Renée Fleming – Night Songs

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Where does the time go? I can’t believe it is almost twenty years since I worked with Renée Fleming when the London Symphony Orchestra put on a semi-staged production of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Barbican Hall with Previn himself conducting. I only had a very minor role, but I found Fleming to be a very gracious lady, an arch professional and a conscientious artist. The rehearsals and performances are amongst my fondest memories and I will never forget the experience of hearing that voice close to, with her literally singing into my ear on occasion. The final Korngold-like aria Blanche sings before being taken away to the asylum was possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

I mention this to put into context my reactions to listening to this recital, which I wanted to like much more than I did. The recording was made in 2001 when the voice had acquired a new richness in the middle and lower ranges whilst retaining its beauty and ease up on high, even throughout its compass and admirably firm, with no trace of hardness when singing at full tilt. As it seems now we have said goodbye to Fleming, the classical arists it is good to be reminded that this was one of the most ravishing instruments of the last thirty years or so. She has always had a fairly eclectic repertoire which embraced both opera and song, covering a wide range of different composers and styles, but I’ve always thought her best suited to the music of Mozart and Strauss.

Hence it is the songs by Strauss and Joseph Marx which make the stongest impression, especially Cäcilie, its radiant close easily and ravishingly voiced. The Marx songs suit her well too, their sensuous expressivity responding well to the heady beauty of Fleming’s voice. Thibaudet is also superb in the tricky accompaniments, tossing off their difficulties as if they are the easiest things in the world.

Elsewhere I am not so sure this operatic vocal effulgence is what I want to hear. I found myself longing for the greater simplicity and cleaner vocal production of a Victoria De Los Angeles in the Fauré, the slight touch of irony and cool detachment brought to Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis by a Régine Crespin. The Rachmaninov, with their heavier accompaniments, perhaps respond better to this operatic treatment, but I find it just too sophisticated and even here I prefer a slightly simpler, more direct approach.

However enjoyable it is to hear one of the most beautiful voices of recent times whatever the circumstances, ultimately there are other discs I would pull out first when wanting to sample Fleming at her best.

Maggie Teyte – The Singers

These recordings were all made in the 1930s and so pre-date the two disc set of French song I reviewed a few months ago here, with the second part of the disc being taken from a 1937 radio broadcast. One of the songs (Armstrong Gibbs’ The fields are full of summer still) was newly discovered in 2001 and first published on this CD.

We start with one of Dame Maggie’s most famous performances, that of Périchole’s Tu n’es pas beau, sung with great affection, a twinkle in the eye and with that wonderful dip into her inimitably glorious chest voice. Though a light soprano with pure, firm top notes, Teyte’s lower register was admirably rich and full in a manner we rarely hear today, more’s the pity. The orchestra here sounds like a palm court orchestra at a tea dance, but the singing is another matter entirely and alone well worth the price of the disc. The two excerpts from Messager’s Véronique, which follow are almost as good.

Teyte was particularly renowned for her interpretations of French song, but we are vouchsafed only two (very well known) songs from that field, Fauré’s Après un rêve and Hahn’s Si mes vers avaient des ailes. The Fauré is much better than the one on the French song disc mentioned above, where I felt she fussed with the song too much making it lose its natural flow, and the Hahn is as lovely as the later recording with Gerald Moore. These are followed by two Dvorak songs, Christina’s Lament, which turns out to be his Humoresque arranged for voice and piano, and the ubiquitous Songs my mother taught me, both beautifully sung.

These are followed by a group of songs from light musicals, mementoes of her days spent in British Music Hall. They may be musically slight, but Deep in my heart, dear from Romberg’s The Student Prince was actually one of Dame Maggie’s favourite recordings. It crests with a high B, which she thought the most beautiful note she had ever recorded. Certainly the note rings out clear and clean as a bell.

The lion’s share of the disc, however, is given over to a 1937 BBC broadcast recital, which couples popular songs by Schumann and Brahms to a group of English songs by turn of the century composers Quilter, Bridge, Delius, Armstrong Gibbs and (completely new to me) Amherst Webber and Graham Peel. As ever, the voice is bright and pure, her manner direct and disarming, her diction and intonation well-nigh perfect. Admittedly, there are aspects of her singing which some might find quaint and old fashioned today, but her technique is superb and her voice remained firm and clear well into her sixties.

Perhaps because of some of the material, this is not quite so recommendable as the EMI two disc set of French songs, but I would never want to be without it, if only for the wonderful aria from La Périchole.

Charles Panzéra – The Master of French Song

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One of the greatest interpreters of French song, Chalres Panzéra was actually Swiss, born in Geneva in 1896. Although he did perform in opera and was particularly renowned for his Pelléas, he became ever more in demand as a recitalist, especially for his performances of French song, and Fauré dedicated his last song cycle, L’horizon chimérique to him. His repertoire extended to Monteverdi, Lully, Schubert and Schumann and, included here is his recording of Dichterliebe with Alfred Cortot a highly individual accompanist at the piano. Panzéra was married to the pianist Magdaleine Baillot, and they had a long and fruitful partnership, all of the French songs on this disc beng accompanied by her.  Aside from the Dichterliebe, this disc includes complete performances of Fauré’s La bonne chanson, L’horizon chimérique and a selection of songs by Duparc.

After World War II, he taught at the Juilliard School in New York and at the Paris Conservatoire, and wrote invaluable works on the interpretation of French song.

He had a voice of great beauty, admirably firm and seamless from top to bottom, allied to a wonderful sensitivity and refinement of style, and many of his performances are deservedly considered classics. Everything he does sounds totally spontaneous and yet one knows the amount of care that has gone into each interpretion. This is surely the art that conceals art.

Both the Fauré cycles are superbly sung, as are the Duparc songs, though his wife’s spreading of the chords in Lamento won’t be to everyone’s taste. He totally avoids the tendency to over-sentimentalise a song like the Wagnerian inspired Extase and delivers a marvellously detailed but unselfconscious L’Invitation au voyage.

Panzéra’s German sounds as natural as his French and his recording of Duchterliebe has long been considered a classic, though Cortot’s playing is highly idiosycratic. It may not delve as deeply as some more recent versions by the likes of Fischer-Dieskau or Schreier, but it captures beautifully something of the essence of Schumann.

A wonderful disc well worth seeking out.

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.

 

Maggie Teyte – Chansons Françaises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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