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.

Edda Moser sings Mozart

Edda Moser, who was active on the operatic stage during the 1970s and early 1980s, should probably be better known than she is, though many will no doubt remember her from the Joseph Losey film of Don Giovanni in which she played Donna Anna.

Not strictly a recital, this is a collection of excerpts from various Mozart recordings Edda Moser made during the 1970s. Many would no doubt pick Moser for their favourite Queen of the Night, a role she sings on the patchy Sawallish recording, and indeed one notes that most of the music chosen here is for Mozart’s fierier characters.

It starts appropriately enough with the Queen of the Night’s arias and they really are splendid. First of all the coloratura flourishes and high notes are tossed off with ease and yet she also chracterises the music brilliantly. There is authority in her O zittre nicht, rage in her Der hölle Rache. Where many coloraturas sound merely pretty, Moser sounds regal and dangerous.

Next comes Konstanze’s Martern aller Arten which is properly defiant, the coloratura not only accurately executed but filled with affronted contempt. Donna Anna’s Non mi dir displays Moser’s fine legato and she also has the technique to do justice to the coloratura section.

The qualities that make her an excellent Queen of the Night and Konstanze stand her in good stead for Elettra, which she sang on Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s recording and she embraces both the lyricism of Idol mio and the fury of D’Oreste, d’Ajace.

The range is exceptional too and during the course of this disc, Moser not only has to sing a low G in Vitellia’s Non piu di fiori but a G in alt in the concert aria Popoli di Tessaglia, an aria Moser herself describes as “Unperformable, written without intelligence, not one beautiful note”. Well I might not go that far, but the high lying flights make impossible demands on the singer, which Moser manages incredibly well. On the other hand the low lying phrases in Vitellia’s aria tax her more and the notes below the stave emerge colourless, almost as if from a different singer.

To finish up we have a couple of examples of her contributions to some of Mozart’s sacred music, which showcase her deep legato and firm line. The voice may not have the creamy beautfy of a Te Kanawa or a Fleming, but it is still a very attractive instrument and she is more responsive to the emotional core of the music than Te Kanawa at least.

This is, without doubt, one of the best Mozart vocal compilations I have come across and is definitely worth hearing.

 

 

 

 

 

Claudia Muzio – Recital

Claudia Muzio had a patchy recording career. She made her first recordings in 1911 when she was around 21 (there is some doubt as to her year of birth), an aria and a duet, then from 1917 to 1918 she recorded plentifully for Pathé. In the early 1920s she made recordngs for Edison, but then there was nothing between 1924 and 1934 when she made what are her most famous recordings for Columbia. It would seem that the years of her greatest glory were probably when she was performing in Chicago in the early 1930s, and this is precisely the time she was silent to the gramophone. The Columbias were made a couple of years before her early death from an unspecified illness in 1936, when she was not in the best of health or in very happy circumstances.

Save for the 1911 recording of Si, mi chiamano Mimi (the first recording made by Muzio) this issue concentrates on the recordings on the Columbias. Occasionally we are aware this is not a voice in perfect health, of a shortness of breath and the inability to swell the tone at climaxes, but the voice is still unfailingly lovely and, in any case, what really singles her out is her interpretive ability. She brings something personal to all that she does. One sees the face and every fleeting change of expression. These are the qualities that make Muzio special.

Even in that very first recording of Mimi’s Si mi chiamano Mimi, though the artistry is still unformed, one registers a change of expression when she sings the phrase ma quando vien lo sgelo. Already she is doing more than simply singing the notes. That said, coming, as it does, at the end of all the later recordings, one also notes how much she developed in the interim, as we actually have a direct comparison with her 1935 version of the aria, an altogether more detailed and moving rendition.

Lauri-Volpi described her voice as one “made of tears and sighs and restrained inner fire” and certainly some of the most famous tracks here are the tearfully emotional ones, like her Addio del passato, the letter reading almost unbearably moving, the aria almost more felt than sung.

But she could also smile and charm, as she proves in the the delightful Bonjour, Suzon and Les filles de Cadiz. But hardly a track passes without some distinction. I only wish room had been found for Donaudy’s O del mio amato ben, a Muzio speciality, sung without sentimentality or mawkishness, but beautfully shaded and phrased so that the song emerges as a mini masterpiece.

If you don’t know Muzio’s work, I urge you to right that wrong.

 

Jill Gomez – A Recital of French Songs

 

The Trinidadian/British soprano Jill Gomez was a mainstay of my early opera going life, and I heard her on more than one occasion. I particularly remember seeing her as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and Elizabeth in Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers with Scottish Opera, as Ilia in Idomeneo and the Governess in the The Turn of the Screw with English Opera Group and as Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The voice was not large, but she was a strikingly good looking woman with a great stage presence and also a good actress. She is probably best known for creating the role of Duchess of Argyll in Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face and singing the title role in William Alwyn’s Miss Julie.

I have known and loved this recital since I bought the original LP soon after it was first released in 1974, and was delighted to find that it had been reissued on CD. The programme is attractive and Gomez has a lovely voice, which she uses imaginatively and musically. Indeed one wonders why such accomplished singing has received so little attention.

We start with a group of songs by Bizet, possibly of slight musical value but direct and charming in their appeal. Gomez is delectably light and airy but also delivers a deliciously sensuous and coquettish Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe, which is probably the most well known of the group. The Berlioz items, especially La belle voyageuse, are also sung with distinction and charm.

The Debussy Proses lyriques are not performed as often as some of Debussy songs, and they are quite hard to bring off. Gomez is fascinating and vividly personal, superbly seconded by John Constable’s realisation of the tricky piano part. In many places I was reminded of Mélisande’s music in Pelléas et Mélisande. A superbly characterised Noël des enfants qui non plus de maisons brings ths superb recital to a close.

Gomez brings something personal to all that she does and John Constable provides estimable support throughout. Highly recommended if you can get hold of a copy.

Jarmila Novotna -The Great Soprano’s Own Selection of her Finest Recordings

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The Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna made few recordings but had a long and illustrious career. She made her debut in 1925 at the age of 17, in no less a role than that of Violetta and retired in 1956 at the age of 49. No doubt some will remember her for her appearance in the Hollywood movie The Great Caruso in which she played the diva Maria Selka.

This disc collects together recordings selected by Novotna herself and taken from her own collection, and shows the voice still firm and true in 1956, when the recording of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon (with piano) was recorded.

The disc doesn’t, however, get off to the best of starts as, to my ears, the voice sounds strained in the upper reaches of Smetana’s Lark Song from The Kiss (also with piano), which was recorded in 1926. Nor do I find her Cherubino particularly characterful, though the voice itself is quite lovely here and sounds more comfortoble in this tessitura, as it is in Pamina’s arias, though she dosen’t quite find the pathos needed for Ach ich fühls.

For me the most treasurable items are the piano accomapanied Songs of Lidice (Czech Folk Songs) which exploit her rich middle voice. The voice is also beautifully captured in a 1945 recording of the the folk song, Umrem, umrem, this time with orchestra and chorus, but arguably best of all is the vocal arrangement of Fibich’s Poème, a piece I know from my teenage years, when I used to play it on the piano, which is deeply felt and eloquenty performed.

Tito Gobbi – Heroes

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“Heroes”, the title of this disc proclaims, though in honesty only two of the characters represented here (the Marquis de Posa and Simon Boccanegra) might be considered to fall into that category. The rest (Figaro, Enrico, Rigoletto, Germont, Renato, Tonio, Scarpia, Iago and Falstaff) hardly qualify, and some of them are downright villains.

What we do get however (and this is not always evident in compilation or recital records) is eleven sharply differentiated voice characters. Like Callas, Gobbi, though his voice is always recognisable, was adept at the art of vocal make-up and there is a world of difference between his genial, but venal Figaro and his blackly evil Ernesto, which follows. Gobbi’s may not always be the most beautiful voice you will hear in his chosen repertoire, nor the most graceful (though he could indeed sing with both beauty and grace) but it is the one I often hear in my mind’s ear in the roles I have heard him sing. To the characters included here, I could add his Amonasro, his Michele and Schicchi, his Don Giovanni and his Nabucco.

All but Iago’s Credo on this compilation are taken from complete recordings of the operas, and we also hear the voices of Victoria De Los Angeles in the duet from Simon Boccanegra and Callas in part of the Act II duet from Tosca from La povera mia scena fu interrotta, both a locus classicus of Gobbi’s art.

The last item here is Falstaff’s Honour monologue, and I can do no better than quote here John Steane in The Record of Singing

Play, for example Falstaff’s Honour Monologue in a succession of recordings (Scotti, Ruffo, Stabile, Fischer-Dieskau, Gobbi) and Gobbi’s is quite markedly the most satisfying, partly because he attends to what Verdi has written and sees the point of it. The phrase ‘voi coi vostri cenci’ is marked with a crescendo on the first word, followed by three staccato syllables. Scotti takes no notice, Ruffo and Stabile take little; Fischer-Dieskau observes the markings, as ever, but it is Gobbi who sees the pictorial force, the crescendo carrying a comical menace and the staccatos punching or flapping at the despised company as with a broom handle.

Steane’s prose is as ever quite pictorial itself, but he also understands that, as with Callas, Gobbi’s genius is not just to execute the notes, but to understand the point of [them].

That said, isolated excerpts don’t really represent Gobbi at his best, and really one needs the complete sets from which these excerpts are taken.

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 Essential Angela Gheorghiu

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Is it churlish to point out that, though this collection includes much that is desirable, there is also a great deal of material one might consider “essential” on EMI, for whom Gheorghiu recorded for the lion’s share of her career? First contracted to Decca, she soon switched to EMI in order to be with the same label as her husband, Roberto Alagna, with whom she made many now well known complete opera sets. However it was Decca who first signed her up after her sensational debut as Violetta at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and here they pay tribute to her with a well filled disc of excerpts from the few recordings she made for the label before she left them.

There are two excerpts from that 1994 Covent Garden La Traviata, a reflective Ah, fors è lui, technically assured Sempre libera and an affecting Addio del passato. Solti’s conducting is, as always in Verdi, a bit rigid but it is easy to understand why Gheorghiu had such a success in the role.

Next chronologically are five arias from her first recital disc made in 1995; Wally’s Ebben? Ne andro lontana, Marguerite’s Jewel Song from Faust, Il est doux, il est bon from Massenet’s Hérodiade and Vive amour qui rêve from his Chérubin. The Wally piece is beautifully sung, though she doesn’t quite capture its aching loneliness and the Jewel Song sparkles lightly as it should. The Aubade from Chérubin is also lovely, and I am reminded that I first saw her in the secondary role of Nina in the production of the opera which the Royal Opera, Covent Garden mounted with Susan Graham in the title role. She made quite an impression too. Probably the best of all these selections is the aria from Hérodiade, which is both gorgeous and gorgeously sung.

From the 1996 Lyon production of L’Elisir d’Amore we have Adina and Nemorino’s Chiedi all’aura lusinghietta, in which I find her, as I did in the theatre, just a mite too sophisticated.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme that Chailly’s 1999 recording with Gheorghiu and Alagna is quite often forgotten, which is a pity as it’s actually very good indeed. From this set we have Gheorghiu’s touchingly sincere Si, mi chiamano Mimi through to the end of the act, and also her moving rendition of Donde lieta usci.

Perhaps most impressive of all are the items taken from her Verdi recital with Chailly. She might not quite match the breezy insouciance of Callas or Sutherland in Elena’s Merce, dilette amiche, but she seems almost perfectly cast as Amelia in her Come in quet’ora bruna. Both Leonoras are beautifully sung too, and there is a dark loveliness to her tone, which reminds me, surprisingly perhaps, of Leontyne Price.

The disc finishes, fittingly enough, with the fifth take from her first album, a piece from Romanian composer George Grigoriu’s Muzika, slight in musical value, but charmingly delivered.

Sandrine Piau – Handel Opera Seria

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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.

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.