Karajan’s Second Studio Carmen

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I saw Baltsa and Carreras in Carmen at Covent Garden shortly before this set was issued, and it remains one of the most thrilling performances (of anything) I’ve ever seen. Consequently I was very excited when this set was issued and snapped it up immediately.

Unfortunately, it proved something of a disappointment, the fault for which must lie squarely on Karajan’s shoulders. By this time measured tempi were becoming the norm for him, and it is evident how much he loves this score, but he rather loves it to death. For all the beautiful playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, it lacks completely the wit and elegance of Beecham, or the swift visceral excitement of Prêtre.

Having taken the decision to record the version with spoken dialogue, it seems totally perverse to then use actors to speak it. They sound nothing like their singing counterparts and are recorded in a totally different acoustic, which makes it hard to become involved when the differences are so profound. It’s like listening to two different productions at the same time, and does the most harm to Baltsa and Carreras, who were so involving and communicative live at Covent Garden. Indeed neither of them really settles down to a real performance until the final duet, which is thrillingly powerful, as it should be.

What on earth prompted Karajan to think that Ricciarelli, a singer I often admire could be perfect as both Micaëla and Turandot, which she also recorded with him? She is suited to neither, whereas Barbara Hendricks, who had a particular affinity for French music, and who sings a wonderful Liu on that Turandot he recorded the previous year would have been perfect.

Van Dam is a fine Escamillo, as he was for Solti and there are some good performances among the supporting roles, but it just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole.

I keep the recording for the contributions of Baltsa and Carreras, and often listen to the final duet, but listening to the whole recording is a curiously frustrating experience, and I mostly longed to be back chez Callas, Gedda and Prêtre, which remains my favourite recording of the opera, for all that it uses the now discredited Guiraud recitatives.

A Spanish Songbook – Jill Gomez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valerie Masterson – Song Recital

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  1. Arne – O ravishing delight
  2. Arne – Under the greenwood tree
  3. Arne – The soldier tir’d
  4. Handel – Nel dolce del’oblio
  5. Bishop – Lo! Here the gentle lark
  6. Gounod – Le premier jour de mai
  7. Gounod – L’absent
  8. Gounod – Sérénade
  9. Bizet – Vieille chanson
  10. Bizet – Pastel
  11. Bizet – Tarantelle
  12. 12 – Satie – La diva de l’empire

The English soprano Valerie Masterson was a mainstay of my early opera going life and I saw her on stage quite a few times. A light lyric soprano with great flexibility and an immediately recognisable voice, she was also much admired in France, having made her French debut in Toulouse in the role of Manon. The following year she created quite a stir at the Aix-en-Provence Festival singing the role of Matilde in Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra opposite Montserrat Caballé. She was an arrestingly beautiful woman with a charming stage presence and I well remember her Semele at Covent Garden which was both vocally and visually stunning. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see her ravishing Cleopatra in ENO’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar (sung of course in English) with Janet Baker, but at least it was filmed. I did however see her as Manon, Juliette, Margeurite, the Governess in Britten’s Turn of the Screw and as the Marschallin, a role she took into her repertoire quite late in her career, having had enormous success as Sophie when she was younger.

Recorded in 1986 when Masterson was approaching 50, this recital probably catches her just past her best. There is just the suspicion that the lovely voice is thinning out, a trace of a slight taint on its silvery purity. Nevertheless the recital is something of a treasure, especially considering Masterson was so little recorded.

With piano accompaniment provided by Roger Vignoles, it splits neatly into two halves, the first being of music from the baroque era (Arne, Handel and Thomas Bishop), where she is joined by Richard Adeney on the flute, and the second of songs by Gounod, Bizet and Satie. The baroque items display her neat and deft coloratura as well as her ability to shape the long line. When she sings O ravishing delight in Arne’s song, the words mirror exactly the sounds coming from the speakers. It is good also to have the Handel cantata, reminding us of her many successes in his works.

The French items are all fairly light. They are a sung with elegance and style but a little more variety in the material might have been welcome here. She finishes with a delightful performance of Satie’s La Diva de l’Empire which captures a coquettish smile in the voice.

A lovely reminder of a lovely singer.

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.

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.

 

Callas a Paris

Callas never sang a role in French on stage, and only one complete role (Carmen) on record, but as can be heard on these two discs, she had a natural affinity for the language. She spoke it fluently (though tellingly refused the role of Carmen in the Beecham recording, “because my French isn’t good enough yet”) and of course made Paris her home in her last years. Previously she had sung only Ophelia’s Mad Scene in French on the Mad Scenes recital disc and Louise’s Depuis le jour in recital in 1954.

Two years separate the recording of these two discs, and it is alarming to hear the marked deterioration in Callas’s voice in such a short period of time, a voice that was already showing signs of stress in the first recital recorded in 1961. These were also the last records of hers to be produced by Walter Legge.

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Recorded May 1963, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Despite her vocal problems, and despite the fact that she is evidently having to tread carefully, there are, however, still treasures on the second disc. Leila’s Comme autrefois doesn’t really come off, nor does Manon’s Je marche sur tous les chemins, which, without the ensuing gavotte, ends somewhat inconclusively. Manon’s Adieu, notre petite table, though, is a different matter; maybe a tad too serious, but, as always her phrasing is exemplary, and she makes the aria work supremely well out of its context. She sounds strained to the limits by the Gluck, and it can make for uncomfortable listening. Even so her grasp of the classic style and her command of legato never falters.

For the rest, we are vouchsafed three great performances. Gounod’s Margeurite comes as a total surprise, Callas finding here a lightness of touch that one might have thought was beyond her by this time. In the Ballade she meticulously differentiates between Marguerite’s thoughts and the strophic song she sings, carefully placing Marguerite’s simplicity before us. Her innocent rapture when she opens the casket of jewels is brilliantly caught. There is charm here (a trait which often eluded her in the past) and femininity, the text clearly enunciated, the runs deftly executed. She is defeated only by a watery top B at the end, which detracts from, rather than caps, what had been a beautiful performance.

Berlioz’s Margeurite is superb. Alongside Janet Baker’s performance on the Pretre recording and one by Shirley Verrett (on a rare recital record), this is one of the greatest performances of the piece put down on record. At the beginning of the aria, Callas perfectly mirrors the tone of the cor anglais with her first words, then beautifully lightens her tone, putting a smile in the voice for Sa marche que j’admire (and note how we hear the separation of the duple quavers in de sa main, de sa main la caresse, without once disturbing her impeccable legato). Her mounting rapture at Je suis a ma fenetre find its release in a cathartic O caresses de flamme, which she achieves again without once upsetting the long musical line. “Who would not wither in the flame of her genius?” asked the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns. Who indeed? I can only imagine what she might have done with the roles of Cassandre and Didon, and why not Les Nuits d’Ete too? Can you not imagine Callas singing the words O grands desirs inapaisees?

And finally to Charlotte’s great Letter Scene, arguably the most dramatic piece on the album, which brings out the best in her. How brilliantly she differentiates between Charlotte’s thoughts and Werther’s own words, particularly noticeable when she repeats the phrase Ne m’accuse moi, pleure moi, as their significance dawns on her. Unerringly, she captures Charlotte’s mounting panic as she reads the letters. So vividly does she bring this scene to life, that I can now just read through the text, and Callas’s voice and inflections come to my mind’s ear. Like many of her performances, it spoils me for all others.

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Recorded March & April 1961, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Francis Dillnutt

Though there are still a few wild and insecure notes, the first disc is one of the classic recital discs of all time, and one I would never be without. Whole tomes could be written about Callas’s psychological insights, her realisation of the composer’s intentions; every aria is like a new discovery. There isn’t a single dud on the recital, though the rather empty coloratura of Philine’s Je suis Titania would hardly seem worth her effort. She manages it remarkably well, the filigree beautifully executed, with a lovely lightness of touch, magically lightening her tone. She sounds a different singer from the Carmen and Dalila, which precede it, but it’s still my least favourite piece on the disc.

Everything else is pure Callas Gold. The Gluck arias sung with passion, but retaining their classic contours, Orphee’s J’ai perdu mon Eurydice emerging as a true lament. Note the appeal in the voice at the words C’est ton epoux, ton epoux fidele, the blank, despairing tone at Mortel silence and the suffering that truly tears at the heart (dechire mon coeur). Alceste’s great entreaty to the gods is hardly less affecting. Though the top notes are driven here, they are not intrusive, and Callas again finds a wealth of colour for each intercession, for each recurring statement of Divinites du Styx, with a lovely softening of her tone at Mourir pur ce qu’on aime.

Carmen’s arias are best seen as a preparation for the complete set, but the Habanera is seductive and playful, and the Segeudille full of humour, lightly and playfully sung. Dallila’s arias are even better. In Printemps qui commence she sounds “like a young tigress, flexing her claws in the sun.” I wish I could claim that simile for my own, but I’m pretty sure I read it somewhere else. Try as I might, though, I can’t find the original source.The danger lurking under that seductive surface is unleashed in Amour viens aider ma faiblesse, and then she gives us a real siren, when she sings the famous Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. Incidentally, always a stickler for the composer’s intentions, Callas here sings exactly what Saint-Saens wrote, which is that Ah reponds a ma tendresse should be sung in one breath. Most singers add an extra Reponds, which gives them a chance to snatch an extra one. In the second statement, she does indeed take a (perfectly justifiable) breath at Verse moi, verse moi l’ivresse (there is a comma here after all), but this might have been the reason why she refused to allow the aria to be released when the record first came out. It wasn’t issued until the disc was reissued after her death. In any case I doubt any of these arias has ever been done better, and they are enough for Alan Blyth to name Callas as Dalila in his dream cast for Samson et Dalila in his comparative review in Opera on Record.

Juliette’s Waltz Song is a miracle of lightness and elegance. Though the tone is mature, Callas suggests better than anyone the joy of the young girl, but note too the change of colour, when a veil of sadness comes over her voice at Loin de l’hiver morose. Callas gets more meaning out of this seemingly innocent tune than any other singer I know. Chimene’s glorious Pleurez, mes yeux has a dark, tragic beauty, her chest tones uniquely telling, her legato superbly eloquent.

Finally we come to Louise’s apostrophe to love and life. There are some alarming flaps on high notes here, and we note that even in 1954 the aria never quite worked for her in toto, but the quiet intensity of her intent is never in doubt. Has any other singer, before or since, captured quite so unerringly Louise’s mounting rapture, or sung quite so erotically the words je tremble delicieusement? So her voice doesn’t always do quite what she asks of it. Who cares, when she realises the fundamental truth at the root of this aria, which is actually about a young girl’s sexual awakening? When this recital was first reissued, Richard Osborne wrote, “Records like this change people’s lives.” It certainly changed mine

The Callas Carmen

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Recorded July 1964, Salle Wagram, Paris

Producer: Michel Glotz, Recording Engineer: Paul Vavaseur

And so, still moving chronologically backwards through this set, we come to the last of the four roles Callas recorded without ever singing them on stage. This Carmen has always been controversial, the most controversial element being Callas herself, so, let me deal with the rest first.

The edition used wouldn’t bear scrutiny. We are of course back in the days of the old Guiraud recitatives, but there’s no point complaining about that. This is how everyone was doing Carmen back then. The sound is excellent early 1960s stereo and sounds better than ever in this new re-master.

This is a very French Carmen. Aside from Callas and Gedda, everyone else involved is French, and Gedda was, in any case, the best “French” tenor around in those days. Pretre’s conducting is swift, sometimes maybe too much so, and deliciously light in places, but his speeds make dramatic sense and it works very well. The orchestra and chorus, again French, sound idiomatically right to me. The Escamillo of Robert Massard sounds authentic too, if not so characterful as someone like Jose Van Dam. Andrea Guiot’s Micaela I like a lot. She does not display the creamy beauty of a Te Kanawa or a Sutherland, but she is much more convincing than them at playing the plucky, no-nonsense village girl. We must not think of Micaela as a wilting violet; she is actually quite a strong character. Not only is she able to hold her own with the soldiers in the first act, she has the strength to confront Carmen and the gypsies in the third act. Her voice is firm, clear and very French. She sounds just right to me.

Gedda of course had already recorded the role under Beecham with De Los Angeles. He does not have the heroic sound of a Domingo, a Vickers or a Corelli  but, as always he sounds totally at home in French opera. In any case, is a big heroic voice what is required? Don Jose is basically a nice young man, somewhat repressed, who gets caught up with the wrong woman. A young man, who, once his passions are aroused, does not know how to control them.  Gedda is superb at charting Jose’s gradual disintegration. He sings a beautifully judged Flower Song, with a lovely piano top Bb, is gently caring in his duet with Micaela, and suitably shamed when he meets her again. In the last act he is a man at the end of his tether, dangerous because he has nothing left to lose. As a performance I think it has been seriously underestimated. I find him entirely convincing, much more so than, say, Corelli, with his execrable French, in Karajan’s first recording of the opera.

And so we come to Callas. Many of the objections when the set first came out were not so much about her singing as about her characterisation, one critic opining that she was closer to Merimee than Meilhac and Halevy. But that’s an objection that makes no sense at all. Meilhac and Halevy may have watered down Carmen’s indiscretions with other men while still with Jose, but they still make it clear she is a free spirit, not to be tied down. In the 1960s, women were still fighting for equality (they still are). Much of the debate about the contraceptive pill in the 1960s centred around the fact that it would encourage promiscuity. People, especially men, were not comfortable with the idea of a sexually promiscuous woman, so Carmen’s character was often played down. The De Los Angeles recording with Beecham had been highly praised, but, love De Los Angeles though I do, can anyone really imagine her Carmen pulling a knife on a fellow worker in a cat fight? She is altogether to ladylike to even think of such a thing. But Callas is exactly what she is described in the text, dangereuse et belle, in Micaela’s words. This is a true free spirit. As she tells Jose in the last act, Libre elle est nee et libre elle moura! When she admits to her friends Je suis amoureuse, Callas gives the line an ironic twist, even more so on the following amoureuse a perdre l’esprit. We know absolutely, as her friends do, that this is the whim of the moment; the mood of the day, and that there will be others. Earlier her seduction of Jose is brilliantly charted too. Ou me conduirez-vous? she asks Jose, as he is about to take her to prison, and the little girl lost tone she uses is just what’s needed to draw him in. Later on when Jose comes to the inn and they end up arguing, some have found her rage too over the top, but there is justification for this too. When Jose tells her he has to go back to the barracks, that could be the moment she realises that maybe she is not in love with this milksop after all. Have a row, send him packing. That’s the best way to get rid of him. Only things don’t quite work out that way; her cry of Au diable le jaloux! is quite matter of fact. Finally she realises she is saddled with him, but is quite pragmatic. In fact, now that I think of it, the whole plot only works if you accept that Carmen was never in love with Jose in the first place; that he was first a challenge, then a convenience. Escamillo is much more up her street (for a while anyway); when he comes looking for her and Micaela comes looking for Jose, this is just the way out she is looking for. Unfortunately, Jose turns out to be even more unhinged than she had imagined, but defiant to the last, she refuses to give in to him, and staring death in the face, asserts her freedom from all men. No doubt this is what commentators found so disturbing. Some no doubt still do. It doesn’t make for comfortable listening.

Apart from a few squally top notes in the ensembles (which she didn’t need to sing anyway), her voice was absolutely right for the role at this stage in her career and the performance is full of miraculous detail. I notice something different in it each time I hear it.

When it was reissued, Richard Osborne in Gramophone wrote, “Her Carmen is one of those rare experiences, like Piaf singing La vie en rose, or Dietrich in The Blue Angel, which is inimitable, unforgettable, and on no account to be missed.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.