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.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann from the Salzburg Festival 1981

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I was keen to hear this set after it was the reviewer’s first choice for the opera in BBC’s Building a Library programme, and it is very good indeed, though the sound of this live recording, made at the Salzburg Festival in 1981, rather lets it down. The solo voices are well recorded, but the sounds becomes boomy and congested when orchestra and chorus are at full tilt. Furthermore there are quite a few bangs and thuds associated with live performance.

That said the performance itself is thrilling with Domingo in superb voice and even more inside the role than he is on the Bonynge set. That of course has Sutherland in the female roles and it has to be said that Malfitano doesn’t command her beauty of tone. On the other hand, she is a much more convincing vocal actress. For all that Offenbach intended the roles to be sung by the same singer, the demands of each are quite different, and I often prefer to hear them sung by different singers as they are in the superb John Schlesinger Covent Garden production with Domingo again as Hoffmann, but with Luciana Serra as Olympia, Ileana Cotrubas as Antonia and Agnes Baltsa (a mezzo) as Giulietta. Malfitano rises to the challenge superbly however and reconciles me to the casting of the same singer.

The rest of the cast is also excellent with Ann Murray superb in the dual role of Niklausse/The Muse and Van Dam perfection in the roles of the four villains, vocally more resplendent than Bacquier on the Bonynge recording. Rémy Corazza is also excellent in the comic roles, if not quite erasing memories of Hugues Cuénod on the Bonynge set.

James Levine, whom I sometimes find too bombastic in Verdi, surprised me, his conducting both exciting and lyrical and the Vienna Philharmonic play superbly.

The Bonynge profits from superb Decca sound of course, but, in all other respects, I think I prefer this one.

Montserrat Caballé & Shirley Verrett sing Great Operatic Duets

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Duets from Semiramide (Rossini), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Norma (Bellini), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach), Aida (Verdi), Madama Butterfly (Puccini) and La Gioconda (Ponchielli).

The 1960s and 1970s were halcyon days for opera on disc. New recordings of both repertoire and rediscovered works appeared on an almost monthly basis, alongside recital records by major artists. Duet recitals, though not as frequent, were also a feature of this time, and could sometimes provide more variety in the juxtaposition of two different voices.

This 1969 duet recital finds both singers at the height of their vocal powers and provides a feast of great singing. It doesn’t quite get off to the best of starts however, with a performance of Serbami ognor from Rossini’s Semiramide in which Caballé’s scale passages are less than perfect, and which does not erase memories of Sutherland and Horne in the same music.

Vocally the duet from Anna Bolena is much better, and Caballé is here very touching in the section beginning Va, infelice where Anna forgives Giovanna; maybe not as moving as Callas with Simionato, but then, who is? Their voices blend well in the Norma duet too, and the Aida finds both singers alive to the drama.  It is great cause for regret that Verrett never got to record Amneris in a complete recording.

The principal pleasures of both the Barcarolle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly are primarily vocal, and it is certainly wonderful to bask in the sheer beauty of two such gloriously rich voices in full bloom. The disc finishes with the great combative duet from La Gioconda, with the two ladies striking points off each other in splendid fashion.

This is a great memento of two singers, recorded before Caballé’s top notes started to harden and before she began to overindulge her penchant for floated pianissimi. This is also, to my mind, the best period for Verrett, when she was definitely a mezzo and before the move to soprano roles started to compromise the glorious individuality of that voice.

 

Jussi Bjørling – A collection of Swedish 78s.

These two CDs gather together most of the 78s the young Bjørling made in his native Sweden between 1933 and 1949, the earliest made when he was a budding tenor of twenty-two.

Most are vocal gems, but one or two (the rather loud and penny plain Je crois entendre encore, and the unpoetic duet from La Boheme with Anna- Lisa Bjørling on the second disc, for instance) are less than great.

The voice itself was a magnificent one, no doubt about it, with a silvery purity throughout its range, the high notes free and easy; just listen to his joyfully ebullient 1938 performance of Offenbach’s Au mont Ida from La belle Hélène, sung in Swedish, but with terrific swagger, the top notes flying out like lasers. From a few years ealier we have a plaintively sensitive performance of Valdimir’s Cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor, the legato line beautifully held, his mezza voce finely spun out. Also from 1938 we have a thrilling performance of the Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat mater, with a free and easy top D flat at the end, and it is prinicpall for Italian and French opera that Bjørling will be remembered and there are plenty of examples here of his wonderfully musical performances in that genre.

We find him ideal in Verdi, Donizetti and Puccini alike, in Myerbeer, in Massenet and in Gounod (a glorious rendering of Faust’s Salut, demeure). Some regret the absence of a true Italianate tone in the Italian items, but he will never resort to sobs and aspirates to express emotion, and, personally, I find his comparative restraint very attractive. It is true, he is not always imaginative with his phrasing, and nowhere will you get the kind of psychological introspection you would hear in a performance by someone like Vickers, but his singing is always musical, and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the voice itself, which Italianate or not, is a thing of great beauty.

Some of the very best of these 78 recordings are included on Volume 1, stand out items for me being the aforementioned Faust aria, his wonderfully musical and sensitive Ah si, ben mio from Il Ttovatore, and his poetic, but thrilling version of Nessun dorma from Turandot.  There is also plenty to treasure in Volume 2, which includes the Offenbach and Borodin, but also a sensitvely prayerful  Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem, Des Grieux’s lovely Dream from Manon sung with liquid, honeyed tone (his ardent Ah, fuyez is on the first disc), and his  poetic Cielo e mar, from La Gioconda.

The second disc finishes with a couple of unexpected examples of his work in Lieder, a gorgeously lyrical Beethoven Adelaide, and a beautifully restrained and rapt account of Strauss’s Morgen.

Anyone who loves the tenor voice and gloriously musical and sensitive singing (not always the same thing) should have these recordings in their collections.

Frederica Von Stade – French Opera Arias

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This 1976 recital was, I believe, Von Stade’s first recital disc. In 1970, at the age of 25 she had secured a comprimario contract at the Met, debuting there as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte, and international acclaim followed in 1973, when she appeared as Cherubino at Glyndbourne in a Peter Hall production that was also televised. Von Stade’s winningly boyish Cherubino catapulted her to stardom alongside Kiri Te Kanawa and Ileana Cotrubas, who played the Countess and Susanna. I remember seeing it on TV, and the impression they all made.

Though American born, Von Stade spent a good deal of her youth in Europe, and later spent some years in France, and so is completely at home in the French language. Indeed French opera and song became a staple of her repertoire though, at this early stage of her career, she doesn’t always use the words to her advantage, and some of the arias could be more clearly characterised. That said, the voice itself, a clear lyric mezzo, is always beautiful and her use of it unfailingly musical. She is best at winning charm and bittersweet sadness, and the least successful item here is Charlotte’s Va, laisse couler mes larmes from Werther, which doesn’t compare to what she achieves in the complete recording under Davis (recorded in 1980).

My favourite performances are of Mignon’s Connais- tu le pays?, which captures to perfection Mignon’s wistful longing for her homeland (I always think it a pity that Von Stade wasn’t the Mignon on the Almeida recording, on which she plays Frédéric) and the aria from Cendrillon, and it is no surprise to find that she went on to have a great success in the complete role. Her natural charm also comes across well in the Offenbach arias and in Urbain’s aria from Les Huguenots.

The aria from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict for the most part goes well, though her responses are a little less vivid than Janet Baker’s on the complete Davis recording, and the Allegro lacks a little in joyfulness. Her natural plaintiveness is more suited to Marguerite’s D’amour l’ardente flamme, though, here too, there is a sameness of vocal colour which misses the urgency of the middle section.

A very enjoyable recital disc then, the beauty of the voice and her winning personality well caught, if with the proviso that she doesn’t yet quite convey the complete range of emotions required by the music. Nevertheless it always a pleasure to hear such beautiful and musical singing.