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.

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.

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.