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.

 

 

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.