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 spleep, we come to 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.

Böhm’s classic Così fan tutte

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Così fan tutte is a difficult opera for me these days. The music is sublime, but I find it hard to take the evident misogyny. Consequently I find the best way to listen to it is to ignore as much as possible the plot and listen instead to the emotions the plot provokes, and this is where Mozart’s genius lifts the opera above his subject matter, especially in a great performance such as this one.

Schwarzkopf and Ludwig are a wonderfully contrasted pair of sisters, the latter capturing Dorabella’s more flighty, open hearted nature to perfection. Schwarzkopf is superb as her more haughty, serious sister, imperious in Come scoglio, truly troubled and emotionally shattered in Per pieta, a performance both beautiful and heart-breaking.  Between them, she and Alfredo Kraus make their duet Fra gli’amplessi into a thing of quivering sighs and eroticism. In no other version does that moment of capitulation make quite the effect it does here. Hanny Steffek is just right as Depina, not too sparkily soubrettish, and enjoys herself enormously with Walter Berry’s genially scheming Don Alfonso.

The male lovers are also wonderfully cast, Kraus ardent and poised as the more romantic Ferrando and Taddei a mercurial and vibrant Guglielmo.

Böhm’s experience shines through in every bar and the Philharmonia play sublimely.

I’ve had this recording (originally on LP) in my collection now for almost 50 years now and, though I’ve acquired and heard others since, as a total performance, this one remains my first choice.

Two Contrasting Vocal Recitals

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Dame Maggie Teyte in concert, at the age of sixty no less! Teyte, a famous Mélisande who studied the role with Debussy himself, sings extended excerpts from the opera with piano accompaniment, singing all the roles. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It takes her the first song in the recital (Grétry’s Rose chérie) to warm up, but thereafter you would never believe this was the voice of a sixty year old woman. The disc also includes privately recorded excerpts from Strauss’s Salome also with piano, from when Teyte was preparing the role for Covent Garden about fifteen years earlier, a project that unofrtunately never came to fruition. Her bright, slivery soprano might just have been the voice Strauss imagined.

She also sings Britten’s Les Illuminations in a version for piano, making me wish she had recorded the orchestral version, although preferably a few years earlier. Just occasionally there is a flicker of frailty in the middle voice, although the top register remains firm and clear as a bell. The encores include a lovely performance of Hahn’s popular Si mes vers avaient des ailes.

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Another enterprising disc from Dawn Upshaw, who seems to have disappeared from the scene now. The centrepiece is Earl Kim’s Where grief slumbers written in 1982 for voice, harp and string orchestra, but here presented in a 1990 arrangement for voice, double string quartet and harp, and Upshaw is an ideal interpreter. She is equally at home in the rest of the programme; Falla’s Psyché, Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Stravinsky’s Two poems of Konstantin Bel’mont and Three Japanese Lyrics and Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous, though here I slightly prefer the warmer tones of Dame Janet Baker. Nevertheless a thoroughly absorbing disc.

As with so many of these Nonsuch discs, documentation is slight, and, though we are vouchsafed lyrics and translations, a little more information about the provenance of these songs, especially the less famous Kim cycle, would have been much appreciated.

Renée Fleming – I Want Magic

 

 

 

Renée Fleming was at her peak when this recital was recorded and this is, without doubt, one of her most successful records. The programme is a varied one too, with familiar items like Gershwin’s Summertime and Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay rubbing shoulders with items from more rarely performed works like Hermann’s Wuthering Heights and Floyd’s Susannah. The inclusion of Anne’s No word from Tom from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress rather stretches the subtitle American Opera Arias a bit, but is possibly justified as Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky were all resident in the US at the time of its composition.

The disc opens with a short extract from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, which was written in 1943 but never staged in Herrmann’s lifetime. In fact it was only premiered in 1982 by Portland Opera, but with the ending changed to one Julius Rudel had proposed several years earlier. It wasn’t performed in full until 2011, by Minnesota Opera. I have dreamt, lusciously sung here by Fleming, woud suggest the opera might be worth further investigation.

The excerpts from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Menotti’s The Medium are both lovely in every way, but the Gershwin items from Porgy and Bess suffer from a lack of spontaneity. Fleming introduces all sorts of jazzy slides and glottal attacks which simply sound affected. Leontyne Price sings this music much more simply and allows it to blossom on its own.

The considerable difficulties of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are tossed off with ease and here she captures the irony in the piece marvellously. It’s a piece that, unsurprisingly, many opera singers have added to their repertoire but few of them challenge the original interpreter, Broadway star Barbara Cook, who created the role and whose diction is a good deal more clear. To be honest, the only “operatic” version I’ve heard that does is Dawn Upshaw’s, but Fleming’s is certainly amongst the best.

Next we have two pieces from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which brought back happy memories of seeing Fleming in the role at the Met shortly after she recorded these exceprts. She is at her considerable best here, flooding the gratefully lyrical lines with gorgeous tone, but also capturing the character’s longing for adventure in the first, her loneliness in the second.

Finally we have a reminiscence of her Anne Trulove, which she sang at the Aspen Music Festival in 1987 and a taster of her Blanche Dubois in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she premiered soon after making this recording. She has a richer voice than most Annes, but negotiates its complexities with ease and her Blanche is simply hors concours. The aria I want magic was an obvious high spot when she sang the role in London with the LSO, but I rather wish they had also included the final aria, I can smell the sea air, which had a huge effect on me each time I heard it whilst waiting in the wings to make my entrance as the doctor. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

Sandwiched between the Stravinsky and the Previn we have Vanessa’s passionate Act I aria from Barber’s opera, which left me wondering why nobody had thought to revive the opera with Fleming in the title role. It would have suited her perfectly.

If I have any reservations, aside from those I mentioned about the Gershwin pieces, I’d have to say that her diction could be clearer. Other than that, this is an absorbing and rewarding programme stunningly sung and beautifully executed. Don’t hesitate.

A Spanish Songbook – Jill Gomez

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What an utterly charmng and delightful disc this is, cleverly planned and beautifully executed.

With her distinctive timbre and wonderfully expressive voice, Gomez’s personality fairly bursts through the speakers and she is superbly supported here by John Constable on the piano, who unerringly captures the mood of the songs. You feel as if these two artists really enjoy making music together, and indeed their association is a long one, having first appeared on disc together twenty years earlier. Gomez would have been in her early fifties when the present disc was recorded but the voice has hardly changed in the intervening years.

What we have here is a compendium of Spanish inflluenced songs by German, French and English composers, as well as songs by Spanish composers, covering a wide range of styles and eras. The programming is eminently sensible and makes for very satisfying listening.

We start with a group of sixteenth century Villancios from the courts of Charles V and Philip II in piano arrangements by Graciano Tarragó, which encourage the kind of decoration and improvisation of the 16th century vilancico. Fuenllana’s De los alamos vengo, madre is no doubt better known from Rodrigo’s orchestral arrangement, but Gomez sparkles quite as much here.

From thence we turn to a group of Spanish influenced songs by Wolf and Schumann, in which Gomez captures perfectly the deep melancholy of Schumann’s Tief im Herzen trag’ ich Pein as well as the girlish coquettishness of Wolf’s In dem Schatten meiner Locken. Spain has always provided a deep vein of inspiration for French composers, so we are next treated to a group of songs by Bizet, Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Délibes in which Gomez’s sense of style is impeccable.

Next come the three Granados Tornadillas, in which we are probably more used to hearing the fuller, chestier sound of someone like Conchita Supervia. Gomez intelligently, rather than copy her style, is more languorous. I might prefer Supervia’s vibrancy, but Gomez’s way is just as valid.

The two Walton songs, both taken from Façade, find Gomez pointing Edith Sitwell’s lyrics deliciously and lead us into the final group, which Gomez calls “Seven Other Popular Songs”. The first three songs are by Roberto Gerhard, who, as an exile from Franco’s Spain, had relocated to Cambridge in the UK in 1942, where he lived until his death in 1970. These are his versions of folk-songs collected by his teacher, Felipe Pedrell. bittersweet souvenirs of a composer in exile. The others are by Tarrago, Rodrigo, Guridi and Obradors. Gomez is yet again a wonderful guide through this musical journey of Spain, brilliantly capturing the mood of each song.

An excellent recital that should be a lot better known than it is.

Barbara Hendricks – Ravel and Duparc

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What a gorgeous disc this is. Quite why Hendricks’ version of Ravel’s Shéhérazade is not as famous as those by such as Crespin, Baker and De Los Angeles is beyond me for not only is the singing ravishing, but the orchestral playing under John Eliot Gardener superb, and quite a lot better than that of the Suisse-Romande on Crespin’s recording. Furthermore, though born in America, Hendricks has lived in Europe since 1977 and in Basel, Switzerland since 1985 and her French is virtually flawless.

The disc opens with Ravel’s Shéhérazade and the opening measures of Asie are sung with a gorgeous sensuality, which then gives way to girlish delight when she sings of sailing away on a schooner. What a vivid story-teller she is, alive to every change of mood and how beautifully she is accompanied by Gardiner, who brings out fabulous detail in the orchestral score, without losing its sensuous exoticism. In la flûte enchantée she is suitably languid, until the voice breaks out with a real burst of joy, when she describes the flute alternately pouring forth sadness and joy, whilst L’indifférent is deliciously ambiguous.

The rest of the Ravel programme is hardly less fine. My notes are peppered with words like gorgeous, sensual, exotic for the Mélodies hébraîques, which perfectly suits their colourful musical language, but the singer of the Mélodies populaires grecques is evidently younger, more innocently coquettish, the tone more forwardly produced, though I do slightly miss Victoria De Los Angeles’s delightful simplicity in the final song, Tout gai. The Vocalise en forme de Habanera returns us to the sensuality of the Hebrew songs and is absolutely ravising.

The Duparc songs are not quite up to the standard of the Ravel, but still very worth having. Both L’invitation au voyage and Au pays oû se fait la guerre really require a greater range of tone colour and Le manoir de Rosemonde lacks a little in drama. Best of all are a flowingly lyrical Chanson triste and a sexily indolent Phydilé though others, like Teyte and Baker, have encompassed its climax with greater ease.

Nevertheless this is a gorgeous disc, one of the best versions of the Ravel pieces around and, if the Duparc songs aren’t quite at the same level of excellence, they are still very fine indeed.

Renée Fleming – Night Songs

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Where does the time go? I can’t believe it is almost twenty years since I worked with Renée Fleming when the London Symphony Orchestra put on a semi-staged production of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Barbican Hall with Previn himself conducting. I only had a very minor role, but I found Fleming to be a very gracious lady, an arch professional and a conscientious artist. The rehearsals and performances are amongst my fondest memories and I will never forget the experience of hearing that voice close to, with her literally singing into my ear on occasion. The final Korngold-like aria Blanche sings before being taken away to the asylum was possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

I mention this to put into context my reactions to listening to this recital, which I wanted to like much more than I did. The recording was made in 2001 when the voice had acquired a new richness in the middle and lower ranges whilst retaining its beauty and ease up on high, even throughout its compass and admirably firm, with no trace of hardness when singing at full tilt. As it seems now we have said goodbye to Fleming, the classical arists it is good to be reminded that this was one of the most ravishing instruments of the last thirty years or so. She has always had a fairly eclectic repertoire which embraced both opera and song, covering a wide range of different composers and styles, but I’ve always thought her best suited to the music of Mozart and Strauss.

Hence it is the songs by Strauss and Joseph Marx which make the stongest impression, especially Cäcilie, its radiant close easily and ravishingly voiced. The Marx songs suit her well too, their sensuous expressivity responding well to the heady beauty of Fleming’s voice. Thibaudet is also superb in the tricky accompaniments, tossing off their difficulties as if they are the easiest things in the world.

Elsewhere I am not so sure this operatic vocal effulgence is what I want to hear. I found myself longing for the greater simplicity and cleaner vocal production of a Victoria De Los Angeles in the Fauré, the slight touch of irony and cool detachment brought to Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis by a Régine Crespin. The Rachmaninov, with their heavier accompaniments, perhaps respond better to this operatic treatment, but I find it just too sophisticated and even here I prefer a slightly simpler, more direct approach.

However enjoyable it is to hear one of the most beautiful voices of recent times whatever the circumstances, ultimately there are other discs I would pull out first when wanting to sample Fleming at her best.

Leontyne Price – The Ultimate Collection

In many ways this is an infuriating compilation, not because of anything to do with Mme Price herself, but because of the shoddy presentation, which does her, and her colleagues on this disc, no service whatsoever. The skimpy booklet lists the arias on the discs, bit not one word about their provenance, who is conducting, what year the record was made or indeed anything at all to place them in context. Even Manon Lescaut is spelled wrongly on the front cover. All we get is a puff about her career and the unhelpful information on the back of the disc that the compilation was issued in 1999. Texts and translations are hardly to be expected these days, but I do like to at least know a bit about the date of the recording, the orchestra, conductor and other singers who appear.

There is a good chance of course that I am not the target audience. Maybe most people who buy the set are happy just to put the discs on, sit back and let the gorgeous voice pour out some familiar tunes, which, for the most part, is what we get, the least well known piece here being the excerpt from Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

At least the selection concentrates mostly on her strengths, so we get fine examples of her Aida, both the Leonoras, her Carmen and a liberal sprinkling of Puccini arias, which are beautifully sung if not particularly specific in character. The weakest items here are the Mozart arias and Dido’s Lament, regally voiced but impassively emotionless. However there are some very impressive performances here, particularly those taken, I assume, from complete performances of Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino and Aida, roles for which she was well suited. The voice was certainly one of the glories of its age, with a dark plangency particularly suited to the melancholy of characters like Aida and Leonora.

That said, I would have to say that, personally, I find this hotchpotch kind of compilation, which concentrates on the singer rather than the music, completely unsatisfactory. As it happens, I am, at the moment, also working my way through the Janet Baker twenty disc Great Recordings box, which I suppose one could also legitimally call a hotchpotch. If I am finding this a much more rewarding listening experience, it presumably has something to do with the better, more logical programming, and also the greater specificity of Baker’s art.

Dipping in and extracting arias here and there from this set will proabably afford the most pleasure and maybe that is what one is supposed to do with a compilation like this.

Pierre Bernac & Francis Poulenc – Mélodies

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Poulenc:
Banalités
Chansons villageoises
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Tu vois le feu du soir
Main dominée par le coeur

Debussy:
Beau soir
L’écheonnement des haies
Le Promenoir des deux amantes

Ravel:
Histoires naturelles
Mélodies hébraïques

Satie:
Trois mélodies

Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc had a long and fruitful working relationship, going back to 1926 when Bernac gave the first performance of Poulenc’s Chansons gaillardes (not included on this disc). They first appeared in recital together in 1934 and continued to do so until Bernac retired from public performing in 1960. In fact the majority of Poulenc’s songs were written for Bernac and I suppose one could say that they enjoyed a similar relationship to that of Britten and Pears, without the emotional attachment, apparently always using the polite ‘vous’ with each other at all times.

Bernac’s voice was evidently not large but he had an enormously varied tonal palette which enabled him to capture every shift in mood, every emotion, implied or overt, in each song. Though the voice was not of itself of great natural beauty, its range was wide and Poulenc exploited this to great effect. Bernac was also a great teacher, numbering Gérard Souzay, Elly Ameling and Jessye Norman among his pupils, and he wrote with great insight about the art of singing. His The Interpretation of French Song is an absolute must for anyone interested in performing this repertoire.

Bernac and Poulenc left behind quite a legacy of recordings, most of them recorded for EMI and RCA in 1947. However these Columbia sessions took place in 1950. The Poulenc selection is self recommending, but he is equally at home in the songs of Debussy, Ravel and Satie, embracing the lyricism of Debussy’s Beau soir, the slightly detached irony of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles or the parodic wit of the Satie songs.

Anyone who enjoys the subtle art of French song should definitely hear them.