sing Andrea Chénier (who knows the vicissitudes of tenors), so La Scala made a substitution. Callas could have stepped down, but learned the role of Maddalena in a few days. The opera, a La Scala favourite, had a big success, but the role was hardly one in which her rarified gifts could shine, and is omething of a curiosity in the Callas cannon. Thereafter she went from one major success to another. She sang Medea in Rome and followed it with three productions at La Scala, which have entered the realms of legend, the Visconti productions of La Sonnambula and La Traviata, and, by way of contrast, Zeffirelli’s production of Il Turco in Italia. During the summer she recorded Aida, Madama Butterfly and Rigoletto then in September she had a massive success in Karajan’s La Scala production of Lucia di Lammermoor, when the opera toured to Berlin. The autumn saw her back in Chicago for her second season, where she sang Elvira in I Puritani, Leonora in Il Trovatore (perfection according to her co-star Jussi Bjoerling) and her only stage performances of Madama Butterfly. Truly 1955 had been her anus mirabilis and she closed it with what, by common consent, is the greatest recorded performance of her signature role, Norma.

First a word about the differences between this Divina transfer and most others you will hear. Divina’s remaster is from a first generation master tape and the sound is very good, certainly the best I’ve heard. As the first fifteen minutes were not recorded, like other companies Divina have included music from another performance, but whereas other labels do not credit it, Divina tells us they used a 1965 performance under Gavazzeni for the overture and Oroveso’s first aria, and the Rome broadcast of 1955 under Serafin for part of the recitative before Pollione’s Act I aria. There was some radio interference in Norma’s long solo at the beginning of Act II, and most issues substituted the same scene from the Rome broadcast of the same year, but Divina have left it as it stands to retain the integrity of the La Scala performance, and so as not to lose some of Callas’s most moving singing. It lasts only a few seconds and is easy to live with.

The La Scala season starts every year on December 7th, and for the fourth time in five years, Callas had been given the honour of a new production to open the season. The last time she had sung Norma there was in 1952, the year she first became a permanent member of the La Scala company. The La Scala years saw a period of incredible artistic achievement and there is no doubt that by this time Callas had become the reigning queen of La Scala. The new production was by Margherita Wallman, with designs by Nicola Benois and the starry cast included Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa and Nicola Zaccaria as Oroveso.

Callas is in fabulous form from the outset, stamping her authority on the performance, and the Druids, in her opening recitatives, her voice taking on a veiled, mysterious quality when she sings about reading the secret books of heaven, before singing a mesmeric Casta diva. The repeated As up to B harden slightly in the first verse, but that hardness has dissipated by the second verse and therafter the voice seems to be responding to her every whim. The linking recitative between cavatina and cabaletta was always a high point of her performances, with that wondrous change of colour at Ma punirlo il cor non sa, leading her into the cabaletta. It’s a jaunty tune with plenty of opportunity for display, but Callas somehow invests it with a private melancholy available to few others. I find it impossible to think of the words Ah riedi ancora, qual eri allora without hearing Callas’s peculiarly plaintive voice in my mind’s ear.

The duets with Simionato are also high points of the performance. The two singers first appeared together in Mexico in 1950 and became life long friends. Before these La Scala performances, they had sung together in the opera in Mexico, Catania, London (in 1953) and Chicago. Though the pairing of Callas with Stignani had become a famous one, Simionato was a better fit for the role than Stignani, who both looked and sounded too mature, and no downward transpositions had to be made to accomodate her. Furthermore their voices blended well, and you can sense the deep rapport that existed between them after so many performances together. It is great cause for regret that Simionato was contracted to Decca and therefore never appeared on any of Callas’s studio recordings.

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There are so many things to cherish in this first duet, particularly the wistful way Callas’s Norma recollects the dawning of her love for Pollione and then the fullness of heart with which she consoles Adalgisa at Ah tergi il pianto. However the most arresting moment is in the cabaletta to the duet when she hits a top C forte, then makes a diminuendo on the note before cascading down a perfect ‘string of pearls’ scale, eliciting audible gasps of disbelief from the audience.

Having been all warmth in the duet, her voice flashes out in anger in the trio, the coloratura flourishes hurled out with terrific force, the top Cs like scalpel attacks. The act comes to an exciting end as Callas takes a thrilling, rock solid top D, which she holds ringingly for several bars.

The opening of Act II, a mixture of recitative and arioso akin in some ways to Rigoletto’s Pari siamo, always provoked some of Callas’s most moving singing. What other singer matches her range of tone colour in this scene? I’m thinking of the hard tone at schiavi d’una matrigna when she contemplates the fate of her children at the hands of a stepmother, and the way she drains the tone of colour at un gel mi prende e in fronte mi si solleva il crin so that it becomes a literal expression of her hair standing up on end. This leads to wonderfully tender singing as she looks at her sleeping children, and of course ultimately she cannot bring herself to kill them, her voice drenched with maternal love at son i miei figli.

The following duet, one of the most famous in the bel canto repertoire is, even more than the Act I duet, a perfect example of two artists at one with each other, their voices intertwining and their timing perfect. Not unsurprisingly it provokes rapturous applause from the audience.

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Callas’s performances were always cumulative and the final scene is almost unbearably moving as Callas takes us through the gamut of emotions, from the almost youthful joy with which she sings Ei tornera spinning out the melisma on come del primo amor ai di felici, through suppressed anger and barely contained rage to ultimate peace and magnanimity, heart-wringinly moving in her final plea for her children. But what we should always remember is how musically her effects are made, her phrasing and the way she shapes the musical line, her sense of rubato unparalleled. Another moment that has entered the history books is her singing of the words son io when Norma confesses her guilt. Apparently she would simply take the wreath from her head and you can almost hear the moment she does it. The audience respond with a sort of corporate moan. Was Ponselle ever as moving as this? Was Pasta? We will never know, but at least with Callas we have recorded evidence. So much is Callas’s way with the role imprinted on my subconscious that inevitably I find all others wanting. Her Norma is so complete, so all enveloping that it remains unchallenged to this day and we are fortunate indeed that this performance, which captures that moment in her career when art and technique reached their truest equilibrium, was captured in sound.

For the rest, Simionato is arguably the best Adalgisa Callas ever sang with and is in terrific form here. Zaccaria is a sympathetic and sonorous Oroveso. Del Monaco makes up for his lack of coloratura with a voice of heroic, clarion splendour and Votto, though he pales next to Serafin, is the perfect accompanist, which, with such a cast, is perhaps all he needed to be.

Great Normas have always been thin on the ground, though all sorts of unsuitable singers appear to be attempting it these days, but let no one think they have truly heard the opera until they have heard a performance with a great protagonist. The studio recordings have their value in enjoying better sound, but I have no hesitation giving this one the prize as the best of all Callas’s recorded Normas.