Les Troyens (abridged) conducted by Georges Prêtre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawallisch’s Capriccio

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Richard Strauss’ final opera can sometimes seem wordy and long-winded, but in a performance such as this it is anything but boring.

This luxury cast is just about as perfect as any you are likely to hear, all the singers giving due attention to the words. The Countess Madeleine was always one of Schwarzkopf’s best roles, and she steers a perfect course between sophistication and elegance, between playfulness and tender affection. It is one of her greatest achievements for the gramophone, her radiant singing of the gorgeous closing scene a perfect rounding up of the whole opera. If the opera asks the question, “which should come first, words or music,” there is no doubt which side Strauss himself comes down on. The male voices – Gedda as the dreaming composer Flamand, Fischer-Dieskau as the more impulsive poet Olivier, Wächter as the flirtatious Count, and, last but not least, Hotter as the harassed theatre director La Roche are all wonderfully characterised. Ludwig is a superb Clairon and we even have the young Moffo as the Italian Singer. Sawallisch is a marvellously experienced Strauss conductor and presides over a recording that has become a classic of the gramophone.

The recording was apparently planned in stereo, but technical problems meant it ended up being recorded in mono, which no doubt pleased Walter Legge, as he mistrusted stereo.  Nonetheless it is wonderfully well balanced with the voices as they should be, especially in a conversational piece like this, firmly in the foreground.

A Merry Widow for all time

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Oh what bliss! From the first moment of the orchestral introduction, which captures brilliantly that sense of expectation when sitting in a darkened theatre before the curtain rises, this famous recording is pure joy. Brilliantly cast and produced, it has a real whiff of the theatre, and yet you would be hard pressed to ever hear a performance of such class there. Principal among its delights is Schwarzkopf’s gloriously sung Hanna Glawari, singing with the same sort of care she lavishes on Mozart and Strauss. Indeed the moment she realises that Danilo is still in love with her (Allein liebt er mich, nur allein! ) in the finale of the second act is sung with such gloriously refulgent tone that it would hardly sound out of place in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

This was Schwarzkopf’s second recording of the opera, and, as in the first, Legge chooses a baritone for Danilo, rather than the usual tenor. However Wächter’s high baritone has no problems with the higher lying passages that Kunz (on the first recording) had to transpose down. Furthermore he sounds younger and more dashing. Gedda and Steffek make an excellent pair of lovers, the Pavillion duet in the second act a properly erotic affair, and the rest of the cast could hardly be bettererd with excellent contributions from Josef Knapp and Kurt Equiluz. Fabulous playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Lovro von Matacic.

Yes, there are fuller versions of the score around, but, frankly I couldn’t care less. I doubt this wonderfully stylish, fun packed recording will ever be bettered.

Scwharzkopf sings Johann Strauss

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These two Strauss operettas in Legge’s Champagne Operetta series make an apt couple of bedfellows, neither being quite what Strauss himself  wrote.

Strauss never in fact wrote an operetta called Wiener Blut, but, towards the end of his life, he did give Adolf Müller permission to adapt some of his existing dance music to a text by Victor Léon and Leo Stein. The result is a charming confection of familiar tunes, brilliantly performed here by Legge’s house operetta team of Schwarzkopf, Gedda and Kunz, alongside Emmy Loose, Erika Köth and Karl Dönch, with the Philharmonia under Otto Ackermann. However heavily cut (and this one probably suffers more cuts than the other operettas they recorded), there is no denying the echt-Viennese style in this sparkling performance. No more perfect example could exist than Schwarzkopf and Gedda’s swooning phrasing in the duet Wiener Blut.

Eine Nacht in Venedig has had a somewhat complicated history. The original Strauss operetta enjoyed only a limited success, and was massively revised (by Korngold and Ernst Marischka) for a 1923 production, which is, with one or two re-arrangements, additions and omissions) the version used for this 1954 recording.

Regardless of editions, though, this performance, like the other operettas in this series, is an absolute joy, with superb performances from the house team of Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Loose and Kunz.

Both operettas are absolute joy and thoroughly enjoyable.

Karajan’s 1955 Die Fledermaus

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Oddly enough, my previous post referred to an opera (Massenet’s Cendrillon) where a female breeches role was given to a tenor and the same thing happens here, though not quite to such detrimental effect. Where Gedda’s Prince Charming sounds all wrong, Rudolf Christ’s languidly effete Orlovsky almost reconciles me to the change and this  is my only slight quibble about a superb, classic recording, which I happen to prefer to Karajan’s later effort for Decca.

Though recorded in London with the Philharmonia, cast and conductor bring an echt Viennese quality to the whole enterprise, the judicially edited dialogue delivered in sparkling fashion. You don’t really need to speak German to understand what’s going on.

Schwarzkopf is a superb Rosalinde, none better, singing her Czardas with appropriate dash and swagger, the voice gloriously rich and firm; Streich a delightfully pert and flirtatious Adele; Gedda a properly tenor Eisenstein, with a fine line in comedy, especially when impersonating Blind in the final scene; Kunz a genially scheming Falke. Excellent contributions also from Krebs as Alfred, Dönch as Frank and Majkut as Blind. This really is a fabulous cast and Legge’s superb production ensures that the recording sounds like a real performance.

Karajan’s conducting is perhaps on the swift side, but the whole performance fizzes and pops like the very best brut champagne that the operetta celebrates and is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Massenet’s Cendrillon

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A lovely recording of a gorgeous score, which is all but ruined by a monumental piece of miscasting. Massenet wrote the role of Le Prince Charmant for a mezzo-soprano (performed at the premiere by Marie-Louise van Émelen), but here it is given to the tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Stylishly though he sings, he cannot disguise the fact that he is singing in the wrong octave and the substitution seriously damages the sound of the duets. The booklet actually states,

In order to suggest the prince’s youth and grace, and to enhance the tender, ethereal quality of his love scenes with Cendrillon, Massenet composed the part for a falcon, …. Moreover, to prevent fashionable prime donne of the buxom kind from being miscast in the part, Massenet also stipulated in the score that the falcon should possess an appropriate physique du costume.

This makes the substitution doubly puzzling.

On the other hand the role of Cendrillon might almost have been written with Frederica Von Stade in mind, radiant of voice and charming of manner. Her performance is reason enough to have the set, but Ruth Welting makes a delightful Fairy and there are characterful performances from Jane Berbié as Madame de la Haltière and Jules Bastin as Pandolfe, as well as Teresa Cahill and Elizabeth Bainbridge as the step sisters.

Julius Rudel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus.

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.

The Schwarzkopf/Karajan Rosenkavalier

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This recent re-mastering of Karajan’s famous 1956 recording of Der Rosenkavaier, overseen by the producer of the original stereo version, Christopher Parker, really is the best you are ever likely to hear. Parker has slightly adjusted the balance in the big trio and it really makes a big difference, Stich-Randall now not so shrill and blending better with Schwarzkopf and Ludwig.

What a performance it is, with a cast that could hardly be bettered anywhere, with Schwarzkopf’s warmly feminine, noble Marschallin dominating the opera, as she should. Her singing is wonderfully detailed, Hofmannsthal’s text superbly brought to life. Just listening to her you can see every fleeting facial expression, and I smply cannot understand those who bandy about the usual criticisms of over-artfulness and mannerisms, especially when the lyrical moments are also filled with gloriously refulgent tone. This might just be Schwarzkopf’s greatest achievement on disc.

Ludwig’s ardently impetuous Octavian is the perfect foil for this Marschallin, and if she doesn’t have quite the same matchless control over her resources as Schwarzkopf, the extroverted outpouring of tone suits the character of Octavian to a nicety. Stich-Randall is a  slightly white-voiced Sophie, suitably innocent and naïve, sailing up to those stratospheric notes with a silvery purity second to none, and Edelmann remembers that Ochs may be a boor, but that he is also a nobleman.

Wonderful support from the likes of Gedda as the Italian tenor, Wächter, a wonderfully fussy Faninal and Welitsch as the Duenna, with a plethora of well known names amongst the supporting cast.

Karajan’s direction is just right in every phrase, beautifully managing the dance elements of the score, whilst giving the many lyrical moments their due. He always knows just how to build to the climaxes and his sense of the structure of the opera is spot on, his pacing both quicksilver and expansive. Just to make our cup runneth over we have the Philharmonia on top form.

The recording may have been made in 1956, but sounds absolutely splendid in this latest remastering. My top recommendation for the opera, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Colin Davis conducts La Damnation de Faust

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

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

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

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

Great Moments of Nicolai Gedda

 

“Great Moments” is the title of this three disc compilation, issued in 2000, and EMI certainly had a great deal to choose from. Nicolai Gedda must be one of the most recorded tenors in history. I suppose one should point out that the “moments” here are all purely operatic. To get a more rounded view of Gedda’s output, both as to range and repertoire, one would have to include his work in orotorio and song, embracing music from Bach to the present day, as well as some operetta. But this is a sensible conflation of music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, covering twenty years of recording from 1952 to 1974.

Gedda was a keen linguist and sang virtually without accent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, English and his native Swedish. This linguistic ability no doubt also informed the vast range of music and styles he was able to embrace. It certainly makes for a pleasingly varied selection of excerpts.

Disc one is made up, mostly, of the earliest material, hence we have excerpts from his splendid Dimitri on the 1952 Dobrowen recording of Boris Godunov (with Eugenia Zareska) and the whole of his first recital for EMI, recorded in 1953. A further excerpt from Boris Godunov from a 1969 recital is included, along with an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night which shows the voice virtually unchanged in seventeen years, though the style is possibly a little more assertive.

The 1953 recital is a real treasure-trove of delights, opening with a version of Lensky’s Act II aria, which is so beautiful that it bears comparison with Sobinov. He sings it as an inner monologue, the pianissimo reprise spun out in mastery fashion. Also wonderful are his honeyed performance of Du pauvre seul ami fidèle from Auber’s La Muette de Portici and the glorious mezza voce legato of Nadir’s Je crois entendre encore. The other French items are just as desirable, but he also delivers an ardently poetic Cielo e mar from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and his sad, restrained performance of Federico’s Lament from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. Some may prefer a more overtly passionate rendering in the manner of Corelli, but personally I find Gedda’s vocal restraint quite refreshing and not in the least bit unemotional. This first disc ends with a joyfully ebullient version of Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire from Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau, sung in Swedish and recorded live in 1952.

Disc 2 is also wide ranging, starting with music by Rousseau, Gluck (Gedda coping superbly with the high tessitura of Gluck’s tenor version of Orphée et Eurydice) and Mozart, before moving on to the German Romantic repertoire. Taken from a 1957 recital disc, Don Ottavio’s arias and Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön are much better than on the complete Klemperer recordings, with a lovely smile in the tone for Tamino’s aria. Belmonte’s Ich baue ganz, recorded in 1967 with the Bath Festival Orchestra under Sir Yehudi Menuhin and sung in impeccable English, is brilliantly done. Exciting performances of Huon’s arias from Oberon lead us into the German Romantics. Gedda only once sang Lohengrin on stage, but decided that Wagner wasn’t for him. His lyrical approach to In fernem Land and Mein lieber Schwann is very beautfiful nonetheless.

Best of all on this second disc is a magical performance of Magische Töne, sung in a ravishing mezza voce of ineffable sweetness, the long legato line beautifully and firmly held. This is great singing, no doubt about it.

Disc 3 is of French and Italian arias and duets. It starts with a superb performance of La gloire était ma seule idole from Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, a role Gedda made very much his own and of course later recorded complete under Sir Colin Davis. Next comes a dramatic version of Un autre est son époux from Werther, the joyful Aubade from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys, and the Raoul/Marguerite duet from Les Huguenots (with Mady Mesplé) with Arnold’s Asil hérèditaire from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, with its fabulously ringing top notes, leading us into the Italian bel canto items.

Mirella Freni joins him for duets from La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale whilst alone he sings Edgardo’s Tombe degli avi miei and Ernesto’s Cercherò lontana terra. The Bellini had me wishing he had been engaged for Callas’s studio recording of La Sonnambula rather than the ineffectual Monti. After all he had already sung Narciso in her recording of Il Turco in Italia.

Freni, who had yet to venture into more dramatic repertoire, blends well with Gedda in the duets, but back in 1966 she had yet to learn how to project personality in a recording. Her singing is lovely but a little anonymous. Both the solo items could be considered models of bel canto style but are also sung with appreciation of the dramatic situation, the recitatives vividly delivered.

To finish we have a clutch of encores, including Lara’s Granada and the lovely Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn, which give us a glimpse of Gedda’s prowess in lighter fare and remind us of that Gedda also recorded a lot of operetta.

Given Gedda was such a prolific recording artist, there was a lot to choose from when compiling a set of Great Moments, and no doubt the set could have extended to many more discs. There is no doubt, though, that EMI have chosen some plums from his discography and there isn’t a dud performance on the whole set. Extravagantly recommended.