Dame Janet Baker sings Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

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Essential listening, I’d venture to suggest, even for those who already have the Philips Originals box set I reviewed here. Here we have the whole of Baker’s 1977 Beethoven and Schubert recital, of which three items appear on the Philips box, coupled to the Mozart items from her 1974 Mozart and Haydn recital, none of which do.

The prize of this CD is Dame Janet’s superb rendering of Sesto’s arias from La Clemenza di Tito. Not only is it a technical tour de force, the rapid triplet figures at the end of Parto, parto tossed off with breathtaking ease, but the range of expression is extraordinary and personal. I have never heard another singer differentiate so much between the repeated cries of Guardami!; in the first she pleads almost angrily, but in the second her tone changes completely, becoming meltingly beseeching, as if Sesto realises he has gone too far. Furthermore she has the ability to get to the emotional core of the music without ever disrupting its Classical style. Pure genius.

Elsewhere she is in enviable form in a programme that ranges wide, including rarities like Beethoven’s No, non turbati and arias from Schubert’s Lazarus and Alfonso und Estrella. Leppard’s accompaniments, whether conducting the English Chamber Orchestra or on the piano or harpsichord are discreet rather than revelatory, perhaps happy, with such a patrician artist, to let his soloist take the lead.

The recordings, originally made for Philips in quadrophonic sound, are here issued in SACD, though I was listening in simple stereo. They are wonderfully clear and lucid.

Highly recommended.

The Fabulous Victoria De Los Angeles

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This well-filled four disc set was issued to time in with De Los Angeles’s seventieth birthday in 1993, when, incredibly, she was still active on the concert platform, having made her stage debut in 1941. I don’t know when she officially retired, but she died just over ten years later. The set dates from the good old days, when notes texts and translations were included. Not all of this material is that familiar, so they are absolutely essential. Nowadays you are lucky to even get a web link to them.

The set concentrates on the recital side of De Los Angeles’s career and all the recordings date from the 1960s and early 1970s, with two discs of song with orchestra and two with piano or, as in the case of Falla’s Psyché chamber ensemble.

Disc 1 covers French song with orchestra (though not her wonderful recording of Les Nuits d’Eté, which was recorded for RCA). We start with one of the most recommendable of all versions of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, in which she is a vivid narrator, taking an almost childlike pleasure in the sights she describes. In the Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques she is the epitome of a young village girl, whilst the Deux Mélodies hébraïques bring out a more seductive quality in her voice. Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer exposes the occasional fragility in the voice, but is still a beautiful performance.

Disc 2, which concentrates on Spanish song with orchestra, would probably be my favourite of the four. It almost exactly reproduces a disc called The Maiden and the Nightingale, released in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century, though it omits that Granados title track. Favrouites here are the Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras; wonderfully soothing in the Cancio de cuna para dormir a un negrito and irresistibly playful in the Yambambos of the Canto Negro. I also love Mompou’s El combat del Somni, especially the soulful Damunt de tu nomes los flors. Another joyful performance is Rodrigo’s De los alamos vengo, madre. We are reminded that De Los Angeles probably did more than any other singer to put Spanish song on the map.

Disc 3 brings us more French and Spanish repertoire, this time with piano accompaniment, or chamber ensemble as in Falla’s Psyché. Though her French isn’t entirely idiomatic, she is an ideal interpreter of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Hahn. The performance here of Falla’s Sietes canciones populares españolas, with Gonzalo Soriano at the piano, is not generally considered her best, and it is true she is not as fierily earthy as Conchita Supervia, but equally valid in its more playful style.

Disc 4 is more mixed, and presumably covers material likely to turn up in her recitals as openers or encores. I have always treasured her performances of Fauré’s Chanson d’amour, which is sung with a delightful smile in the voice, and her ideal performance of Clair de lune, which captures to perfection its ancien style, but includes a wonderful change of colour when the accompaniment switches to a more fluid figure at Au calme clair de lune. All the piano accompaniment on this disc is provided by Gerald Moore and it also includes a group of duets (from Purcell to Tchaikovsky) with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, finishing off with a couple of extracts from Moore’s farewell concert at the Royal Festival Hall, with Schwarzkopf joining the pair for Mozart’s La Partenza.

To get a fuller picture of this lovely artist, one would ideally want some representation of her operatic career, but this one captures well many elements of the recital side of her career. As in all such compilations, I might cavil at some of the choices, but the programme over the fours discs is varied and enjoyable, and De Los Angeles always brings her inimitable individual stamp to all she sings.

 

David Daniels – Serenade

Quite aside from David Daniels’s pre-eminence as a Handel singer, he could also be credited with treading where few countertenors dare to go. In this mixed recital he adds to the more usual countertenor repertoire of seventeenth and eighteenth century song, Lieder by Beethoven and Schubert, French chanson by Gounod and Poulenc and English song by Vaughan Williams. Other recitals will see him venturing out into American song and Broadway, and he even made a recording of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté. He has never been one to cofine himself to the usual areas of countertenor repertory.

To all he brings great beauty of voice, a superb legato and a fullness of tone rare in countertenors, and an innate musicality. This fullness of tone is not a mere fabrication of the gramophone as I saw him live on many occasions and can attest that the voice rang out freely in all the venues I heard him. In addition he has a winning personality with a rare gift of communication, which comes across in all his discs.

Many of the songs here are concerned with night (the disc, after all is called Serenade) and the pervading atmosphere is therefore one of quiet reflection, but gaiety puts in an appearance too, and we note the singers facility in fast moving music, without a hint of an aspirate. We also note how the singer’s expression changes from one song to another, making us feel we can see as well as hear.

We start with a group of Lieder framed by Beethoven’s and Schubert’s setting of Adelaide, both beautifully sung. He gives the girl’s voice a suitable urgency and death a darker more consolatory tone in Der Tod und das Mädchen, but the prize of this group is his wonderful performance of Nacht und Träume, his legato impeccable , the long line firmly held. This is beautifully ccomplished singing and absolutely no allowances need to be made for the limitations of the countertenor voice.

From here we move to a group of songs by Caldara, Gluck, Cesti and Lotti, the more usual repertoire for this type of voice. Caldara’s Selve amiche soothes the soul, whilst Lotti’s Pur dicesti, o bocca bella is irresistibly light and charming. The Gounod and Poulenc items are all superb, the Vaughan Williams beautifully characterised, finishing with a movingly heartfelt Hands, eyes and heart.

The final items bring us back to more familiar countertenor territory, with joyful performances of Sweeter than roses and I’ll sail upon the Dog Star, followed by an eloquently comforting Evening Hymn, which brings to a close an eminently satisfying recital. Martin Katz is throughout a worthy partner.

As I said earlier, I saw Daniels live on many occasion, and this recital replicates to perfection what it was like to hear him in the concert hall. There was never any difficulty hearing him and he had the rare ability of drawing the audience in, of making each person feel he was singing just for them.

Fritz Wunderlich – a DG box set

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Before his untimely death at the age of 35, Fritz Wunderlich made a lot of recordings for both DG and EMI, mostly for the German market, hence the reason why all the excerpts from French, Italian and Russian opera are sung in German.

That said, regardless of language, Wunderlich’s gorgeous, lyric, golden-voiced tenor gives us a glimpse of a near ideal Rodolfo, Duke of Mantua, Lensky, Cavaradossi and Elvino.

This 5 disc set gives us 2 discs of operatic fare from Handel and Mozart to Verdi and Puccini, 2 discs of Lieder (complete recordings of Die schöne Müllerin and Dichterliebe and various other Lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Beethoven) and a final disc of popular Italian and German songs, such as Lara’s Granada and Sieczynski’s Wien, Wien, dur du allein.

One of the most disarming elements of Wunderlich’s singing is that sense of pure joy in the act of singing itself, and it’s a quality that is hard to resist. True, there have been deeper, more probing versions of the Schubert and Schumann cycles (even by Wunderlich himself, when captured in concert a year later), but few sung with such consistent beauty of tone.

Stand out tracks for me are the Mozart items (arias from the Böhm Die Zauberflöte, and the Jochum Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Lensky’s Kuda, kuda from Eugene Onegin. His opening lines in the Act IV duet for Rodolfo and Marcello from La Boheme (sung with Hermann Prey) are sung with a poetic beauty of such sorrowful radiance, that questions of language are totally forgotten, and this carries through to Cavaradossi’s great E lucevan le stelle from Tosca. As Elvino (a lovely Prendi, l’anel ti dono from La Sonnambulawith a somewhat quavery Erika Köth) he sings with a shy diffidence that is thoroughly charming, and what Gilda would not be conquered by the seductve tones of this Duke?

My once critcism would that be he occasionally aspirates fast moving moving music, most in evidence in the Lortzing excerpts, but in all he displays a strong personality, and, once heard, there is no mistaking him.

The popular items might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is here that his gift of communication is most in evidence, singing with sheer uninhibited pleasure. One of my favrourite tracks is his performance of Lara’s Granada. You get the feeling that he arrived in the studio feeling pretty good that day, and the golden outpouring of tone, right up to a couple of glorious top Cs, is infectiously enjoyable. It’s hard not to listen with a smile on your face.

In the grand scheme of things, Wunderlich would have gone on to have a great career, no doubt feted as one of the greatest tenors of his day, but it wasn’t to be and he was killed in an accident just a few weeks short of his 36th birthday. How lucky we are that these recordings exist to remind us of what the world lost.