This is something of an exercise in nostalgia. Valerie Masterson was a mainstay of my opera going in my early days and I saw her quite a few times on stage and in some of the roles she sings on this disc. She was a very beautiful woman with a lovely voice and a charming stage presence and it would have been hard not to fall under her spell. She first came to prominence singing Gilbert and Sullivan with the D’Oyly Carte company, but was soon snapped up by English National Opera, where she sang many of these roles in English. However the French also took her to their heart and she appeared regularly over there too, as well as at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, where she would have been singing in French and she sings the language very well.
This recital was recorded at three separate sessions in 1991 and 1993 when Masterson would have been in her mid fifties and, though the voice is still beautiful, it is no longer the fresh voice of youth. What a shame she didn’t get to record this material, say, around fifteen years earlier when she sang Matilde to Caballé’s Elisabetta in Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra both in Aix-en-Provence and on record. Two years is a long time when one is nearing the end of one’s career, and it is notable that the arias recorded in 1991 find her in better voice than those recorded in 1993. Still, there is much to enjoy, especially in those roles that Masterson had made very much her own, Manon, Juliette, Marguerite, Louise and Micaëla. The vibrations may have loosened somewhat, but she is mercifullly free of wobble.
Favourite tracks for me were Micaëla’s Je dis que rien m’épouvante, Louise’s Depuis le jour, the brief excerpt from the Saint Sulpice scene in Manon, Margeurite’s Jewel Song and L’Ensoleillad’s lovely little Vive amour qui rêve from Chérubin. To be honest, only in Thaïs’s Mirror Aria, which was recorded at the last sessions, does the beat in the voice start to become distracting and it is notable that she doesn’t take the higher option at the end, whereas a few years before this would have been easily within her voice. Throughout she pays due attention to the text and the mood of each aria, and her voice has its own individual character that I’ve always found instantly recognisable.
The sound is superb, the orchestral conributions under John Owen Edwards excellent, and the booklet comes with texts and translations, an interview with Masterson and stage photos of her looking absolutelty gorgeous as Margeurite, Manon, Juliette and Louise.
So, as I said, a little late for comfort, but still a disc worth hearing for any of us who fell under Masteron’s spell when she was regularly appearing on our stages.
Oh what joy! This is one of those rare things, a crossover album that actually works. Opera singers singing more popular fare rarely work, but these songs were composed in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, when popular singers sang in a more recognisably classical style, and Jill Gomez, who is half Spanish and was born in what was then British Guiana, immerses herself completely into their style.
There are one or two purely instrumental items dotted around the programme, usually to indicate a change of mood and all the arrangements, most of them by Christopher Parker, but some also by Jeff Atmaijan and Geoffrey Alexander, are superb. At no point do you feel that the pudding has been overegged and they continually evoke the spirit of the movies of that period.
Only in The Peanut Vendor song (one I could in any case have easily done without) did I feel Gomez’s style a mite too sophisticated. Everyhwere else she is the perfect vocalist, but she is paricularly adept at pointing the lyrics in Noel Coward’s wonderfully witty Nina from Argentina and her diction throughout is superb. Her performance of Yradier’s La Paloma is easily as delectable as that of Victoria De Los Angeles, which, for me, can be no higher praise.
Only the most curmudgeonly could fail to be captivated by such wonderfully joyful music making. Ted Perry, of Hyperion Records states in the liner notes, that they discussed enough material to make a second volume, and my only regret is that they didn’t.
An interesting and enterprising recital recorded in 2003, when Alagna was at the top of his game. It’s certainly a pleasure to hear authentically sung French.
As far as I’m aware, Alagna never attempted any of these roles on stage, but, if these excerpts are anything to go by, he’d have made an excellent Faust and Cellini.
Though he negotiates Iopas’s high-lying tessitura well enough, I rather prefer a lighter lyric tenor in this music, and, conversely, I’m not sure he’d have had the heft for Enée on stage. Admittedly I’ve been brought up on the heroic sound of a Vickers here, but the role has recently been taken by Michael Spyres, a tenor with a lighter voice than Alagna. Having heard both Alagna and Spyres live, I’d have said Alagna would be more suited to the role’s demands than Spyres. The few excerpts included here certainly go very well. The excerpt from L’Enfance du Christ is quite charming and direct in its utterance and the Mab scherzo from Roméo et Juliette is suitably deft and witty.
Next come excerpts from La Damnation de Faust, with the addition of a rarity in the shape of a setting for tenor and guitar of Mephisophélès’s serenade, taken from the earlier Huits Scènes de Faust. Alagna is joined by his then wife, Angela Gheorghiu, for the duet Ange adorée, which is sung most beautifully. What a shame he never attempted Berlioz’s Faust on stage.
Like Iopas. Bénédict also probably needs a slightly less beefy voice, but Alagna manages his short aria well enough.
More convincing are the excerpts from Benvenuto Cellini, another role which I would have thought would have suited him well. He was apparently slated to sing it on the Nelson recording, but pulled out for some reason. He may not quite erase memories of Gedda in one of his greatest roles, but, on the evidence of the two arias recorded here (La gloire était ma seule idole and Sur les monts les plus sauvages, his voice had the ideal weight and penetration, not to mention his perfect diction and attentio to the text.
Charming in every way are the excerpts from Lélio, with the addition of texts spoken by Gérard Dépardieu, but Berlioz’s bombastic and over the top arrangement of La Marseillaise, which ends the disc, rather outstays its welcome and was all a bit much for me.
Bertrand de Billy’s accompaniments are all a little too reticent for my liking, and the disc would no doubt have benefited from the presence of a Colin Davis or John Eliot Gardiner in the pit. Nevertheless, if you like Berlioz, and I do, this is a highly enjoyable disc and an excellent reminder of Alagna at his considerable best.
All I can say is wow! This album is a must, not only for Streisand fans, but for anyone. A word of warning, though. This is not an album to be streamed piecemeal, picking out one or two tracks here and there. To get the full experience you need to buy the physical CD or LP, read the liner notes and listen, really listen, from beginning to end to get the full flavour of what it must have been like to experience the young Streisand live at the tiny Bon Soir. To those who actually saw her, I assume you know how lucky you were. You were there experiencing the beginning of one of the greatest careers in all popular music. Though Streisand always thought of herself as an actress who sings, it was the voice and her unique singing style that first introduced most of us to her talent.
Later of course she became more polished, maybe less spontaneous, but here she sounds wonderfully relaxed, joking with the audience and the band and everyone is clearly having a fabulous time. Then there is the voice itself, a miraculously pure sound, which somehow can encapsulate a range of moods and emotions, switching one moment from the goofiness of Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf to the quiet inner happiness of I’ll Tell The Man In The Street the next.
As always with Streisand, there’s an eclectic mix of songs, many of them from obscure stage musicals, but with a few standards thrown in. Most of them are well known from her first few studio albums, but here they are given added immediacy by being performed before a live audience. I couldn’t possibly pick out any standout tracks because each and every one of them is an absolute gem, but please do listen to the whole album in one sitting. You can almost see the smoke-filled room, hear the chink of glasses and feel the atmosphere of the Bon Soir.
The disc was recorded over three nights, whilst Streisand was still doing her star show-stopping turn as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale on Broadway. With the energy of the young, she would finish the show and then dash down to the Bon Soir to do her turn there. She had just signed with Columbia and the plan was to make these live performances her first album for the label. However, the final tapes proved unsatisfactory and the electricity generated in the club had somehow failed to come across on the tapes. Though the project was shelved in favour of a studio album (the now famous, multi award winning Barbra Streisand Album), the tapes were preserved and have now been re-mastered with state-of-the-art technology, clarifying the true artistry of Barbra and her band. Bootlegs have been around for decades, but none of them had access to the master tapes and are sonically massively inferior.
Don’t hesitate. Get yourself a seat at a table for one of the most thrilling debuts in the history of show business. I can assure you; you will not be disappointed.
Is it really over fifty years since I sat in a darkened cinema in Paris and found myself falling in love with the amazing talent that is Barbra Streisand? The movie was of course Funny Girl and, in the way that teenagers sometimes have of trying to swim against the tide, I had gone into the cinema determined not to like her. By the time she had finished singing I’m the Greatest Star I believed her. Her personality just burst out of the cinema screen and surely she has been the greatest star ever since and rightly now considered Hollywood royalty. Without doubt she is one of the few stars to whom the epithet living legend can be applied.
Born in 1942, Streisand’s rise to fame was positively meteoric. Still only 18, she started out singing at various nightclubs in Greenwich Village, and by the time of her final engagements at the Bon Soir in 1962, she already had amassed an enormous (mostly gay) following. Never one to stick to the rules, her set would be a mix of eclectic songs, ranging from Arlen’s A Sleepin’ Bee (often her unconventional opener) to her crazy version of Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf. She always considered herself an actress who sings, rather than the other way round, and in 1962 she made her Broadway debut in the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale playing the minor role of Miss Marmelstein. Though the show flopped, she garnered great reviews, and around this time she was also signed to Columbia records, with whom she has remained ever since. Even back then Streisand, convinced she would be a star, was only going to be a star on her terms. Her recording contract, unbelievably for a newcomer, gave her complete artistic control over the material she recorded. Her first album gave her the first of her 15 Grammy awards!
Never conventionally pretty, most would have thought her destined for a career in character roles, but she knew that she was leading lady material. Though she was advised to fix her nose, to change her name, she never did, and the only concession she made was dropping the second ‘a’ from her name. Barbara became Barbra. She had a reputation for being difficult even back then, but, it is no doubt her uncompromising belief in herself, that propelled her to stardom. She knew she was different and she was determined to stay different.
In 1964 she appeared on Broadway as Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl, and the rest, as they say, is history. When the show became a movie, it was a foregone conclusion that Streisand would be its star, not often the case when a Broadway show becomes a movie. In between Broadway and Hollywood she had played Fanny Brice in the West End production of Funny Girl, made three TV specials, the first of which, My Name is Barbra, won five Emmy Awards, and even became a mother. (She had married her first husband, Elliott Gould, her co-star in “Wholesale”, in 1963). Inevitably, in 1969 she went on to win her first Oscar for Funny Girl. There was no stopping her.
At the height of her fame, Streisand was the highest grossing female star in Hollywood and the only woman in the top ten box office attractions. Her co-stars have included some of the biggest heart throbs in Hollywood, amongst them Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, Ryan O’Neal and James Caan. She was also the first woman ever to produce, direct, script and star in her own movie. Never one to suffer fools gladly, she acquired a reputation for being difficult, a bitch and a ball breaker, though she would always aver that, if she were a man, she would simply have been called tough. A perfectionist, she would go over a scene a hundred times if she thought it wasn’t right, and this no doubt contributed to that reputation, though many of her leading men found her a joy to work with.
After Funny Girl she went on to play Dolly Levi in the hugely expensive Hollywood version of Hello Dolly. She was no doubt too young for the role, being uncomfortably matched with Walter Matthau, with whom she did not get on, but, seeing the film now, she is hilariously funny and touching as the meddling matchmaker. On A Clear Day You Can See Forever is, in my opinion, an underrated classic, and has she ever looked more beautful than she did in Cecile Beaton’s period Regency costimes?
Other highlights would include the zany Peter Bogdanovich comedy, What’s up, Doc? with Ryan O’Neal, the wonderful political romance The Way We Were with Robert Redford and of course her 1970s remake of A Star is Born with Kris Kristofferson, which were some of the highest grossing movues of the 1970s.
She and Elliott Gould split in 1971, and post her marriage, she was romantically linked with many high profile figures including the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, Don Jonson and Andre Agassi, before finally settling down with James Brolin, to whom she has been married for the past 24 years. Her unconventional looks never seemed a barrier to her attracting some very attractive men.
Stridently political, she is an outspoken supporter of equal civil rights, which include gay rights. In 2007 she helped raise funds in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Proposition 8 in California. She also has publicly raised $25 million for various organisations, both political and charitable, through her live performances. Her only son, Jason Gould, is gay and she very publicly supported him when he came out. They evidently enjoy a close relationship and, in her most recent tour, he appeared on stage with her, singing in duet.
To understand what made so many gay men respond to Streisand in her early years, you really have to listen to some of those early records. Her recording career roughly breaks down into three different periods. In the early stuff, up to around 1969, she sings mostly standard repertoire, songs you might have heard sung by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Julie London, but still puts her own inimitable stamp on them. With the Richard Perry produced Stoney End in 1971, she started to sing more contemporary music (she was, after all, only 29), and this change of musical direction broadened her appeal even further. Her most successful album, Guilty was a collaboration with Barry Gibb of The BeeGees. In 1985, she returned to her Broadway roots with The Broadway Album, which was another massive hit. That said, it marked another change in direction and, in my opinion, none of her subsequent albums has had the impact of her earlier work. They seem to have settled into a more comfortable, middle of the road, easy listening bracket. Her early records may well have been usually found in the “Easy Listening” section of a record store, but listening to Streisand at that time wasn’t always that easy. She demands attention. The bitterness with which she spits out the lyrics to such songs as Free Again or Cry Me A River, the pain and heartache enshrined in her rendition of My Man, at the end of the movie of Funny Girl, the vocal sparring with Donna Summer in the disco hit No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), the way she belts out the Laura Nyro classic Stoney End; if you only know Streisand from the stuff she has recorded from the 1990s onwards, then you really need to listen to these classics.
You also need to see the film that made her a superstar, Funny Girl. When Streisand sings I’m The Greatest Star, falteringly at first, then growing in confidence, believe me, by the end of the song you will have no doubts. Streisand was, still is, and no doubt will be long after she has left us, the greatest star.
This set was originally issued on three LPs back in 1984, and later condensed into two very well filled CDs and is still available as a download. As such, it is an excellent way of collecting all Ravel’s song settings, the singers all being well chosen for the songs they are allocated. It also has Michel Plasson in charge of the orchestral and chamber accompanied songs and that master accompanist, Dalton Baldwin, at the piano.
We start with Teresa Berganza singing Shéhérazade, orchestrally fine and well sung, but Berganza is just a little anonymous and the performance doesn’t stay in the memory as do those by, say, Crespin, Hendricks or Baker, all of whom are more vivid storytellers. The orchestral contribution by Plasson and his Toulouse orchestra is splendid. This is followed by the Vocalise en forme de Habanera and Chanson espagnole, ideal performances in which Berganza finds the erotic sensuality that had eluded her in Shéhérazade.
Next up is Gabriel Bacquier, who is entrusted with Histoires naturelles, Sur l’herbe and Chanson française. These are superb performances, Bacquier finding just the right sense of ironic derachment for the Renard settings, his enunciation of the text so clear you can all but taste the words.
Mady Mesplé’s clear, bright, very French soprano with its characteristic flutter vibrato is not to everyone’s taste, but I like her, and she is absolutey charming in the Greek songs, including the less regularly performed Tripatos. She also gives us lovely performances of three rarities, Ballade de la reine morte d’aimer, Manteau de fleurs and Rêves. José Van Dam gets the Hebrew settings, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée and five more songs, of which Les grands vents venus d’outre-mer is especially notable. To all he contributes the sterling virtues of his beautiful, firm bass-baritone, coupled to sensitive treatment of the text.
Felicity Lott, charming in the Noël des jouets and Chanson écossaise, also has the Mallarmé poems, in which she is suitably languid, if a little diffident. She is also good in the two Clément Marot settings, but Maggie Teyte gets more out of the words on her recording. Jessye Norman brings the collection to a close with the Chansons madécasses, as well as Chanson du rouet and Si morne. As usual, Norman is never less than involved, but as so often I find she sings with an all-purpose generosity, and I’d have welcomed a little more of Janet Baker specificity. Still this is nitpicking, and hers are still among the best versions of these wonderful songs. Throughout the piano accompanied songs Dalton Baldwin provides superbly idiomatic playing, with the Ensemble de Chambre de l’orchestre de Paris providing the accompaniment for the Mallarmé settings and Michel Debost on flute and Renaud Fontanarosa on cello in the Madegascan songs.
Altogether, this is a wonderfully rewarding set and, if individual performances have been bettered elsewhere, all are more than adequate and many a great deal more than that, though, on this occasion, it is the gentlemen who take the palm. Warmly recommended.
Rachel Portman b.1960 The First Morning of the World*
Gustav Mahler 1860-1911 Rückert-Lieder “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!”
Biagio Marini 1594-1663 Scherzi e canzone Op.5 “Con le stelle in ciel che mai”
Josef Mysliveček 1737–1781
Oratorio Adamo ed Eva (Part II)
Aria: “Toglierò le sponde al mare” (Angelo di giustizia)
Aaron Copland 1900-1990 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson for voice and chamber orchestra
Nature, the gentlest mother
Giovanni Valentini c.1582–1649 Sonata enharmonica
Francesco Cavalli 1602–1676
Opera La Calisto (Act I, Scene 14)
Aria: “Piante ombrose” (Calisto)
Christoph Willibald Gluck 1714–1787
Opera Orfeo ed Euridice Wq. 30 Danza degli spettri e delle furie. Allegro non troppo
Christoph Willibald Gluck 1714–1787
Scena ed aria Misera, dove son! From Ezio Wq. 15(Fulvia) Scena: “Misera, dove son!… ”
Aria: “Ah! non son io che parlo…”
George Frideric Handel 1685–1759
Dramatic oratorio Theodora HWV 68 (Part I)
Aria: “As with Rosy steps the morn” (Irene)
Gustav Mahler Rückert-Lieder “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”
Richard Wagner 1813–1883 5 Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme WWV 91 (Wesendonck Lieder)
George Frideric Handel Opera Serse HWV 40 (Act I, Scene 1)
Recitativo: “Frondi tenere e belle”
Aria: “Ombra mai fù” (Serse)
Joyce DiDonato’s new album could probably best be described as a concept album and, despite one or two less than smooth transitions, is best listened to in one sitting and in the order she has set out.
At present DiDonato is in the middle of a twelve city tour, taking in both Europe and the USA and I am very much looking forward to seeing her perform at the Barbican in April. Looking at the photographs from some of the concerts she has already done, DiDonato is using to redefine the the recital format. Apparently every audience member is to receive a seed to plant as they’re asked: ‘In this time of upheaval, which seed will you plant today?’
“With each passing day,” writes DiDonato, “I trust more and more in the perfect balance, astonishing mystery and guiding force of the natural world around us, how much Mother Nature has to teach us. EDEN is an invitation to return to our roots and to explore whether or not we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being, to create a new EDEN from within and plant seeds of hope for the future.”
As on the album, she is accompanied by her regular collaborators Il Pomo d’Oro under Maxim Emelyanchev.
The programme ranges wide, from the 17th to the 21st century and at least one change, when we go from the 21st century to the 17th strikes me as a little jarring, but for the most part the choices are sensible and the journey well thought out.
The album starts with an absolutely haunting performance of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, in which DiDonato wordlessly sings the trumpet part. This segues into a commission from the Academy Award winning composer Rachel Portman, entitled The First Morning of the World, to a text by American writer Gene Scheer. This is a wonderfully evocative piece, full of sweeping lyricsm and gorgeous harmonies. Portman surely could not have hoped for a more beautiful performance. This is followed by a lovely performance of Mahler’s Ich atmet einen Linden Duft, though we miss the richness of Mahler’s original orchestra in this chamber re-orchestration.
The first slightly incongruous transition happens here with Biagio Marini’s Con le stelle in ciel che mai, though there is nothing wrong with its execution and, once I’d got used to being plunged into an entirely different sound world I enjoyed it and the Mysliveček aria from his orotorio, Adamo ed Eva, which follows.
This first part of the recital finishes with a masterful performance of Nature, the Gentlest Mother from Aaron Copland’s 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson, beautifully played by Il Pomo d’Oro and in which DiDonato sings with excellent diction without compromising her legato line.
It is followed by one of two purely orchestral tracks, the Sonata enharmonica by Giuseppe Valentini. The other is Gluck’s Dance of the Spirits and Furies from Orfeo ed Euridice.
DoDonato is known to us as a great Handel singer and one of the highlights of the album is Irene’s As with rosy steps the morn from Theodora, which is deeply felt, even if ultimately for me it doesn’t quite erase memories of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the same music. Handel is also reserved for the final piece, which comes after Mahler and Wagner, leaving us to bask in the peace and calm of his Ombra mai fu.
DiDonato is in fine voice throughout, her fast flicker vibrato, which can sometimes be intrusive, hardly in evidence at all. I must say that I rather like this “concept” and I have no hesitation recommending this album, and I would urge you to listen to it in one sitting. If I have sometimes had reservations about DiDonato’s ability to convey personality and individuality in the studio, I have no such reservations here and would recommend this album unreservedly.
Les Nuits d’Eté is one of my favuorite orchestral song cycles and, along with Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, must be one of the most recorded works for voice and orchestra. The songs were originally written to a piano accompaniment and we don’t know why Berlioz chose these six particular texts by his contemporary, Théophile Gautier. Though not really conceived as a cycle, they do make a satsifying programme with two lighter songs framing three deeply emotional outpourings. Berlioz orchestrated Absence in 1846 then orchestrated the remaining songs in 1853, suggesting a mezzo-soprano or tenor for Villanelle, contralto for Le spectre de la rose, baritone (or optionally mezzo or contralto) for Sur les lagunes, mezzo or tenor for Absence, tenor for Au cimetière and mezzo or tenor for L’île inconnue, though nowadays it is more regularly sung by one singer, usually a mezzo or a soprano. It has been recorded by tenors, baritones and bass-baritones and even countertenors.
I have ten recordings in my collection and these are the ten I listened to over a period of two days. The songs respond to a variety of different approaches and I enjoyed my task immensely.
Vctoria De Los Angeles recorded the cycle in 1955 with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when she was in superb voice. As always there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from her singing, her tone suitably plaintive in the middle songs and smilingly bright and playful in the outer songs, which, predictably, is where she is most successful. What I miss is a deeper vein of tragedy, something more grandiloquent in the middle songs, where what we need is a touch of Cassandre and Didon. De Los Angeles reminds me more of a Marguerite. She is in warm, velvety voice, and this is nonetheless one of the most satisfying accounts around. Sonically it can’t measure up to any of the later stereo recordings.
Nor, unfortunately can the Steber version with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Columbia Symphomy Orchestra. The first impression when listening to this version is of the sheer security and perfect focus of Steber’s beautiful voice. The cycle doesn’t get off to a very impressive start, with Mitropoulos’s too deliberate tempo for Villanelle. It is actually close to the metronome mark of crotchet = 96, but it seems plodding and Mitropoulos fails to make the woodwind light enough. But Steber is gorgeous. She can expand the tone gloriously at a phrase like et parmi la fête étoilée in Le spectre de la rose and the quality remains wonderfully rich down below. Throughout Steber is keenly responisve to the poetry. Au cimetière, for instance, has a real sense of tragic foreboding. What a superb Cassandre she might have been. Definitely a prime contender. If only it had been in better sound.
Now here is something rather different. The countertenor voice is not one you would expect to hear in this music, but David Daniels has always had a velvety, rich sound and his version comes as something of a pleasant surprise, though, more used to hearing him in the music of the Baroque, I did wonder if this version might be a product of the gramophone. He did however sing it in the concert hall and his is a voice I’ve never had trouble hearing in the hall or theatre, so maybe I’m wrong. Daniels has excellent French, a perfect legato and is ideally steady throughout, with a much greater range of tone colour than you would expect from a countertenor. As always, his phrasing is wonderfully musical and John Nelson provides excellent support with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Ultimately, for all his musicality and way of commuicating the text, I’m not sure the countertenor voice is what the songs require, but it is a very interesting experiment which Daniels almost pulls off.
It was quite a shock to plunge from Daniels to the darkly pungent tones of Agnes Baltsa. Her French is often questionable and the voice and manner are arrestingly individual, with her varying her tone from song to song. I suppose you’d call her approach quite operatic. She adopts an almost coy sexuality for Villanelle, choosing a more Dalila-like sensuality for Le spectre de la rose, languidly eliding some of the phrases. Some might find her plunges into chest voice jarring, but I rather like it. The singing can be a bit rough round the edges but you could never call her dull. Ralph Moore suggests that she brings more than a touch of her Carmen to the songs, and I’d agree. It’s not how I’d always like to hear them, but it’s certainly a very individual and occasionally thrilling take on them. Jeffrey Tate and the London Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support.
Régine Crespin is the only version included here by a French singer and it is really good to hear the language enunciated so clearly, especially after the idiosyncratic French of someone like Baltsa.
Now Crespin’s version is so famous that it has been a prime recommendation for the work ever since it was first issued in 1963 and dissenting opinions are likley to be viewed with incredulity, but, unlike its coupling of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, I’m not sure the Berlioz holds up that well. For a start, there is a deal of sloppy orchestral playing from L’Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande under Ernest Ansermet, and, for another, Crespin’s singing often tends to the lugubrious. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose, no sense of despair in Sur les lagunes, no plaintive yearning in Absence. The singing is altogether too civilised, and, however musical and tasteful her singing , however elegant her phrasing, Crespin remains aloof and uninvolved. She is at the oppoiste pole from Baltsa’s often wild and wayward version, but I miss Baltsa’s dramatic involvement, which I ultmately prefer. I see that I’m not alone in my opinion, which is supported by both Ralph Moore and David Cairns (in Song on Record, Volume II). A controversial opinion, no doubt, but I’m sticking to it. Crespin is most successful in the final song, which responds to her vocal equivalent of the ironically arched eyebrow. Another mark against her is that she unaccountably alters the order of the songs, placing Absence before Sur les lagunes, which destroys the balance of the cycle. Intonation is occasionally suspect too, especially in Au cometière.
Colin Davis’s multi-singer version is something of an inconclusive experiment. However ineresting it is to hear the songs sung more or less by the voices Berlioz suggested, I think the cycle hangs together better when captured by a single voice. Nor do any of the singers challenge the best of other versions by single singers. Frank Patterson, who has a rather whiny, nasal timbre is granted two songs, Villanelle and Au cimetiére, neither of which he does justice to. Josephine Veasey, an appreciable Berlioz singer, sings a plausible Le spectre de la rose without really illuminating it, and John Shirley-Quirk tends to growl in the lower regions of Sur les lagunes. The most successful of the singers is soprano Sheila Armstrong, who sings in excellent French and turns in a nicely plaintive Absence as well as a charmingly flirtatious L’île inconnue. One would expect Sir Colin and the London Symphony Orchestra to give a brilliant version of the score, but the effect is somewhat somnolent and low key. Interesting but inconclusive.
Next we come to the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded live at a concert in 1991 or 1995 (the booklet isn’t entirely clear on this point). It has to be said that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan are not quite up to the standard of the ensembles in some of these performances, but they nonetheless provide sensitive accompaniment to Hunt Lieberson’s superbly detailed and deeply heartfelt performances. Throughout she is totally inside the music, her response to the poetry seeming totally spontaneous and natural. Unerringly she captures the mood of each song, certain phrases remaining etched on the memory, for instance the blank, desparing tone at the end of Au cimetière, which, though she switches to smilingly insouciant joy for L’île inconnue, creeps back into her tone for the closing measures when she reminds us that not all is happy au pays d’amour. The voice is surpassingly beautiful, the singing intensely concentrated and she communicates so much. What a great loss she was to the musical world.
Finally, I come to three versions by the great Dame Janet Baker. The most recent ( recorded in 1990) and the one I will discuss first, was one of her last (maybe her last ever) recording. made shorly after she had retired from the concert platform. By this time her great artistry cannot quite hide the hint of strain in the upper reaches, the discoloration on certain vowels and the loosening of vibrations on sustained high notes. In no way is this competitive with her two other vesions (one live under Giulini and the famous studio one under Barbirolli), so I will only comment by saying I heard Baker and Hickox perform the cycle not long before this recording was made and, live and in the concert hall, it was still an amazing experience.
The live Giulini account, taken from a concert at the Royal Festiva Hall in 1975, must be amongst the slowest on disc and it is remarkable that Baker can sustain these speeds; but sustain them she does, luxuriating in the added breadth that Giulini gives her, her breath control quite astonishing. The recorded sound is a trifle muddy and we hear the occasional coughs that go along with live music making, but the specificity of her response to the text is quite extraordinary and there is a concentrated intensity about this performance, which is no doubt enhanced by the presence of a live audience. If I continue to prefer the studio performance, that could be because it is the one by which I got to know the songs and it is no doubt imprinted on my brain. It also, of course enjoys better sound. Both interpretations are absolutely and unequivocally superb. Baker’s stage roles included both Cassandre and Didon and she brings something of the character of their music to these songs too.
Baker enjoyed a very special relationship with Sir John Barbirolli and of course made a few important recordings with him before he died in 1970. Apart from the above recording of Ravel and Berlioz they can be heard in famous recordings of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Mahler’s three orchestral song cycles and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, all very special and irreplaceable.
The New Philharmonia are in fine form and provide some of the best orchestral playing on any of these performances. Villanelle is perhaps a little too determinedly jolly, but after that the performance just gets better and better. Baker starts Le spectre de la rose almost confidingly, as if whispering into the ear of the sleeping girl, swelling into the glorious mini climax at Et parmi le fête étoilée, Tu me promenas tout le soir. Her tone turns both sensual and erotic when the rose arrives from paradise, and then she sings the phrase Mon destin fut digne d’envie in one glorious, long breath. This might just be the most wonderful performance of the song ever put down on record.
From there we are plunged into the blank, desparing tone of Ma belle amie est morte. If she were the Act IV Didon in the previous song here she is Cassandre, singing in stark absolutes. Having reached a desolate climax the song fades away in a whispered close of utter dejection. She yearns sweetly in Absence, the voice taking on a soprano-ish lightness in the upper register, but maintaining its tragic depth for the line Ah, grands désirs inappaisées. Au cimetière is mesmerisingly hypnotic, conjuring up ghostly visions of graveyards at night, until finally gloom is dispelled and a smile enters her voice for L’île inconnue, with a coquettish twinkle on Est-ce dans la Baltique?
After listening to ten different recordings in two days, I find I love the cycle more than ever and all these recordings have something to offer. I actually enjoyed them all. However if I had to choose but one on that proverbial desert island, then it would have to be Baker with Barbirolli, though I’d probably find a way to smuggle the Hunt Lieberson with me as well somehow.
Choices are again personal, and some of them may not be amongst the greatest singers of all time. I’d be the first to admit I know far less about what is collectively called pop music, than I do about opera, so no doubt some of my choices may seem eccentric. I can already hear the cries of disbelief. What! No Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday! No Tony Bennett or Nat King Cole! No Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone, no Marvin Gaye, you can’t be serious, I hear you say, but the ones in my list are singers who have meant something special to me at various times of my life, and, for that reason, I make no apology. Together they have provided some of the musical signposts of my life.
Passing over such early loves as Doris Day (as a child, I loved her recording of Che sera sera, recently re-invented by the fabulous Pink Martini), and Nina and Frederick (Little Donkey my favourite Christmas song), the first singer who really spoke to me was Dusty Springfield (how could my parents not have known I would turn out gay?). Her solo career roughly coincided with my teens and her first solo album, A Girl Called Dusty , was the first LP (vinyl back then of course) that I owned. Dusty’s smoky voice filled with pathos such songs as My Colouring Book and the classic You Don’t Own Me, and belted out such blues classics as Don’t You Know? I bought each one of Dusty’s subsequent albums, right up to Dusty in Memphis, which didn’t sell well on its initial release, but subsequently acquired the status of one of the classic albums of all time, housing, as it does, Dusty’s definitive readings of such songs as Son of a Preacher Man and The Windmills of your Mind. Though an enormous critical success Dusty in Memphis was not a commercial success at its first release, and Dusty’s subsequent albums did no better and she seemed to disappear for several years, until she guested on the Pet Shop Boys’ What Have I Done To Deserve This? in 1989. This and the use of the song Son of a Preacher Man, in Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction helped revive her career and she had another brief spell of success until breast cancer tragically took her life in 1999.
This was also the time of The Beatles, and nobody of my generation could possibly have escaped their influence. I remember having a crush on Paul McCartney (well he was extremely cute back then), though I didn’t really understand that’s what it was . Just to hear Paul sing and shake his mop top to songs like All My Loving and I Want to Hold Your Hand was enough to get me screaming like a girl. Please forgive me. I was only 11 or 12 at the time. If any band personifies the sound of the 60s, then asuredly it is The Beatles and their music still seems incredibly innovative today. I love all their early albums still but it was Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which changed forever the face of pop music. I love every track, and would find it impossible to pick out a favourite; possibly Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, or that gorgeous mini symphony She’s Leaving Home or the sublime fusion of Lennon and McCartney that is A Day in the Life, apparently an amalgamation of two songs that John and Paul were working on independently.
Reluctantly I pass over The Shangri-Las, whose outpourings of teen angst, struck a chord in my teenage soul, ( Leader of the Pack, with its signature screeching bike tyres, once banned by the BBC, has since become a classic of the gramophone, a paean for every teenager who was ever in love ) and move on to a French singer, whose music I still enjoy to this day. With her long, straight hair, fringe half covering her eyes, tall and lanky, a square cut jaw, high cheek bones and thick lips, Françoise Hardy looked like a female Mick Jagger, and was the very epitome of the sixties chick. She had a small, slightly husky voice of limited range, but it was extremely expressive, in a French non- committal way, and has hardly changed in all the years she has been singing. She is stil singing today and hardly sounds any different from the young girl who first sang Tous le garcons et les filles way back in 1964. Incidentally her diction was, and still is, superb. I remember a French teacher, agreeing to a lesson in which we all listened to Françoise Hardy songs, translating the lyrics into English as we went along. The piano riff that opened the glorious Voilà was even sampled in Robbie Williams’ recent You Know Me. Françoise, je t’adore.
Then there is Cher. She may not have the greatest voice in the world, nor would she claim to have, but you have to admire a woman who has managed a number one hit in every decade from 1960 to the last one. Her career has had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, and her private life was almost as rocky. When her daughter Chastity came out to her as a lesbian, Cher was surprisingly (she admits this herself) less supportive than one might have expected. However, having finally come to terms with the fact, she seems to have accepted with total equanimity Chastity’s transition into the male Chaz Bono, regularly tweeting support for her son in her twitter feed. She has also had a great career as an actress, with a string of excellent movies to her credit and an Oscar for her role in Moonstruck. Cher is a legend, and as a singer her voice has come a long way from the days of Sonny and Cher, which is when I first became a fan. The woman has been with me from adolescence till today and I would find it impossible to leave her out; and I actually think she is a better singer than she gives herself credit for. Just listen to the joy with which she sings the words “Man I am tonight”, when the preacher asks her if she is a “Christian chile” in her version of Walking in Memphis. I had a particular fondness for an album called Stars, after the Janis Ian song of that name, but it doesn’t ever seem to have been reissued. Cher may not be one of the greatest singers of all time, but she has definitely earned her place in the pantheon of great stars.
As lead singer of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker wrapped his gorgeous, velvety voice round such hits as Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, but some of his own material had shown a darker side to him. As a teenager, I responded to their downbeat, esoteric lyrics, which were to be more fully explored when he left the group and embarked on a solo career. His first solo album, simply called Scott, definitely tried to cash in on Walker’s big ballad appeal, with songs like The Big Hurt and When Joanna loved me, but also contained a fair amount of Jacques Brel and Scott’s own compositions. The next album followed along the same lines, but Scott 3 was made up only of songs by Walker himself and by Jacques Brel. Scott 4, arguably the best and most homogeneous of his early albums, was the first of his albums not to make the top 10. It was also my favourite. Particularly ambitious is the first track, a glorious musical evocation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its Morricone style arrangement, and the dark foreboding of The Old Man’s Back Again. I also treasure his Jacques Brel covers, particularly a hauntingly beautiful If You Go Away, though Walker also has a way with the wickedly malevolent Funeral Tango and the sarcasm and pain enshrined in Next. In later albums, he became more and more experimental, the music and arrangements ever more spare, and I found it harder to get on with him, but I still listen to his first solo albums regularly.
And so to Barbra Streisand. When did it become fashionable to knock Barbra? I suppose round about the time she achieved superstar status. Before that she was this kooky American Jewish comedienne with an amazing voice, and she was very much in vogue, especially amongst gay men, who responded to her the way previous generations had adored Judy Garland, and future generations would revere Madonna and Lady Gaga. Maybe it was the bitterness she injected into a standard like Cry Me A River or Free Again. I was slow to jump on the Streisand bandwagon, I’ll admit. In fact I was determined not to like her. So when the film of Funny Girl was released, I reluctantly went along to see it. By the time she’d sung I’m The Greatest Star near the beginning of the movie, I was agreeing with her. She truly was the greatest star, the talent just bursting through the screen. Later on, I suppose, some of the mannerisms began to grate, but that first exposure to Streisand at full tilt was a knock out. I’ve heard all the stuff about it actually being a small voice and only really suitable for recordings, but even if that is the case, it’s an amazing instrument. I’ve heard many classical singers praise her impeccable legato, breath control and intonation (she’s always bang in the centre of the note). She has sung a wide range of music and I suppose I would have to agree that the song does tend to come second to Streisand. We are often too aware of the singer and not of the song. That said, she did manage to sublimate her ego to an extent in the Richard Perry Stony End album, when she fully embraced the music of her own generation for the first time. She is also an intelligent singer, as Stephen Sondheim discovered, when he worked with her for the first time on The Broadway Album. She was the first singer to notice that the last verse of Send in the Clowns didn’t properly follow from what went before. When she asked him about it, he told her that, in the musical, there was a scene inbetween that explained it. She asked him to write a bridge to make it work better as a song out of context, and he did. I have most of her albums, though, if I’m honest, it’s the Streisand of the early and middle period albums I enjoy most. After The Broadway Album, released in 1985, her albums settled into a more standard, easy listening vein, but her most recent album, Walls showed she could still be relevant today. She has always taken an interest in politics and the environment and has been openly critical of Trump’s presidecny. Don’t Lie to Me, being written as a direct response to the barrage of ranting tweets from Trump. It could just as easily be addressed to Johnson here in the UK. Streisand is, and will always be, unique.
I first heard the voice of Karen Carpenter on the Carpenters’ single Rainy Days and Mondays, a voice of such richness and beauty, so easily and evenly produced, that it simply drew you in. The dark colour of her voice was particularly suited to melancholy ballads, and reached its apogee in the wonderful Yesterday Once More, which can still evoke memories of sitting alone in my room listening to Radio Luxembourg, or the pirate radio station Caroline, the only stations that played non-stop pop music in those days. Streisand praised her “marvellous instrument” and k d lang went one step further, comparing her to Nat King Cole “and uh….there’s very few singers that are that rich actually….” She died tragically young, a victim of anorexia nervosa, but her legacy lives on.
Now, there can hardly have been a time when I wasn’t aware of Frank Sinatra, as my parents both loved him, but I only really started to listen when I heard his 1969 album of Rod McKuen material, called A Man Alone. Although the album was recorded in 1969, I was only really aware of it in the late 70s after a break up with my then girlfriend. It’s melancholy mood certainly chimed in with my own at that time, and I remember sitting alone in the dark, wallowing in my misery with the voice of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Sinatra had a way with a lyric, a way of making you feel that the thought came newly minted from his lips. I particularly enjoyed the Nelson Riddle years, and my favourite albums still seem to be the more melancholic ones – In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning, allegedly recorded as a response to his break up with Ava Gardner , and the equally downbeat Only the Lonely. Sinatra may have been great at the up tempo classics like I’ve Got You Under My Skin, but it was the sad resignation with which he sang such songs as I Get Along Without You Very Well that always touched me most.
Moving forward in time a little, I confess I’d taken very little notice of George Michael until seeing him sing Somebody To Love (on tv) at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness in 1992. He was one of the few singers to really do justice to a Freddie Mercury song, and his was undeniably the star turn of the concert. Just over 18 months later, I got the chance to hear him live on Wednesday December 1st 1993, at an AIDS benefit in the presence of HRH Princess Diana at Wembley Arena. David Bowie presented and the other artists were Mick Hucknall and k. d. lang (more of whom below). George live was even more impressive than George on tv or on record; I was totally bowled over. Subsequently I rushed out and bought the albums Faith and Listen Without Prejudice, Vol 1 (too bad that, because of his battle with Virgin, we never got Vol 2), and I played them incessantly. Older I liked even better, I think, though it would be a tough call. In 1999, he released an album of covers, Songs From The Last Century, that was, and remains, the least commercially successful of all his albums; but I love it, if only because it is only in the songs of other composers that an artist reveals his true credentials as a singer. Ranging from jazz standards like My Baby Just Cares For Me, to the Police’s Roxanne, George shows a masterful appreciation of different styles. My personal favourite is his version of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, sung with a quiet rapture, so full of wonder and awe. In interview he always struck me as incredibly intelligent, and incredibly tortured. He had an unhappy private life and struggled for many years with drugs and alcohol. He died tragically young, a victim of heart and liver disease. Somehow I doubt he really minded.
The other singer to knock me out at that AIDS benefit in 1993 was k. d. lang, whom I’d hardly even heard of before that time. The majority of the material she sang was off her album Ingénue, which I didn’t know, though I bought it straight after the concert. At the end of her set, she brought the house down with her rendering of the Roy Orbison classic Crying, which of course she had already recorded with Orbison himself. Lang is another singer who has proved herself equally in her own material and the music of other composers. She sings a heartrending version of the Cole Porter classic So In Love, on the AIDS charity album Red Hot And Blue, and her version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is arguably the greatest of all the many covers of that song. There is a youtube clip of lang singing the song at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction of Leonard Cohen in 2006. It is the most touching tribute that one can performer can give to another, and Cohen, who is in the audience, is visibly moved. At the other end of the scale is her stupendous singing of the song at the Opening Ceremony for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, which is more epic in scale, to suit its surroundings. Her career hasn’t quite reached the heights it ought to have done, possibly due to her uncompromising attitude to her sexuality, which she has refused to play down. Whatever the reasons, she is a major artist, with an extraordinary voice, and a way with a lyric that draws you into its meaning. You really feel she is telling you a story. I think she is one of the greatest singers in the world today.
I’d like to finish by adding my niece, singer/songwriter Kavalla, who has just issued her latest single, Broken Ground. She’s certainly one of my favourite singers and, were she to get the exposure she so definitely deserves, she might become one of yours. The single is available on iTunes and all the usual platforms, as well as streaming services like Spotify, but you can hear it here on Youtube too.
This disc is mostly taken from a recital given by Ricciarelli in Switzerland in 1979, with the final two items from a concert given the following year. The programme is a good one, starting with bel canto items and finishing with verismo, with early and middle period Verdi bridging the gap.
The voice is mostly in good shape, though it develops a slight beat on high when under pressure, more noticeable in the verismo items than it is in the gentler bel canto she chooses, and it is the items by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi that make the greatest impression.
We start with Giulietta’s Oh quante volte from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a role that suited her like a glove and for which she receieved rave reviews when she sang it at Covent Garden in a revival of the production first mounted for Gruberova and Baltsa. I also heard her sing the aria at a recital at the Barbican Hall in 1987 in a programme very similar to the one we have here. This aria was undoubtedly the highlight of the night and she was forced to encore it at the end of the evening. She spins out the phrases quite deiciously and with superb musicality and, as she never has to force her voice, the result is mesmerisingly beautiful.
The Donizetti items are also beautifully moulded, the lines caressed, though one notes that she does not sing the more forceful cabaletta to the Anna Bolena aria, and I imagine it would have taxed her limits, though she did sing the role quite a lot, apparently with much success. The Lucreia Borgia is also an elegiac piece and again she fills its phrases with signifcance, her phrasing unfailingly musical.
Of the two Verdi items the first from Il Corsaro suits her better and I rather wish that she had been cast in Gardelli’s Philps recording of 1976. Norman, who sings Medora, isn’t bad by any means, but Ricciarelli is more inside the music, more stylish. The following year she joined the Philips early Verdi stable, singing Lucrezia in I Due Foscari and Lida in La Battaglia de Legnano and she is superb in both.
The Forza aria suggests that the role may have been a bit too big for her and the voice does rather glare on the climactic Bb on Maledizion. The floated one on Invan la pace is better, but still sounds a mite insecure.
The verismo arias also have their attractions and are very well received by the audiences, possibly because they were better known, but again climactic high notes are apt to glare uncomfortably, particularly in the exposed climax to Wally’s lovely Ebben. Ne andro lontana. None the less the aria is beautifully felt and delivered with a sighing loneliness that is most effective. She also differentiates nicely between Tosca’s utter desperation and Butterfly’s single minded conviction that Pinkerton will return.
All in all, then a rewarding programme. Ricciarelli is a singer I have come to admire more with the passing years. More vocally fallible than such contemporaries as Freni or Caballé, less individual in her response to the text than Scotto, her singing is unfailingly musical and I derived a lot of pleasure from this recital.