De Los Angeles as Manon

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Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped, 

I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manonand would think that I had profited by the exchange

He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer. 

This classic  1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better. 

Werther with Gedda and De Los Angeles

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Werther is an opera I like more each time I hear it. I first saw it back in 1970, in a lovely production by Sir Michael Redgrave, when it toured to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Werther was sung by David Hughes, who had enjoyed quite a success as a pop singer before retraining as an opera singer. He suffered from heart problems and sadly died from heart failure the day after collapsing on stage during a performance of Madama Butterfly at the London Coliseum. He was only 47. Looking at the Glyndeboure archives for 1970, I see the role of Charlotte was sung by Yvonne Fuller, who looks absolutely ideal in photographs. I wonder what happened to her.

To be honest I can’t remember all that much about the performance other than that I enjoyed it immensely and it has remiained one of my favourite operas ever since. These days I often hear people berating the character of Werther for being so “wet”, for want of a better word, but surely that is a rather glib reaction, which betrays a lack of understanding of the whole Romantic movement, and especically the Sturm und Drang movement that the original Goethe novel partly inspired. Musically, it is one of Massenet’s best operas and I like it a lot more than some of his crowd pleaser operas, like Esclarmonde and Le roi de Lahore.

Werther has been extraordinarliy lucky on disc, right from its first recording, made in 1931 and featuring Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin under Elie Cohen. Other strong contenders include Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos under Michel Plasson, José Carreras and Frederica Von Stade under Colin Davis and, possibly best of all, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu under Antonio Pappano.

Though the title role has been sung by lyric tenors such as Tito Schipa and Ferrucio Tagliavini, it still needs a fair amount of heft, as was demonstrated when I saw the opera not long ago at Covent Garden. Both musically and dramatically Juan Diego Florez was underpowered and the opera consequently failed to make its usual effect. Gedda was also a lyric tenor, but his essentially lyric voice had a great deal more carrying power than that of Florez and he is an effective Werther, his singing, as always, musical and involved.

By his side is one of the best Charlottes on disc, maybe even the best. Though a soprano, De Los Angeles’s lower and middle voice has the richness the role demands and her characterisation is spot on. Only Von Stade on the Davis recording approaches her for charm and vulnerability. This is a great performance. There is also excellent support from Mady Mesplé as a delightful Sophie and Roger Soyer as Albert.

Prêtre tends to overdo the histrionics and the Cohen, Davis and Pappano are all much better conducted, with the Davis and Pappano also enjoying better sound. Nonetheless this is one of the best recordings of the opera around, and absolutely essential for De Los Angeles’s superb Charlotte.

Gobbi as Simon Boccanegra

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Abbado’s superb La Scala recording of Verdi’s great masterpiece pretty much sweeps aside all others, but this one, despite less than brilliant mono sound with an orchestra and chorus dimly recorded, despite Santini’s ploddingly prosaic conducting, demands to be heard, due to three distinguished, transforming performances.

Gobbi was in prime vocal form when the set was recorded, and though he does not quite have the vocal reserves of Cappuccilli, he creates the most rounded, most movingly tortured Doge you are ever likely to hear. Christoff, too, could hardly be bettered, brilliantly charting the change from implacable revenge to conciliation in the final scene with Gobbi’s Doge. To make our cup runneth over, we have De Los Angeles in one of her rare excursions into Verdi, singing with total communication, commitment and of course beauty of tone, particularly in the middle register, where most of the role lies. The downward runs in the final ensemble are absolutely exquisite. Campora may not be quite on their level (and Carreras on Abbado’s set is almost ideal) but he isn’t bad at all.

All three principals, I’d take (just) over their DG counterparts, but that recording benefits from Abbado’s superb pacing of the score, the wonderful playing of the La Scala orchestra, and warm, beautifully balanced stereo sound. So, for the opera itself, I’d take Abbado, one of the classic opera recordings, but for three superbly characterful performances, I choose Santini.

Il Trittico with Gobbi and De Los Angeles

This isn’t a complete recording of Il Trittico. Admittedly all the operas use Rome forces, but each opera is led by a different conductor, and they were all originally issued at different times. The first two, released respectively in 1956 and 1958 are mono, but Gianni Schicchi, released in 1959 is stereo. The only unifying element is that De Los Angeles and Gobbi both appear in two out of the three operas. Still, it was useful and inevitable that the individual releases would eventually be grouped together and, as far as I’m aware, they have not been available singly since.

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Bellezza’s conducting is efficient rather than inspired and the recording is a bit muddy, but this recording of Puccini’s terse piece of grand guignolIl Tabarro, has at its heart one towering performance in the Michele of Tito Gobbi, a characterisation fit to set next to his Scarpia and Rigoletto. Not only is the role powerfully sung, but we see deep into the man’s tortured soul, the violence bubbling beneath. In no other studio performance of the opera do we feel Michele’s pain with quite such terrifying immediacy.

None of the other singers is on his level, but they are apt enough for their roles. Margaret Mas, a singer who appears to have done nothing else on record, sounds a bit mature, but that suits the role of Giorgetta well enough, as does the slightly raw tone of Giacinto Prandelli’s Luigi. The smaller roles are all well characterised, but it is Gobbi who puts the seal on this recording.

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This has always been my least favourite of the triptych, as I find its over-sentimentalised quasi religiosity a bit too much for my taste. However it is difficult not to resist such generous hearted sincerity as we get here from the adorable Victoria De Los Angeles, superbly supported by the veteran Tullio Serafin, who doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Fedora Barbieri presents a truly magisterial and implacable Zia Principessa, aristocratic, cold and dispassionate in her treatment of Angelica.

However even in a performance as committed as this, the ending stretches my suspension of disbelief just a bit too far and ultimately I prefer the sense of repressed passion and sexuality implied in the Scotto/Maazel version, which plays out almost like a scene from Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. In their hands, Angelica’s final vision comes across more as a drug-fueled hallucination, which helps to ameliorate my problems with the piece.

On the other hand I wouldn’t want to be without De Los Angeles’ beautifully sung and characterised Angelica. She is a little stretched by the highest reaches of the role, but in general the voice sounds absolutely lovely and her singing is as musical as ever.

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Verdi had his Falstaff and Puccini had his Gianni Schicchi, though Puccini’s comedy is a lot blacker and more cruel than Verdi’s.

Gobbi was brilliant in both comic roles of course, but he presents two very different characters. His Falstaff was all genial bluster, a lovable rogue, where his Schicchi is a clever schemer, with more than a touch of the venal tempered by a genuine love and affection for his daughter.

This is probably one of the best things Santini did for the gramophone, and the performance is superbly paced, with wonderfully pointed characterisations from the supporting cast, the libretto so crisply delivered that you can all but taste the words. I find myself chuckling out loud quite a few times. Carlo Del Monte might seem a bit light of voice, but for once Rinuccio sounds like the young man he is supposed to be, and Victoria De Los Angeles is simply adorable as Lauretta – none better on disc.

Gobbi recorded the role again towards the end of his career (under Maazel, with Domingo as Rinuccio and Cotrubas as Lauretta), but this one, the only one of the operas in this set to be recorded in stereo, remains my first choice.

De Los Angeles in La Traviata

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Victoria De Los Angeles has long been a favourite singer of mine and her Violetta satisfies on so many levels. She is a little strained by the tessitura of the first act, but the voice is generally clear and beautiful, her singing always musical and deeply felt. As in everything she did, the sensitivity and sincerity of the performance are most affecting and she is without doubt one of the best Violettas on disc. What I miss is that sense of desperation and impulsiveness inherent in the character. Her Violetta is touching, but not overwhelmingly tragic as it is with Callas, who does tend to spoil me for all comers.

She has a good supporting cast with Carlo Del Monte a manly and forthright Alfredo and Sereni a sympathetic Germont, as he is in Callas’s Lisbon performance.

I sometimes feel Serafin’s virtues are rather underestimated. He paces the score brilliantly, particularly good in the choruses, which can sometimes outstay their welcome. If I’m honest, I rather prefer his approach to the more interventionist Kleiber. The cuts traditional at the time are observed, so no cabalettas to Alfredo’s and Germont’s arias.

If Callas, particularly in London, remains my yardstick for this opera, this is nevertheless one of my favourite studio sets and I might even place it just above Cotrubas/Kleiber.

Victoria De Los Angeles sings Chants D’Auvergne

 

Many of my generation will no doubt have got to know Canteloube’s gorgeous arrangements of Auvergne folk songs through the recordings of Victoria De Los Angeles. On LP I only had the first album recorded in 1969, which had a selection of songs on one side and her recording of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer on the other, but this reissue couples only the Canteloube songs to the second all Canteloube album entitled Pastorale and recorded in 1974. Some might also remember that famous Dubonnet advert which used an arrangement of the gorgeous Baïlèro, lazily and yearningly sensuous in the performance under review. I can’t now think of this song without the De Los Angeles version coming into my mind’s ear.

De Los Angeles is in many ways the songs’ ideal interpreter, steering a sort of midway course between the more abrasive style of Madeleine Grey and the senusality of Anna Moffo. She has great fun with the colourful language and folk elements, exuding the bright eyed charm for which she is famous, but is also wonderfully expressive in the more melancholy songs, and the Lamoureux Orchestra under Jean-Pierre Jacquillat provide excellent support, all bathed in a warm acoustic.

There are now a lot of recordings of these songs out there (when the first album was released, I’m pretty sure there were only the early recordings of the aforementioned Madeleine Grey, a small selection by Anna Moffo and a couple of discs on the Vanguard label by Netania Davrath) and there are now a lot more sets out there by the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa, Jill Gomez, Dawn Upshaw, Véroniqe Gens, Frederica Von Stade and others, and all of them have their attractions, but these performances by De Los Angeles will always have a special place in my heart.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – The Complete Recitals 1952 – 1974

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Issued to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Schwarzkopf’s birth in 2015, this fantastic 31 disc set brings together all the recital discs Schwarzkopf made in the LP age with her husband Walter Legge between the years 1952 and 1974, adding the live 1953 Wolf recital from Salzburg, with Furtwängler and the farewell to Gerlald Moore at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967, in which she shares the platform with Victoria De Los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is a considerable achievement, covering operatic excerpts and a huge range of Lieder and song, both with orchestra and piano. It is not quite the full story, for their was to be one further recital to come, made for Decca in 1977 and 1979, and simply called To My Friends.

Schwarzkopf started out as a coloratura, singing roles such as Zerbinetta, Blonde and Sophie, but the voice was never entirely comfortable in the stratospheres, and she soon graduated from Sophie to the Marschallin, from Susanna to the Countess. A serious and dedicated artist, over the years she wittled down her operatic roles to a mere five (Mozart’s Countess, Donna Elvira and Fiordiligi and Strauss’s Marschallin and Countess Madeleine) so that she could concentrate on her recital work, which was her first love. The voice was not particularly large, but a warm, lyric soprano, shot through with laughter, her technique faultless and, though it lost something of its bloom in later years, it was always firm and true with no trace of excessive vibrato or wobble. She has been saddled for many years with the adjective ‘mannered’, but, listening to these CDs now, what I hear is incredible intelligence and specificity, a voice put at the service of the composer, not the other way round. People love to make fun of the fact that, when invited onto Desert Island Discs she picked all her own records, but, if you listen to the porgramme now, she uses them as illustrations of key points in her life. She was actually severely self-critical and those few records represented the best of herself and her collaborators, for she was quick to give credit to the conductors and accompanists she had worked with, and of course to her husband Walter Legge, who produced all her records. John Steane, who loved Schwarzkopf unreservedly, spent some time listening with her to her records in her retirement, and was surprised at how rarely a recording got her full stamp of approval. Listening sessions were interrupted by continuous cries of  “too much of this, too little of that. Intonation, missy” and so on, and just the occasional “ah yes, missy, that’s good”. In other words she was as hard on herself as she famously was on her students, who could find working with her frustrating, as she barely let them get a few bars out; but this was the only way she knew how to work herself, and what do teachers do other than pass on their experience to others?

There is a lot of music to get through here, though most of the CDs are rather short in length, being exact reissues of the LPs as they appeared, each in its own sleeve with the original artwork. The only cause for regret has nothing to do with the music or the music making, but with the fact that no texts and translations are included. This is a criminal omission with an artist like Scwharzkopf, who paid such attention to the words, colouring her voice to get the maximum amount of meaning from them. These days it should be easy to produce a weblink or CD-Rom with them all, and I’m guessing that most collectors wouldn’t mind paying a little extra just to have them. As it is, I am having to hang on to all my previous issuse of this material, simply to keep the texts.

So on to the actual discs and a potted review of each one.

Disc I. Schubert Song Recital with Edwin Fischer

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This is a classic recital, with Schwarzkopf’s voice at its freshest and loveliest, the lighter songs delivered with a delightful smile in the voice, the darker ones with an arresting sense of their dramatic potential. For instance, in Gretchen am Spinnrade the words sein Kuss are sung almost in horror, as Gretchen recalls the moment which sealed her destiny. Though always alert to the mood and meaning of the songs, however, there is also much that is admirable as pure singing, the legato superb, the line firmly held. Fischer is an estimable partner rather than just an accompanist. I particularly love the way he makes the piano accomaniment in Auf dem Wasser zu singen conjure up the image of moonlight bouncing off the water. A delight from beginning to end.

Disc 2. Mozart Operatic Arias

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Here accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra under John Pritchard (no Sir back then), Schwarzkopf sings a collection of arias from roles she did sang on stage as well as some she didn’t. Not many sopranos would attempt in the same recital arias for the Countess, Susanna and Cherubino or for Zerlina and Donna Anna, but, rare in Mozart, she brings a different voice character to each, all boyish eagerness as Cherubino, sensuous charm as Susanna, girlish seduction as Zerlina, who in turn sounds quite different from her Susanna,  and patrician elegance as the Countess. Her Donna Anna is not quite so successful, and of course we are reminded that her stage role was that of Donna Elvira, a role which she made very much her own, but Non mi dir is nonetheless delivered with a resigned sadness and the closing coloratura section rings out with real conviction. Illia’s Zeffiretti lusinghieri is altogether lovely.

Disc 3. Strauss Four Last Songs and Capriccio Closing Scene

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Through her two recordings , Schwarzkopf has always been associated with Strauss’s ever popular Vier letzte Lieder, though very few people can agree on which of the two recordings is the better. I tend to prefer the later one with Szell, both for the improved sound picture and Schwarzkopf’s more mature thoughts on the work, but both are superb, and this one benefits from her greater ease in the upper register. The closing scene from Capriccio, made before she had recorded the full opera under Sawallisch, is lovely in every way with the character superbly delineated and  the voice soaring out over the orchestra.

Disc 4. Strauss – Scenes from Arabella

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Staying with Strauss, these excerpts were recorded in 1954 and it always seems a pity to me that Legge didn’t record the whole opera. That said, the opera has its longeurs, for me anyway, and perhaps this is all that I really need. Schwarzkopf is perfectly cast as Arabella and is well contrasted with Annie Felbermeyer, who plays Zdenka here. Josef Metternich is a superb Mandryka, none better on disc, and the cast is fleshed out with such names as Nicolai Gedda as Matteo, Walter Berry as Lamoral and Murray Dickie as Elemer. Lovro von Matacic is much more in tune with Strauss’s medium than Solti on the roughly contemporaneous set with Lisa Della Casa, and, who knows, if this had been recorded complete, it may well have become the touchstone recording for all time.

Disc 5. A Lieder Recital

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Schwarzkopf returned to Lieder with piano for her next record, a mixed recital with Gerald Moore at the piano. It opens with Bist du bei mir (once attributed to Bach), and continues with mostly popular fare by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss, with Schwarzkopf unerringly catching the mood of each song, whether it be the joyfully youthful exuberance of Schubert’s Ungeduld, or the wistful bliss of Schumann’s Der Nussbaum.

Disc 6. A Mozart Song Recital

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This Mozart recital with the great Walter Gieseking at the piano has deservedly achieved the classic status of the Schwarzkopf/Fischer Schubert recital. Recorded in 1955, it was recorded in stereo, and I put this down to the fact that Christopher Parker, who oversaw the stereo version of Der Rosenkavalier was the balance engineer. It was first issued in mono, and the stereo version emerged several years later.

It certainly deserves its classic status, as Schwarzkopf and Gieseking between them bring these simple songs to life as no other. I hear absolutely no artifice in the way Schwarzkopf characterises the songs, or in the way Gieseking mirrors his playing to her tone, making much more of the sometimes plain accompaniments than you would think was possible. They also manage to vary the approach to individual verses in strophic songs in a way which sounds completely natural. This is a wonderful disc.

Disc 7. A Recital of Duets by Monteverdi, Carissimi and Dvorak.

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Okay, so the Monteverdi and Carissimi duets are hardly authentic, but I can’t imagine anyone other than the most ascetic HIP advocate complaining when the singing is so beautiful, the voices charmingly intertwining and blending in delicious pleasure.

Schwarzkopf and Seefried had sung together on many occasions, and had already made duet recordings of the Presentation of the Silver Rose from Der Rosenkavalier (Schwarzkopf as Sophie, Seefried as Octavian) and excerpts from Hänsel und Gretel. Schwarzkopf was a huge admirer of Seefried, at one time stating that Seefried had naturally what others, including herself, had to work hard to achieve. Seefried’s slightly darker, more mezzoish timbre blended perfectly with Schwarzkopf’s brighter tone. The result is a winning combination, not only in the Dvorak duets that you would expect would suit them, but in the baroque items too, with Gerald Moore providing alert, lively support on the piano.

Disc 8. Walton – Scenes from Troilus and Cressida

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Walton didn’t have much luck with casting for his opera Troilus and Cressida. He had originally wanted Callas for the role of Cressida, but Callas had no interest in contemporary opera and so he offered the role to Schwarzkopf, who was slated to sing in the UK premiere, but she too decided against it, and the role finally went to the Hungarian Magda Laszlo, who spoke no English at all. Scwharzkopf did however record these excerpts with Richard Lewis, the Troilus of the original production, a few months after its premiere.

It is a great pity that she decided not to sing the role, for she fills its soaringly lyrical vocal line with glorious refulgent tone. Her English is clear, if slightly accented, and the recording is a fine memento of what might have been.

Disc 9. Songs You Love

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This 1956 recital is a collection of popular songs of the type that might normally crop up as encores in a recital programme, starting with Quilter’s arrangement of Drink to me only with thine eyes, and continuing with pops by Hahn, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Grieg, all much more well known back then than they are now, no doubt. Singing in English, French and German, Schwarzkopf brings as much care to them as she does to the Lieder of Wolf. A lovely disc.

Disc 10. More Songs You Love

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This disc turns out to be the one more commonly known as The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Christmas Album. This time she is accompanied by the Ambrosian Singers and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras in often gorgeously over the top arrangements of traditional Chiristmas carols and songs, though the disc starts gently with the original arrangement of Gruber’s popular Stille Nacht, on which Schwarzkopf is double tracked to duet with herself. Some might find it all a bit too sugary, but I love it and it has been a permanent part of my Christmas playlist for many years now.

Disc 11. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta

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And so to one of the first Schwarzkopf discs I owned, arguably the greatest disc of operetta arias ever recorded, and pure unalloyed joy from beginning to end. Schwarzkopf may have been born in what is now part of Poland and brought up in Germany, but there is something absolutely echt Viennese about her singing of operetta, and her recordings of operettas by Strauss and Lehár remain touchstones against which all others are judged. Schwarzkopf makes no concessions to the material and sings with her customary attention to detail, but there is absolutely no suspician of artifice or over-inflection and the disc is guaranteed to lift the spirits of all but the most curmudgeonly.

Disc 12, 13 & 14. Hugo Wolf – Goethe Lieder, From the Italian Song Book, From the Romantic Poets

 

Schwarzkopf followed three discs of lighter fare with three discs of Wolf Lieder. The discs are quite short and all the material was reissued at one time on a two disc set in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series, and deservedly so. I would urge anyone who gets the present box set to also acquire the GRC release, as that comes with fuill notes, texts and translations, absolutely essential when listening to Wolf, especially in performances as finely nuanced and detailed as these. Schwarzkopf’s name, along with that of Fischer-Dieskau, has been indelibly associated with the songs of Hugo Wolf, and they, more than any other singers, were responsible for bringing Wolf’s name to prominence after the Second World War.

Schwarzkopf’s ability to sing with a sparkling eye and a smile in the voice is particularly suited to Wolf’s lighter songs, but she also has the pathos for the Mignon songs, and her yearningly intense performance of Kennst du das Land is arguably the greatest performance of a Wolf song committed to disc. At almost seven minutes it is the longest song on these three discs, and Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore build the intensity in masterly fashion, using every colour at her disposal to convey every shade of meaning. Some might say that this attention to detail robs the performances of spontaneity, but I’d disagree. Though obviously thoroughly worked out in rehearsal, Schwarzkopf still experiences the song as it happens. Never have the words “mannered” and “arty” been so off the mark. Would that more singers today could sing with such attention to detail.

Disc 15. Schwarzkopf portrays Romantic Heroines

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Schwarzkopf never sang any of the three roles represented here, but there is no doubt she could have done. She makes a superb Elisabeth, greeting the Hall of Song in joyful radiance, sincerely sorrowful in the prayer, the tone pure and ideally floated. The two excerpts from Lohengrin are just as desirable, and here she is joined by Christa Ludwig, whose Ortrud is well known from the complete Kempe recording, where Elsa is sung by the wonderful Elisabeth Grümmer. There is no higher praise in stating that Schwarzkopf is her equal in every way. So she is too in Agathe’s solos from Der Freischütz, which have a beauty and poise rarely achieved. This is a glorious disc.

Disc 16. Favourite Scenes and Arias

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Though Schwarzkopf sang Mimi early in her career, she didn’t sing any of the other roles featured on this disc. We don’t really associate her with Italian opera, though she made two excellent recordings of the Verdi Requiem and was an infectiously high spirited Alice in Falstaff. She might have made an excellent Desdemona too, if this scene is anything to go by, floating the tone ideally in the Ave Maria and alive to Desdemona’s anxiety and foreboding in the Willow Song. Her Lauretta is all youthful charm and her Mimi lovely in every way. The Smetana and Tchaikovsky are both sung in German. She is radiant in Marenka’s solo and, if Tatyana’s Letter Scene misses something of the girl’s impetuosity, the slow section has a satisfyingly inward quality.

Disc 17. Strauss – Four Last Songs and Five Other Songs with Orchestra

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This is one of the most famous records Schwarzkopf ever made and has remained a best seller ever since its first release. I’ve had it in one form or another since my teens, and, though I’ve listened to countless other versions of the Four Last Songs, and come to love quite a few of them, it is still the one I hear in my mind’s ear whenever I think of Strauss’s great apotheosis to the soprano voice. Schwarzkopf and Szell remind us that these are, after all, Lieder and not merely vocalises. They probe more deeply into the valedictory nature of the songs than any other I know, and the recording has a rich autumnal glow, eminently suited to their approach. In the last song, when Schwarzkopf sings So tief im Abendrot the effect is of a cathartic release, as if the whole cycle had been leading up to that moment. I don’t hear that in any other performance, and for this reason, Schwarzkopf/Szell still, for me, eclipse all competition. The other five songs are hardly less fine. A desert island disc if ever there were one.

Disc 18. Concert Arias and Lieder

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No doubt the success of their Berlin recording of the Four Last Songs prompted Szell to take Schwarzkopf and Szell back into the studio, this time in London with the London Symphony Orchestra. The first side of the LP was devoted to Mozart concert arias and the second to Strauss Lieder, the two cornerstones of Schwarzkopf’s work with orchestra. For Ch’io mi scordi di te she is joined by Alfred Brendel for the piano obbligato, the two artists intertwining their voices deliciously in duet, and she brings her familiar virtues of aristocratic phrasing and dramatic involvement to each aria. Schwarzkopf had her misgivings about the Mozart items, feeling that, though they are musicaly fine, the voice had darkened too much for Mozart. Maybe she has a point, but I’ll put up with the less youthful voice for the dramatic insights she brings to them. The Strauss songs are all gorgeous and wonderfully characterised, the turbulence of Ruhe, meine Seele contrasting immediately with the gently lulling tone of Meinem Kinde, and so on. For Morgen, she is joined by Edith Peinemann on the violin.

Disc 19. Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn

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This was recorded and released before the Mozart/Strauss disc, which made me realise the discs aren’t numbered chronologically. No matter, it has been considered a classic since its release in 1968. Like the Four Last Songs, I’ve owned it since my college days, and it brings back memories of listening in my tiny room in student digs all those years ago. Some feel that the interpretations are too sophisticated for the essential folk-nature of the songs, but I’d argue that Mahler’s wonderful orchestrations, superbly rendered here by Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra, already take them quite a few steps from their folk song roots.

Personally, I marvel at the intelligence, the detail and the sheer beauty of the singing. In comparison others sound just too penny plain. Is it interventionist interpretation? Well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it, but everything these superb artists find is there in the music, if you take the time to look for it. It’s also a real collaboration between all three artists, the duet songs being some of the highlights of the set.

Disc 20. Wolf – Italienisches Liederbuch

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This was originally a two disc set, recorded at sessions in Berlin in 1965, 1966 and 1967, Schwarzkopf re-recording all the songs she had recorded back in 1959. With the two foremost Wolf interpeters of the day accompanied by Gerald Moore it is self-recommending, and remains the set by which all others are judged.

The songs are presented in the order they appear in the book, which really is the best way of doing them, and are mined for every shade of meaning by these two great artists, with the inestimable aid of Gerald Moore at the piano.

Discs 21 & 22 – Brahms – Deutsche Volkslieder

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Before anyone starts complaining of too much sophistication, one should point out that these are not really folk songs at all. Many were inventions of nineteenth century composers, and, in any case, Brahms’s accompaniments turn them into songs by himself. That said, the songs are probably best listened to piecemeal, rather than at one sitting, when they could be said to outstay their welcome.

Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau bring their familiar virtues of dramatic involvement and characterisation to the songs, and, though some may find their interventionist approach “mannered”, I prefer it to the somewhat penny plain singing we get from so many interpreters these days.

Discs 23 – 26 The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Songbook Vols 1 – 4

 

The first of these discs collected together recordings made in 1957, 1958 and 1962 and was issued in 1966. Presumably the intention was to find a home for performances that had not otherwise found their way onto disc, and no doubt the success of the record prompted Legge and Schwarzkopf to put together three more discs in the same manner. It should be noted that Gerald Moore retired from the public platform in 1967 and, aside from a few tracks that were recorded before then, Geoffrey Parsons is the accompanist on volumes 2-4.

The programmes ranged wide. In addition to the more regularly encountered Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, they take in songs by Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Strauss and Loewe, Debussy, Chopin and Liszt, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, Grieg and Wolf-Ferrari, though the Russian songs are sung in English or German translation.

Disc 27. Songs I Love

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Recorded at sessions in 1970 and 1973, with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano, this was, in all but name, another addition to the Songbook series, though this time concentrating on the two cornerstones of Schwarzkopf’s Lieder repertoire, Schubert and Wolf, with the addition of Schumann’s Der Nussbaum, revisiting material that she had recorded before. Though her artistry remains undimmed, we begin to be aware that this is no longer the voice of a young woman. Still there are rewards to be had in hearing how Schwarzkopf’s ideas on certain songs changed over the years, and we note that each new version is a re-thinking of what she had done before. There is never any suspicion of routine.

Disc 28.  Schumann – Frauenliebe und Leben & LIederkreis, Op.39

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This was Schwarzkopf’s last record for EMI, and she herself had her doubts. Ever the realist and her own strictest critic, she was well aware of the diminution of her vocal powers. In fact, had it not been for Legge urging her on, she would probably have retired sooner. “My voice was on the waning side, and all kinds of muscular powers had gone, and the breathing had gone. You can hear that the voice was getting old, surely. And one doesn’t like that and one tries to make do with all kinds of funny vowels, and oh dear it is really an awful thing.” She was particularly unhappy with Frauenliebe und Leben, which she felt should, in any case, be sung by a mezzo. “I made up by darkening the colour and all sorts of things.”

Of the two cycles, the Liederkreis is the more successful, but no amount of intelligent interpretation can disguise the fact that the voice is not what it was. Her final record was made for Decca a couple of years later, Legge’s rift with EMI being by this time complete. Legge died in 1979, and Schwarzkopf abruptly cancelled all further engagements. Without Legge’s constant encouragement, she was unprepared to continue. “He thought there woud be some moments which would be more memorable. But if you don’t have the voice you cannot put over what you would like to – you make ways round it technically, and by that time it has already vanished.”

Disc 29. A Hugo Wolf Recital

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For Disc 29 we go back almost to the beginning – a recording of a live all Wolf recital given in Salzburg in 1953, which was first released in 1968.

This was quite an occasion and something that Furtwängler himself had suggested. Wolf’s piano parts can be fiendishly difficult, and he apparently practiced hard for the occasion. There are some wrong notes, and some wrong entries here and there, “but it doesn’t matter. Furtwängler accompanying was an event, and so one had to do what one could to make it possibe. It was a service to Wolf, and to music, and a labour of love, that recital. With any other accompanist it matters if he cannot achieve the right tempi, but with Furtwängler it didn’t matter.”

Discs 30 & 31 – Homage to Gerald Moore

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The final two discs in the box are given over to the concert in February 1967, at which the musical world, with the aid of his three most regular collaborators, said goodbye to Gerald Moore. There are duets and trios, and each of the singers gets their solo spot, for Fischer-Dieskau a group of Schubert songs, for De Los Angeles a group of Brahms, and for Schwarzkopf, inevitably, a group of Wolf songs, starting with the song she made so much her own, Kennst du das Land. It is a joyous occasion, and the audience evidently enjoyed themselves enormously. It ends with Moore’s own solo arrangement of Schubert’s An die Musik, which is also a fitting end to this whole enterprise. However Warner have tacked on Schwarzkopf’s renditions of Abscheulicher! from Fidelio and Ah, perfido, which originally appeared as fill-ups for Karajan’s Philharmonia set of the Beethoven symphonies. Leonore may not have been a role for Schwarzkopf but her rendition of the big scena is surprisingly successful, the slow section having a wonderful innigkeit. She is immeasurably helped by Dennis Brain’s superb horn playing.

What a joy it has been listening to these thirty-one discs, all of such  consistent high quality. The word “mannered” has been overused to describe the art of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but, having listened to her almost exclusively over the last few weeks, it seems a long way short of the mark. I hear a singer who characterises, who makes choices based on the music and the text, who is never bland or merely pretty, though she can also make ravishing sounds, and these records represent an incredible achievement by one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century.

The Fabulous Victoria De Los Angeles

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This well-filled four disc set was issued to time in with De Los Angeles’s seventieth birthday in 1993, when, incredibly, she was still active on the concert platform, having made her stage debut in 1941. I don’t know when she officially retired, but she died just over ten years later. The set dates from the good old days, when notes texts and translations were included. Not all of this material is that familiar, so they are absolutely essential. Nowadays you are lucky to even get a web link to them.

The set concentrates on the recital side of De Los Angeles’s career and all the recordings date from the 1960s and early 1970s, with two discs of song with orchestra and two with piano or, as in the case of Falla’s Psyché chamber ensemble.

Disc 1 covers French song with orchestra (though not her wonderful recording of Les Nuits d’Eté, which was recorded for RCA). We start with one of the most recommendable of all versions of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, in which she is a vivid narrator, taking an almost childlike pleasure in the sights she describes. In the Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques she is the epitome of a young village girl, whilst the Deux Mélodies hébraïques bring out a more seductive quality in her voice. Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer exposes the occasional fragility in the voice, but is still a beautiful performance.

Disc 2, which concentrates on Spanish song with orchestra, would probably be my favourite of the four. It almost exactly reproduces a disc called The Maiden and the Nightingale, released in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century, though it omits that Granados title track. Favrouites here are the Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras; wonderfully soothing in the Cancio de cuna para dormir a un negrito and irresistibly playful in the Yambambos of the Canto Negro. I also love Mompou’s El combat del Somni, especially the soulful Damunt de tu nomes los flors. Another joyful performance is Rodrigo’s De los alamos vengo, madre. We are reminded that De Los Angeles probably did more than any other singer to put Spanish song on the map.

Disc 3 brings us more French and Spanish repertoire, this time with piano accompaniment, or chamber ensemble as in Falla’s Psyché. Though her French isn’t entirely idiomatic, she is an ideal interpreter of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Hahn. The performance here of Falla’s Sietes canciones populares españolas, with Gonzalo Soriano at the piano, is not generally considered her best, and it is true she is not as fierily earthy as Conchita Supervia, but equally valid in its more playful style.

Disc 4 is more mixed, and presumably covers material likely to turn up in her recitals as openers or encores. I have always treasured her performances of Fauré’s Chanson d’amour, which is sung with a delightful smile in the voice, and her ideal performance of Clair de lune, which captures to perfection its ancien style, but includes a wonderful change of colour when the accompaniment switches to a more fluid figure at Au calme clair de lune. All the piano accompaniment on this disc is provided by Gerald Moore and it also includes a group of duets (from Purcell to Tchaikovsky) with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, finishing off with a couple of extracts from Moore’s farewell concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with Schwarzkopf joining the pair for Mozart’s La Partenza.

To get a fuller picture of this lovely artist, one would ideally want some representation of her operatic career, but this one captures well many elements of the recital side of her career. As in all such compilations, I might cavil at some of the choices, but the programme over the fours discs is varied and enjoyable, and De Los Angeles always brings her inimitable individual stamp to all she sings.

 

Singers Who Changed My Life

This is an expanded version of something I wrote a few years ago. 

LETTERBOX COLLAGE OF SINGERS

Back in 2011,  John Steane, an expert on voices and an eminent critic, died at the age of 83. He had his favourites of course (who doesn’t?), but I learned a lot from JBS over the years, and I do miss his wonderfully constructive musical criticism. When he was still active at Gramophone Magazine, the editor asked him to write an article detailing the twelve singers who had changed his life, the one injunction being that one of them should still be active as a singer. For someone who knew his writing, his choices didn’t come as much of a surprise. I recently re-read this article and it got me to thinking of who mine would be. I’ve stuck to just ten, but  these are all singers, who have said something personal to me, the voices that have spoken to me down the years, from when I first started to enjoy opera and lieder as an impressionable teenager, up until now. 

 

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Callas as Norma

Anyone who knows me won’t be in the least surprised by my first choice.  I first heard the voice of Maria Callas on an LP reissue of her first recordings, originally issued on 78s. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani was coupled with the Liebestod (in Italian) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from her early Cetra recordings of La Traviata and La Gioconda. This was a voice like none I’d ever heard. It was a large voice, with dazzling flexibility, a rarity in itself, but what struck me most was the way that voice penetrated your very soul. It was a voice bursting with emotion. I may not have appreciated then her amazing musicality, but I certainly recognised the work of a genius. Callas made you feel that the music sprang from her throat newly minted, that she meant every word, every note. More than that, it was the way the voice could change from the sweet innocent Elvra to the womanly Isolde, from the passion of the courtesan Violetta, to the almost primeval sounds of her Gioconda. It hardly seems believable now, given that Callas’s recordings have formed the backbone of EMI’s (now Warner’s) Italian opera catalogue for years, but most of them were unavailable at the time. I slowly built up my collection by scouring second hand shops and pouncing on any imported issues that made their way into specialist record shops.  As I slowly built up my collection, it was Callas who introduced me to the world of Italian opera. Nowadays I can be aware of some of the vocal failings, especially in the later recordings, but nobody has ever come within a mile of her fantastic musicality, and up until at least the mid 1950s, the voice was an amazingly responsive instrument. For evidence of her musical skills, no better example could exist than her Leonora in Il Trovatore, full of aristocratic phrasing and almost Mozartian delicacy. Though a little strained by some of the high lying passages on the  Karajan recording of 1956, she still phrases like a master violinist, her sense of line and rubato unparalleled, the trills and cadenzas beautifully bound into the musical fabric of the whole.

She was also an amazing vocal actor, and though she has a voice that is instantly recognisable, she continually changes the weight of that voice to suit the character she is portraying. The woman who sings Lady Macbeth and Medea with such demonic force is hardly recognisable from the one who sings such a virginal and innocent Gilda, and though she may use the same lightness of touch for Amina in La Sonnambula as she does for, say, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, they are still two completely different voice characters, and she can make us see that happiness is quite a different thing for Amina from what it is for Rosina.

Callas is still my touchstone for all the roles she sang (I can almost hear her in my mind’s ear in some of the ones she didn’t), and, though I recognise that some have made prettier sounds, there will always be a moment, maybe a single word, where Callas’s unique colouration will suddenly do something to nail the character as no other singer does. I regret that Walter Legge, excellent producer though he was, did not have the foresight to record her in much of the repertoire for which she was famous, and though I treasure all her studio recordings, it is a great pity that she didn’t get to record some of her greatest stage creations, like Lady Macbeth, Anna Bolena, Armida, Imogene in Il Pirata, and perhaps even Alceste and Ifigenia. Legge wouldn’t even touch Medea and Callas only got to record the opera by exercising a get out in her contract with EMI, though EMI did eventually release the recording, which had been made for Ricordi. I might also regret that Legge was so chary of stereo and that Callas was not accorded the kind of good stereo sound Tebaldi was accorded in her early 1950s recordings.

There is no doubt that Callas’s glamour and tempestuous personal life has done much to maintain her popularity, but she has been dead for 40 years now, the dust has settled, and it is surely her musical gifts for which she should be remembered; for Callas was not only a great singer, she was also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. The great conductor Victor De Sabata once said to Walter Legge, her recording producer, “If the public could understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” I have known her recordings now for the best part of fifty years and I continue to be newly stunned each time I listen.

 

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Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin

My next choice might seem a little more surprising, a singer as far away from Callas as it would seem possible to be, though I often think of them as flip sides of the same coin. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who introduced me to Mozart, Richard Strauss and lieder. Her recordings of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and of the Vier letzte Lieder were my first exposure to these works, and have remained in my collection ever since. Hers was a voice shot  through with laughter, and she also made many great recordings of lighter works. Her album of Operetta Arias can lighten the spirits like no other. She and Callas admired each other enormously (their repertoires were very different of course), and though they only made one recording together (Puccini’s Turandot), they met often, as Schwarzkopf was the wife of Callas’s record producer, Walter Legge, on one occasion Schwarzkopf giving Callas an impromptu singing lesson in the middle of the restaurant at Biffi Scala. Schwarzkopf was a good person to ask. She rarely put a foot wrong, and it is this attention to detail, that some find gets in the way of the music. There can be a lack of spontaneity, it is true, and, where Callas is able to conceal the huge amount of work that goes into each of her musical recreations, Schwarzkopf can occasionally be accused of artifice. Her Liu in the above mentioned Turandot may not sound for one moment like a slave girl, but I love her singing of the role, so beautiful and so richly nuanced.  

Still, when it comes to opera, I treasure her most in Mozart (an incomparable Donna Elvira, Countess and Fiordiligi) and Strauss (an unbeatable Marschallin and Countess Madeleine) and (in recital) in Agathe’s arias from Weber’s Der Freischütz, though I also prize her delightfully high spirited Alice in Karajan’s recording of Verdi’s Falstaff. In Lieder some find her singing too detailed, and she is often accused of being mannered. Well, I’d aver that all great singers have their mannerisms. It’s one of the things that makes them instantly recognisable, and I prefer to think of them as idiosyncrasies. Warner recently reissued all her EMI recital records in their original programmes, and though it means each disc is rather short for CD, it shows the care that would go into creating these recitals, the same care that would go into her programming of material for her recital programmes. Each of them makes eminently satisfying listening.

I remember many years ago attending one of Schwarzkopf’s Master Classes at the Wigmore Hall with my singing teacher, the late Ian Adam, who adored her incidentally. She was a very hard task master, rarely letting a student sing more than a few bars before stopping them, and watching the classes was a peculiarly frustrating experience. It must have been even more so for the students. But that was the way she studied and rehearsed herself. She was actually severely self critical, as is shown in the book Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record, in which she listens to some of her recorded performances with John Steane. On many occasions she dismisses performances of her own that Steane admires, pointing out faults that none of us can hear. Though Schwarzkopf herself had refrained from singing at the classes, at one point she did sing out for just a few bars, in an attempt to show the student how to bring moonlight into the sound of their voice. Well, as Ian said, to me “You can’t teach that. Either you can do it, or you can’t.”

 

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Janet Baker as Vitellia

 

Unfortunately I never got to hear Callas or Schwarzkopf live, but I did hear  Dame Janet Baker quite a few times, though only in concert, never on the operatic stage, where she was equally at home. The first time was in a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst I was at college, a performance that has remained in my memory ever since. In a very different repertoire, she had an almost Callas like intensity and an ability to sing pianissimi  that somehow reached the furthest recesses of the hall. Dame Janet introduced me to the music of Monteverdi and Handel, Bach and of course Elgar’s Sea Pictures (memorably coupled to Jacqueline Du Pre’s seminal recording of the Cello Concerto). She was also a great Berlioz singer. I actually prefer her Barbirolli recording of Les Nuits d’Ete (and a live one under Giulini) to Crespin’s famous one, and I doubt her recording of the closing scenes of Les Troyens has ever been bettered. 

She recorded extensively for EMI, then Philips and, towards the end of her career, for such independents as Hyperion, Collins Classics and Virgin Classics, singing a vast range of repertoire that took her from the music of Monteverdi and Cavalli to Respighi, Britten and even Schoenberg, taking in Donizetti, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler along the way. Some of her greatest recordings are those she made with Sir John Barbirolli, with whom she had a great rapport, The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures, Les Nuits d’Eté, Shéhérazade and, maybe the greatest of them all, the orchestral Lieder of Mahler, particularly her wonderfully sensitive and inward performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. She was also world renowned for her singing of the lower part in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which I twice heard her sing live. She recorded it in the studio with Haitink, and there are at least three live recordings knocking around. Best of all of these is a Bavarian Radio broadcast under Rafael Kubelik, in which her singing of the final song, has a quiet intensity , which is almost too much to bear. So palpable is her emotional commitment to the music that I save this performance for rare occasions. Like Callas’s shattering performance of Violetta at Covent Garden in 1958, it reduces me to a quivering wreck.

 

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Domingo as Otello

Placido Domingo’s was a voice I first heard on record in an early recital of arias, but I will never forget the thrill of first hearing him live at the Royal Opera House, in La Fanciulla del West, if memory serves me rightly. Domingo certainly had presence and a glamorous voice to go with it. A real singing actor, he seemed to improve as a performer every time I saw him. Incredibly, he is still singing today, though he has moved over to the baritone repertoire recently, taking on such roles as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto. True, it is remarkable that a singer, and a tenor at that, can continue to sing into his seventies, but, great stage performer though he is, I am not sure that his excursions into the baritone repertoire have been entirely successful, and I prefer to remember him in the great days of his tenor glory.

In his early days, beautiful though his singing was, he could be accused of a somewhat generalised attitude to characterisation, but, over the years, he became more and more of a committed performer. Some of his roles he recorded several times, and one can hear how he progressed. The voice always had a dark, burnished quality, and the very top of the voice was never as easy as some, but, paradoxically, it sounds freer to me in his middle period than when he was young. Still, he wasn’t ashamed to admit that his top Cs were hard won,  and I actually applauded his decision to omit the unwritten ones, in Il Trovatore at Covent Garden, rather than doing what so many do and attempting to trick the audience by transposing Di quella pira down.  His Otello is a towering achievement, and, for many years, there was no one around who could challenge his hegemony in the role. He made three recordings of the role at different stages of his career, and there are quite a lot of visual documents of his portrayal, including the controversial Zeffirelli film.

 

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Wunderlich as Tamino

 

Free, ringing top Cs were never a problem for Fritz Wunderlich, who had a voice of overwhelming heady beauty. He died just before his 36th birthday, at a time when his interpretative artistry would have been reaching its maturity, his final concert in Edinburgh being testament to that. However if you ever want to hear someone just revelling in the sheer joy of singing, then listen to his DG performance of Lara’s Granada. Admittedly it is in German and the splashy arrangement is pretty vulgar, but he sings with a freedom and passion that would be the envy of any Latin tenor. For me, Wunderlich’s singing always conveys a sheer joy in the act of singing itself. Though he died young, he made many recordings, and it is this sense of joy that I most prize.

Interpretively, his recordings of Lieder don’t probe as deeply as some no doubt, but he was still young when he made them and unfortunately hadn’t reached his interpretive maturity before he died. For instance, the Dichteriebe he sings at his final concert in Edinburgh is a great deal more interesting than the recording he made for DG a year or so earlier. He did leave us arguably the greatest Tamino on disc, on Böhm’s Die Zauberflöte, which for once has a truly heroic dimension, a superb rendition of the tenor songs in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (both in the studio under Klemperer and live under Krips), and of the tenor arias in Karajan’s recording of Die Schöpfung. Most of his Italian and French repertoire was sung in German, but still has a golden, Italianate warmth, and we do have at least one recording of him singing Verdi in Italian, a live performance of La Traviata from Munich with the young Teresa Stratas as Violetta. His early death was a tragedy beyond reckoning, as one wonders what he might have gone on to achieve. His Steersman on the Konwitschny recording of Der fliegende Holländer gives notice that he could have gone on to sing Lohengrin at least, and, in Verdi, what a wonderful Duke, Don Carlo or Riccardo he would have made.

 

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Vickers as Giasone with Callas as Medea

 

Staying with tenors for the moment, I turn to Jon Vickers, who had a voice and manner of startling individuality, and an intensity of performance that could almost be too painful to listen to. Though well known for his Tristan, his Siegmund, his Florestan and his Grimes, he first came to prominence singing in Italian opera. In 1958 he sang Giasone to Callas’s Medea in Dallas, and then also in London, at La Scala and at the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus. He had enormous respect for Callas and named her as one of the two people to have the most profound effect on opera in the post World War II period (the other being Wieland Wagner).  He was also Don Carlo in Covent Garden’s legendary Visconti production of Don Carlo, conducted by Giulini, which also had Gobbi and Christoff in the cast. With a voice of such power and penetration he naturally progressed to Wagner, singing towering performances of Tristan and Siegmund. His Otello suffered like no other and his Peter Grimes, mercifully preserved on film, is one of the greatest creations of all time. Like all the singers in this survey, his voice is instantly recognisable, his style somewhat idiosyncratic, but intensely musical. There is always something monumental about a Vickers performance. On disc, I find his Aeneas (in Berlioz’s Les Troyens), his Florestan, his Tristan and his Otello unequalled by any who have followed, and his Grimes, so totally different from Pears, utterly convincing.

 

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Teyte as Melisande

Next on my list are two more sopranos, one from well before my time and one who died only recently. I first heard the voice of Maggie Teyte in a performance of Duparc’s Chanson Triste and was totally captivated. Her performance of the song remains my yardstick to this day. Born in 1888, she was cast in the role of Mélisande by Debussy himself, replacing the creator of the role, Mary Garden.  She prepared the role by studying with Debussy, and is the only singer ever to be accompanied in public by the composer (in a performance of his song Beau soir). She married twice and went into semi-retirement after her second marriage in 1921. Like her first marriage, this ended in divorce and Teyte had some difficulty reviving her career afterwards. For some time she appeared in music hall and variety, which explains much of the lighter repertoire she sang and recorded. However the recordings of Debussy songs she made with Alfred Cortot in 1936 attracted a lot of attention, helping her to gain a reputation as one of the leading interpreters of French song, The voice remained pure, without a hint of excessive vibrato even into her sixties, and she made her final concert appearance at the Royal Festival Hall at the age of 68.

I would recommend any and all of her recordings of French song, as well as her wondrous rendering of ‘Tu n’es pas beau’ from La Périchole, which shows off to advantage her gloriously individual chest tones, and a twinkle in the eye. A private recording of her singing bits of Salome (to a piano accompaniment) show that she might even have been an ideal Salome, the silvery purity of the voice being close to Strauss’s ideal, and it is a great pity that plans for her to sing the role at Covent Garden never came to fruition.

 

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De Los Angeles as Manon

Truth to tell, I hadn’t much liked Victoria De Los Angeles when I first heard her (as a rather insecure and out of sorts Hoffmann Antonia) and I think it was probably her record of the Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne that first led me to investigate further. She had a particularly wide song repertoire, which took in early and late Spanish composers, as well as Lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and French song. One of her greatest quality was her charm and that quality the Italians refer to as morbidezza, meaning that, on the operatic stage, she was most at home playing gentler heroines. That Antonia was misleading and later I discovered she could be the perfect Marguerite (Faust), Butterfly, Rosina and Mimi displaying a golden voice allied to a winning personality. Best of all perhaps is her Manon in Massenet’s opera.  Where some make the character too knowing, De Los Angeles emphasises the childlike innocence and delight in pleasure that is at the heart of Manon’s downfall. She was also a superb Desdemona (in a live broadcast from the Met) and it’s a great pity she never got to record the role commercially.

Her Carmen on the Beecham recording has been much praised, but here I find her less convincing, though, as usual, her singing is unfailingly musical. I just can’t imagine De Los Angeles’s Carmen pulling a knife on a fellow worker. She is altogether far too ladylike. She is on record as saying that she based her Carmen on the Andalusian gypsies, who were known for their charm, a quality De Los Angeles had in abundance, but my Carmen is dangereuse est belle (Micaela’s description) and De Los Angeles, charming and adorable as she was, never sounds dangerous to me.

 

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Gobbi as Scarpia with Callas as Tosca

So far the list is rather top heavy with high voices, so I am happy to include as my next choice a baritone, colleague of Callas’s and one who encompassed many of her qualities. Like Callas, Tito Gobbi had an immediately recognisable voice and always sang with a wealth of colour and understanding. I can still remember the shattering effect of my first listen through Rigoletto, actually the first ever time I’d heard the opera. His cries of “Gilda” at the end of Act 2 after she has been abducted went straight to the heart. He may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world, but, like Callas’s, it had a myriad of different colours. And like her, though always recognizably himself, he was always able to change his timbre to suit the role he was playing. 

We are fortunate indeed that, though they sang rarely on stage together (most famously in Zeffirelli’s renowned Covent Garden production of Tosca), they made many recordings together; two recordings of Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, their collaboration possibly reaching its apogee in Rigoletto, with its long series of duets for father and daughter. Again, like Callas, he could put more meaning into a line of recitative, even into a word, than bars of singing by less dramatically attuned singers. The way he utters the single word Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, when he discovers the identity of Riccardo’s midnight tryst, resonates in my mind’s ear even now. Some would aver that he didn’t have a true Verdi baritone voice, but, as I think now of the parade of Verdi roles he sang – Rigoletto, Amonasro, Posa, Simon Boccanegra, Renato, Iago, Germont, Falstaff, Nabucco – they all emerge as distinct and different characters. Of how many other singers can you say that? Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca might be his most famous creation (a repulsively reptilian character, who is both a gentleman and a thug) but it is in Verdi that his musical skill is most evident. What a tragedy that Walter Legge never had the foresight to record Macbeth with him and Callas as the murderous couple.

 

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David Daniels as Caesar with Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra

Looking back at this list of singers, I realise that they all have certain things in common; the individuality of their voices (you only have to hear a few notes to know who it is) and their ability to make the listener see as well as hear. This is no less true of countertenor, David Daniels, a singer still very much before the public today. Some years ago, I was more or less dragged to a concert of Vivaldi sung by Daniels and accompanied by Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Till then, apart from the Four Seasons and the Gloria, I had had little enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s music and had a total antipathy for countertenors in general. Daniels changed all that. Here was a voice of surpassing beauty, coupled to a marvellously natural personality. It was a total conversion and Daniels has now opened the door on a whole world of music I had previously ignored, which shows it is never too late to expand one’s horizons. I have hardly missed any of his appearances in this country, and, like all the singers on this list, he has a gift for communication vouchsafed to just a few.

He has also expanded the repertoire for countertenors, embracing American song, Lieder, French song and even Broadway. Sometimes the experiments don’t quite work. For instance, though his singing is, as ever, unfailingly musical and filled with meaning, the countertenor voice, even one as mellifluous and beautiful as his, just doesn’t have the range of colour required for a piece like Les Nuits d’Eté, and though I appreciate and enjoy his excursions into nineteenth century and modern repertoire, it is for the music of the baroque, and especially Handel, that I turn to him. In his early days his coloratura singing was sensational, but I treasure most his deeply felt singing of some of Handel’s slower arias. In an aria like Scherza infida he holds the line beautifully and firmly, but evinces a pain that is almost palpable. No other singer I have come across quite makes the same effect in this music. I am guessing that he will be coming towards the end of his career now, and I count myself fortunate indeed to have been able to experience his singing live whilst he was in his prime. I saw him so many times, that I swear he actually spotted me in the audience on several occasions, and acknowledged my applause with a nod in my direction.

Of course, apart from these singers, there have been many memorable performances. I recall the excitement of the first time I heard a really world class singer, Helga Dernesch in Fidelio and as the Marschallin (still the best I’ve seen live on stage); Agnes Baltsa’s Carmen with the no less memorable Don Jose of Jose Carreras; ditto Baltsa’s thrilling Eboli; the superb Dejanira of Joyce Di Donato; Angela Gheorgiu’s first Violetta, and Ileana Cotrubas‘s Violetta too;  Roberto Alagna’s first Romeo (in the Gounod opera); Kiri Te Kanawa’s exquisitely, if placidly, sung Fiordiligi (with Baltsa again, as an adorably funny Dorabella); Renee Fleming in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Margaret Price and Lucia Popp in concert. I also regret never seeing live the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who was taken from us far too early and at the height of her artistic maturity, and whom I first remember in a Proms concert on TV, at which she was the radiant soloist in a performance of Elgar’s The Music Makers. These too will always stay in the memory, but I send my gratitude to the ten on my original list, for through them I have discovered a whole world of great music. They may not necessarily be the ten greatest singers of all time but they have enriched and enlightened and can truly be called singers who have changed my life.