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.

r-17739049-1615146774-6216.jpeg

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.

r-4226020-1359064159-2900.jpeg

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.

517nnfbtual._ac_

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.

r-10811227-1504704037-6832.jpeg

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.

r-5824261-1403705173-5318.jpeg

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.

r-5925026-1621620398-8177.jpeg

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.

r-8458350-1462019569-7396.jpeg

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.

r-15146607-1589535837-3883.jpeg

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.

r-9879493-1487856491-9833.jpeg

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.

r-8436535-1461577724-3437.jpeg

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.

Les Troyens (abridged) conducted by Georges Prêtre

41rdvpg1mzl._ql70_ml2_

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelson’s Les Troyens

81768wdtygl._sl1425_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Davis conducts La Damnation de Faust

51uqyihlall

Davis’s classic Philips recording of La Damnation de Faust, better cast I think than his later LSO Live version, is still one of the most recommendable versions of Berlioz’s non-opera. This tragédie-lyrique was never intended to be staged and therefore is particularly well suited to the gramophone, which leaves one’s imagination clear to fill in the stage set and scenery.

Gedda is a great Faust. He may have been just a little past his vocal best but he still manages a gorgeous pianissimo top C sharp in the duet with Marguerite, which no other Faust can quite pull off, added to which his singing is always stylish and intelligently thought through. There are better Margeurite’s on disc than Veasey (Baker, Von Stade and Von Otter come to mind); the difficult Roi de Thulé doesn’t quite come off, but she is better in the duet and sings a fine Romance. Bastin makes a superb Méphistophélès, mercurial, sardonic and ultimately evil and Richard Van Allan puts in one of his best recorded performances as Brander.

Davis, as so often in Berlioz, has a wonderful sense of structure and paces the score just right, and the LSO play brilliantly for him, the brass powerful, woodwind and strings deliciously light in the Menuet des Follets, plus some wonderfully sensitive cor anglais playing in the introduction to D’amour l’ardente flamme.

Every time I listen to this piece, I am struck by its originality. Berlioz was and is unique, with an unmistakable voice. No other composer is remotely like him.

Crespin’s Shéhérazade

513oqn2fqcl._sx425_

Crespin’s recording with Ansermet of Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is now so famous, so universally acclaimed that there can surely be no more to say about it. Even today, almost 60 years since they were recorded, the performances are still cited by many as a first choice in both works and for many they were no doubt their first exposure to the works, so maybe that is all that needs to be said about them, but is it really so simple?

Both Shéhérazade and, especially, Les nuits d’été are great favourites of mine and I now have ten different recordings of the Berlioz, six of the Ravel. Let us then start with the Ravel. From the thrice repeated call of Asie at the beginning, the third sung with the equivalent of a flirtatiously arched eyebrow, we are in her thrall. She makes a bewitching storyteller, drawing us in with her thrillingly colourful descriptions of the Orient. As I often feel with Crespin, there is a slight air of detachment but here it suits the narrative superbly. She is suitably languid in La flûte enchantée and deliciously ambiguous in L’indifférent. There have been finer versions of the orchestral score (not least the New Philharmonia under Barbirolli for Janet Baker), but Crespin at her best is still a prime recommendation. There is something just so inevitably right about her singing and it places her (just) ahead of the other versions I own, (Teyte, Baker, De Los Angeles, Berganza and Hendricks).

That air of detachment I mentioned also makes her an ideal interpreter of the songs of Poulenc and also Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis with John Wustman on the piano, from a 1967 recording, which are here included as a makeweight, and very welcome they are too. However it works against her in the Berlioz, which requires a degree of involvement and passion that I find lacking in Crespin’s delivery. However musical and tasteful her singing, however elegant her phrasing, she remains aloof and uninvolved. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose from paradise, no sense of longing in Absence. She is at her best in the final song, L’île inconnue which is blithely insouciant and responds better to her air of suave sophistication. I have no idea why she decided to place Sur les lagunes after Absence but it upsets the balance of the work too.

No, for the Berlioz my prime recommendations would be Baker either with Barbirolli or live with Giulini, Hunt Lieberson with McGegan, Steber with Mitropoulos or De Los Angeles with Munch, Crespin trailing quite a way in their wake.

Essential I would say for Shéhérazade and the Debussy and Poulenc, but look elsewhere for the Berlioz.

Janet Baker – Chausson, Berlioz and Schoenberg

r-9879493-1487856491-9833.jpeg

These are all live performances of material Baker recorded in the studio (twice in the case of Les Nuits d’Eté, so one might wonder if they are really essential listening.

Well, though Baker was a superb recording artist, who never really made a bad record, she was also a great communicator and collaborator and these performances, all with different conductors from the studio ones, bring with them the added frisson that comes with a live event, and the sound, though not as clear as in her studio performances, is more than acceptable.

It starts with a 1975 performance of Chausson’s almost Wagnerian Poème del’amour et de la mer, which she recorded two years later under André Previn. This one has, somehwat suprisingly you might think, Evgeni Svetlanov at the helm, who takes great care over dynamics and shapes the work beautifully. Baker’s range of expression, her concenration, her breath control and command of the long line are exemplary, filling its pages with rapt expression. A marvelous performance.

Baker’s recording of Les Nuits d’Eté with Barbirolli, recorded in 1967 is justly famous and has hardly been out of the catalogue. She recorded it again under Richard Hickox in 1990, but by this time her voice was beginning to show signs of wear (more noticeable in a recording than when I heard them perform the work together in concert at around the same time) and the second recording has never enjoyed the acclaim of the first. This performance under Giulini was taped at the Royal Festival Hall a month after the Chausson and it is good to hear how Baker’s interpretation changed depending on whom she was singing with. Giulini’s speeds are expansive (Le spectre de la rose at 8’29” must be one of the slowest on disc) and would tax most singers beyond their limits, but here they never flag and Baker luxuriates in the extra room she is given to make her interpretive points. As in the Chausson, her breath control is astonishing and the range of expression wide. My notes are peppered with words like searing, delicate, passionate abandon, yearning. Though it doesn’t entirely supplant the Barbirolli in my affections, it is nonetheless a performance I would never want to be without.

The earliest performance here is a 1963 recording of the Song of the Wood Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a work she recorded five years later under Janos Ferencsik. Baker was not yet 30 when she gave this performance and, superbly supported by Norman Del Mar, her singing is urgently free and impassioned, even better than that on the Ferencsik.

Essential listening then? Absolutely and unequivocally, yes.

Jill Gomez – A Recital of French Songs

 

The Trinidadian/British soprano Jill Gomez was a mainstay of my early opera going life, and I heard her on more than one occasion. I particularly remember seeing her as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and Elizabeth in Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers with Scottish Opera, as Ilia in Idomeneo and the Governess in the The Turn of the Screw with English Opera Group and as Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The voice was not large, but she was a strikingly good looking woman with a great stage presence and also a good actress. She is probably best known for creating the role of Duchess of Argyll in Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face and singing the title role in William Alwyn’s Miss Julie.

I have known and loved this recital since I bought the original LP soon after it was first released in 1974, and was delighted to find that it had been reissued on CD. The programme is attractive and Gomez has a lovely voice, which she uses imaginatively and musically. Indeed one wonders why such accomplished singing has received so little attention.

We start with a group of songs by Bizet, possibly of slight musical value but direct and charming in their appeal. Gomez is delectably light and airy but also delivers a deliciously sensuous and coquettish Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe, which is probably the most well known of the group. The Berlioz items, especially La belle voyageuse, are also sung with distinction and charm.

The Debussy Proses lyriques are not performed as often as some of Debussy songs, and they are quite hard to bring off. Gomez is fascinating and vividly personal, superbly seconded by John Constable’s realisation of the tricky piano part. In many places I was reminded of Mélisande’s music in Pelléas et Mélisande. A superbly characterised Noël des enfants qui non plus de maisons brings ths superb recital to a close.

Gomez brings something personal to all that she does and John Constable provides estimable support throughout. Highly recommended if you can get hold of a copy.

Eleanor Steber sing Les Nuits d’Eté

51xnjtg5rpl

Berlioz’s Les Nuis d’Eté has always been a favourite work of mine. I have ten recordings and have heard quite a few more and this famous recording, one of the earliest, made in 1954, has always rightly been considered one of the best.

The voice itself is a beautiful one, firm and even throughout its range,and she is thoroughly in control of its resources. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had merely from the sound of the voice and the way she weights and measures phrases, but she is also keenly responsive to the poetry, ideally melding the needs of the musical line to the meaning of the words.

True, Villanelle has always seemed a tad too slow to me, a little lacking in gaiety, but it is close to the metronome marking of crotchet = 96, so perhaps the fault lies with Mitropoulos, who fails to make the woodwind light enough. Elsewhere he provides excellent support and speeds are judiciously chosen.

The rest of the disc is taken up with more Berlioz (beautifully sung performances of La Captive, Le jeune pâtre breton and Zaïde conducted by Jean Morel) and orotorio arias by Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. True, these latter, conducted by Max Rudolf, have a slightly old-fashioned, somewhat Victorian air about them, but they are impeccably sung and her diction is exemplary. These were recorded a few years earlier, in 1951, and the voice is at its freshest and most beautiful.

The disc comes with copious notes and photos, but, regrettably, no texts and translations.

Maggie Teyte – Chansons Françaises

41lhudrbaxl

The first time I heard Maggie Teyte was when I was just starting to enjoy French song. I was learning Duparc’s Chanson triste and a friend played me her recording of the song with Gerald Moore at the piano. I was absolutely entranced and it has remained my yardstick ever since. First of all the flowing tempo they adopt is aboslutely right (so many take it too slowly) and she responds perfectly to all Duparc’s markings – floating the tone beautifully on the mon of mon amour (it is marked doux by Duparc) an effect I have tried, not too successfully, to emulate myself. Her high A is clear, clean and true, but she takes the lower option on the words de tes bras, dipping down into that gloriously rich lower register she had. As you listen, you feel the song is addressed to you personally and you want to just lie back in the warm embrace of her comforting words. The French christened her L’Exquise Maggie Teyte, and the adjective suits her perfectly.

She was born in 1888 in Woverhampton, but went to Paris in 1903 to study with the famous tenor Jean De Reszke. She made her first public appearanc in 1906, singing Cherubino and Zerlina under Reynaldo Hahn, making her first professional appearance in Monte Carlo the following year. She then joined the company at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and was shortly after chosen to replace Mary Garden in the role of Mélisande, for which she was coached by Debussy himself. She is the only singer ever to have been accompanied in public by Debussy himself, and she is an invaluable link to so many musicians of the past. Despite her early success however, she didn’t really establish herself with the main opera houses, and went into semi-retirement after her second marriage (to Canadian millionaire Walter Sherwin Cottingham) in 1921.

In 1930 she tried to resuscitate her career, but ended up singing in variety and music hall (24 performances a week!) until, in 1930, she made some recordings of Debussy songs with Alfred Cortot, which were so successful that she then became known as the leading French song interpreter of her time. She also sang at Covent Garden in such roles as Butterfly, Hänsel and Eurydice in Gluck’s opera, as well as Manon in English (with Heddle Nash).

The present set concentrates on recordings of French song with orchestra and piano made between 1940 and 1948, making her 60 when she recorded Ravel’s Schéhérazade, not that you would ever suspect it. The voice is still absolutely firm with no trace of wobble or excessive vibrato, top notes pure and true (a thrilling top B flat in Asie), the inimitable lower register gloriously rich.

It starts with a rather hectic recording of Berlioz’s Le spectre de la rose. The fast tempo was presumably adopted so that they could fit the song onto a single 78, but it does remind us that it is in waltz time and she brings a peculiarly intimate touch to the closing lines,which are sung with an ineffable sadness. Absence is sweetly touching.

Occasionally her attention to the meaning of the words can get in the way of the music, and the tempo fluctuations in Fauré’s Après un rêve are just too much, the general speed much too slow, but the accelerando on Reviens, reviens just too much. On the other hand the tempo for his Clair de lune is absolutely spot on with a moment of pure magic as she infuses her tone with warmth at Au calme clair de lune and Gerald Moore switches to a more free flowing style in the accompaniment.

Over the two discs there is scarcely a performance that doesn’t warrant attention, but I single out for special consideration Duparc’s gorgeous Phidylé, which is lazily erotic as it should be (note her telling observation of the diminuendo on baiser – most singers miss it completely) and the aforementioned Chanson triste, the former with the LSO under Leslie Heward, the latter with Gerald Moore on the piano. Also on disc 1 is a superb performance of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, whilst she breathes new life into Hahn’s popular Si me vers avaient des ailes.

In all she remains inimitable and individual, though, it seems these days, only known to connoisseurs. This set is no longer available, nor are the Debussy songs she recorded with Cortot. John Steane says in his wonderful book The Grand Tradition,

But basically the point about Maggie Teyte is the very simple one, that her singing is so good: that is, her voice is so clear, its production so even, its intonation so faultless, its movement in big upward leaps so clean and athletic, and its excellence was so well preserved for so long.

 

Not only is her actual singing so good, but she has something personal to say in all she does, and voice and style are instantly recognisable.

There are other examples of her art more readily available on other lablels but this old EMI set is a treasure and I urge Warner to reissue it along with the Debussy songs with Cortot. It should be in the collection of anyone who is interested in French song.

Jennie Tourel – The Singers

Jennie Tourel was born in Russia in 1900 of Jewish parents, but she and her family left just after the Revolution, temporarly settling in Danzig before moving to Paris. She fled to Lisbon just before the Nazis occupied France and from there to the USA, becoming a naturalised Amercian in 1946.

She had an illustrious career both in the opera house and on the recital stage, and was the creator of the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. She was still active when death ended her career in 1973, in fact in the middle of performances of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment in Chicago. The longevity of her career is testament to her sound technique, but if the years were kind to her voice, she was also careful never to overtax it. She knew what suited her and stuck to it.

The dates of the recordings on this disc are unknown, but the Italian and French items are stereo, which would place them at least from the early to mid 1950s. Her voice is still admirably firm, with no trace of wobble or excessive vibrato. Her legato isn’t always perfect, and her runs can be lightly aspirated, which mars her performance of the Rossini items, and also of Bizet’s Adieux de l’hotesse arabe, though she sings it with more personality and drama than many.

Berlioz’s Absence is sung with piano, and is notable for the firmness of the line, though personally I prefer a more inward display of longing. Tourel is too loud in places and she rushes the pharse la fleur de ma vie. Much better are Poulenc’s Violon and Liszt’s Oh! Quand je dors and I particularly enjoyed Ravel’s Kaddish, which exploits her rich lower register.

The Russian items are all worth hearing, beginning with a mournful Tchaikovsky None but the lonley heart, the cello obligato adding to the pervading sense of melancholia. As befits the general mood of the Russian items, she uses a bigger, more dramatic sound, but she can also be lightly high-spirited in a song like Dargomizhsky’s Look darling girls. In all she displays a strong personality and superb musicianship.

Song texts and translations are provided on the disc itself, which doubles as a CD-ROM, though, annoyingy, if you want to read them at the same time as listening to the disc, you will have to print them out before playing the disc on a CD player.