Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté – a comparative review of ten recordings

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.

They have been recorded umpteen times and Ralph Moore has done an exhaustive comparison of most of these recordings, which I recommend to anyone who loves the songs. You can view it at http://musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Aug/Berlioz_nuits_survey.pdf.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Nostalgic Look at Ten of My Favourite Popular Singers

This is a companion piece to the piece I wrote some time ago entitled Singers Who Changed My Life . 

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.

Katia Ricciarelli in Recital

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.

Elsa Dreisig’s Morgen

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Now this is rather special. The young French/Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig follows up her excellent debut album of operatic excerpts with this beautifully compiled recital of songs for voice and piano, showing that she is equally at home in the more intimate surroundings of the recital room. The programme is an interesting one with the piano accompanied versions of Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder (plus his final ever song Malven) split up and inserted into different points of the recital. The songs weren’t orginally planned as a cycle in any case, and this makes for some fascinating juxtapositions. The rest of the programme is made up of songs by Rachmaninov and Duparc and leads us on a most satisfying journey, “an inner journey across the seasons of the soul,” as Dreisig writes in the accompanying notes.

The North Star, our guide, is Strauss with these Four Last Songs (or five if we count Malven, his final song), in conversation with Duparc and Rachmaninov. Starting at the dawn of Spring and of youth, we visit Summer and its passions then, by way of Autumn nights and the dreamlike world of sleep, we come face to face with the unknown and with passing time. A journey of initiation, one that allows us to contemplate loss and death, thinking all the while of tomorrow: morgen.

Save for Rachmaninov’s The Pied Piper the mood is generally dreamy and Dresig and her accompanist, the superb Jonathan Ware, create spell bindng magic, drawing us in to their carefully crafted programme. Dreisig’s voice is a lovely, lyric soprano with a pearly, opalescent radiance that suits all these songs perfectly, but she is much more than a lovely voice. What is unusual is her rare gift for communication, her innate musicality and the specificity of her response to all these songs.

The highlights for me are her languidly dreamy and erotic rendition of Duparc’s Phidylé and Extase, Rachmaninov’s At Night In My Garden, and all the Strauss items gorgeously sung, yet with due attention to the text. I do hope Dresig will soon get to record the orchestral version of his Vier letzte Lieder. Ware plays magnificently, probably the best version of the piano accompaniment I have ever heard, but I do miss Strauss’s glorious orchestration. A total contrast is afforded  when she follows it with her superbly suggestive singing of Rachmaninov’s The Pied Piper, which shows off admirably her brilliant gift for characterisation, but really there isn’t a dud in the whole recitial

This is a wonderful disc and one of the best soprano song recitals I have heard in a very long time. Start the disc from the beginning and allow these artists to take you along on their journey. One listen quickly became two. Dreisig turns thirty this year. Let us hope that the pandemic has not stimmied a career that was just starting to get going. Warmly recommended.

A clutch of Decca Toscas

For this comparison, I have chosen five different recordings of Tosca, all available from Decca Classics.

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First off I revisited the 1984 Solti Tosca but have to say I got bored before the end of Act I and then just tried various bits in the other two acts. The sound is great. Apart from that the best thing in it is Aragall, though I wouldn’t prefer him to Di Stefano, Domingo, Carreras or Bergonzi, all of whom appear on other more recommendable recordings. Nucci is a dead loss and Te Kanawa out of her depth as Tosca. Solti’s conducting has little to commend it either, too slow in places and too fast in others. It just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole, and considering it was all recorded piecemeal, that’s hardly a surprise. I remember this set was originally issued in a blaze of publicity, but it didn’t sell well and was quickly remaindered. A totally forgettable performance. 

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Where I found the Solti a bit of a bore, this 1966 set is quite interesting, but often for all the wrong reasons. First of all Maazel’s conducting is fussy beyond belief. He can hardly let a phrase go by without pulling around the tempo or trying to bring out some detail in the score. There is no lyrical flow or sweep and ultimately Puccini gets lost on the altar of Maazel’s ego.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Scarpia is, as you would expect, intelligently thought out, but it never sounds idiomatic. He is an artist I admire in the right repertoire but Puccini was not for him. Corelli is, well, Corelli. He is definitely the best of the three principals, but he emphasises the heroic at the expense of the seductive. Nonetheless, as always, there is much to enjoy in the sound of the voice itself.

Then there is Nilsson. Well the top notes are fabulous of course, but this isn’t really a good role for her. She often overdoes the histrionics, as in her first scene with Scarpia where she adds a surfeit of sobs. She can also be a little clumsy in the ligher sections and Non la sospiri la nostra casetta is clumsy and unpolished. Ultimately, like Fischer-Dieskau, she sounds as if she had strayed into the wrong opera.

For all that I found this more enjoyable than the Solti, which is just plain dull. At least all the singers here have a personality.

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So I’ve moved on to the 1978 Rescigno in this mini challenge and there’s little here to detain us. In fact I’d be tempted to place this below the Maazel, which at least has interest value. Rescigno was a favourite of Callas’s, recording many of her recital albums and delivering at least one great performance in the live 1958 Covent Garden Traviata but his conducting here is just plain dull. Like Te Kanawa, Freni is completely out of her depth, the voice just too light even at this stage of her career. I expected Milnes to be more interesting, especially when you think of his Jack Rance, but for some reason his Scarpia just isn’t nasty enough. Which leaves Pavarotti, who sounds out of sorts vocally. The velvet has gone from his voice and he often sounds plain whiney. Not surprisingly his Vittoria! is very small scale when set beside Corelli’s. And small scale is what personifies the whole performance, but that’s not what Tosca needs.

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At last a real Tosca voice! Aside from at the very top of the voice when she can be a bit shrieky, Tebaldi fulfils almost all the demands the role asks of her. I say almost, because she doesn’t quite have Callas’s flexibility and lightness of touch in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, but then few do. The beauty of the voice is well caught and she is a convincing Tosca. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, from any of the singers, but they do all have splendid voices of the requisite size and weight. Del Monaco is much better than I remembered, though he still bawls from time to time and his arias lack poetry. George London is the best of the Scarpias so far, his voice dark and threatening.

What lets this set down is the routine conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. He is a good accompanist, nothing more. Still, worth hearing for the three lead singers. The 1959 recording sounds good for its age.

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So I’ve come to the end of my mini Decca Tosca challenge and what a difference the conductor makes. This 1962 recording is in an altogether different class from the others and the chief reason for that is Karajan’s elastic conducting, which is incredibly controlled without being rigid. Where Maazel’s conducting draws attention to itself because of the way he fusses with the rhythms, Karajan’s rubato is entirely natural. He has at his disposal a cast as well nigh perfect as any other assembled on disc. Taddei’s Scarpia is the best I’ve heard since Gobbi, sounding equally dangerous but in a completely different way. You feel this man could lash out viciously at any second. Gobbi’s Scarpia would be unlikely to get his own hands dirty, but you feel Taddei’s not ony would but would enjoy doing so. Di Stefano is in slightly fresher voice for De Sabata but he is still an excellent Cavaradossi, and I actually prefer him to both Corelli and Del Monaco. He fulfils all aspects of the character, artist, lover and revolutionary, finding the poetry in his arias and an almost crazed fervour in his cries of Vittoria. He brings more “face” to his character than anyone. Truly this was one of his very best roles.

Which leaves us with Price and here I have a feeling I might be treading on controversial ground. The voice is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, her characterisation sensuous and feminine, and her singing is deeply felt (Vissi d’arte is really lovely). She is a good deal preferable to Nilsson, Freni or Te Kanawa, but I would still place Callas and Tebaldi ahead of her in the Tosca canon. The Callas/De Sabata I know so well that it tends to play in my mind’s ear whenever I hear the opera, but I had also just listened to Tebaldi in the role and she sounds more like a natural for it to me. It’s hard to put my finger on what is missing, but I’d no doubt be perfectly happy with her Tosca if I hadn’t heard Callas and Tebaldi in the role. Nonethless she is one of the best Toscas on record and in very good company.

So now having heard all five of these Decca recordings, my final ordering would be

1. (by a fair margin) Karajan
2. Molinari-Pradelli (the only other really worth hearing, mostly for Tebaldi’s Tosca and London’s Scarpia)
3. Maazel
4. Rescigno
5. Solti

The De Sabata would still be my ultimate first choice, but the Karajan has also stood the test of time and anyone wanting an audio Tosca would be happy with either. If stereo sound is a must, then Karajan is the obvious first choice.

 

Pappano’s Aida

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Recorded Sala Santa Cecilia Auditorium, Rome February 2015

Producer: Stephen Johns, Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen

This recording of Aida was issued five years ago now in a blaze of publicity, so how does it measure up now the dust has settled?

Presentation of this studio recording (a rarity in itself these days) harks back to the old days. A nice hard back book, acts I and II given a CD each, with the last two acts on the final CD. Full text, translations and notes in three languages are included, with copious photos of the sessions, and all at a very reasonable price. Warner have put a lot of faith in the enterprise, and I hope it succeeded, though it doesn’t seem to have precipitated any more studio recordings of opera.

So what of the performance? Well, to my mind, the two stars are Kaufmann and Pappano. Kaufmann fulfils all the requirements for strong heroic tone and lyrical poetry. The ending of Celeste Aida is one of the best I’ve heard, hitting the top Bb mezzoforte, then making a diminuendo to a truly ppp morendo close. He is every inch the noble warrior, the tender lover, and the tormented man torn between the two. Admittedly his tone isn’t what you’d call Italianate, and it doesn’t have that squillo up top that you hear in such tenors as Corelli or Del Monaco, but his musical manners are infinitely better. It is a considerable achievement and one of the best Radames we have had on disc.

Pappano’s shaping of the score is excellent and in the best Italian tradition, less self conscious than Karajan I, less apt to push the orchestra into the foreground than Karajan II and far preferable to the bombastic Solti. His balancing of the score’s public and private elements is just about perfect, and his Santa Cecilia orchestra play brilliantly for him. The sound too is very good, achieving an excellent balance between orchestra and singers, who are never drowned out as they are in Karajan II.

The rest have all I think been bettered elsewhere. Best of them is Ludovic Tézier’s Amonasro, a baritone with a good solid centre to his tone, and an almost Gobbi-like grasp of the role’s dramatic demands. I have heard much firmer basses in the roles of Ramfis and the King than Erwin Schrott and Marco Spotti and neither of them makes much of an impression.

Of the two women, Ekaterina Semenchuk has all the notes and power for Amneris, just missing out on a really individual response to the words. I’m afraid I found her performance all a bit generalised and she doesn’t eclipse memories of Simionato, Baltsa or Barbieri. As for Harteros, I have equivocal feelings. There are times when the role taxes her to the limit, and the ascent to top C in O patria mia is hard won, the final note thin, acrid and not quite in tune. She is easily outclassed by Caballé here. However she does use the words  well, and is thoroughly inside the role. My problem is that, though more responsive to the text than, say, Price or Tebadi, I find the voice itself somewhat anonymous. In some ways she reminds me of Freni, also a singer on the light side, and who also sings well off the words, but Freni makes the pleasanter, more individual sound and her singing is a good deal more secure.

So a worthy addition to the Aida discography, if not the last word in Aida recordings. I won’t be throwing away Muti, Karajan II and certainly not Callas under Serafin (also now on Warner). I also enjoy the thrilling live 1951 Mexico performance with Callas, Dominguez, Del Monaco and Taddei, though the incalcitrant sound makes listening rather a trial, and I note that, since I bought this Pappano set in 2015, it tends to be the last one I think of pulling down from the shelves, when I want to listen to the opera.

Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

Les Troyens (abridged) conducted by Georges Prêtre

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This live recording,  seemingly from a radio broadcast of a concert performance, is chiefly interesting for the contributions of  three great singers, Marilyn Horne, Shirley Verrett and Nicolai Gedda.

The score is heavily cut, and Prêtre whizzes through it with unseemly haste with no sense whatsoever of the piece’s structure. I just felt that he lacked any real understanding of the Berlioz idiom, of his originality and individuality, which is a pity because he has some excellent principals, though the supporting roles are less well filled. Veriano Luchetti appears as a rather too muscular Iopas.

Horne has no problems with the difficult tessitura of Cassandre’s role, her voice shining out in the high passages but with plenty of power in the lower regions. However she doesn’t quite convey Cassandre’s crazed zeal, though Prêtre’s fast tempos hardly help. Robert Massard is a fine Chorèbe.

Gedda, a lyric tenor, is surprisingly successful as Enée, a role usually sung by more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner. His French is, as you might expect, excellent, and he never forces the voice, nor does he have any trouble with the top C in his big aria Inutiles regrets. He doesn’t quite erase memories of Vickers, but his French is much more natural, and this might actually be more like the voice Berlioz would have had in mind. A great performance to set beside his Benvenuto Cellini and Faust, and it is a great shame he never appears to have sung the role again.

As Didon, Verrett is in splendid voice, perhaps one of the most richly endowed singers to have sung the role on disc, and she is, as always, dramatically involved, but again Prêtre tends to rush her, and I find myself wondering what she might have achieved with a Davis at the helm. I’m delighted to have heard her in the role, but I find I actually prefer Veasey on Davis’s first recording, who, in turn, cedes place to Janet Baker, who unfortunately only recorded the final scenes under Sir Alexander Gibson in 1969, shortly after singing the role for Scottish Opera. There exists a complete recording of a performance from Covent Garden at which Baker deputised for an ailing Veasey. Despite the fact that she is singing in English, whilst the rest of the cast sing in French (Scottish Opera were performing the opera in English, and Baker didn’t have time to learn the French text), she makes a profound impression. It is a great pity she wasn’t engaged for the studio recording.

I enjoyed hearing this for the singing of the principals, but Prêtre all but ruins it for me, and both Davis, in either of his two recordings, and Nelson are much more recommendable versions of the opera.

Nelson’s Les Troyens

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I love this opera, though I’ve never actually seen it staged. The first time I heard it live was in two halves at a couple of Proms concerts in 1982. It was conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and starred Jessye Norman as Didon, Felicity Palmer as Cassandre and Richard Cassilly as Enée. I didn’t know the opera as well then as I do now, but I remember even then I loved it. People often moan that it is too long, hence why it is often split into two parts, but it’s no longer than some of Wagner’s operas (and shorter than one or two). Subsequently I heard it twice at the Barbican under Sir Colin Davis, for whom Berlioz was something of a lifelong passion. Indeed without him it is quite possible that Berlioz would still be underappreciated today. I’ve also long enjoyed both Davis’s first pioneering recording for Philips, with Josephine Veasey and Jon Vickers, which was based on performances at Covent Garden, as well as his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at concerts at the Barbican, with Ben Heppner, Petra Lang and Michelle DeYoung.

It is a magnificent score, Berlioz’s greatest achievement, and it is a terrible shame he never got to hear it performed in its entirety. According to the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns, it is

an opera of visionary beauty and splendour, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention… it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world.

As always with Berlioz, the orchestration is superb and he writes brilliantly for major and minor characters alike, one of the most haunting moments in the score being given to the young sailor Hylas, as he laments for his homeland at the beginning of Act V.

This recent set has garnered some great reviews, so I was keen to hear how it measured up to the Davis recordings. From an orchestral point of view it is certainly very fine, but the singers are all a little light of voice for my taste. I heard Michael Spyres singing Berlioz’s Faust at the Proms not so long ago, and I found him a wonderfully musical and intelligent singer. I wonder though whether his voice might be a tad too small for Aeneas. There were times at the Proms that I thought his lyrical voice a little too small even for Faust. Maybe I’ve become too used to more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner, but the role of Enée was in the repertoire of the great Georges Thill, who also had a rather more beefy voice than Spyres. Lemieux is also a light voiced Cassandre, though she’s a great improvement on Lindholm, who is on the first Davis recording. I wouldn’t prefer her to Lang on the second Davis recording, nor Deborah Voigt, who sings Cassandre on the less successful Dutoit recording and also on a live Met recording, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon.

DiDonato is probably the most successful of the soloists. Some find her vibrato distracting, though it doesn’t bother me unduly, and she is thoroughly inside the role. However she doesn’t evince the sort of innigkeit you find in Janet Baker, who can be heard in incomparable versions of the final scenes conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and also in a couple of live performances under Davis, nor of Hunt Lieberson, who can be heard in the live Met performance under Levine, mentioned above. That said, I don’t know of anyone else around today who could sing it better.

Nor do I wish to be too picky about a recording that is a considerable achievement for all concerned. It gets a cautious thumbs up from me; certainly the best since Davis I and II, with my preference still being for Davis I.

Karajan’s Fidelio

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Recorded October and December 1970, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Wolfgang Gülch

The first time I ever saw Fidelio (and the first time I’d ever heard it) was back in 1974 when Scottish Opera brought the opera to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Helga Dernesch as Leonore. Though all the singers were very good, Dernesch was in a class of her own. I well remember her entry into the Canon in Act I, which was like a shaft of sunlight coming through the gloom. This was around the same time she made this recording with Karajan and the effect is exactly the same here. Famously Dernesch started having problems with the top of her voice and took time out, returning as a mezzo, though there is precious little sign of any strain in her voice here. Throughout she is a gleaming, radiant presence and this is arguably the greatest recording she ever made.

She is not the only reason I treasure this recording. Karajan’s reading is bitingly dramatic and the whole cast one of the best ever assembled for the opera. Certainly I’m not sure anyone has ever equalled Vickers’ searing intensity as Florestan. Ridderbusch and Kéléman are superb as Rocco and Pizarro and Van Dam luxury casting as Don Ferando, as is Helen Donath as Marzelline. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and superbly delivered by the singers (thankfully no separate cast of actors).

I’ve lived with this recording for around forty-five years and it’s still my favourite. When I was moving from LP to CD, I bowed to popular opinion and bought the Klemperer, but was profoundly disappointed, finding it less thrilling, less dramatic. It wasn’t long before I bought the Karajan again.