Les Introuvables du Chant Wagnérien

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What a treasure trove of great singing this is! Indeed four well filled discs of absolutely amazing singing.

The layout pretty much makes sense too. Disc one is given over to Der fliegende Holländer and Die Meisteringer von Nürnberg, disc two to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, disc three to Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and disc four to more from Die Walküre, plus Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. No texts and translations, but detailed information on the recordings and biographical notes on all the singers.

With a few exceptions (Birgit Nilsson and Hans Hotter in Wie aus der Ferne from Der fliegende Holländer recorded in 1957, Lotte Lehmann singing Euch Lüften from Lohengrin in 1948) all these Wagnerian excerpts were recorded in a relatively short period of time between 1927 and 1942; a mere fifteen years, with the majority taken from the 1930s. It rather puts paid to the lie that, when comparing singers of today to those of the past, people are drawing from a much greater time period. How many singers active between 2004 and today can compare with the illustrious voices we hear on these discs?

Only Marta Fuchs, singing Senta’s ballad in 1940 gave me limited pleasure, especially when set next to ELisabeth Rethberg’s 1930 account which follows. There are some famous names here of course, like Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Meta Seinemeyer and Elisabeth Rethberg, but some of the less well known names are still startlingly good, for instance Florence Easton and Walter Widdop gloriously ringing and firm toned as Brünnhlide and Siegfried in the Prelude from Götterämmerung. The warm voiced Marjorie Lawrence’s career was mostly confined to France and it is in French that she sings a wonderfully malevolent Ortrud, with Martial Singher as Telramund. Though she also sang other mezzo roles, like Brangäne, she is a superb Brünnhilde in both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, again in French, singing with rich, beautiful, unforced splendour throughout her range. Her Immolation scene is quite one of the best I have heard.

There are other fine examples of Wagner in the vernacular. Again in French we have Arthur Endrèze as the Dutchman, Georges Thill and Germaine Martinelli as Walther and Eva and Germaine Lubin as Brünnhilde, and in Italian we have Aureliano Pertile (Lohengrin’s Nun sei bedankt) and Hina Spani (Elsa’s Euch Lüften).

There are some well known names among the conductors too, like Leopold Ludwig, Albert Coates, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham, Eugène Bigot, Rudolf Moralt and Leo Blech etc and indeed there is hardly a track that doesn’t have some interest.

Only the 1957 Holländer duet is in good stereo sound (Nilsson’s top notes bursting forth from the speakers like laser beams) but few allowances need to be made for the recorded sound, and one’s ears quickly adust.

Anyone with an interest in Wagner and/or singing needs to have this set in their collection. Both as a historic document and a source of great listening pleasure, it is absolutely essential.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Live broadcasts

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This is not a recital as such, but a collection of off the air recordings made by Schwarzkopf between the years 1941 and 1952. We get the opening of a Berlin Das Rheingold, conducted by Artur Rother (Schwarzkopf as Woglinde), Nie werd ich deine Hulde verkennen from a Vienna performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, conducted by Rudolf Moralt (with Emmy Loose, Anton Dermota, Peter Klein and Herbert Alsen), a duet from Weber’s Abu Hassan from 1942, with Michael Bohnen, and part of the Act II finale of Le Nozze di Figaro from La Scala in 1948, with Imrgard Seefried and W Hoefermeyer (who he?) under Karajan. We also get a couple of excerpts from the 1950 Salzburg Festival, both conducted by Furtwängler; Mi tradi from Don Giovanni (on which unusually she takes an unwritten upward ending, presumably sanctioned by Furtwängler though absent from all other versions by her) and Marzelline’s opening duet and aria from the famous performance of Fidelio at which Flagstad sang Leonore. In all Schwarzkopf displays her familiar virtues of pure, firm tone, excellent legato and elegant phrasing, the voice shot through with laughter in the lighter pieces. Marzelline’s aria is sung with a fuller tone than we often hear in this music, but captures perfectly her wistful charm. Ilia’s Zeffiretti lusinghieri is taken from a 1951 Turin Radio Mario Rossi broadcast, but it is not quite so accomplished as the one on her studio recital of the following year.

The rest is is given over to a Hamburg broadcast from 1952, beginning with a lovely performance of He shall feed his flock, from Handel’s Messiah (sung in German). The Act I monologue from Der Rosenkavalier is perhaps less detailed than the one on the complete set under Karajan and no doubt some might prefer it for that reason, though I wouldn’t necessarily be one of them. It’s a lovely performance nonetheless. Schwarzkopf’s Countess is also justly well known, and Porgi amor is sung with creamy tone and matchless legato, but the excerpts from Madama Butterfly (sung in German) don’t really work for her, and indeed Schwarzkopf herself, when she heard them in later years, thought them “rather screechy on top”. She did however approve the aria from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (the soprano version of the duet Glück das mir verblieb) and rightly so, as this is without doubt the prize of the whole disc. I have never heard it sung better, not by Te Kanawa, not by Fleming, not even by Lehmann, who recorded the duet with Richard Tauber. The pianissimi on the top notes, the diminuendi, the way she fades the tone are absolutely miraculous, no other word for it. Everyone needs to hear this, but getting the recital on disc is quite difficult these days. Fortunately you can hear it on youtube, though you will need to go to the youtube site to hear it.

The whole disc is a fitting repost to all those who think Schwarzkopf was a studio creation, catching her live and on the wing, but treasured mostly for that sensational and unfortunately unrepeated performance of the Korngold.

Régine Crespin – Opera Arias

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When I think of Régine Crespin I tend to think of suave sophistication, intelligence and cool reserve, qualities that make her the perfect interpreter of the songs of Debussy and, especially, Poulenc and Ravel. But of course it was a large, refulgent voice and not one to be confined to the recital platform. The operatic stage would also seem to be its natural home.

Unfortunately too much of this French sang froid creeps into her performances of Verdi here. This Amelia is only slightly perturbed to find herself at the gallows at midnight, this Aida only mildly conflicted between loyalty to her lover and her fatherland. One feels that she wouldn’t want to get too upset in case she mussed her dress and beautifully coiffed hair, so just shrugs and walks away. In this she is the very antithesis of Callas who, famously, listened to this performance of Ritorna vincitor in a break during tense recording sessions of her final Verdi disc. Callas was so insensed at a performance that went against every grain of her dramatic being that she decided to sing it there and then, though the aria hadn’t been planned, and the result was a performance of blazing intensity a million miles from what we get here. Aside from being far too slow, Crespin never really gets to grips with Aida’s torment and anguish.

Of course Crespin’s singing is always musical, intelligent and well considered, the voice firm and well supported, but, for me, there is a lack of passion, a sense of detachment that doesn’t go well with Verdi. The best item is Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene, though it is taken unconscionably slowly. Her tone well captures the feel of a woman  walking and talking in her sleep, and there are some fine details of interpretation. She takes a lower option at the end rather than attempt the top D fil di voce, and we note that the top of the voice can be unwieldy, steely and just under the note, as it is at the climax of Amelia’s Ecco l’orrido campo from Un Ballo in Maschera. In that respect Eboli’s O don fatale suits her better, and she does at last inject a bit more passion here, but the aria should be thrilling and it just isn’t.

Paradoxically Elisabetta’s great Act V aria from Don Carlo is taken rather too fast, and I also wonder why she didn’t sing it in French. In consequence the grand opening statement feels rushed, as does the end, and the aria loses its shape. This might have more to do with Prêtre than Crespin, whose speeds can be a bit hit and miss, and nowhere does he seem the right conductor for Verdi. It is interesting to note that, though he was a great favourite of Callas, she retained the services of Nicola Rescigno for her 1960s Italian recitals, using Prêtre only for the French recitals and her Carmen and second Tosca.

In general the Wagner items suit her better, though here too I would prefer to hear Schwarzkopf or Grümmer in the Lohengrin arias. Crespin convincingly conveys Elsa’s deam-like state, but she is far less personal with the text. There is no quickening of the pulse at the approach of the knight, and, yet again, it feels as if she were on the outside looking in. Her singing is tasteful, intelligent, musical and yet I don’t feel she is truly involved.

We get more propulsive singing for Sieglinde’s Eine Waffe lass’ mich dir weisen, and of course she recorded the role in Solti’s Ring. She also makes a suitably seductive Kundry in the short extract from Parsifal.

That said, none of this is material I would choose to hear her in. For that I would turn to her superb performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade with Ansermet (though not her Nuits d’Eté which also suffers from a lack of passion), to her singing of songs by Poulenc, Debussy and Satie and to some of the operettas of Offenbach that she recorded, music that responds better to her equivalent of the arched eyebrow.

Renata Tebaldi – I Primi Anni di Carriere

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This four disc set is of recordings made in the 1940s and early 1950s, when Tebaldi was in her twenties. It is a mixture of live and studio recordings, so sound quality varies quite a bit. It is also a convenient grouping together of four different discs issued by Fonit Cetra in 2002, which no doubt explains why we get so many different performances of the same aria. Given that there is little difference between them, you may decide you don’t need to listen to four different performances of La mamma morta and of Desdemona’s Willow Song.

And of course the first thing we need to say is that it was an extraordnarily beautiful voice, even throughout its range, firm and rich, her diction admirably clear, though, even at the beginning the very top could sound strained and off pitch. The top C climax to her 1950 Cetra studio recording of Aida’s O patria mia is hard won and slightly under the note and the voice’s greatest beauty lies in the middle register, though many of today’s sopranos would also kill for the richness down below. Nor is she an unfeeling performer, though, at this stage in her career, it can tempt her into excess, especially when singing live, and she tends to sound lacrymose rather than truly moving. She goes way over the top in Desdemona’s Willow Song, and she is much more restrained, and consequently more moving, in the Decca Karajan recording. The other thing to say about Tebaldi is that, however beautiful the voice, however firm the delivery, however musical her singing, her performances rarely stay in the memory, nor does she ever really light up a phrase or a line the way others can. Performances of some of this same music, by such as Muzio, Callas, Caballé, De Los Angeles and Schwarzkopf resonate in my mind’s ear, and I can often recall individual details. With Tebaldi I never can. I can recall the sound of the voice, but little that is specific to the music she is singing. In these early performances, I found that she often over-characterises the music, introducing sobs and emphases which detract from the beauty of the sound, rather than make it more dramatic. It is somewhat akin to watching a hammy actor.

A few specifics then about the discs themselves. Disc 1 covers studio recordings made for Decca and Fonit Cetra in 1949 and 1950, arias from Aida, Madama Butterfly, Faust, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Otello, La Boheme, Mefistofele, La Wally, Andrea Chénier and, most surprisingly Susanna’s Deh vieni from Le Nozze di Figaro, though she makes a very heavyweight Susanna, and this is the least successful item on the first disc. Recorded sound here is fine here, and there is certainly much pleasure to be gained from the voice itself.

The prize of Disc 2 is some extended excerpts from a 1951 concert performance of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco with Carlo Bergonzi and Rolando Panerai. Though she is taxed by some of the coloratura, the role suits her well. Also excellent are the two extracts from a 1950 performance of the Verdi Requiem under Toscanini, with Giacinto Pradelli, Cloe Elmo and Cesare Siepi. It is somewhat dimly recorded, but you can hear how fine she was in this work. Why Decca never recorded her in it is beyond me. A welcome surprise is Elisabeth’s Dich, teure Halle (in Italian) from Tannhäuser. It is also good to hear the young Di Stefano in a 1950 concert performance of the Act I duet from Madama Butterfly.

Disc 3 is entitled Gli Inediti, which is presumably of previously unissued recordings. This time she sings the Countess’s Porgi amor but, though more suited to the character, Mozart is not really her métier. The excerpts from a 1949 performance of Andrea Chénier wih Del Monaco are prime examples of that hamminess I alluded to, but she gives us a lovely performance of Louise’s Depuis le jour in Italian. It lacks Callas’s quiet intensity and mounting rapture, but is much more securely sung and works well on its own terms. The disc closes with a small piece of history; a 1945 performance of the love duet from Otello, with the then almost sixty year old Francesco Merli, though recording here is at its dimmest. Nevertheless it affords us a glimpse of the great tenor in one of his most famous roles.

The fourth disc pits Tebaldi against her teacher, Carmen Melis. Excerpts from Tebaldi’s first recordings of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, which I personally prefer to her later recordings under Serafin, and arias from Manon Lescaut and Tosca, all very fine. Melis is caught in excerpts from Tosca and Massenet’s Manon. She is a singer who is new to me, and I must say I found her very impressive, and actually more communicative than her pupil, though the top C at the line Io quella lama gli piantai nel cor is a little precarious, and she takes the upper option on the word cor. The Manon excerpt is Manon’s N’est-ce plus ma main (in Italian) from the duet with Des Grieux, and she is wonderfully seductive and persuasive.

Tebaldi is a central singer in that she demonstrates most of the virtues of good singing. The voice is a beautiful one, the line always firmly held, her legato generally excellent. Her only faults are a lack of a trill and clumsy execution of fast moving music (hardly necessary in most of the music she sang) and a slightly short top. (I remember that in her interview with Luca Rasponi for the book The Last of the Prima Donnas, she bemoans the ever rising pitch of modern orcehstras, which must have been a nightmare for her.) My preferences are well know, and I prefer singers who have something more specific to say about the music they assay, but the set is one I still enjoy dipping into from time to time.

Callas in Parsifal – Rome 1950

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Chronologically the second recording in the Warner box set is Parsifal, which many no doubt will find an oddity. However one should remember that in the early part f her career, Callas sang quite a bit of Wagner. The next role after her Italian debut, was Isolde, which she sang in Venice, and then the following year in Genoa (with Max Lorenz as Tristan), and in Rome in 1950. She added the Walküre Brünnhilde in 1949, singing the role in Venice (when she famously deputised for an ailing Marherita Carosio in I Puritani, learning the role of Elvira whilst still singing Brünnhilde). She first sang the role of Kundry in 1949 in Rome, but this RAI concert performance heralded her farewell to Wagner, though she was supposed to sing Kundry again at La Scala in 1956 under Erich Kleiber, a project that was abandoned when the maestro died. It was rather surprisingly replaced by Fedora. Like all Italian Wagner productions in those days, the opera was sung in Italian.

Wagnerites will no doubt be put off by the language. They will no doubt be further bothered by the poor recording of the orchestra, though the singers are well caught. I can’t in all honesty say  that this Warner issue is a marked improvement on the Verona transfer I had before, and, though there are some fine singers amongst the cast (Boris Christoff, no less, as Gurnemanz, Rolando Panerai as Amfortas), I found enjoyment of much of the opera seriously compromised by the dim orchestral sound.

However, it is wonderful to have this one example of Callas in a complete Wagner role, and Act II, where Kundry has the lion’s share of her music, had me gripped. Admittedly it is strange to hear the libretto in Italian, but the language does enable Callas to sing a more sensuously silken line than we often hear in the role and her Kundry is a true siren. She uses her superb legato to display the music’s beauty, a million miles from the barking Sprechgesang we often hear.

Despite the cuts to the score, Gui displays a firm understanding of the score, and, aside from Callas, has some excellent singers at his disposal; Boris Christoff as Gurnemanz, Rolando Panerai as Amfortas and Giuseppe Modesti as Klingsor. We even get Lina Pagliughi as the First Flower Maiden. Africo Baldelli’s Parsifal is adequate, no more no less.

The dimly recorded orchestral sound is a problem, especially in Wagner, and this recording could never be considered a contender for that reason. However it is much more than a curiosity, and Callas’s superbly sung Kundry certainly deserves to be heard.

Callas’s First Recordings

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Recorded 8-10 September 1949, Auditorium RAI, Turin

Producer & Balance Engineer unknown

So finally I come to the end and find myself, after many hours of fantastic listening, at the beginning, Callas’s first commercial recordings and the 78s that introduced the world to the voice of Maria Callas. The recordings followed a radio concert of the same material (plus Aida’s O patria mia) and were obviously intended to showcase Callas’s versatility, a pattern which was to follow in some of her EMI recitals, like Lyric and Coloratura and the first French recital.

Callas was only 25 when these recordings were made, but they display an artistic and vocal maturity far beyond her years. She first sang the role of Isolde under Serafin in 1947 in Venice, literally sight singing the role at her audition. Serafin, who had conducted her in her Italian debut as Gioconda, was suitably impressed and hired her immediately.

The Liebestod is of course sung in Italian, but it is more than just a curiosity. This is a warm, womanly Isolde who rides the orchestra with power to spare. Note too how easily she articulates the little turns towards the end of the aria. Her legato is, as usual, impeccable, and the final note floats out over the postlude without a hint of wobble.

Norma’s Casta diva and Ah bello a me are sung without the opening and linking recitatives, but the long breathed cavatina is quite possibly the most beautiful she ever committed to disc, and the cabaletta, though it lacks some of the light and shade she would later bring to it, is breath taking in its accuracy and sweep.

But what caused the biggest sensation at the time was the Mad Scene from I Puritani. What was considered a canary fancier’s showpiece suddenly took on a tragic power nobody suspected was there. Qui la voce is sung with a deep legato, the long phrases spun out to extraordinary lengths, but with an intensity that never disturbs the vocal line. Vien diletto almost defies belief. No lighter voiced soprano has ever sung the scale passages with such dazzling accuracy, nor invested them with such pathos, emerging, as they do, as the sighs of a wounded soul. And to cap it all, this large lyric-dramatic voice rises with ease to a ringing top Eb in alt. I have played this to doubting vocal students before now, and they have sat in open-mouthed disbelief. I remember one opera producer friend of mine once telling me that listening to it made him profoundly sad. “I know I will never hear live singing of that greatness in my lifetime,” he confided to me. If ever confirmation were needed of the greatness, the genius of Maria Callas, it is here in these, her very first recordings, and especially in this astonishing recording of the Mad Scene from I Puritani.

For my part, I have enjoyed every moment of my journey from those late recordings, where the genius would flash through to offset the evident vocal problems to these earlier ones where the voice had an ease and beauty that deserted her all too soon. Callas is and remains the pre-eminent soprano of the twentieth century. I know of no other singer who has made music live the way she did. A post on Talk Classical recently discussed underrated singers. I’d be tempted to add the name of Maria Callas, because, to my mind, her genius was inestimable. None of the accolades she has received seem eloquent enough, and I certainly can’t add to them.

50 years after she last sang on the operatic stage, she is still causing controversy, and no doubt always will. Her career may have been short, but was it Beverly Sills who once said, “Better 10 years like Callas than 20 like anyone else?”