Two Contrasting Vocal Recitals

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Dame Maggie Teyte in concert, at the age of sixty no less! Teyte, a famous Mélisande who studied the role with Debussy himself, sings extended excerpts from the opera with piano accompaniment, singing all the roles. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It takes her the first song in the recital (Grétry’s Rose chérie) to warm up, but thereafter you would never believe this was the voice of a sixty year old woman. The disc also includes privately recorded excerpts from Strauss’s Salome also with piano, from when Teyte was preparing the role for Covent Garden about fifteen years earlier, a project that unofrtunately never came to fruition. Her bright, slivery soprano might just have been the voice Strauss imagined.

She also sings Britten’s Les Illuminations in a version for piano, making me wish she had recorded the orchestral version, although preferably a few years earlier. Just occasionally there is a flicker of frailty in the middle voice, although the top register remains firm and clear as a bell. The encores include a lovely performance of Hahn’s popular Si mes vers avaient des ailes.

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Another enterprising disc from Dawn Upshaw, who seems to have disappeared from the scene now. The centrepiece is Earl Kim’s Where grief slumbers written in 1982 for voice, harp and string orchestra, but here presented in a 1990 arrangement for voice, double string quartet and harp, and Upshaw is an ideal interpreter. She is equally at home in the rest of the programme; Falla’s Psyché, Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Stravinsky’s Two poems of Konstantin Bel’mont and Three Japanese Lyrics and Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous, though here I slightly prefer the warmer tones of Dame Janet Baker. Nevertheless a thoroughly absorbing disc.

As with so many of these Nonsuch discs, documentation is slight, and, though we are vouchsafed lyrics and translations, a little more information about the provenance of these songs, especially the less famous Kim cycle, would have been much appreciated.

Dawn Upshaw – The World So Wide

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A few weeks ago I reviewed Renée Fleming’s excellent disc of American opera arias and today I turn to Dawn Upshaw’s disc, which takes its title, The World So Wide, from the first item in the recital, Laurie’s Song from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. It makes a lovely opener and Upshaw is perfectly cast as the young girl who yearns to escape and see the world.

At about 45 minutes, the disc is quite short measure, however, and not everything is as good as the first track. The piece from Tanía León’s Scourge of Hyacinths is tediously declamatory and afforded me the least enjoyment on the disc. I’d also suggest that Upshaw’s is not the right voice for Barber’s Cleopatra, a role that was written for the much more opulent voice of Leontyne Price. Upshaw’s lighter, brighter sounds do not conjure up the woman of whom Enobarbus says,

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies, for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

I enjoyed the excerpt from John Adams Nixon in China rather more than the Gramophone reviewer, who found it “tediously protracted”, and I suppose you either like Adams’s style or you don’t. Whatever your feelings, Upshaw delivers Pat Nixon’s This is prophetic brilliantly. She is also superb in the more Broadway influenced What a movie from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, but I thought her singing of Lonely house (an aria sung by the male character of Sam Kaplan in Street Scene) just a little too overtly operatic. Teresa Stratas manages it better on her second disc of Weill songs and arias.

After the Copland and Benstein, the most successful item on the disc is Willow Song from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, which responds well to her charming, uncomplicated manner. So too, one would think, does the final item (and the only item she shares with Fleming on her disc), Ain’t it a pretty night from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, but here I have to admit I prefer the rather more sensuos tones of Fleming, who suggests a far more highly charged eroticism behind the apparent simplicity of the music.

A mixed bag, then, and not so successful as her disc of Broadway songs entitled I Wish It So, but worth a listen for the unusual repertoire and for some excellent performances.

Dawn Upshaw – I Wish It So

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This collection of Broadway songs by Bernstein, Blitztein, Sondheim and Weil is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

Aside from Bernstein’s I feel pretty and, to a lesser extent, his Glitter and be gay none of the items here could be considered well-known and the choice of this particular quartet of composers, all of whom are connected in some way, is felicitous. Furthermore Upshaw’s clear, bright soprano and natural, unforced diction make her the ideal interpreter.

It is rare indeed for classical singers to embrace the idiom of Broadway without sounding self-conscious, but if you didn’t know better, (and I mean this in a positive way) you would never know that Upshaw was also an operatic artist of the first order. Many opera singers have tackled Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay, but none have ever, to my mind, challenged the original performer Barbara Cook, who not only manages to get round the notes, but really puts across the humour in the lyrics; none, that is, except Dawn Upshaw, who actually manages the coloratura with greater ease and beauty, but also points the lyrics with such ironic brilliance.

It is just one of the highlights in an album of sheer delights and I’d be hard pressed to find a favourite but there were many wonderful discoveries, among them Sondheim’s The girls of summer (1956) and the opening track, sung to just piano, Blitztein’s I wish it so from Juno (1959).

Only Glitter and be gay uses the original orchestration, but all the other arrangements are well done and the orchestra play excellently under Eric Stern, who himself was responsible for some of the orchestrations and provides the solo piano accompaniment on I wish it so.

I can’t recommend this disc too highly.

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Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – Dawn Upshaw

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It seems incredible now that this disc was released over 30 years ago, but there it is, clearly written in the insert, “Recorded August 1988 at Manhattan Center Studios, New york”, though, IIRC, it had a different cover on its first release.

Barber’s wonderfully nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee’s prose-poem has now, it would seem, become quite popular. It was first recorded by its dedicatee, Eleanor Steber in 1950, a couple of years after its premiere, but had to wait another eighteen years before being recorded again, though very successfully by Leontyne Price. It had to wait a further twenty years for this version by Dawn Upshaw, but its success has led to a spate of others by the likes of Barbara Hendricks, Sylvia McNair, Roberta Alexander, Kathleen Battle, Jill Gomez, Karina Gauvin and, most recently, Renee Fleming.

Steber was a wonderful singer, and her version is very fine, but for me it misses the essential childlike quality of the piece and she can sound a bit mature, even a trifle prim. Price, on the other hand, is surprisingly successful at scaling down her rich velvety voice to the needs of the writing, and her version is deservedly well known. Dawn Upshaw, on the other hand, has by nature what Price had to strive for. She has exactly the light voice and direct manner the piece needs and there is no need for her to characterise; she simply has to be herself, her diction natural and unforced. David Zinman’s tempi are also just right, and it is no surprise to find that this version has been a top recommendation since it was first issued.

The rest of the programme is also attractive, its centrepiece being John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, originally written for piano, but here given in his chamber orchestra version. The songs are settings of 16th century devotional Indian poems by Mirabai, who, after her husband died, devoted her life to the God Krishna. The texts are alternatively erotic, ecstatic and devotional, the orchestrations colourful, the vocal range wide and Upshaw is fully up to their demands.

The interesting but quite short programme is rounded off with a couple of operatic pieces, a short extract from Menotti’s radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief, and Anne Trulove’s No word from Tom from Sravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Upshaw would seem perfectly cast in both.

Like most of Upshaw’s records the material chosen is refreshingly different and well worth investigating.