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Classical - No. 49 - September, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus


 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Reviews # 36.

 
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SIBELIUS VIOLIN CONCERTO

SINDING VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1

HENNING KRAGGERUD, VIOLIN

BOURNEMOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, BJARTE ENGESET

NAXOS SACD/CD HYBRID 6.110056 AND DVD-A 5.110056

 

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The world’s best-selling classical record label, which for quite some time threw its weight behind DVD-Audio by occasionally issuing recordings in both redbook CD and DVD-Audio format, has now also embraced SACD hybrid technology (discs playable on both SACD and conventional players) and released its new recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in both DVD-A and SACD formats. The DVD-A offers 5.1 Dolby Digital AC-3 and DTS Surround, while the SACD (recorded with the DSD process) offers options of two-channel CD and SACD as well as 5.0 SACD Surround.

For those like myself who continue to enjoy two-channel stereo, the good news is that this is a wonderfully performed and recorded version of the Sibelius. The soloist, Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, is a winner of Norway’s Grieg Prize. Playing the Guarneri del Gesù “Ole Bull” violin of 1744 with its only existing extra-long violin bow, he produces unfailingly lovely tone. The low tones, while perhaps not as meaty as those generated by the Stradivarius Maxim Vengerov plays on his competing recording of the concerto, are rich and full, while the highs are pure and sweet.

Emphasizing the lyrical aspects of Sibelius’ concerto, Kraggerud eschews excessive vibrato and big dramatic gestures to focus on the so-called “dark,” brooding beauty of Sibelius’ melodically lush landscape. With his highest goal that of serving the music, Kraggerud’s plaintive performance draws less attention to technical perfection and effect than to the extraordinary beauty of the writing. The opening is gorgeous, Kraggerud’s heart-touching phrases supported by the resonant entry of truthfully recorded trumpets, cellos and percussion.

The playing in middle movement adagio again seems intentionally restrained, the soloist avoiding showy, singing highs in order to emphasize the forlorn beauty of the writing. After letting loose in the movement’s grandly romantic conclusion, Kraggerud performs the final allegro at a notably fast pace. (If you don’t know this concerto, the opening melody of the final movement is unforgettable). Everywhere the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra proves at one with the soloist, providing full accompaniment with unfailingly lovely tone.

By contrast, Vengerov’s Telarc recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra may be far more detailed, but the technique constantly draws attention to itself. Sibelius’ concerto becomes a series of grand flourishes, with startlingly dramatic bites into the strings, exclamation points at the end of soaring phrases, and an overall approach that seems far more suited to Russian drama than Nordic romance. Barenboim’s equally overblown approach to orchestral interludes would serve Wagner well.

The other works on Kraggerud’s program provide nice counterpoint. Sibelius’ Serenade in G minor, Op. 69b: Lento assai and Christian Sinding’s Romance in D major, Op. 100 offer many moments of loveliness. Sindings’ First Violin Concerto is far more Germanic sounding than Scandinavian; hardly in the same league as the Sibelius, it’s definitely pleasant listening fare. Meatier companions would have been welcome, but Naxos’ bargain price leads to a strong recommendation. That the performances have been issued in the new high-resolution hybrid SACD and DVD-Audio surround sound formats is a definite plus. On highly affordable entry-level multi-format players, this disc sounds light years better than standard CD.

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THE CHILL OF SCHUBERT’S FINAL WINTER JOURNEY

FRANZ SCHUBERT: DIE WINTERREISE

IAN BOSTRIDGE & LEIF OVE ANDSNES

EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 57790 2

 

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FRANZ SCHUBERT: DIE WINTERREISE

MATTHIAS GOERNE & ALFRED BRENDEL

DECCA 027846 70922 1

 

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FRANZ SCHUBERT: DIE WINTERREISE

NATHALIE STUTZMANN & INGER SÖDERGREN

CALLIOPE CAL 9339

 

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Franz Schubert survived only one winter between completing the first version of his song cycle Die Winterreise (A Winter’s Journey) and dying in November 1828 at age 31. If the cycle’s virtually unrelenting gloom and despair mirror the realities of his slow and painful decline from the syphilis he contracted as a teenager, its profundity has led to its ascendancy as one of the great expressive vehicles for voice.

Schubert had already published his 1823 tenor song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Maid of the Mill,) to poems by Wilhelm Müller when in early 1827 Franz von Schober drew his attention to a cycle of twelve additional poems by Müller entitled Die Winterreise. Schubert immediately began setting them to music, completing his work in February. It was only in autumn 1827, after their publication, that Schubert discovered that Müller had subsequently published an additional twelve Winterreise poems and issued all 24 in a newly arranged sequence.

Schubert promptly began setting Müller’s additional 12 poems, thereby creating a cycle of 24 songs. He was still correcting proofs of the complete edition on his deathbed.

Müller, who dedicated his Winterreise poems to composer Carl Maria von Weber, had once stated that his poems led only a half-life “until music infuses them with the breath of life.” Their discovery by his contemporary Schubert thus served as an ultimate wish fulfillment. Sharing the composer’s karma, he too died young, in the autumn of 1827 at age 33, probably unaware that Schubert had set his songs to music.

A number of contemporary accounts of Schubert’s creation of Winterreise survive. According to his friend Josef von Spaun, "For a time Schubert was in a melancholy mood and seemed to be rather ill. When I asked him what the matter was he simply replied, ‘Well, you will soon hear and understand it is all about’.”

Soon thereafter, Schubert invited von Spaun to Schober’s house to hear the “frightful” songs that “have made me suffer more than my other songs. He then sang to us in a trembling voice the whole Winterreise. We were completely taken aback by the gloomy mood of these songs, and Schober said he had liked only one song, ‘Der Lindenbaum’.”

The history of contemporary Winterreise performance is so closely associated with a legacy of baritone recordings that extends from Gerhard Husch through Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Matthias Goerne (with the addition of an incomparable version from soprano Lotte Lehmann) that it is easy to overlook that the cycle was originally set for tenor. The actual range designation seems not to have been crucial in Schubert’s mind. He had downwardly transposed three of Winterreise’s songs for either baritone or contralto at the time of his death, and had previously dedicated his tenor cycle Die schöne Müllerin to baritone Baron von Schönstein. What Schubert considered primary was the energy singer and pianist brought to his songs.

Performing the cycle is no easy task. Besides the vitality and focus necessary to sustain a performance that can last over 80 minutes, the ability to imbue Schubert’s frequent strophic repetitions with interest demands artistic integrity of the highest order. You can alter tone and dynamics in thousands of different ways, or vary tempo until hell freezes over, but if your performance does not transcend technique to transport the listener to a state of universal identification with the protagonist’s plight, the interpretation falls short.

Tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI) have just recorded the songs, paving the way for European and U.S. performances. Their recording adds to a discography that includes tenors Peter Schreier, Jon Vickers, Bostridge’s fellow Englishman Peter Pears, and most recently Christoph Prégardien. If the 1963 pairing of Pears and his life-companion Benjamin Britten (Decca) continues to reign supreme, perhaps illuminated by an inner identification with the suffering Schubert had no choice but to voice in heterosexual terms, the modern version from Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes offers far more beautiful sounds.

Having said that, I confess that Bostridge and Andsnes leave me cold, and not in the way Schubert intended. Certainly Bostridge possesses a most beautiful voice. Guided by great intelligence, his instrument retains the freshness and ease of youth. When, as in the last verse of the first song, he intentionally and sparingly softens his instrument to emit caressingly sweet sounds, his singing possesses a pathetic fragility that goes straight to the heart.

Elsewhere, however, the tendency to underscore words with pregnant emphasis seems more precious than genuine. Especially when the tenor veers over the top with emotion, bespoiling songs such as “Der greise Kopf” (The hoary head) with a near hysteria that seems far more appropriate for Salomé than Schubert, I find myself parting company. With his “listen to how important this word is” approach continuing through the final, deathlike song, Bostridge seems guided more by his thoughts about Schubert’s music than an emotional identification with it.

No one knows exactly what tempos Schubert wished for the songs, nor how much freedom his chosen singers took with rests and phrasing. Bostridge and Andsnes play it safe, offering a “modern” interpretation. Tempi are pretty even, save for the occasional and welcome ritard. The freedom we hear in older lieder recordings is rarely in evidence. Where Britten’s genius consistently illuminates Schubert’s piano line, underscoring phrases that either answer the singer or set the primary tone, Andsnes chooses to contain himself, a wise move considering Bostridge’s over-emoting. There is some beautiful bell-like tone in “Die Krähe” (The Crow), but for the most part, this is Bostridge’s show, with Andsnes providing sober balance.

For contemporary interpretations, I find myself turning to two other new recordings. The first, capturing Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel live at Wigmore Hall (Decca), has already received much critical acclaim. To these ears, their interpretation is far more nuanced than Goerne’s recent extraordinary live San Francisco performance of Winterreise with Eric Schneider. The voice is gorgeous beyond belief, moving between profound baritone rumbles of despair and higher, melting tones. More important, the singing and playing seem to spring from a genuine sympathy with the work. This collaboration constantly reaches inward to the core pulse of despair.

Equally essential, moreso for receiving little attention is contralto Nathalie Stutzmann’s shattering performance with pianist Inger Södergren. Hearing Stutzmann’s rich, soulful voice convey the essence of Schubert’s suffering makes one mourn that the fallout from 9/11 prevented her from flying to San Francisco in 2002 to record Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with Michael Tilson Thomas.

Stutzmann’s recent Vivaldi performance in Berkeley revealed her wearing a tasteful, iridescent gray pantsuit set off by high-soled, lace-up patent leather shoes so emphatically masculine that I can imagine Gertrude Stein trading of one of Alice B. Toklas’ precious recipes for a pair. Stutzmann’s heart-rending timbre and uncommon freedom with nuance and tempo make the recording one to treasure. Some of the songs are taken so slowly that only a great artist with unfailing concentration – a gift Goerne shares -- could render them so riveting. The voice does occasionally approach shrillness in more emphatic passages, but the overall beauty of the interpretation, constantly infused with heart-touching tones of suffering, makes this a performance to own.

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JAMES GALWAY: WINGS OF SONG

JAMES GALWAY, FLUTE AND TIN WHISTLE; JEANNE GALWAY, FLUTE, MORAY WALSH, CELLO SOLO

LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHSTRA, KLAUSPETER SEIBEL

DG B0003024-02

 

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Sir James Galway’s latest release augments a huge discography that fully documents the 65-year old flautist at the height of his powers. If Wings of Song: Popular Classical Melodies for Flute and Orchestra, his first disc for Deutsches Grammophon since his old days performing as principal flute with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic does nothing to enhance his reputation, it certainly attests to the across-the-board popularity he has achieved.

Although Wings of Song undoubtedly takes its name from Felix Mendelssohn‘s evocative song Auf Flugeln des gesanges (On Wings of Song), that selection is curiously absent from the album. Instead, we have a mix of such soothing classical stalwarts as Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pur une Infante défunte, Eric Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 3, an adaptation of the 2nd movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” the 1st movement Siciliano from J.S. Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 4 in C minor, and an arrangement of the 2nd movement from Antonin Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F major “American,” with a number of opera arias and classical art songs thrown into the mix.

As the Voice of Woodstock whistling Puccini in the Emmy-nominated televised Peanuts cartoon, She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, I hesitate to criticize transcriptions of opera for instrument. Yet it must be acknowledged that anyone hoping for the passion and exalted spirit associated with such arias as Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” Vincenzo Bellini’s “Casta diva,” Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Che faro senza Euridice?” and Richard Wagner’s “Der Engel” has another story coming.

The pearly, ultra-smooth sound of Galway’s flute certainly conveys the loveliness of these arias, but melodic sweetness is only one of the reasons they are treasured. The other is because they serve as supreme vehicles for the expressive powers of the human voice. If Galway’s flute can achieve such a level of expression – there are hints of passion in the Rodrigo excerpt – it certainly falls short in opera. The tone may be beautiful, but the performances are placid. Delilah could never seduce Samson with such languor. To call the playing “pretty” pretty much says it all.

Where Galway does excel is in the duet with his wife Jeanne on Jacques Offenbach’s beloved Barcarolle -- music that perfectly suits the dreamy tenor of their playing -- and Howard Shore’s A Lord of the Rings Suite written expressly for Galway’s talents. Galway’s rendition of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” also scores in spades, as do the more serene of the classical instrumental adaptations. As for Craig Leon’s soppy introduction to Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” you don’t want to know from it.

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CHANTICLEER: HOW SWEET THE SOUND

SPIRITUALS AND TRADITIONAL GOSPEL MUSIC WITH BISHOP YVETTE FLUNDER

WARNER CLASSICS R260309

 

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TRANSCENDENCE GOSPEL CHOIR: WHOSOEVER BELIEVES

AMOR

 

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“God has no respect of persons” was a phrase I heard over and over in the summer of 1965 as a civil rights worker in North Carolina’s Martin County. Almost 40 years later, when the Democratic National Convention’s representatives for the first time accurately reflected the rainbow composition of our society, white people are daring to embrace music usually performed by African-Americans. From German baritone Thomas Quasthoff’s recent awesome San Francisco Performances encore of “Old Man River” to Chanticleer’s new recording of spirituals and traditional gospel music, we are discovering how music and diversity-embracing activism can transcend racial division.

The all-male Chanticleer vocal ensemble is hardly all white. For much of its existence it has benefited immeasurably from the multiple gifts of its African-American music director Joseph Jennings. Jennings imparts an authentic spirit to this disc, not least by arranging all the selections, providing authentic-sounding upright piano accompaniment, and occasionally offering his voice.

Equal blessing, if I may be so bold, comes from Bishop Yvette A. Flunder (aka Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder). From her beginnings singing in her grandfather’s San Francisco church, Flunder transitioned from a solo career to singing and preaching internationally with the famed Hawkins Family Singers. In 1991 she founded the City of Refuge Community Church and Ark of Refuge, Inc. in San Francisco, training African-American church ministries in HIV/AIDS prevention education and offering housing and support services to people living with HIV/AIDS. Eight years later, she developed the “One Voice: Gospel Artists Respond to AIDS” educational campaign and gospel concerts with the Centers for Disease Control. As Bishop of Fellowship 2000, a group of 54 churches, Bishop Flunder travels internationally, singing and preaching a message of inclusivity for all peoples.

What all this talent translates into is an inspiring, musically perfect disc. Despite frequent personnel changes, Chanticleer remains a crack ensemble. Thanks to Jennings’ direction, every note and word is perfect, every harmony shining. One cannot help smile when Flunder sings “God” the way most people in America pronounce it, while the white boys make the word sound more profound by singing “Gawd,” but they’ve got the idiom down pat. Even Philip Wilder’s curiously fem soprano solo on “Keep Your Hands on the Plow,” exclaimed in a voice that sounds more suited to quilt-making than field work, in the end earns smiles rather than criticism. This is a disc to banish cynicism.

It is impossible to overstate the brilliance of Joseph Jennings’ arrangements. A recent performance by the East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus featured an arrangement of “We Shall Overcome” that sounded not only repetitively foursquare – the same off-beat movement between vocal lines in each verse – but spoiled the sentiment of a civil rights anthem that for years left me in tears by ending with an overly soppy reprise that seemed best suited to the vocal equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card.

Jennings makes no such errors. His harmonies, phrasing, rhythms are constantly alive and changing in ways that enhance rather than distract from the spiritual message of the music. To cite just two examples out of hundreds, the traditional “There is a Balm in Gilead” begins with the chorus offering soft wordless background as Flunder starts her solo. Only when she begins the recapitulation do the boys begin to sing the words, underscoring her voice with a softness that sounds like balm indeed. In the subsequent extended Poor Pilgrim Medley, long-time ensemble member soprano and recent departee Christopher Fitzsche’s very high solo is strikingly followed by veteran Eric Alatorre’s deep bass at the start of “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow.” Light and shade, highs and lows, all are judiciously contrasted in perfectly paced performances filled with spirit.

Spirit and then some also abounds in the Transcendence Gospel Choir’s Whosoever Believes. Based in the Bay Area, the world’s only transgender gospel choir deservedly won the 2004 OutMusic Choral Award for their truly inspiring disc. The so-so sound of the independent effort cannot compare with Warner Classics’ truthful, state-of-the-art sonics, but the spiritual conviction is awesome.

The disc begins with Pastor Jonathan Thunderwood and Reverend Dr. Yvette Flunder preaching a message that reclaims ALL people, regardless of color or orientation or sexual transformation, as God’s children. It’s only up from there, as arrangements by disc producer and alto Ashley Moore and others find the chorus in inspired form. I don’t know how many members of Chanticleer actually practice Christianity, but it’s clear these folks sing as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps atheists, Martians, those historically oppressed by Christianity or recovering from church indoctrination and abuse will go “so what,” but the rest of us will likely find ourselves on our feet, clapping our hands in praise of a spirit that ultimately transcends Christianity. The small, one-of-a-kind Transcendence Gospel Choir (www.tgchoir.org) has created an instant classic, one that deserves the widest possible audience.

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THE ART OF LEONTYNE PRICE: RADIO-CANADA TELECASTS, 1958-1982

VAI DVD-VIDEO 4268

 

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This historic footage displays the glorious soprano Leontyne Price during her initial rise to stardom. Complemented by an entire concert performed live on October 3, 1982 at age 55, less than three years before her retirement from the operatic stage, the program allows us to assess the gifts of one of the pre-eminent lirico-spintos of the last fifty years.

Price first assayed her signature role of Aida in 1957, one year before singing the entire Act III of Aida for this Canadian film. While she had already toured the U.S. in a production of Porgy and Bess, performed Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs with the composer at the Smithsonian, appeared in NBC-TV’s 1955 staging of Tosca, sung music by Lou Harrison in Rome, and created Madame Lindoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in San Francisco, audiences were still accustoming themselves to the notion of a “Negro” cast as a lead opposite whites. Playing Aida, an Ethiopian slave who falls in love with an Egyptian general, was thus not only an “acceptable” role for her, but one with which she deeply identified. In few other roles did Price find a vehicle so perfectly matched to her vocal strengths and emotional sympathies.

Act III of Aida, staged by Irving Guttman and telecast in black and white on October 23, 1958, also features Willliam McGrath as Radamès and Napoléon Bison as Amonasro. Jacques Beaudry conducts L’Orchestre de Radio-Canada. Not only do we hear her voice in first flowering, but we also see Price act at age 31, when she was still young, lithe, relatively slender, and less prone to posturing herself as a goddess. She comes off quite well, exhibiting a fair amount of dramatic involvement while singing like an angel.

Early in her career, Price’s voice was glorious and even throughout the registers, with those uniquely sensual, thrilling highs of hers spun out with mesmerizing freedom. Never known for perfect phrasing, she here exhibits an ease of production, mastery of legato, and technical surety not always present in later years. While 1982 finds her practicing full out can belto, in 1958 she allows herself to sing entire phrases softly. She also exhibits a freedom of tempo and other subtleties often sacrificed for the sake of being heard at the far end of the hall. The other principals are far more workaday, with McGrath visually implausible as a war hero. But Price is truly a soprano to die for.

The 1982 concert, shot in color with Charles Dutoit conducting L’Orchestra symphonique de Montréal, finds her in drier voice. The opening “Come scoglio” and “Ernani, involami!” are rough going, Price squeaking out the highest notes on more than one occasion. The passagio between chest and middle voice has grown troublesome, with words sometimes half sung/half spoken (even shouted) to get through the break. But the voice warms up as the concert continues. Verdi’s “Pace, pace mio Dio!” from La Forza Del Destino offers some breathtakingly beautiful phrases and sounds in the upper middle register, as well as a thrilling climax. If the voice and temperament are by this time much too heavy for Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” Tosca’s rapidly sung “Vissi d’arte” offers tear-inducing beauty.

All important bonus material comes in the form of four snippets from the Bell Telephone Hour. Leonora’s two great arias from Verdi’s Il Trovatore come from 1963, just two years after Price’s Met début in the role inspired one of the longest standing ovations in the house’s history. Subtlety of phrasing learned from Herbert von Karajan remains intact, with the ending of “D’amor sull’ali rosée to die for. 1966 brings Aida’s Ritorna vincitor!, with Price looking far more beautiful if sounding a shade less inspired than in 1958. Finally, 1967 gives us a superb “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with the soprano framed by billowing lavender gauze one month before she hit 40.

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SCHWARZKOPF

SEEFRIED

FISCHER-DIESKAU

EMI CLASSICS DVD 7243 4 90442 9 6

 

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This priceless DVD, issued in conjunction with the BBC, offers three of the greatest singers of the lp era performing the repertoire by Strauss, Mahler, and Schubert for which they were most prized. Viewing is a necessity because of the first selection on the program, the Finale from Act One of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier filmed in London in 1961 with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, mezzo-soprano Hertha Töpper playing Octavian, and Charles Mackerras conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Volumes have been written about Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin, and for good reason. Lotte Lehmann, Regine Crespin, and Kiri Te Kanawa all left memorable interpretations, but only Schwarzkopf’s is so vivid and alive to the moment that she literally seems to transcend Strauss’ score and become the Marschallin.

Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin is most remembered from the film and recording of the famed 1957 production that paired her with Christa Ludwig, Theresa Stitch-Randall, Otto Edelmann, and conductor Herbert von Karajan. Yet the soprano has stated on at least one occasion that her interpretation grew in the years that followed that performance. This footage allows us to see the difference that four years made.

Though Schwarzkopf was by this time approximately 46 years old, her beauty and voice had if anything ripened rather than declined. She had also honed to perfection the Marschallin’s every physical and vocal gesture. While her painstakingly analytical approach to music frequently resulted in overstated, self-consciously exaggerated lieder performances, it proves entirely appropriate for the Marschallin’s utterly self-conscious self-critical monologue.

In Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin, art and artifice unite as one. Save for two brief moments when the phrasing seems overdone, her identification with the character seems utterly natural. Only soprano Magda Olivero’s verismo interpretations from the same period achieve Schwarzkopf’s level of veracity. Hertha Töpper may be a vocally non-ingratiating Octavian, but her square-jawed countenance adds a touch of credibility to the pants role.

Next on the program, soprano Irmgard Seefried, one of Schwarzkopf’s greatest rivals in lieder interpretation, sings five lied by Strauss in Salle Pleyel, Paris in 1965 and three songs by Mahler at the ORTF, Paris in 1967. Although she was known for her simple purity of voice and interpretation, Seefried seems either past her prime or in less than ideal voice or both. With no help from frequently distorted sound, the footage fails to satisfy.

The DVD ends with two major contributions from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Blessed with a gorgeous voice, the baritone shared with Schwarzkopf the tendency to concentrate on the minutia of lieder interpretation. Happily, these performances are from a less mannered period early in his career, when he was also in most beautiful voice. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), with the NHK Symphony Orchestra under Paul Kletzki, comes from Salle Pleyel in 1960, followed by four Schubert lieder accompanied by Gerald Moore in London in 1959. The value here is in the singing rather than the visuals.

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THE ART OF JOAN SUTHERLAND

RICHARD BONYNGE, CONDUCTOR/PIANIST

VAI 4254

 

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From the archives of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation come two previously unreleased programs featuring coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland (not yet Dame Joan) expertly supported by her husband Richard Bonynge. The first, filmed in black & white in 1963 expressly for the CBC, intersperses Sutherland’s stilted, formal spoken introductions to the lives of great coloraturas of the past (complete with deadening stills of portraits and interminable panning of walls) with brilliant performances of arias either written for or closely associated with those sopranos. Accompanied by the CBC Orchestra conducted by Bonynge, and joined in duet by slight-voiced tenor Richard Conrad (who also contributes a solo from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale). Sutherland sings two arias from Bellini’s I Puritani, “Bel raggio” from Rossini’s Semiramide, coloratura displays by Benedict and Ricci, and Violetta’s first act scena from Verdi’s La Traviata. The upper range is brilliant, the coloratura leaps, trills, and runs stunning. Though she was hardly an insightful interpreter, Sutherland as technically astounding vocalist was at this point in her career beyond compare.

From six years later, Sutherland presents a live, performed-for-television recital filmed before an initially enthusiastic audience. With Bonynge playing the piano wonderfully while maintaining an absolutely unmoving visage in order to maintain all focus on his prima donna, Sutherland mainly performs works that lie lower in her range. Only occasionally displaying her brilliant top and coloratura mastery, she delivers mostly dreary renditions of works by Gretchaninoff, Rossini, Bellini, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, Delibes, Bononcini, Handel, and Alabiev. Poor enunciation, unvaried tone and lack of emotional expression do not great singing make.

The most interest comes when she fluffs the opening line of one selection, leans over the piano toward Bonynge and begins cursing her gown off. She catches herself in the middle of “shhhhh…” After getting a good laugh out and regaining her composure, she starts over, this time with every note perfectly in place. Even Balfe’s “I dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” a piece dear to her heart learned from her mother, proves prosaic. But the coloratura from 1963, and the opportunity to see La Stupenda briefly let her hair down are to treasure.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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