Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna

r-10886939-1505963132-9869.jpeg

So what more can one say about this famous two disc recital? It was recorded in 1960, not long after Dame Joan had enjoyed a spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1959, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was already 33 and had been a member of the company since 1952, when she had sung Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the Priestess in Aida. She had sung a wide number of roles there, including Agathe, the Countess, Gilda, Pamina, Eva and even Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, but none of these undertakings had prepared anyone for the spectacular success she would have as Lucia, with Serafin, Callas’s mentor, in the pit. The role became her calling card and shortly afterwards she sang it in Paris, at La Scala and at the Met, performances that put her firmly on the map and paved the way for the direction her career would take. Thereafter she concentrated almost exclusively on the bel canto repertoire and many operas were resurrected specifically for her.

Let us try and listen now with fresh ears, as if, for instance, this was the work of a singer new to us today. First impressions would be of the beauty of the voice, the fullness of tone, the ease on high and the way those top notes ring out with brilliance but without a hint of shrillness. We would also notice the rocketing virtuosity and the stunningly accurate coloratura. She also sings with feeling, but the first impressions are definitely vocal. This is an exceptional instrument used with great technical accomplishment. What I don’t think we quite get is a true impression of the size of the voice, which, according to all who heard her in the theatre, was quite exceptional.

Some of the arias (particularly the opening track, Arne’s The soldier tir’d, Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim and Semiramide’s Bel raggio) have become yardsticks against which all subsequent comers might be judged, and almost all the others would no doubt be considered amongst the best versions available. Vocally she has few limitations, though these might include a relative weakness in the lower register. Nor is she ever likely to suddenly throw into relief a word or a phrase and her diction, though a lot better than it was later to become is not particularly clear. We might also note that characterisation is not her strong point. As one aria follows another there is little to distinguish one character from another. We do not get a gallery of different people, as one would with a Callas or a Schwarzkopf.

For many these reservations will not be a problem and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the purely visceral experience of hearing such a beautiful voice in full bloom tackling with accomplishment a wide range of music. For others, and I would count myself among them, that certain sameness of interpretaion will be a problem and I for one prefer to listen to the recital piecemeal rather than all in one sitting. When listening in sequence, I start out being stunned by the singing but, after a while, my mind starts to wander as one interpretation emerges much the same as the one before. The best arias are, as I intimated above, those in which Sutherland can display her amazing vocal dexterity.

Going back to first impressions, though. There is, as far as I’m aware, nobody singing today who can even approach the accomplishment of what Sutherland achieves here. This two disc set stands as testament to her greatness, before the mannerisms (the poor diction, the mushy middle voice, the droopy partamenti) became apparent and should be in the collection of all those interested in singers and singing.

Valerie Masterson – Song Recital

51vle4ved5l

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

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

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

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

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

A lovely reminder of a lovely singer.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Songs by Mahler, Handel and Peter Lieberson

 

There are some singers whose emotional connection to the music they are singing is so complete, so all-embracing that such minor details as vocal technique and beauty of voice are completely forgotten. Not that either of those two qualities are in the least bit lacking here, but they don’t really register, so intense, so all-enveloping is the experience of listening.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was one such artist and, more than once during the course of this marvelous recital, she managed to reduce me to tears. In her voice, the act of singing becomes as natural as the act of speaking. There is no artifice, no show, just total commitment to the music and that rare gift of communication.

The disc starts with a highly personal and emotionally shattering performance of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. I prefer Mahler’s orchestral version of these wonderful songs but even with piano accompaniment (wonderfully realised by Roger Vignoles here) I would place this performance with Janet Baker’s of the orchestral versions under Barbirolli as the pinnacle of Mahler interpretation. Indeed the desolation of Um MItternacht is utterly overwhelming and the performance of all the songs totally gripping, with the audience sitting in rapt silence.

The Handel items, though more theatrical, more outwardly dramatic, are no less sincere. She makes musical sense of the vocal leaps in Scherza infida and pours calming balm on the ears in As with rosy steps from Theodora, a reminder of her devastating Glyndeboure performances of Irene.

She married Peter Lieberson the year after this recital and she sings here two of his Rilke settings, written specifically for her as well as an aria from his opera Ashoka’s Dream, which she performed in Santa Fe the previous year. The lovely Rilke songs were recorded complete at the Ravenna Festival in 2004 but it is good to have this tantalising extract from Lieberson’s opera.

To close we have two encores, a stunningly heartfelt performance of the spiritual Deep River which became something of a Hunt Lieberon speciality and a radiantly ecstatic performance of Brahms’s Unbewegte laue Luft.

Hunt Lieberson died at the age of 52 when she was at the absolute height of her career, which makes every recording she made, most of them from live performances, absolutely essential. This one is no exception

Sandrine Piau – Handel Opera Seria

r-13865292-1562864332-2077.jpeg

Although we may seem to be suffering a dearth of great Verdi and Wagner singers in recent years, Handel singing has gone from strength to strength over the last twenty years or so. However, even amongst the wealth of excellent Handel recital discs that have appeared, this one, recorded in 2004, stands out.

The programme itself is varied, with a nice sprinkling of arias from lesser known works amongst the more well known excerpts from such as Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Rodelinda and Orlando, whilst there is a good selection of different moods represented.

Sandrine Piau is the equal of everything Handel throws at her. The needle-fine precision with which she executes the florid music is breathtaking, as she tosses off stratospheric pyrotechnics with insouciant ease, but she is also adept at sustaining the long lyrical line. Furthermore she encompasses the full range of mood from quiet introspection to dramatic declamation. This is a real tour de force of Handel singing.

She is wonderfully supported by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques and the recording cannot be faulted.

Warmy recommended.

The Young Domingo

 

These days, with Domingo’s sometimes less successful forays into the baritone repertoire, it is easy to forget just how amazing his career was, not to mention how long it has lasted. This two disc set is a composite of three recitals made in 1968, 1971 and 1972 when Domingo (27 at the time of the first disc) was already an experienced artist, having first appeared on stage at the age of sixteen and singing his first major role (Alfredo) in 1961 at the age of 20.

The earliest of these recitals, which was given the title Romantic Arias heralded the arrival of a major artist, not only a tenor but a musician. The repertoire is wide ranging, taking in music from Handel to Mascagni and he sings in Italian, French, German and Russian. I can’t think of many tenors, even from the golden age of 78s, who could sing Puccini and Mascagni with so much passion and yet give us a wonderfully accomplished Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, the longest run sung cleanly and accurately and not only spun out in a single breath but phrased through into the next statement of the opening tune. The only other tenor I’ve come across who manages it as well is John McCormack. In all, whether it be in Lohengrin’s Narration or Lensky’s aria, sung in Russian, his singing is musical and immaginative. If we were to nitpick, it might be to note that, especially in the Italian items, there is a lack of excitement, of real intensity. Both are qualities he later added, along with his fine acting that served to make him the best Otello to be heard for many years. So he may not thrill in the manner of a Franco Corelli, but could Corelli have ever embraced such a wide range of differing music styles with such musicality and sensibility? I dount it very much. So let’s be grateful for what we have.

The second disc entitled Domingo sings Caruso is less wide ranging, most of the arias more well known, though it does include an aria for Marcello from Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème, and the third La Voce d’Oro, an apt description of the golden tone that pours forth. Again one might note that his singing can be a little generic, but his musical sensibilities are always evident. Nor does he ever indulge in the vulgar mannerisms of some who preceded him. His singing is always tasteful, his musical manners impeccable.

To the three recitals, BMG have added two Leoncavallo arias (another from La Bohème and one from Chatterton) which were originally included as fill-ups for his recording of I Pagliacci under Nello Santi. Both are attractive pieces, wonderfully sung by Domingo.

Looking at Domingo’s website I see his calendar is still pretty full, with engagements, both singing and conducting, booked up to November next year. It is a remarkable achievement for a man approaching his eighties. There is no doubt the promise of these early recitals has been not only fulfilled but surpassed. Now that we have said goodbye to Domingo the tenor, now might be a good time to go backto these early recitals and remember just how good he was.

Amor e gelosia – Handel Operatic Duets

image

Looking through my collection I note that the majority of fairly recent recital acquisitions seem to be mostly of music of Handel and the baroque. I’m not sure whether this has more to do with a change in my taste, the general change in taste or the dearth of decent singers of Verdi, Wagner and nineteenth century muisc in general. Whatever the reason, I think it’s safe to say there are far more excellent Handel singers around these days than there used to and the performers on this disc are certainly fine examples.

Handel’s operatic duets are rare delights, usually either expressing sadness at lovers’ parting or delight in reunion, and there is a good cross-section of both types in this recital. That said, I am not a Handel specialist and I personally find less variety here than I would in a programme of duets from the bel canto period or Verdi. The programme is drawn from well-known works, such as Rinaldo, Serse and Rodelinda, as well as lesser known works like Silla and Teseo, with no less than five excerpts (including the Act III Sinfonia) from Poro, and certainly no fault can be found with the performances.

We hear two very fine voices in prime condition, DiDonato’s darker, straighter mezzo contrasting and blending nicely with Ciofi’s bright, clear soprano. Both are expressive artists with a fine legato and superb technical proficiency in the florid music. They also repond well to the dramatic elements in the music, and are superbly supported by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco. The disc can be recommended unreseverdly to all lovers of Handel and the baroque, even if on this occasion, and I realise this has no relevance to the present disc, I found myself wishing I was listening to, say, Caballé and Verrett in their disc of Romantic opera duets. Maybe my tastes haven’t changed that much.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Live broadcasts

517hffpxcml._sx425_

This is not a recital as such, but a collection of off the air recordings made by Schwarzkopf between the years 1941 and 1952. We get the opening of a Berlin Das Rheingold, conducted by Artur Rother (Schwarzkopf as Woglinde), Nie werd ich deine Hulde verkennen from a Vienna performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, conducted by Rudolf Moralt (with Emmy Loose, Anton Dermota, Peter Klein and Herbert Alsen), a duet from Weber’s Abu Hassan from 1942, with Michael Bohnen, and part of the Act II finale of Le Nozze di Figaro from La Scala in 1948, with Imrgard Seefried and W Hoefermeyer (who he?) under Karajan. We also get a couple of excerpts from the 1950 Salzburg Festival, both conducted by Furtwängler; Mi tradi from Don Giovanni (on which unusually she takes an unwritten upward ending, presumably sanctioned by Furtwängler though absent from all other versions by her) and Marzelline’s opening duet and aria from the famous performance of Fidelio at which Flagstad sang Leonore. In all Schwarzkopf displays her familiar virtues of pure, firm tone, excellent legato and elegant phrasing, the voice shot through with laughter in the lighter pieces. Marzelline’s aria is sung with a fuller tone than we often hear in this music, but captures perfectly her wistful charm. Ilia’s Zeffiretti lusinghieri is taken from a 1951 Turin Radio Mario Rossi broadcast, but it is not quite so accomplished as the one on her studio recital of the following year.

The rest is is given over to a Hamburg broadcast from 1952, beginning with a lovely performance of He shall feed his flock, from Handel’s Messiah (sung in German). The Act I monologue from Der Rosenkavalier is perhaps less detailed than the one on the complete set under Karajan and no doubt some might prefer it for that reason, though I wouldn’t necessarily be one of them. It’s a lovely performance nonetheless. Schwarzkopf’s Countess is also justly well known, and Porgi amor is sung with creamy tone and matchless legato, but the excerpts from Madama Butterfly (sung in German) don’t really work for her, and indeed Schwarzkopf herself, when she heard them in later years, thought them “rather screechy on top”. She did however approve the aria from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (the soprano version of the duet Glück das mir verblieb) and rightly so, as this is without doubt the prize of the whole disc. I have never heard it sung better, not by Te Kanawa, not by Fleming, not even by Lehmann, who recorded the duet with Richard Tauber. The pianissimi on the top notes, the diminuendi, the way she fades the tone are absolutely miraculous, no other word for it. Everyone needs to hear this, but getting the recital on disc is quite difficult these days. Fortunately you can hear it on youtube, though you will need to go to the youtube site to hear it.

The whole disc is a fitting repost to all those who think Schwarzkopf was a studio creation, catching her live and on the wing, but treasured mostly for that sensational and unfortunately unrepeated performance of the Korngold.

Natalie Dessay – Cleopatra

r-6913684-1429386276-1161.jpeg

This Handel recital, which showcases the talents of Natalie Dessay, concentrates solely on the music Handel wrote for Cleopatra in his Giulio Cesare, and even includes music he wrote but later cut from the full opera. Variety is provided, by the orchestra (the excellent Le Concert d’Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm) contributing a couple of orchestral interludes, and by Sonia Prina as Caesar, whose contributions, however, are restricted to a few lines of recitative and the final duet.

It is quite interesting to hear side by side, as we do here, Handel’s first and final thoughts on certain scenes, so the heroic Per dar vita all’idol mio gave way to the grieving Se pietà di me non senti, whilst the lilting siciliano of Troppo crudele siete was dropped in favour of the intensely moving, and justly famous Piangerò.

Dessay is on top form, stunningly agile in the florid music such as Da tempeste il legno infrante, playfully seductive in V’adoro pupille, movingly heartfelt in Piangerò.

Le Concert d’Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm, offer superb support. This is no replacement for a performance of the complete opera, of course, but nonetheless a wonderful distillation of Dessay’s Cleopatra, a role she performed with great success at the Palais Garnier in Paris, shortly after making this record.

Eleanor Steber sing Les Nuits d’Eté

51xnjtg5rpl

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

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

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

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

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

Baroque Duo – Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis

r-3155647-1318618949.jpeg

Nobody would deny the honeyed beauty of Kathleen Battle’s pearly soprano, nor her felicity and ease of movement in fast coloratura. Nor would they deny Wynton Marsalis’s stupendous trumpet virtuosity. One would therefore assume that putting the two together would give you a winner. Given that the programme is a welcome mixture of the well-known and the unfamiliar, you might also expect a nicely varied recital.

Well that doesn’t really happen here, I’m afraid. Quite aside from the fact that there is absolutely nothing authentic about the performances (the orchestra made up of modern instruments and Marsalis playing on a valve trumpet), there is a sameness of approach and a preponderance of fast arias that tends to the monotonous, and in the rare slower pieces, the music starts to sound more like Rachmaninov’s Vocalise than anything authentically baroque.

As background music, it is undemanding and pleasant to listen to, especially if you have a sweet tooth, but, aside from showing off the prowess of its two stars, it doesn’t really add up to a satisfactory whole.