New Year, New Blog

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

Callas sings Verdi Arias (Revisited)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montserrat Caballé – Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi Rarities

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Rossini: Arias from La Donna Del Lago, Otello, Stabat Mater, Armida, Tancredi and L’assedio di Corinto
Donizetti: Arias from Belisario, Parisina d’Este. Torquato Tasso, Gemma di Vergy
Verdi: Arias from Un Giorno di Regno, I Lombardi, I due Foscari, Alzira, Attila, Il Corsaro and Aroldo

These two discs bring together the three LPs of bel canto Rarities Montserrat Caballé recorded shortly after she rocketed to stardom singing Lucrezia in Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in 1965, a last minute replacement for an ailing Marilyn Horne. Each record was devoted to a different composer. The first two, Rossini and early Verdi, were recorded in Italy in 1967 with the RCA Italiana Chorus and Orchestra and the Donizetti with the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus in 1969. Carlo Felice Cillario was the conductor for the Rossini and Donizetti, Anton Guadagno for the Verdi and the luxury presentation included other singers in the various comprimario roles.

The material was even rarer back then than it is now as vary few of the works represented had ever been recorded, Caballé herself being one of the singers who spearheaded the bel canto revival that occurred after Callas had opened the doors to this repertoire in the previous decade.

These were the years of Caballé’s absolute peak and the voice is in superb condition, without a trace of the hardness that coud afflict her loud high notes in later years. Her breath control is prodigious, but she doesn’t over-exploit her fabulous high pianissimi, which she tended to do in later years, and her singing has an energy and attack which you might find surprising if you only know her from her later recordings, when she tended to slow everything down until it practically came to a halt. If she has a fault, it is that her trills are a little sketchy and occasionally one hears the slight suspicion of an aspirate, but the singing is surpassingly beautiful throughout its range, her legato excellent and the voice even from top to bottom. Characterisation might not be her strong point, but she is always alive to the dramatic situation and her singing is both involved and involving.

The arias on each disc are well chosen and the whole enterprise exudes class. I really can’t think of any singer today who could match her in this repertoire, maybe DiDonato in the Rossini and Donizetti, though she lacks Caballé’s arrestingly beautiful sound. As for Verdi, well we do seem to be experiencing a dearth of good Verdi singers today.

These two discs are a superb memento of a great singer at the height of her powers and should be in the collection of any vocal connoisseur. This particular release comes with full notes, texts and translations which are hardly to be taken for granted these days. Highly recommended.

Maggie Teyte – The Singers

These recordings were all made in the 1930s and so pre-date the two disc set of French song I reviewed a few months ago here, with the second part of the disc being taken from a 1937 radio broadcast. One of the songs (Armstrong Gibbs’ The fields are full of summer still) was newly discovered in 2001 and first published on this CD.

We start with one of Dame Maggie’s most famous performances, that of Périchole’s Tu n’es pas beau, sung with great affection, a twinkle in the eye and with that wonderful dip into her inimitably glorious chest voice. Though a light soprano with pure, firm top notes, Teyte’s lower register was admirably rich and full in a manner we rarely hear today, more’s the pity. The orchestra here sounds like a palm court orchestra at a tea dance, but the singing is another matter entirely and alone well worth the price of the disc. The two excerpts from Messager’s Véronique, which follow are almost as good.

Teyte was particularly renowned for her interpretations of French song, but we are vouchsafed only two (very well known) songs from that field, Fauré’s Après un rêve and Hahn’s Si mes vers avaient des ailes. The Fauré is much better than the one on the French song disc mentioned above, where I felt she fussed with the song too much making it lose its natural flow, and the Hahn is as lovely as the later recording with Gerald Moore. These are followed by two Dvorak songs, Christina’s Lament, which turns out to be his Humoresque arranged for voice and piano, and the ubiquitous Songs my mother taught me, both beautifully sung.

These are followed by a group of songs from light musicals, mementoes of her days spent in British Music Hall. They may be musically slight, but Deep in my heart, dear from Romberg’s The Student Prince was actually one of Dame Maggie’s favourite recordings. It crests with a high B, which she thought the most beautiful note she had ever recorded. Certainly the note rings out clear and clean as a bell.

The lion’s share of the disc, however, is given over to a 1937 BBC broadcast recital, which couples popular songs by Schumann and Brahms to a group of English songs by turn of the century composers Quilter, Bridge, Delius, Armstrong Gibbs and (completely new to me) Amherst Webber and Graham Peel. As ever, the voice is bright and pure, her manner direct and disarming, her diction and intonation well-nigh perfect. Admittedly, there are aspects of her singing which some might find quaint and old fashioned today, but her technique is superb and her voice remained firm and clear well into her sixties.

Perhaps because of some of the material, this is not quite so recommendable as the EMI two disc set of French songs, but I would never want to be without it, if only for the wonderful aria from La Périchole.

Barbara Bonney – Diamonds in the Snow

Barbara Bonney, though American, was once married to the Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, so it is not at all surprising to find her recording a disc of Scandinavian song, though of the composers represented here, only Stenhammar, Alfven and Sjöberg are Swedish, Grieg and Sibelius taking up the lion’s share of the recital.

The recording was made in 1999, by which time Bonney would have been 43, and though the voice retains its springlike freshness and purity, maturity has brought with a new richness and depth that perhaps would not have been available to her a few years earlier. Not only is it a beautiful instrument per se, but it is also beautifully expressive and she easily fills all the requirements of this varied group of songs.

Some of the Grieg songs are well known, but I am guessing that most of the others will be unfamiliar, and whilst there is nothing here to challenge the greatness of song writers like Schubert, Schumann or Wolf, there is plenty to enjoy. The emotional range is wide too and Bonney seizes every opportunity for expression afforded to her.

Pappano, unlike many conductors who have a go at piano accompaniment, offers superb support and the whole disc feels like a wonderful collaboration between two artists totally at one with their vision.

A lovely disc and one of the most enjoyable recitals in my collection. Like Bonney’s disc of early English song, which I reviewed a few months back, this comes with the highest recommendation.

Dawn Upshaw – I Wish It So

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This collection of Broadway songs by Bernstein, Blitztein, Sondheim and Weil is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

Aside from Bernstein’s I feel pretty and, to a lesser extent, his Glitter and be gay none of the items here could be considered well-known and the choice of this particular quartet of composers, all of whom are connected in some way, is felicitous. Furthermore Upshaw’s clear, bright soprano and natural, unforced diction make her the ideal interpreter.

It is rare indeed for classical singers to embrace the idiom of Broadway without sounding self-conscious, but if you didn’t know better, (and I mean this in a positive way) you would never know that Upshaw was also an operatic artist of the first order. Many opera singers have tackled Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay, but none have ever, to my mind, challenged the original performer Barbara Cook, who not only manages to get round the notes, but really puts across the humour in the lyrics; none, that is, except Dawn Upshaw, who actually manages the coloratura with greater ease and beauty, but also points the lyrics with such ironic brilliance.

It is just one of the highlights in an album of sheer delights and I’d be hard pressed to find a favourite but there were many wonderful discoveries, among them Sondheim’s The girls of summer (1956) and the opening track, sung to just piano, Blitztein’s I wish it so from Juno (1959).

Only Glitter and be gay uses the original orchestration, but all the other arrangements are well done and the orchestra play excellently under Eric Stern, who himself was responsible for some of the orchestrations and provides the solo piano accompaniment on I wish it so.

I can’t recommend this disc too highly.

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Jussi Bjørling – O paradiso – Great Opera Arias

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Great Opera Arias announces the subtitle of this disc, but it is actually a mixture of arias and duets, mostly taken from some of Bjørling’s RCA compete opera sets, plus a few excerpts from concerts featuring Bjørling with piano accompaniment. They cover a period from 1951 to 1958, just a couple of years before he died at the age of 51. The date of 1959 given for the duet from Tosca is surely wrong, as it was first issued in 1957. Bjørling sounds terrific by the way, but Milanov is decidedly over the hill and sounds more like Cavaradossi’s mother to me. I don’t much care for her in the Aida duet either to be honest, but she is a singer I’ve never really got on with.

Milanov crops up in the duet from Cavalleria Rusticana as well, and, though it was recorded five years earlier, she still sounds old and, well, blowsy. Bjørling is terrific though, both vocally and dramatically, as he is in the excerpts from the 1952 recording of Il Trovatore, tossing off the free, ringing top Cs in Di quella pira without a hint of strain.

His ardent Des Grieux from the Puccini opera is sampled from the Perlea recording with Licia Albanese, one of his best recorded performances. It is set alongside a performance of the Dream from the Massenet opera, this time in concert with piano, which displays his beautiful mezza voce. Also from this concert is a performance of Don Ottavio’s Il mio tesoro, which is somewhat too muscular in approach and a little short breathed when compared to versions by John McCormack and Fritz Wunderlich. This is the only item that gave me limited pleasure. The final piece is also from a piano accompanied concert , though a later date (1958) is given. The audience go wild for it, and we’d be privileged to hear such a performance today. However I continue to prefer his poetic, but thrilling 1944 account. I also wonder why BMG didn’t opt for the version from the complete recording with Nilsson and Tebaldi.

Not quite as satisfying as the two EMI discs taken from 78s, which I reviewed a few months ago, but it is always a pleasure to hear the voice of Jussi Bjørling and this is an enjoyable selection.

Ljuba Welitsch – Complete Columbia Recordings

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Les Introuvables du Chant Wagnérien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Baker – Chausson, Berlioz and Schoenberg

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

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

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

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

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

Essential listening then? Absolutely and unequivocally, yes.

Fritz Wunderlich -Live on Stage

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

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

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

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