“Great Moments” is the title of this three disc compilation, issued in 2000, and EMI certainly had a great deal to choose from. Nicolai Gedda must be one of the most recorded tenors in history. I suppose one should point out that the “moments” here are all purely operatic. To get a more rounded view of Gedda’s output, both as to range and repertoire, one would have to include his work in orotorio and song, embracing music from Bach to the present day, as well as some operetta. But this is a sensible conflation of music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, covering twenty years of recording from 1952 to 1974.
Gedda was a keen linguist and sang virtually without accent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, English and his native Swedish. This linguistic ability no doubt also informed the vast range of music and styles he was able to embrace. It certainly makes for a pleasingly varied selection of excerpts.
Disc one is made up, mostly, of the earliest material, hence we have excerpts from his splendid Dimitri on the 1952 Dobrowen recording of Boris Godunov (with Eugenia Zareska) and the whole of his first recital for EMI, recorded in 1953. A further excerpt from Boris Godunov from a 1969 recital is included, along with an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night which shows the voice virtually unchanged in seventeen years, though the style is possibly a little more assertive.
The 1953 recital is a real treasure-trove of delights, opening with a version of Lensky’s Act II aria, which is so beautiful that it bears comparison with Sobinov. He sings it as an inner monologue, the pianissimo reprise spun out in mastery fashion. Also wonderful are his honeyed performance of Du pauvre seul ami fidèle from Auber’s La Muette de Portici and the glorious mezza voce legato of Nadir’s Je crois entendre encore. The other French items are just as desirable, but he also delivers an ardently poetic Cielo e mar from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and his sad, restrained performance of Federico’s Lament from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. Some may prefer a more overtly passionate rendering in the manner of Corelli, but personally I find Gedda’s vocal restraint quite refreshing and not in the least bit unemotional. This first disc ends with a joyfully ebullient version of Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire from Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau, sung in Swedish and recorded live in 1952.
Disc 2 is also wide ranging, starting with music by Rousseau, Gluck (Gedda coping superbly with the high tessitura of Gluck’s tenor version of Orphée et Eurydice) and Mozart, before moving on to the German Romantic repertoire. Taken from a 1957 recital disc, Don Ottavio’s arias and Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön are much better than on the complete Klemperer recordings, with a lovely smile in the tone for Tamino’s aria. Belmonte’s Ich baue ganz, recorded in 1967 with the Bath Festival Orchestra under Sir Yehudi Menuhin and sung in impeccable English, is brilliantly done. Exciting performances of Huon’s arias from Oberon lead us into the German Romantics. Gedda only once sang Lohengrin on stage, but decided that Wagner wasn’t for him. His lyrical approach to In fernem Land and Mein lieber Schwann is very beautfiful nonetheless.
Best of all on this second disc is a magical performance of Magische Töne, sung in a ravishing mezza voce of ineffable sweetness, the long legato line beautifully and firmly held. This is great singing, no doubt about it.
Disc 3 is of French and Italian arias and duets. It starts with a superb performance of La gloire était ma seule idole from Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, a role Gedda made very much his own and of course later recorded complete under Sir Colin Davis. Next comes a dramatic version of Un autre est son époux from Werther, the joyful Aubade from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys, and the Raoul/Marguerite duet from Les Huguenots (with Mady Mesplé). Arnold’s Asil hérèditaire from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, with its fabulously ringing top notes, leads us into the Italian bel canto items.
Mirella Freni joins him for duets from La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale whilst alone he sings Edgardo’s Tombe degli avi miei and Ernesto’s Cercherò lontana terra. The Bellini had me wishing he had been engaged for Callas’s studio recording of La Sonnambula rather than the ineffectual Monti. After all he had already sung Narciso in her recording of Il Turco in Italia.
Freni, who had yet to venture into more dramatic repertoire, blends well with Gedda in the duets, but back in 1966 she had yet to learn how to project personality in a recording. Her singing is lovely but a little anonymous. Both the solo items could be considered models of bel canto style but are also sung with appreciation of the dramatic situation, the recitatives vividly delivered.
To finish we have a clutch of encores, including Lara’s Granada and the lovely Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn, which give us a glimpse of Gedda’s prowess in lighter fare and remind us of that Gedda also recorded a lot of operetta.
Given Gedda was such a prolific recording artist, there was a lot to choose from when compiling a set of Great Moments, and no doubt the set could have extended to many more discs. There is no doubt, though, that EMI have chosen some plums from his discography and there isn’t a dud performance on the whole set. Extravagantly recommended.