Karajan’s Fidelio

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Recorded October and December 1970, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Wolfgang Gülch

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

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

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

Dame Janet Baker sings Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

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Essential listening, I’d venture to suggest, even for those who already have the Philips Originals box set I reviewed here. Here we have the whole of Baker’s 1977 Beethoven and Schubert recital, of which three items appear on the Philips box, coupled to the Mozart items from her 1974 Mozart and Haydn recital, none of which do.

The prize of this CD is Dame Janet’s superb rendering of Sesto’s arias from La Clemenza di Tito. Not only is it a technical tour de force, the rapid triplet figures at the end of Parto, parto tossed off with breathtaking ease, but the range of expression is extraordinary and personal. I have never heard another singer differentiate so much between the repeated cries of Guardami!; in the first she pleads almost angrily, but in the second her tone changes completely, becoming meltingly beseeching, as if Sesto realises he has gone too far. Furthermore she has the ability to get to the emotional core of the music without ever disrupting its Classical style. Pure genius.

Elsewhere she is in enviable form in a programme that ranges wide, including rarities like Beethoven’s No, non turbati and arias from Schubert’s Lazarus and Alfonso und Estrella. Leppard’s accompaniments, whether conducting the English Chamber Orchestra or on the piano or harpsichord are discreet rather than revelatory, perhaps happy, with such a patrician artist, to let his soloist take the lead.

The recordings, originally made for Philips in quadrophonic sound, are here issued in SACD, though I was listening in simple stereo. They are wonderfully clear and lucid.

Highly recommended.

Karita Mattila – German Romantic Arias

 

 

The programme is an interesting one, though including Beethoven in a recital called German Romantic Arias might be thought to be stretching the definition a bit, and it’s good to see some rarer items are included amongst the well-known. Accompaniments are in the safe hands of the Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis and Mattilla might be considered to be at her mid-career peak when the disc was recorded in 2001, eighteen years after she was the first winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World at the age of 23.

Unfortunately the recital doesn’t really satisfy. I enjoyed most the scene from Euryanthe and Mendelssohn’s concert aria Infelice!, but this might have more to do with their unfamiliarity than anything else as I had little else to compare them to . In the more familiar items I found myself constantly thinking of versions by other artists. One or two moments of smudged coloratura apart, Mattila gets round the notes easily enough, but her singing can be a bit rigid and lacking in colour and her legato is not always perfect, nor does she ever illuminate a phrase or bring something personal to the piece she is singing in the way the greatest of the past have done. There is no sense of desperation in Leonore’s Abscheulicher! or radiance in the Komm, Hoffnung section, no real appreciation of the contrasting emotions in Ah perfido!. Agathe fares no better. There is no real poise and serenity, such as that achieved by Schwarzkopf, Grümmer or Janowitz. When Schwarzkopf sings Er ist’s in Leise, leise we register the change of expression, the quickening of the pulse, where here the moment passes almost unnoticed.

Commendably she sings Rezia’s Ocean, though mighty monster in English. It is more comfortably vocalised than Callas’s late recording, also in English, but Callas fills its pages with significance where Mattila just sings the notes. She conquers its tehcnical challenges, but makes little impression dramatically.

Something of a disappointment then and a disc that is probably making for the jettison pile

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Live broadcasts

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This is not a recital as such, but a collection of off the air recordings made by Schwarzkopf between the years 1941 and 1952. We get the opening of a Berlin Das Rheingold, conducted by Artur Rother (Schwarzkopf as Woglinde), Nie werd ich deine Hulde verkennen from a Vienna performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, conducted by Rudolf Moralt (with Emmy Loose, Anton Dermota, Peter Klein and Herbert Alsen), a duet from Weber’s Abu Hassan from 1942, with Michael Bohnen, and part of the Act II finale of Le Nozze di Figaro from La Scala in 1948, with Imrgard Seefried and W Hoefermeyer (who he?) under Karajan. We also get a couple of excerpts from the 1950 Salzburg Festival, both conducted by Furtwängler; Mi tradi from Don Giovanni (on which unusually she takes an unwritten upward ending, presumably sanctioned by Furtwängler though absent from all other versions by her) and Marzelline’s opening duet and aria from the famous performance of Fidelio at which Flagstad sang Leonore. In all Schwarzkopf displays her familiar virtues of pure, firm tone, excellent legato and elegant phrasing, the voice shot through with laughter in the lighter pieces. Marzelline’s aria is sung with a fuller tone than we often hear in this music, but captures perfectly her wistful charm. Ilia’s Zeffiretti lusinghieri is taken from a 1951 Turin Radio Mario Rossi broadcast, but it is not quite so accomplished as the one on her studio recital of the following year.

The rest is is given over to a Hamburg broadcast from 1952, beginning with a lovely performance of He shall feed his flock, from Handel’s Messiah (sung in German). The Act I monologue from Der Rosenkavalier is perhaps less detailed than the one on the complete set under Karajan and no doubt some might prefer it for that reason, though I wouldn’t necessarily be one of them. It’s a lovely performance nonetheless. Schwarzkopf’s Countess is also justly well known, and Porgi amor is sung with creamy tone and matchless legato, but the excerpts from Madama Butterfly (sung in German) don’t really work for her, and indeed Schwarzkopf herself, when she heard them in later years, thought them “rather screechy on top”. She did however approve the aria from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (the soprano version of the duet Glück das mir verblieb) and rightly so, as this is without doubt the prize of the whole disc. I have never heard it sung better, not by Te Kanawa, not by Fleming, not even by Lehmann, who recorded the duet with Richard Tauber. The pianissimi on the top notes, the diminuendi, the way she fades the tone are absolutely miraculous, no other word for it. Everyone needs to hear this, but getting the recital on disc is quite difficult these days. Fortunately you can hear it on youtube, though you will need to go to the youtube site to hear it.

The whole disc is a fitting repost to all those who think Schwarzkopf was a studio creation, catching her live and on the wing, but treasured mostly for that sensational and unfortunately unrepeated performance of the Korngold.

David Daniels – Serenade

Quite aside from David Daniels’s pre-eminence as a Handel singer, he could also be credited with treading where few countertenors dare to go. In this mixed recital he adds to the more usual countertenor repertoire of seventeenth and eighteenth century song, Lieder by Beethoven and Schubert, French chanson by Gounod and Poulenc and English song by Vaughan Williams. Other recitals will see him venturing out into American song and Broadway, and he even made a recording of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté. He has never been one to cofine himself to the usual areas of countertenor repertory.

To all he brings great beauty of voice, a superb legato and a fullness of tone rare in countertenors, and an innate musicality. This fullness of tone is not a mere fabrication of the gramophone as I saw him live on many occasions and can attest that the voice rang out freely in all the venues I heard him. In addition he has a winning personality with a rare gift of communication, which comes across in all his discs.

Many of the songs here are concerned with night (the disc, after all is called Serenade) and the pervading atmosphere is therefore one of quiet reflection, but gaiety puts in an appearance too, and we note the singers facility in fast moving music, without a hint of an aspirate. We also note how the singer’s expression changes from one song to another, making us feel we can see as well as hear.

We start with a group of Lieder framed by Beethoven’s and Schubert’s setting of Adelaide, both beautifully sung. He gives the girl’s voice a suitable urgency and death a darker more consolatory tone in Der Tod und das Mädchen, but the prize of this group is his wonderful performance of Nacht und Träume, his legato impeccable , the long line firmly held. This is beautifully ccomplished singing and absolutely no allowances need to be made for the limitations of the countertenor voice.

From here we move to a group of songs by Caldara, Gluck, Cesti and Lotti, the more usual repertoire for this type of voice. Caldara’s Selve amiche soothes the soul, whilst Lotti’s Pur dicesti, o bocca bella is irresistibly light and charming. The Gounod and Poulenc items are all superb, the Vaughan Williams beautifully characterised, finishing with a movingly heartfelt Hands, eyes and heart.

The final items bring us back to more familiar countertenor territory, with joyful performances of Sweeter than roses and I’ll sail upon the Dog Star, followed by an eloquently comforting Evening Hymn, which brings to a close an eminently satisfying recital. Martin Katz is throughout a worthy partner.

As I said earlier, I saw Daniels live on many occasion, and this recital replicates to perfection what it was like to hear him in the concert hall. There was never any difficulty hearing him and he had the rare ability of drawing the audience in, of making each person feel he was singing just for them.

Jussi Bjørling – A collection of Swedish 78s.

These two CDs gather together most of the 78s the young Bjørling made in his native Sweden between 1933 and 1949, the earliest made when he was a budding tenor of twenty-two.

Most are vocal gems, but one or two (the rather loud and penny plain Je crois entendre encore, and the unpoetic duet from La Boheme with Anna- Lisa Bjørling on the second disc, for instance) are less than great.

The voice itself was a magnificent one, no doubt about it, with a silvery purity throughout its range, the high notes free and easy; just listen to his joyfully ebullient 1938 performance of Offenbach’s Au mont Ida from La belle Hélène, sung in Swedish, but with terrific swagger, the top notes flying out like lasers. From a few years ealier we have a plaintively sensitive performance of Valdimir’s Cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor, the legato line beautifully held, his mezza voce finely spun out. Also from 1938 we have a thrilling performance of the Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat mater, with a free and easy top D flat at the end, and it is prinicpall for Italian and French opera that Bjørling will be remembered and there are plenty of examples here of his wonderfully musical performances in that genre.

We find him ideal in Verdi, Donizetti and Puccini alike, in Myerbeer, in Massenet and in Gounod (a glorious rendering of Faust’s Salut, demeure). Some regret the absence of a true Italianate tone in the Italian items, but he will never resort to sobs and aspirates to express emotion, and, personally, I find his comparative restraint very attractive. It is true, he is not always imaginative with his phrasing, and nowhere will you get the kind of psychological introspection you would hear in a performance by someone like Vickers, but his singing is always musical, and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the voice itself, which Italianate or not, is a thing of great beauty.

Some of the very best of these 78 recordings are included on Volume 1, stand out items for me being the aforementioned Faust aria, his wonderfully musical and sensitive Ah si, ben mio from Il Ttovatore, and his poetic, but thrilling version of Nessun dorma from Turandot.  There is also plenty to treasure in Volume 2, which includes the Offenbach and Borodin, but also a sensitvely prayerful  Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem, Des Grieux’s lovely Dream from Manon sung with liquid, honeyed tone (his ardent Ah, fuyez is on the first disc), and his  poetic Cielo e mar, from La Gioconda.

The second disc finishes with a couple of unexpected examples of his work in Lieder, a gorgeously lyrical Beethoven Adelaide, and a beautifully restrained and rapt account of Strauss’s Morgen.

Anyone who loves the tenor voice and gloriously musical and sensitive singing (not always the same thing) should have these recordings in their collections.

Late Callas Recitals

Recorded 1963 and 1964, Salle Wagram, Paros

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Paul Vavaseur

It’s useful to take these three recitals together. They were recorded over a similar period, and Callas was using the sessions as a way of working on her voice after a long period of inactivity. Indeed in 1962 and 1963 she didn’t appear on stage once, giving only a few scattered concerts.

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None of these discs could be considered essential, but the Verdi disc is the most recommendable. The most undemanding of the pieces (Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria) is predictably the one that causes her the least problems, and also yields the most vocal pleasure. As always the mistress of mood, she differentiates clearly between the conversational exchanges and Barbara’s song, her legato impeccable in the Ave Maria. The Aroldo arias are superbly intense and dramatic, as is Eboli’s O don fatale, the O mia regina section beautifully moulded, and benefiting from her deep legato. The top of the voice is no more pleasant here than it is elsewhere on these three discs, but the drama carries her forward and it is easier to forgive. There is not much to commend Elisabetta’s Non pianger mia compagna, and I often wonder why it was included.

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The Rossini and Donizetti fails to ignite her dramatic sensibilities quite so much, and there are plenty of uncomfortable moments. However there are still times, when we glimpse what Callas might have done with this music a few years before. Her Cenerentola lacks sparkle, but the scale passages are wonderfully supple and smooth. This is a serious Cenerentola, though, given what she suffers before singing this aria, such a reading is not entirely inapt. That said, there is a much better version of her singing this at a concert in London, where she finds a lightness of touch that eludes her here. Elsewhere, much of the singing sounds tentative, much more so than on the Verdi. Though she unerringly captures Mathilde’s sighing loneliness in the aria from Guglielmo Tell, there is a rather lifeless air about the recording, not helped by the omission of a chorus in some of the items. Nevertheless her sense of style never deserts her.

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Mozart, Beethoven and Weber are not composers one would naturally associate with Callas. That she could be a great Mozartian is evidenced by her test recording of Donna Anna’s Non mi dir, and a couple of blazingly defiant concert versions of Costanze’s Martern aller Arten, sung in Italian as Tutte le torture. (It is a little known fact that Callas was actually La Scala’s first ever Costanze.) The less said about Porgi amor and Donna Anna’s arias on this album, though the better. Elvira’s Mi tradi goes a lot better, and the recitative, with its contrasting emotions, is superb. It’s mirror piece, Beethoven’s concert aria Ah perfido also goes well, and, as it lies somewhat lower, suits her much better. It is without doubt the most successful item on the recital. Ocean, thou mighty monster is also superbly dramatic, but her peculiarly accented English is somewhat bizarre, and again the climaxes are something of a trial.

I find my attitude to these late recitals can vary each time I listen to them. Sometimes I find the wobbles, the insecure and unsupported top voice, the acidulous tone difficult to take; others I barely notice it, so taken up am I by her musical instincts. The Verdi I would hate to be without, the other two for very occasional listening only.