Khaikin’s Eugene Onegin

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Khaikin’s wonderful 1956 recording of Eugene Onegin may not have the best sound but in all other respects it’s as close to ideal as you can get. There is something so intrinsically right about Khaikin’s handling of the score, his pacing absolutely perfect, his control of his forces absolutely stunning. He brings out so much detail in the score but the result nevertheless sounds completely spontaneous.

His cast is also pretty much unbeatable, its chief asset being the young Galina Vishneskaya, whose girlishly impulsive and totally adorable Tatyana, almost passionately erotic in the Letter Scene ( a young girl alone giving in to the passion in her heart) grows to full maturity in the final scene.  Belov is suitably reserved and sardonic in the opening scenes but despairingly intense in the finale. Lemeshev is caught a little late in his career as Lensky (he would have been 54 at the time of the recording) but sings with finesse and style and Petrov makes a strong impression in Gremin’s beautiful aria.

Had the recording always been more readily available in the West, I have no doubt that it would enjoy the same elevated status as De Sabata’s Tosca as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

Renée Fleming – Great Opera Scenes

 

If we are to say goodbye to Renée Fleming the opera singer, then now might be a good time to be reminded of this, one of her most successful recital discs, recorded in 1996, when Fleming was at the height of her powers, and before the tendency to indulge in jazzy slides and swoops had become too pronounced.

All but one of the roles represented here were part of her stage repertoire at the time, and she would in fact go on to sing Strauss’s Daphne in 2005.

The programme is both varied and interesting. We start with both of Countess Almavivas arias from Le Nozze di Figaro, sung with ideal poise and beauty of tone, before plunging into the romantic imaginings of Tchaikovsky’s lovelorn Tatyana. Fleming plays the ardently impulsive young girl to the life. She yearns indwardly In Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, and I doubt I have ever heard Ellen’s Embroidery Aria from Peter Grimes sung with such superb control and feeling. Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria crops up on many recitals, but Fleming does not suffer at all by comparison with such well known interpreters as Rethberg, Ponselle or Tebaldi.

I suppose the two cornerstones of Fleming’s repertoire have been Mozart and Strauss, so it is fitting that, having started with Mozart, we should finish with Struass, a suitably ecsatic version of the closing scene from Daphne.

The recital is beautifully presented with Larissa Diadkova contributing as Filipyevna and Emilia and Jonathan Summers as Balstrode. The London Symphony Orchestra under Solti provide excellent support.

The voice itself is stunningly beautiful, but Fleming doesn’t rely solely on beauty of voice. Her interpretations are intelligent and musical, and she presents us with five very different characters. The only criticism I would have is that her diction is not always as good as it might be, but in all other respects this is a classic recital disc.

 

Jennie Tourel – The Singers

Jennie Tourel was born in Russia in 1900 of Jewish parents, but she and her family left just after the Revolution, temporarly settling in Danzig before moving to Paris. She fled to Lisbon just before the Nazis occupied France and from there to the USA, becoming a naturalised Amercian in 1946.

She had an illustrious career both in the opera house and on the recital stage, and was the creator of the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. She was still active when death ended her career in 1973, in fact in the middle of performances of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment in Chicago. The longevity of her career is testament to her sound technique, but if the years were kind to her voice, she was also careful never to overtax it. She knew what suited her and stuck to it.

The dates of the recordings on this disc are unknown, but the Italian and French items are stereo, which would place them at least from the early to mid 1950s. Her voice is still admirably firm, with no trace of wobble or excessive vibrato. Her legato isn’t always perfect, and her runs can be lightly aspirated, which mars her performance of the Rossini items, and also of Bizet’s Adieux de l’hotesse arabe, though she sings it with more personality and drama than many.

Berlioz’s Absence is sung with piano, and is notable for the firmness of the line, though personally I prefer a more inward display of longing. Tourel is too loud in places and she rushes the pharse la fleur de ma vie. Much better are Poulenc’s Violon and Liszt’s Oh! Quand je dors and I particularly enjoyed Ravel’s Kaddish, which exploits her rich lower register.

The Russian items are all worth hearing, beginning with a mournful Tchaikovsky None but the lonley heart, the cello obligato adding to the pervading sense of melancholia. As befits the general mood of the Russian items, she uses a bigger, more dramatic sound, but she can also be lightly high-spirited in a song like Dargomizhsky’s Look darling girls. In all she displays a strong personality and superb musicianship.

Song texts and translations are provided on the disc itself, which doubles as a CD-ROM, though, annoyingy, if you want to read them at the same time as listening to the disc, you will have to print them out before playing the disc on a CD player.

 

Ljuba Welitsch – Salome closing scene and other arias

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Tchaikovsky; Eugene Onegin – Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Verdi: Aida – Ritorna vincitor
Puccini: Tosca Vissi d’arte
Puccini: La Boheme – Quando m’en vo
Weber: Der Freschütz – Wie nahthe mir der Schlummer – Leise, leise
Strauss: Salome – Closing Scene

Ljuba Welitsch shot through the operatic firmament like a comet in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unfortunately she developed nodules on her chords by 1953 and her international career was over almost before it started. In that brief time her Salome at least became the stuff of legend, and to this day is considered one of the greatest of all times, though a prodjected complete recording with Reiner conducting never materialised. There are two live perforances from the Met, from 1949 and 1952. The latter has the best all round cast, but she is in fresher voice in the former.

These recordings all date from the 1940s when her voice was at its silvery best, and the final scene from Salome, conducted by Lovro von Matacic dates from 1944, when Strauss himself chose her to sing the role at the Vienna Opera in a production, which was to celebrate his eightieth birthday. They worked on the piece for six weeks, with Strauss himself attending the rehearsals, so, from that point of view at least, we should consider her performance here as authentic. Indeed this must be exactly the voice Strauss had had in mind. It remains silvery, youthful and light, and yet cuts through the heavy orchestral textures with no apparent effort. Not only that, but her word painting and identification with the role is so vivid that at the end of the scene one literally feels Herod’s distaste when he commands his soldiers to kill her. This scene alone is indispensable, whether one has one of the complete live recordings or not.

The other arias were all recorded between 1947 and 1949, when the voice was still in fine shape, but they do expose some of her weaknesses. The best of them is Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, here sung in German, which teems with girlish impulsiveness and teen-angst longing. There is no sense of strain and the high notes ring out gloriously. Please also take note of the wonderful horn playing of Dennis Brain. This scene ranks as highly as the Strauss in the Welitsch discography.

Musetta’s Waltz makes its effect well, with loads of personality, but she misses the anguish and contrasts in Aida’s Ritorna vincitor, and her Vissi d’arte is rather penny plain. Neither scene really registers anything at all and she has a tendency to rush the beat, which can be quite annoying. The Weber is better, but she still lacks the poise and control evinced by such singers as Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

When the voice started to let her down, she did not retire, but moved to character roles, most famously singing the Duenna in Karajan’s first recording of Der Rosenkavalier. As late as 1972, she played the role of the Duchess of Crakentorp in a Fille du Régiment at the Met.

Not a recital in the true sense of the word, as all these performances were recorded for 78s, this compilaton is essential none the less for the Strauss and Tchaikovsky at least.