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Classical - No. 51 - February, 2005

Broadway & Classical CDs/DVDs

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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MARY MARTIN AND ETHEL MERMAN: VAI DVD 4292

 

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COLE PORTER: AN ALL-STAR TRIBUTE • VAI DVD 4299

 

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BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL • COLUMBIA MASTERWORKS 92899

 

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BROADWAY GREATS

Every list of the greatest singing actresses of the last 75 years puts Ethel Merman and Mary Martin at or near the top. Born five years apart, their premieres of music by George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, and Irving Berlin grants them virtual immortality in the lexicon of American popular song.

Released in time for holiday giving, Merman and Martin’s ratings-setting joint TV appearance on The Ford 50th Anniversary Show of June 15, 1953, staged and conceived by Jerome Robbins, is finally available on DVD from VAI. The entire segment may run only 27-minutes, but it reveals what made these women so in demand by composers and audiences.

Ethel Merman (Ethel Agnes Zimmerman) from Astoria, Queens was all of 22 when she left a back-up career in stenography to star in the Gershwin’s 1930 Girl Crazy. Her clarion C in “I Got Rhythm,” held for 16 measures of encore-demanding ecstasy, became one hallmark of her brash, riveting style. Another was her “No Business Like Show Business” persona, whose combination of voice and drive mostly triumphed over a noticeable lack of glamour and an accent decidedly more fish market than Saks Fifth.

Starting with 1934’s Anything Goes (which contained the Porter classics "Blow Gabriel Blow,” "I Get a Kick Out of You,” and "You're the Top"), Merman’s trumpet voice projected her into leads in four Cole Porter musicals. “I’d rather write for Ethel than for anyone else in the world,” wrote Porter. “Every composer has his favorite, and she is mine. She has the finest enthusiasm of any American singer I know.”

Later came such gems as Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and the 1959 Laurents/Styne/Sondheim Gypsy. All together, Merman starred in 13 Broadway shows in a period of 29 years. Most of her signature numbers can be heard complete or in snippets on either her joint appearance with Martin or The Bell Telephone Hour January 28, 1964 Cole Porter: An All-Star Tribute (also on VAI).

Mary Virginia Martin hailed from Weatherford, Texas. She was nearing 25 when she achieved Broadway fame in 1938 with her naïve rendition of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Further Broadway appearances in musicals by Noel Coward, Rodgers & Hammerstein (South Pacific and The Sound of Music), Styne/Comden & Green (Peter Pan), plus touring in roles originally created by Merman and Carol Channing, made her an equally indispensable theatrical presence.

It was impossible to watch and listen to Martin without feeling the warmth of her incomparable charm and genuine love for the music she sang. Her joint TV appearance with the irrepressibly witty Noel Coward, which includes a comic rendition of Madame Butterfly’s tragic “Un bel di” should be required viewing for anyone considering coming out.

The Merman/Martin joint TV appearance begins with Merman’s vocal trumpet blaring Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” like no one else could or can. She first sang the tune in the 1938 movie of the same name, broadcasting the signature brass timbre that remained even through her later years of widening vibrato and forgivable campy excursion into disco.

After clowning it up on “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” Merman cedes to Martin’s eye-opening 7-minute silent stint in The Fashion Show (“The Shape”). Using only pantomime and a few props, Martin’s physical freedom and infectious wit convert a floor-length tube stocking into a hilarious tour through the devolution of women’s fashion. Those expecting a rather square, sanitizedskit will be amazed by how funny Martin could be.

The DVD ends with a 30-song medley that mixes tunes that the women introduced with others from an earlier era. “Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines Nellie” may grab your grandmother more than you, but “I Got Rhythm” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (which both women sang onstage) sound as alive today as in 1953.

Perhaps it’s just the sound on this particular color special, but Merman’s singing and movement on the 1964 Cole Porter Tribute suggest that the 56-year old wonder had by then passed her peak. The narration is stilted, the movement limited, and the very notion of joining Peter Nero, John Raitt, Martha Wright, Gretchen Wyler, and Jillana to squeeze 52 Porter songs into an hour perhaps motivated more by the wish to get it all in before Porter died (late that year) than concern for musical values. Merman seems to throw in one too many of her trademark grace notes in an attempt to light a fire under vocal chords that no longer spark as they used to.

Merman on a bad night was still inimitable, but handsome John Raitt’s once stirring voice had turned prosaically gruff. Peter Nero and Martha Wright’s contributions are best left unspoken, and ballerina Jillana’s pointe seems pointless in Porter. Thankfully, Gretchen Wyler’s singing and dancing are a joyful revelation. And some of the boys in the dancing numbers are so, so…

Besides Wyler, the raison d’etre for owning The Porter Tribute is the bonus footage of Merman on the Bell Telephone Hour of January 29, 1960. Beginning with the familiar “Alexander’s” and ending with “I Got Rhythm,” Merman’s ragtime medley finds her totally in her element. Most valuable are the nine alternate takes that show her winding up and deflating in consummate professional fashion as the Director shouts “Cut!” Mama Rose could teach us all a thing or too.

Seeing Merman and Martin honor Porter becomes even more vital as the Special Edition DVD of Irwin Winkler’s Porter story De-Lovely hits the shelves. Enough has already been written about the movie’s focus on Porter’s homosexuality. Suffice it to say that what suffers most is the music. With some of America’s most witty and sophisticated popular melodies and lyrics used for biographical ends, the joy of Porter becomes buried alive as background music for morbidity. What in the world are Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, and a host of other contemporaries singing like their 21st century selves in a film that pretends to historical accuracy?

Best instead to end our Broadway tour with the 5-CD Broadway: The American Musical set from Columbia Broadway Masterworks/Legacy. Virtually all music from the recent three-part PBS special narrated by Julie Andrews is heard here save for a few tracks preserved only on rare screen and TV footage. Compare Martin’s 1938 “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with her 1953 rendition to discover how her singing style evolved over the years.

While I wouldn’t argue with anyone who prefers to buy the DVD of this PBS series, CD offers better sound and uninterrupted listening without having to suffer through dialogue and musical excerpts. The 55-page oversize booklet is filled with essential information (available in different form on the PBS website) and graphics. What you’ll miss are the moving footage and commentary that drive home racism’s impact on Broadway -- a heart-rending Ethel Waters TV appearance must be seen -- and the steps taken by brave composers, lyricists, producers and artists to bring blacks and other minorities to the front of the stage.

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BARBER: VANESSA • CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5032(2)

 

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BARBER: KNOXVILLE, SUMMER OF 1915, SECOND AND THIRD ESSAYS FOR ORCHESTRA, TOCCATA FESTIVA • NAXOS 8.559134

 

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LEONTYNE PRICE AND SAMUEL BARBER • BRIDGE 9156

 

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LEONTYNE PRICE SINGS BARBER • RCA/BMG 09026-61983-2

 

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THE MUSIC OF SAMUEL BARBER

One of our most noteworthy 20th century composers, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is esteemed primarily for his beloved if overplayed Adagio for Strings and a handful of works for voice. While the gorgeous, oft-performed 16-minute Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is represented by no less than 12 recordings in print, Barber’s opera Vanessa has received short shrift until now.

Chandos’ new recording of Barber’s revised version of Vanessa features a star-studded line-up of soloists -- Susan Graham (Erika), Christine Brewer (Vanessa), and William Burden (Anatol) -- that rivals the original-cast recording featuring Rosalind Elias, Eleanor Steber, and Nicolai Gedda conducted by the Dmitri Mitropoulos. Not only do the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers under Leonard Slatkin do a bang-up job, but Chandos has also gone full out, producing a vivid, state-of-the-art multi-channel SACD that sounds great in two-channel stereo.

Though some politely term Vanessa “American verismo,” mid-century melodrama is far more like it. The opera’s potboiler of a libretto, fashioned by Barber’s longtime companion Gian Carlo Menotti, may occasionally cause eyes to roll, but Barber’s keen dramatic sense and unabashed lyricism do much to save the day.

The story centers around the wealthy Vanessa, who has spent 20 years walled up in her country estate lamenting the end of her affair with a married man named Anatol. Surrounded by her young niece Erika and her elderly mother the Baroness, Vanessa awaits Anatol’s supposed return. In his place arrives his young son, also named Anatol, who within a scene or two impregnates Erika while wooing Vanessa.

The opera opens with two character-defining arias, Erika’s gorgeous “Must the winter come so soon” followed by Vanessa’s urgent “He has come!” If the former presents Erika as a virgin of touching vulnerability, the latter introduces an imperious soprano of an ice princess who in short order melts à la Turandot.

Erika is not an ideal vehicle for the sensuous Susan Graham, but the mezzo’s beauty of voice creates much sympathy for a pathetic character who by the opera’s end walls herself off like her aunt. Soprano Christine Brewer excels as Vanessa; her combination of vocal force and beauty rivals Barber favorite Leontyne Price in “He shall come,” everywhere making the character as credible as possible. Brewer’s ability to flawlessly transition from orchestra-dominating utterance to impeccably floated highs makes her a vocal if not visual natural for the part.

Tenor William Burden’s Anatol invokes mixed reactions. With a voice as sweet as his handsome visage, Burden sounds several degrees too nice for a stinker whose cynicism and duplicity deserve contempt. While his “Love has a bitter core, Vanessa” communicates a modicum of irony, his energy seems far more suited for the innocent Peleas he’s singing at the Met than the cunning cad who indelibly wounds Erika while exploiting her aunt. At his best in the tender air “On the path to the lake,” where his gorgeous falsetto speaks volumes, Burden inspires listeners to overlook Vanessa and Erika pain and instead throw themselves at Anatol’s feet. Not what Barber and Menotti intended.

Regardless, there’s too much wonderful music in this opera to miss. Beyond a host of memorable solo vehicles for all five major characters – Neal Davies does a superb job with the Old Doctor’s aria -- and an Act II Tosca-like duet for Vanessa and Anatol, Barber penned a final act quintet (“To leave, to break, to find, to keep”) that for beauty and poignancy alone rivals the quartet from Rigoletto and sextet from Lucia.

Eleven years before Vanessa’s Salzburg premiere, Barber found an ideal vehicle for his lyricism in James Agee’s Knoxville Summer of 1915. The singsong simplicity of his music’s opening phrases, redolent of a lazy summer evening in Tennessee, draws us into a state of child mind from which the narration flows. Commissioned and premiered by Eleanor Steber, whose 1950 recording reveals a less than ideal vocal maturity and formality of pronunciation, the work demands a soprano with voice and imagination sufficient to segue between the child’s simplicity of utterance and unexpectedly dramatic, precocious questioning.

Of the three versions issued in the last six months, that from the gifted Karina Gauvin and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos) deserves must-hear status thanks in large part to Marin Alsop’s sympathetic conducting. Alsop savors every aspect of the colorful score, paying equal attention to the loud auto, the blue dew on the rough wet grass, and the child’s questioning of ultimate identity. Her conducting perfectly complements Gauvin’s lovely, lyrical (albeit womanly and anything but southern), low-key reading.

To these ears, the Gauvin/Alsop collaboration joins two others of major stature. One is Dawn Upshaw’s partnership with David Zinman, where her girl-like timbre and shimmering vibrato on high prove irresistible.

The other is Leontyne Price’s tour de force with the Thomas Schippers. Price begins with childlike voice and minimal vibrato, only to transition into such an unrivalled combination of vocal and orchestral splendor as to make us care less that the child has inexplicably vanished. (It reminds me a bit of Callas’ Butterfly, where the Diva holds back and sings in little girl voice until tragedy takes over and the voice suddenly takes on the weight of maturity).

Price inspired for four Barber premieres, the third being his opera Antony and Cleopatra. The opera’s failed 1966 Met opening was due in part to a malfunctioning, life imitates art stage set that left Ms. Price trapped in a pyramid à la Aida. (To quote critic Peter G. Davis: “…it was definitely a rocky occasion: for Met general manager Rudolf Bing, who had watched the company’s expensive new stage machinery break down before his eyes during rehearsals; for Leontyne Price as Cleopatra, who got trapped inside a huge pyramid; for director Franco Zeffirelli, whose outrageously glitzy production virtually obliterated the opera (‘Oh, my God, a gay asp!’ exclaimed one fed-up spectator behind me at the dress rehearsal as Cleopatra applied a garish spangled snake to her breast); and especially for Barber, who was so crushed by the whole experience that he left the country and composed scarcely anything of consequence for the rest of his life.” Two arias from the opera, recorded two years after the failed premiere, are included on the same RCA Victor recording that also features Price’s Knoxville tour de force and a sonically enhanced version of her 1953 Hermit Songs Library of Congress world premiere with Barber at the piano.

Bridge has recently released the same Hermit Songs world premiere. This is the first time that the entire recital (including songs by Barber, Sauguet, Poulenc and Fauré) has been issued intact. Bridge may not have cleaned up the sound of the original tape as did RCA, but the resultant rawness adds to the sense of occasion.

Price was all of 26 and fresh from touring in Porgy and Bess when she came to D.C. The audience discovered a remarkable voice well on its way to the glorious bloom of womanhood. By the time Price and Barber made their New York recital début the following year, the title “goddess” had already been bestowed upon the diva.

The Bridge disc also includes baritone Samuel Barber’s self-accompanied 1938 recital at the Curtis School of Music. Barber’s remarkably even vocal production and gift for lyrical if at times over-romanticized utterance speak volumes about his future compositions. Don’t miss this disc.

Awaiting US release is Alsop’s final installment in her Naxos Barber series. Headlined by the Capricorn Concerto, named for a house Barber shared with Menotti, the CD also includes the Intermezzo from Vanessa and a late Canzonetta posthumously scored by Barber’s friend Charles Turner. Given Gramophone critic Peter Dickinson’s prediction that the elegiac Canzonetta “could become as popular as the famous Adagio,” anticipation of a sort far more positive than Vanessa’s is the order of the day.

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BEETHOVEN:TRIPLE CONCERTO • RONDO IN B FLAT • CHORAL FANTASY • WARNER CLASSICS

 

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It boggles the mind that Ludwig van Beethoven’s glorious Triple Concerto for violin, piano, cello, and orchestra received only one performance in his lifetime. A sinfonia concertante written for Beethoven’s young piano pupil Archduke Rudolph and two string players in his entourage, it called for a novel combination of piano trio and orchestra that audiences were not yet accustomed to. The work’s failure to engage the Viennese public of 1808, blamed on indifferent soloists, might never have occurred had Beethoven been honored by musicians of the level heard on this marvelous recording.

This performance, featuring violinist Thomas Zehetmair, cellist Clemens Hagen of the Hagen Trio, and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by the great authentic instrument pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt, stands alongside the classic reading by Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Richter with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karajan as among the best ever committed to disc. This new team of soloists and conductor clearly love Beethoven’s tuneful treat with its countless engaging variations. Phrases are voiced with increasingly subtlety as gentle shadings and tender caresses nimbly pass from one instrument to the other. Playing a modern instrument considerably heavier than the pianos of Beethoven’s time, Aimard adopts a gentle touch that supports rather than overwhelms the string players. The meditative middle movement, whose rapt spirituality is reminiscent of a similar movement in Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, leads immediately into an energetic, joyful finale that makes one want to hit repeat.

Beethoven’s early Rondo in B flat for piano paves the way for his Choral Fantasia in C minor, a work that sometimes sounds like a warm-up for the glorious “Ode to Joy” of his final Ninth Symphony. The work was composed as a last-minute addition to Beethoven’s marathon benefit concert in the Viennese Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, a concert that included the fist public performances of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, three movements from the C major Mass, the concert aria “Ah, perfido!” and the premiere of the Fourth Piano Concerto,with Beethoven himself playing the solo part. (So much for modern audience members who can’t stand to sit for more than two hours).

The rousing finale of the Chorale Fantasia in C minor, which brings into play soloists, chorus and orchestra, is a setting of a poem in praise of universal harmony and the triumph of light over darkness. The movement’s familiar theme offers a naive foretaste of the yet-to-be-composed, far more refined final symphonic chorale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s not Beethoven at his best, but it’s the Triple Concerto that deserves your attention.

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ROLANDO VILLAZÓN: MASSENET/GOUNOD ARIAS • EMI 7243-5-45719 2 3

 

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He’s got the stuff and he’s eager to share. Of all the new tenors on the operatic scene, it is Mexico’s Rolando Villazón who offers the winning combination of vocal weight and beauty needed for both lyric and dramatic leads. Though the voice is not huge, it is strong, virile and fresh throughout the range. Capable of a glorious, unforced high C, Villazón possesses sufficient metal for the Italian leads of Puccini and Verdi as well as the elegance and subtlety of phrasing essential for portraying the romantic principals of French opera.

A graduate of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, Villazón first came to international attention in 1999 when he won second prize in Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition as well as first prize for Zarzuela and the Prize of the Public. Making his European début in Genoa as the lead in Puccini’s Manon, he then debuted in Lyon and Rome as Rodolfo in La Bohème. Performances in one of his signature roles, Alfredo in La Traviata, followed the same year.

San Francisco first heard him as Alfredo last fall, shortly after he sang the part at his Met début opposite Renée Fleming. With his début recording of Italian arias named one of the New York Times’ “Best Classical CDs of 2004,” the tenor looks forward to seven Salzburg Festival summer performances of La Traviata with Anna Netrebko and Thomas Hampson that sold out in record time.

Rolando Villazón’s second recital for EMI, this of French arias by Massenet and Gounod, reached stores on January 25. As in his first recital, it combines familiar classics with rarely heard arias from nearly forgotten operas.

Ably supported by Evelino Pidó and L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Villazón opens with the most well known aria from Massenet’s Le Cid, “Ô souverain, Ô juge, Ô père.” Ever since Enrico Caruso’s great recording of the work, tenors have thrown their all into this gem in hope of winning audiences over. Villazón more than meets the challenge; his ardour, passion, and unforced beauty make the performance sound true.

The same could be said of every one of the 15 arias on the disc. Some singers have fabulous voices and make all the right sounds, but too many these days sound more like they’re dutifully going through the paces than actually believing in the fantasy they’re singing about. With Villazón, there’s no question that this is the real thing. The mounting passion of Werther’s “Lorsque l’enfant revient” is thrilling, the high C in Gounod’s “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” from Faust about as good as it gets. “La Rève” from Manon may lack the ultimate sweetness and changes of color that Jussi Björling and Richard Crooks brought to it, but abetted by Natalie Dessay’s incomparably sweet cameo as Manon, it too is a memorable performance. Even in arias more commonplace than inspired, Rolando Villazón throws such heart and soul into the music that cries of bravo merely begin to tell the tale.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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