A Nostalgic Look at Ten of My Favourite Popular Singers

This is a companion piece to the piece I wrote on one 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.

Elsa Dreisig’s Morgen

morgen

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.

Dawn Upshaw – The World So Wide

r-2563268-1290619230.jpeg

A few weeks ago I reviewed Renée Fleming’s excellent disc of American opera arias and today I turn to Dawn Upshaw’s disc, which takes its title, The World So Wide, from the first item in the recital, Laurie’s Song from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. It makes a lovely opener and Upshaw is perfectly cast as the young girl who yearns to escape and see the world.

At about 45 minutes, the disc is quite short measure, however, and not everything is as good as the first track. The piece from Tanía León’s Scourge of Hyacinths is tediously declamatory and afforded me the least enjoyment on the disc. I’d also suggest that Upshaw’s is not the right voice for Barber’s Cleopatra, a role that was written for the much more opulent voice of Leontyne Price. Upshaw’s lighter, brighter sounds do not conjure up the woman of whom Enobarbus says,

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies, for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

I enjoyed the excerpt from John Adams Nixon in China rather more than the Gramophone reviewer, who found it “tediously protracted”, and I suppose you either like Adams’s style or you don’t. Whatever your feelings, Upshaw delivers Pat Nixon’s This is prophetic brilliantly. She is also superb in the more Broadway influenced What a movie from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, but I thought her singing of Lonely house (an aria sung by the male character of Sam Kaplan in Street Scene) just a little too overtly operatic. Teresa Stratas manages it better on her second disc of Weill songs and arias.

After the Copland and Benstein, the most successful item on the disc is Willow Song from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, which responds well to her charming, uncomplicated manner. So too, one would think, does the final item (and the only item she shares with Fleming on her disc), Ain’t it a pretty night from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, but here I have to admit I prefer the rather more sensuos tones of Fleming, who suggests a far more highly charged eroticism behind the apparent simplicity of the music.

A mixed bag, then, and not so successful as her disc of Broadway songs entitled I Wish It So, but worth a listen for the unusual repertoire and for some excellent performances.

Furore- Joyce DiDonato

r-14329560-1572349254-4563.jpeg

This disc was, I think, DiDonato’s first ever recital record. It was recorded during and after performances at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2008, though there is precious little sign of any audience. Since then of course DiDonato has become a major star with quite a few recital discs under her belt.

DiDonato first came to my attention when the Aix-en-Provence festival brought their superb Luc Bondy production of Hercules to the Barbican in 2006. Her Dejanira was a compelling study in irrational jealousy and eventual mental degradation, all perfectly at the service of the music, so, when this recital was issued, I eagerly snatched it up. However, at the time, I found it a little disappointing and couldn’t quite work out why. The singing is wonderfully accomplished, her command of coloartura quite superb, with none of that awful rat-a-tat explosiveness that one gets from Bartoli.

The problem would appear to be one of communicatin. The voice itself, at least as recorded here, just lacks that last ounce of individuality and, possibly a fault of the recording producer rather than the singer, she had as yet not learned to project character and emotion solely through sound. Predictably, and no doubt because she had stage experience of the role, the solos from Dejanira are the most vivid, especially the dramatic outbursts in Where shall I fly. Another highspot is Ariodante’s Scherza infida, which she sings with melting tone and imbues with a sense of utter, aching desolation. What is missing elsewhere is that last degree of exitement.

The excellent accompaniments are by Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset and I am reminded that shortly after acquiring the disc I attended a concert at the Barbican, in which these same artists performed most of the music on this disc. The diminutive DiDonato came onto the stage looking a little like a young Bette Midler, wearing a tight long black skirt and sequined boob tube, her hair a shock of blond curls round her shoulders. However any thoughts of Midler were soon dispelled the moment she began to sing as we were treated to two hours of magnicent singing with DiDonato running the gamut of emotions. Clearly DiDonato needs an audience.

Lucia Popp sings Mozart Arias

Lucia Popp was, still is, one of the world’s most loved soprano. I only had the pleasure of hearing her live once, in the mid 1980s at a recital at the Barbican at which she sang Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben at around the same time most of this disc was recorded. Though she didn’t speak until introducing her encores at the end (gorgeous Strauss songs, if I remember correctly), she had a winning personality and a sort of relaxed, casual manner that made you feel you were one of a few friends she had invited into her living room for an evening of song.

She was an accomplished Mozart singer and the first part of this recital was recorded at the time she was making the transition from roles like Zerlina, Blonde, Despina and Susanna to the Countess, Konstanze, Fiordilgi and the two Donne in Don Giovanni. She had an immediately recognisable sound, the voice bright and silvery, though, by the mid 1980s, it is possible to detect a slight tarnish on its purity at the very top, which I don’t hear in the sacred arias recorded in 1967 when she was in her late 20s. Nonetheless she makes a convincing Fiordiligi managing the wide leaps with dramatic aplomb. Both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira also go well. Not surprisingly, considering her early prowess as a coloratura, she tosses of Anna’s flourishes with an ease that would be the envy of most dramatic sopranos.

I don’t know if she ever sang Cherubino on stage, but his character is caught beautifully in a wide-eyed Voi che sapete, whilst the Countess’s Porgi amor is not only sung with poise but captures her aching loneliness. However, my favourite tracks in this first recital are the opening L’ameró, saro constante from Il ré pastore, Illia’s ideally floated Zeffiretti lusinghieri and, best of all, Susanna’s Deh vieni, non tardar, which captures to perfection the tender ambiguity of the piece.

When we move to the sacred arias from 1967, it is to hear a voice which is brighter, firmer and purer, perfectly suited to the music she is singing here, but it is still recognisably the same voice. Occasionally one is aware, both in 1967 and 1983, of what John Steane referred to as the “tooth-paste squeeze” method, her legato not quite perfect, but for the most part this is a lovely voice, well schooled and with a strong personality.

Dame Janet Baker – The Great Recordings

51yyk-hlf7l._sy400_ml2_

This exhaustive twenty disc box was, when it was first released on EMI, more properly called The Great EMI Recordings. The deletion of the word EMI from the titele has something to do with the conditions of the sale, of EMI to Warner but the original title is more representative of the contents, as Dame Janet also made “great” recordings  for Decca, Philips and Hyperion. Aside from Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and the final scenes from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, this set includes no opera. Still, the range is wide, covering music from Monteverdi to Schoenberg and, as it also includes excerpts from various complete recordings of orotorios, covers just about everything she ever recorded for EMI and later Virgin Classics. The quality is extrordinarily high and it is safe to say that she never made a bad record and many of them are out and out classics.

The lay out is mostly logical, starting with early music and moving forward in time, but cramming shorter LP recordings onto twenty well-filled CDs has inevetably led to the occasional odd juxtaposition. Most of the recordings cover her vocal prime, from 1966 through the 1970s. Shortly after she retired she made a few recordings with Richard Hickox in 1989 and 1990 and only these show a slight decline in her vocal resources, though the artistry remains undimmed.

Disc one starts with a 1969 recording of music by Monteverdi, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti with the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard rounded off by excerpts from a duet recital with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970. Leppard’s souped up arrangements of the Monteverdi might seem anachronistic now, but Baker’s impassioned singing of Arianna’s Lament and Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from L’Incoronazione di Poppea transcends any matters of style. The duet items (music by Schütz, Schein and Lilius) have continuo realisations by George Malcolm, who plays the organ with Kenneth Heath on the cello and are delightful in every way.

Disc two gives us the first side of an LP called A Pageant of English Song, which had songs by Dowland and Campion accompanied on the lute, and by Purcell, Monro (I can’t think of his My lovely Cecilia without having Baker’s smiling tone in my head) Boyce and Arne, with accompaniments by Martin Isepp on harpsichord. More duets with Fischer-Dieskau round off the disc, some of these taken from a 1969 Queen Elizabeth Hall recital with Barenboim on the piano.

From here we move to Bach for the next two discs, the wonderful performance of Ich habe genug under Menuhin being particularly noteworthy. A Bach recital, which she recorded wit Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner is spread over the two discs, which finished with the alto arias from Klemperer’s 1967 recording of the Mass in B minor. What a superb Bach singer she was.

We move onto Handel, a composer with whom Baker was particularly associated. Mackerras’s recording of Messiah was one of the first to make a stab in the direction of HIP. It was also the first one I ever owned, Baker’s contribution being particularly memorable. Her version of He was despised is incredibly moving. The two Handel cantatas are listed as arr. Leppard, but I’m not sure what those ‘arrangements’ involve. Baker is, as always, a superb Handelian.

The Haydn and Beethoven Folk Song Arrangements, which follow on the next disc, rather outstay their welcome, for me anyway, even in performances as special and imaginative as these, which means that the ensuing Schumann and Brahms duets from the QEH concert come as something of a relief.

Discs seven and eight are all Schubert, taken, for the most part, from a two disc set she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1971, which included quite a few rarities and a 1980 recital with Geofrrey Parsons of more popular fare. Amongst so many great performances, it’s hard to name favourites, but I doubt I’ve ever heard a better performance of Du bist die Ruh, which is not only deeply felt but also displays the perfection of her tehcnique and her superb breath control.

A few more Schubert songs start the ninth disc, which then continues with a Mendelssohn recital with Geofrrey Parsons and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben with Daniel Barenboim. One of the first records Janet Baker ever made was of the Schumann cycle, for the Saga label before she was contracted to EMI. It was released to much acclaim, but this one delves that much deeper and is indeed one of the greatest recordings of Schumann’s cycle in the catalogue. The Mendelssohn songs are perhaps not so memorable or so wide ranging as Schubert’s but Baker makes the best case for them, but the Schumann cycle is the real prize of this disc.

The tenth disc gives us the second side of her Schumann LP with Barenboim, a wonderful performance of the Opus 39 Liederkreis, and the whole of an all Brahms programme with Previn at the piano, the two songs for alto and viola (Cecil Aronowitz) and the Vier ernste Gesänge are deeply felt and wonderfully accompanied.

A Liszt recital (with Geoffrey Parsons) starts disc eleven, an excellent selection of songs, which are not performed as often as they should be. Baker and Parsons make the very best case for them. These are followed by a small selection from Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch and a couple of Mahler’s youthful songs.

Disc twelve is something of a mixed bag and brings together recordings from the beginning and end of Dame Janet’s career, a selection of Strauss songs from an early EMI recital disc, the Song of the Wood Dove from Ferencsik’s 1968 recording of Gurrelieder and Respighi’s La Sensitiva from recording sessions made for Virgin Classics in 1990, a gap of some twenty-three years. I suppose you can detect a slight loosening of the vibrations, but the voice is still very firm and the artistry undimmed. Some may hear a slight lack of spontaneity in the 1967 Strauss songs (absent from the 1973 recording of Ständchen) and I’d have to admit I prefer the sound of a soprano in these songs, but I’d still rather too much care than too little. The Schoenberg might seem an unexpected piece for Dame Janet, but she is absoutely superb here, wonderfully intense and dramatically involved and the Respighi, recorded just after she had retired from the concert platform, is a lovely performance, warmly sung and senisitively phrased.

Disc thirteen is all of song with orchestra. The Brahms Alto Rhapsody was originally used as a filler for Boult’s Brahms Symphony cycle, then reissued as a makeweight for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and a selction of Strauss songs Baker and Boult recorded in 1975. The Alto Rhapsody and the Wagner are absolutely superb, indeed among the most recommendable versions of these songs. The Strauss songs suit her less well, but I’m still glad to have them.

This legendary recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures has never been equalled. It was originally issued with Du Pré’s equally legendary recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and is one of the best selling classical records of all time. The disc finishes, fittingly enough with Dame Janet’s wonderfully consoling and radiant singing of the closing pages of The Dream of Gerontius.

Now if I were allowed just one Janet Baker record on that proverbial desert island, I’d be hard pressed to choose between her Mahler and her Berlioz and  the next two discs are dedicated to these two composers.

Disc fourteen gathers together all the Mahler recordings she made with Barbirolli and adds Urlicht from Rattle’s acclaimed recording of the Second Symphony. All three cycles are amongst the best recordings of these songs ever made. The Rückert Lieder were originally issued on the fourth side of Barbirolli’s famous recording of the 5th Symphony with the New Philharmonia, the other two cycles having been recorded a couple of years earlier with the Hallé. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was recorded at the same time and used as a fill-up, which explains why they recorded the song twice. If I were to use one piece of music to illustrate the genius of Janet Baker, then it would undoubtedly be one of these two versions of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The song is not so much sung as experienced and you can really feel the connection between singer and conductor. To be honest, there is very little to choose between the two performances; maybe the later one is even more withdrawn, even more self-communing. When I listen to either I feel as if I too am lost to the world.

Disc fifteen is also one of the most desirable discs in this set. Baker was a great Berlioz singer and it has always been a huge cause for regret that she never recorded the role of Didon, making these excerpts more treasurable than ever. She recorded La mort de Cléopâtre again for Philips under Davis, another superbly impassioned and dramatic performance, but she is in slightly fresher voice here.

This Barbirolli recording of Les nuits d’été is, I think, her finest and indeed one of the greatest performances of the songs ever committed to disc. In his survey of the then available recordings for Song on Record 2, David Cairns makes it a top recommendation alongside Steber/Mitropoulos. She is possibly a little stiff in Villanelle but all is glorious after that and, with the inestimable help of Barbirolli, she unerringly captures the mood of each of the four middle songs especially. Le spectre de la rose is taken slowly but never drags, and the tempo gives her ample time to fill out the phrases, its climax gorgeously radiant.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade, which opens disc sixteen, was recorded at the same time as Baker’s superb Les nuits d’été and is wonderfully sung, though I’d say she misses that hint of inuendo in the last song that you get from Crespin. Nonetheless this is a beautiful performance of the cycle. The Chausson and Duparc were recorded ten years later, and there is a slight detioration in the quality of the voice, the vibrations have loosened a bit and there is a slight feeling of strain. She sings the Chausson with a greater sense of freedom in a live performance under Svetlanov only a few years earlier, but this is still a great performance with Previn and the LSO offering superb support as they do in the Duparc.

D’amour l’ardent flamme from La Damnation de Faust, which closes the disc, is one of the greatest ever recorded and it’s too bad that it is taken from a not very recommendable performance of the work under Georges Prêtre. If only Baker had been the Marguerite on Davis’s Philips recording of 1973, in which Gedda got to reprise his Faust under much happier circumstances. Baker joins Callas and Verrett as my favourites for this piece.

Baker was also a renowned interpreter of French song with piano and the lion’s share of disc seventeen is given over to A French Song Recital, which she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1969, songs by Duparc, Fauré and Debussy. It was logical to add the French items from a mixed bag recital of a couple of years later. These songs by Hahn, Massenet, Chabrier and Gounod demonstrate Baker’s prowess in a lighter vein. The Berlioz orchestral songs were originally coupled to her final recording of Les nuits d’été, recorded right at the end of her career. The voice is not quite the same as it was twenty years earlier, admittedly, but to be honest, very few allowances have to be made for the passing years.

One of the first discs Baker ever recorded was a recital of British songs, for the Saga label, and English song would often be a part of her concert recitals. This eighteenth disc brings together the second side of A Pageant of English Song (you might remember the first side was included on Disc 2). This time the composers are Parry, Stanford (a superbly impassion performance of La belle dame sans merci), Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Ireland , Gurney and Warlock, and the English items from her Favourites album. She was also much associated with the music of Benjamin Britten, but all her recordings were made for Decca, so it is good to have this one excerpt from Previn’s recording of his Spring Symphony.

When Walton’s Troilus and Cressida was revived at Covent Garden in 1976, Walton re-wrote the role for a mezzo, specifically so that Baker could sing it. The performances were recorded and the disc is filled out with three excerpts from that recording.

The penultimate disc starts with the remaining item from her 1972 Favourites album (Mendlessohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges) and continues with two arias from the 1968 Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Elijah, her singing of O rest in the Lord sung with a sincerity and compassion that enfolds you in its warm embrace.

It was perhaps an unfortunate idea to present the Mendelssohn Psalm of twenty years later straight after, for she sounds uncharacteristically tentative and strained in the solos, which are, in any case, designated for soprano. The concert aria that follows fares a little better as the tessitura lies slightly lower, but these are not performances I would want to listen to often. On the other hand, the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, recorded the same year, is rather wonderful and probably the gem of these late sessions. It lies a lot lower of course, so the sounds a great deal more comfortable, and it is a wonderful memento of the moving performance I heard these same artists give of the work at the Barbican round about the time of this recording and shortly before she retired. As in the live performance, the moment when the music shifts from the minor to the major is a moment of pure magic. This is definitely the prize of these late recording sessions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the final disc in this wonderful set is the only one I would call dispensable, though I was actually pleasantly surprised by this 1990 performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. She takes a little less time over the songs now, and this performance comes in around three minutes shorter than the Barbirolli. She still has an innate understanding of Berlioz and the way to shape and mould the phrases, but there is also a slight feeling of her husbanding her resources where the Barbirolli (and the live Giulini) find her in full vocal plenitude. They are still the ones I would reach for when wanting to hear Baker in this work.

The remaning items are from a 1980 disc called Songs for Sunday which will no doubt be more to some people’s taste than to mine. She sings with her customary sincerity and generosity of spirit, but I don’t really respond to the religious sentimentality of the material.

However these twenty discs have confirmed for me Baker’s place as one of the greatest singers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Her records continue to educate and enthral. There is something so personal about Baker’s art, a sense of total identification with the composer in question and an innate ability to capture the right mood of each song. This goes hand in hand with a gift for communication which is vouchsafed to only a few. Just occasionally one can be aware of the huge amount of thought that has gone into each interpretation, but I’d rather too much intelligence than too little. It has been  interesting too to hear her collaborations with so many different musicians. How lucky we are that she left behind her such a rich and varied legacy.

 

Callas sings Medea – Dallas, November 1958

dcc86eb552dbd96c4f07fbc85f0df3b2

This is another of those Callas performances that has acquired legendary status and so first a few details to set it in context. In the weeks prior to her appearance in Dallas Callas had been in dispute with Bing over the scheduled programme for her next Metropolitan Opera season. Though they had agreed the operas (Macbeth and La Traviata) they had not agreed the schedule and it transpired that Rudolf Bing had programmed the two operas to alternate with each other. Callas argued that this would be too hard on her voice, as the requirements for each were so different, asking that all the performances for one should be over before she embarked on the other. Bing avered that he was giving her ample time to rest inbetween operas and that he wasn’t prepared to change the schedule. His complete lack of understanding of the different needs of the tw roles was further exemplified by his suggestion that they replace La Traviata with Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera even further away from the demands of Macbeth. The wrangling continued for some time until Bing very publicly “fired Callas”, issuing a statement to the press in which he was photographed tearing up her contract. This on the eve of her first performance of Medea in Dallas.

Callas was incensed, granting a press conference to give her side of the story in her dressing room as she prepared for the prima, in which, as can be heard on this recording, she sings with a security and power that had recently eluded her. It was as if she was determined to show Bing and New York just what they were missing. The result is a performance of incredible fire and attack and, along with live performances from Florence and La Scala in 1953, one of her greatest recorded performances of the opera.

Dallas was certainly in a high state of excitement and the audience as heard on this recording can be noisy, applauding the sets at the opening of each act and granting Callas an ovation on her entrance that almost stops the show completely. She had opened the season with a beautiful new production of La Traviata directed by Zeffirelli. For Medea a completely Greek team had been assembled. The opera was to be directed by the eminent theatre director, Alexis Minotis (husband of acclaimed classical actress Katina Paxinou) with designs by Yannis Tsarouchis. Minotis, who was famous for his productions of Greek tragedies, in which he sought to recapture the style of expression and gesture used in the time of Aeschylus, was startled one day in rehearsal to see Callas do a movement he and Paxinou had been discussing for future use. Callas was kneeling in a frenzy, beating the floor to summon the gods. Minotis asked her why she had done it. “I felt it would be the right thing to do for this moment in the drama,” she replied. How she felt this, Minotis could not explain but he felt that certain things just flowed in her blood. Certainly one gets a sense of the sheer physicality of the performance from photographs and snippets of film from this and subsequent productions of the opera Callas did with Minotis in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala.

hqdefault

Nicola Rescigno, who prepared his own edition of the score, conducts a tautly dramatic performance, less classically inclined than Gui and Serafin, more akin to Bernstein at La Scala, and his cast is arguably the best ever assembled for a Callas Medea. Jon Vickers, who sang Giasone to her Medea not only here in Dallas, but in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala, easily outclasses the tenors in any of her other recordings and one senses the deep rapport that existed between them. Nicola Zaccaria is a firm, sonorous Creon and Elizabeth Carron, with her clear, bright soprano characterises well as Glauce. One also notes the presence of Judith Raskin, the soprano soloist in George Szell’s famous recording of Mahler’s 4th, as the First Handmaiden, making sure the performance gets off to a fine start. As Neris, the young Teresa Berganza (she was only 25 at the time) was making her US debut, singing her aria with a grave beauty. In later years, she related how Callas took her under her wing and how generous she was in making her acknowledge the applause after her aria. So much for the capricious, unreasonable prima donna, sacked by Rudolf Bing.

Callas herself is in blazing form, her entrance carrying with it a threat of menace that makes not only the people of Corinthrecoil in fear , but the listener too. However in her exchanges with Giasone (Ricordi il giorno tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta?, which was always a special moment in Callas’s performances, wreathed in melting sounds) and in her plaintive singing of Dei tuoi figli we are made aware that it is love, not vengeance that brings Medea to Corinth.

As usual with Callas, her performance is cumulative and she will give  as much attention to a line of recitative as to the evident high spots. As John Steane says in The Grand Tradition,

She will seize the moment, say of noble or tragic decision, summoning all the dramatic force of what has gone before, evoking our knowledge of what the consequences are to be and focusing precisely upon the moment on which all depends.

He was talking generally, but a superb example of this is in the two Act II duets with Creon and Giasone. In the duet with Creon, when she sings Che mai vi posso far, se il duol mi frange il cor? Come mai rifiutar un giorno al mio dolor, un sol dì al mio dolor? you know that she is formulating a plan, and then subsequently the duet with Giasone is a masterstroke of dramatic timing. Having got Giasone to demonstrate his love for his children, she sings the aside Oh gioia! Ei li ama ancor! Or so che far dovrò! with suppressed joy, before she launches into Figli miei, miei tesor in the most beseeching tones imaginable.

The last act is a lesson of contrasts. Momentarily weakening in the scene with her children, her cries of O figli miei, io v’amo tanto lke those of a wounded soul are silenced by the triumphal viciousness of La uccida, o Numi, l’empio giubilo. From there to the end of the opera, she is a cauldron of evil and revenge, the like of which you will never hear from any other singer.

hqdefault-1

The only alarming thing about this performance is that it is the last time we hear her sing with such power and confidence. There are still some wonderful performances to come, but nowhere does she display the kind of vocal security she does here, which makes it doubly fortunate that the performance has been preserved in sound.

R.I.P. Mirella Freni

1581277321-mirella-freni

The renowned soprano Mirella Freni has died at the age of 84. She had a long and illustrious career spanning around 50 years.

In her early career her chosen roles were Mimi, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Nanetta, Micaëla, Margeurite in Faust and Juliette, for which her charming stage presence were well suited. However the turning point in her career was perhaps her assumption of the role of Desdemona for Karajan in Salzburg in 1970. This led to her taking on other dramatic Verdi roles, like Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida and Leonora in La Forza del Destino. She also added Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to her repertoire, though both Tosca and Butterfly were only confined to disc. She once said in an interview in Opera News in 1987

I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice. Some singers think they are gods who can do everything. But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities.

No doubt this pragmatic attitude was the reason her career lasted so long. She resisted Karajan’s request for her to sing Leonora in Il Trovatore, and though she recorded Butterfly for him, and appeared in his film of the opera, she resisted all requests to sing the role on stage.

I only once saw her on stage, as Fedora at Covent Garden rather late in her career, but I did see the films of her as a sparkily sexy Susanna and a charmingly diffident Mimi. I also have recordings of her singing Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Aida. Some say the voice lost quality when she took on these heavier roles, but I don’t really agree and she never sounds to me as if she is forcing her naturally lovely sound. The only thing that I miss is that last degree of individuality. Though beautifully sung her performances are not always particularly memorable.

None the less, she was a major artist of the latter half of the twentieth century and she will be missed.

Let us now see Freni as Susanna singing Deh vieni in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Le nozze di Figaro under Karl Böhm. Just click on the following link Freni as Susanna

 

 

Barbara Bonney – Diamonds in the Snow

Barbara Bonney, though American, was once married to the Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, so it is not at all surprising to find her recording a disc of Scandinavian song, though of the composers represented here, only Stenhammar, Alfven and Sjöberg are Swedish, Grieg and Sibelius taking up the lion’s share of the recital.

The recording was made in 1999, by which time Bonney would have been 43, and though the voice retains its springlike freshness and purity, maturity has brought with a new richness and depth that perhaps would not have been available to her a few years earlier. Not only is it a beautiful instrument per se, but it is also beautifully expressive and she easily fills all the requirements of this varied group of songs.

Some of the Grieg songs are well known, but I am guessing that most of the others will be unfamiliar, and whilst there is nothing here to challenge the greatness of song writers like Schubert, Schumann or Wolf, there is plenty to enjoy. The emotional range is wide too and Bonney seizes every opportunity for expression afforded to her.

Pappano, unlike many conductors who have a go at piano accompaniment, offers superb support and the whole disc feels like a wonderful collaboration between two artists totally at one with their vision.

A lovely disc and one of the most enjoyable recitals in my collection. Like Bonney’s disc of early English song, which I reviewed a few months back, this comes with the highest recommendation.

Jussi Bjørling – O paradiso – Great Opera Arias

8146geratml._sl1500_

Great Opera Arias announces the subtitle of this disc, but it is actually a mixture of arias and duets, mostly taken from some of Bjørling’s RCA compete opera sets, plus a few excerpts from concerts featuring Bjørling with piano accompaniment. They cover a period from 1951 to 1958, just a couple of years before he died at the age of 51. The date of 1959 given for the duet from Tosca is surely wrong, as it was first issued in 1957. Bjørling sounds terrific by the way, but Milanov is decidedly over the hill and sounds more like Cavaradossi’s mother to me. I don’t much care for her in the Aida duet either to be honest, but she is a singer I’ve never really got on with.

Milanov crops up in the duet from Cavalleria Rusticana as well, and, though it was recorded five years earlier, she still sounds old and, well, blowsy. Bjørling is terrific though, both vocally and dramatically, as he is in the excerpts from the 1952 recording of Il Trovatore, tossing off the free, ringing top Cs in Di quella pira without a hint of strain.

His ardent Des Grieux from the Puccini opera is sampled from the Perlea recording with Licia Albanese, one of his best recorded performances. It is set alongside a performance of the Dream from the Massenet opera, this time in concert with piano, which displays his beautiful mezza voce. Also from this concert is a performance of Don Ottavio’s Il mio tesoro, which is somewhat too muscular in approach and a little short breathed when compared to versions by John McCormack and Fritz Wunderlich. This is the only item that gave me limited pleasure. The final piece, Calaf’s ubiquitous Nessun dorma, is also from a piano accompanied concert , though a later date (1958) is given. The audience go wild for it, and we’d be privileged to hear such a performance today. However I continue to prefer his poetic, but thrilling 1944 account. I also wonder why BMG didn’t opt for the version from the complete recording with Nilsson and Tebaldi.

Not quite as satisfying as the two EMI discs taken from 78s, which I reviewed a few months ago, but it is always a pleasure to hear the voice of Jussi Bjørling and this is an enjoyable selection.