Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

Barbara Hendricks – Ravel and Duparc

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What a gorgeous disc this is. Quite why Hendricks’ version of Ravel’s Shéhérazade is not as famous as those by such as Crespin, Baker and De Los Angeles is beyond me for not only is the singing ravishing, but the orchestral playing under John Eliot Gardener superb, and quite a lot better than that of the Suisse-Romande on Crespin’s recording. Furthermore, though born in America, Hendricks has lived in Europe since 1977 and in Basel, Switzerland since 1985 and her French is virtually flawless.

The disc opens with Ravel’s Shéhérazade and the opening measures of Asie are sung with a gorgeous sensuality, which then gives way to girlish delight when she sings of sailing away on a schooner. What a vivid story-teller she is, alive to every change of mood and how beautifully she is accompanied by Gardiner, who brings out fabulous detail in the orchestral score, without losing its sensuous exoticism. In la flûte enchantée she is suitably languid, until the voice breaks out with a real burst of joy, when she describes the flute alternately pouring forth sadness and joy, whilst L’indifférent is deliciously ambiguous.

The rest of the Ravel programme is hardly less fine. My notes are peppered with words like gorgeous, sensual, exotic for the Mélodies hébraîques, which perfectly suits their colourful musical language, but the singer of the Mélodies populaires grecques is evidently younger, more innocently coquettish, the tone more forwardly produced, though I do slightly miss Victoria De Los Angeles’s delightful simplicity in the final song, Tout gai. The Vocalise en forme de Habanera returns us to the sensuality of the Hebrew songs and is absolutely ravising.

The Duparc songs are not quite up to the standard of the Ravel, but still very worth having. Both L’invitation au voyage and Au pays oû se fait la guerre really require a greater range of tone colour and Le manoir de Rosemonde lacks a little in drama. Best of all are a flowingly lyrical Chanson triste and a sexily indolent Phydilé though others, like Teyte and Baker, have encompassed its climax with greater ease.

Nevertheless this is a gorgeous disc, one of the best versions of the Ravel pieces around and, if the Duparc songs aren’t quite at the same level of excellence, they are still very fine indeed.

Barbara Hendricks – Spirituals

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Fifteen years separates these two discs of Spirituals by Barbara Hendricks and the intervening years have done little to tarnish the voice’s beauty. I suppose if one listens carefully and with a highly critical ear, a slight wear on the top register is detectable, a little of the gloriously rich bloom has gone but, for the most part, the consistency is remarkable.

However the two discs differ quite a lot in other ways. The first one might be seen to have a more sophisticated approach, treating the spirituals more as art song with piano accompaniments beautifully realised by classical pianist and winner of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1975, Dmitri Alexeev, whilst the second adopts what one would consider a more traditional approach with the contribution of the Moses Hogan Singers. You might think, therefore that the second would be the more satisfying, but I prefer the approach of the first, which brings more concentration on the songs and Miss Hendricks’s glorious singing. More than once the second disc, though beautifully executed, has a whiff of Hollywood, and it is the first disc I listen to most often. You might have different preferences.

The first disc has a good cross section of slow and up tempo songs, of the not so well known and favourites like Swing low. sweet chariot and Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. Hendricks gorgeous voice is in prime condition here, velvety and rich in the lower and middle registers and opening out into that gleamingly individual top register. Her diction is superb too and she makes no concessions to the music, singing with a burning conviction that suits the material well. Her exhortation of The lord loves a sinner in Roundabout da mountain would convince any sinner to repent whilst her beautifully lulling Swing slow, sweet chariot would rock any baby to sleep. She also has the voice for joy in such songs as Ev’ry time I feel de spirit. A wonderful disc and on its own well worth the price of the two disc set, which closes a disc guaranteed to lift the spirits.

The second disc provides variety by including songs for unaccompanied solo voice and for just the choir, but, for my money, there is more musical variety in the first one.