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Classical Music - Part 11 - April, 2000

A Vocal Bouquet - Part I


Jason Serinus

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Ratings:
Extraordinary
Good
Acceptable
Mediocre
Poor

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So many excellent recordings come my way that it is a challenge to find the time to listen to them all, let alone the space in which to put critiques into print. To afford you the opportunity to derive pleasure from the best of these discs, we temporarily replace our usual in-depth “three CD” classical review format with a round-up of as many releases as can fit in the space.

This entire month will be devoted to vocal recordings. Because some of these are historical issues, recorded variously on shellac, acetate, aluminum, and pirate cassette, sound quality assumes less importance than magnificence of interpretation. Rather than draw undue attention to the sonics of some of these magnificent recordings by employing a separate rating system, only one set of stars, which takes both sound and performance into account via a method of metaphysical measurement mastered solely by myself, will be displayed. Those wishing to buy recordings mainly to show off their systems would best turn elsewhere; readers who can listen through sonic imperfections to the glorious magic created when voice and heartfelt interpretation merge as one will find much reason for rejoicing.

Too many modern opera recordings lack that rare combination of absolute conviction, brilliance of interpretation, and uniqueness of sound that characterizes much singing of earlier eras. Playing the recently-released RUTH ANN SWENSON  Con Amore Italian Opera Arias EMI Classics 7243 5 56764 2 ( ), for example, reveals a careful approach to high notes, a lack of excitement in coloratura, and a “Sempre libera” which makes Violetta sound like she hasn’t been free for a day in her life. Ruth Ann has a beautiful voice, and she has given many wonderful performances, but the heart of this music, whether it be by Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, or Donizetti, here escapes her. This may have better sound than any of the recordings which follow, but it has not, in this case, been put to best use.

What Maria Callas did not sing of Ruth Ann Swenson’s repertoire, Beverly Sills probably did. The live recordings of the never before available 1958 MARIA CALLAS  LOS ANGELES CONCERT VAI 1182 () and 1968 Beverly Sills Buenos Aires GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL • JULIUS CAESAR (GIULIO CESARE highlights VAI 1184 (), both available from VAI Audio, move and astound. Maria tears through the music and her voice, not always appropriately (as in the case of Musetta’s Waltz), with a fire and passion of almost mythical proportions. Despite some wobble on the highest notes, she is in superb 1958 voice. This from-the-audience recording gives a more believable sense of the size and power of her voice when heard in a large venue than afforded by most commercial recordings. Callas fans will undoubtedly already own at least one live and/or commercial Callas recording of Tu che invoco from La Vestale, Vieni, t’afretta (shorn of its caballeta) from Macbeth, Una voce poco fa from Il Barbiere, L’altra notte from Boito’s Mefistofele, and the Mad Scene from Hamlet (here superbly done). But the special sonics of this recording recommend it highly.

While Callas’ voice could burn a hole through your heart, the more delicate instrument of Beverly Sills, here captured in its final prime, touches heart and soul in a different way. Gracing the music which only two years earlier had catapulted her to international stardom, Beverly floats exquisite head tones whose disembodied luminosity moves like no others. The sound is a little dim, and the ultimate magic of those head tones, which hovered in space until they took your breath away, is not fully captured. Nonetheless, this document of Sills’ opening night triumph in Buenos Aires, a necessary supplement to her studio Julius Caesar of 1967, is an absolute treasure. Please let me know if Sills’ Che sento? O Dio! …Se pieta di me non senti moves you to tears as it did me.

Vocal riches of an earlier era can be found in The Prima Voce TREASURY OF OPERA, VOL. 1 Nimbus NI 1742 (). These 6-CDs for $29.98 feature some of the true GREATS singing opera/operetta excerpts from Adriana Lecouvreur through Manon. Recorded from 1906-1943, with the bulk of recordings dating from the teens through the ‘30s, this volume features legendary recordings by Claudia Muzio (I find herLa mamma morta superior to Callas’), Rosa Ponselle, the unforgettable Conchita Supervia (Rossini and Bizet), John McCormack, Enrico Caruso (sounding much better than in the CARUSO 2000 reissue panned in our reviews, Part 12), Ezio Pinza, Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tauber and others. I can think of no better introduction to a wealth of great singing than this astounding bargain. Some criticize the Nimbus practice of miking the results of playing these old discs through a huge horn whose diameter is probably greater than the height of most basketball players, but I find the process gives voices more of the size and air missing from the original 78s. Stay tuned for Vol. 2, which will feature some of the same singers plus many other greats in excerpts from Manon Lescaut through Die Zauberflote.

Rosa Ponselle was THE American dramatic soprano whose recordings of Norma, Il Vestale, Ernani, and other Verdi roles were considered supreme until Callas came along. As a young girl, Ponselle was singing with her sister in Vaudeville when word reached Enrico Caruso of the “dark splendor” of the Ponselle voice. After attending one of her performances, the great tenor went backstage, and greeted her with the words “Young lady, you are going to sing at the Metropolitan.” And so she did, for perhaps 20 years.

Most critics lament that Ponselle’s dark soprano was never adequately captured by commercial recording techniques. Her acoustic recordings, made by singing into a horn, have all the limitations inherent to that low-level, microphone-less technology (though they did capture the low end of the voice fairly well), while the early electricals are considered too “dry” in sound. ROSA PONSELLE ON THE AIR VOLUME 1  1934-1936 Marston 52012-2 () features transfer guru Ward Marston’s restorations of the original off-the-air aluminum and acetate disc recordings of Ponselle’s live Chesterfield Radio broadcasts. While these do succeed, at times through distortion, in giving us more of the voice than heard in commercial issues, they also communicate grandiosity, some unsteadiness, and confirmation that Ponselle was wise to retire from opera and concertizing while she was still relatively young. Many selections are disappointing, with too many “popular classics” aimed at the ‘30s radio audience. While no Ponselle admirer will wish to be without these discs, especially since they document arias such as Divinites du  Styx from Alceste, The Waltz Song from Die Lustige Witwe, Printemps qui commence from Samson et Dalila, Voi lo sapete from Cavalleria Rusticana, four Carmen selections, Batti, batti from Don Giovanni (not at all what you’d expect from this soprano), and songs by Schubert, Reger (give me Elisabeth Schumann anyday), Tosti and Tchaikovsky, I’d rather remember Ponselle, diminished though her voice may be, from Nimbus transfers such as those included in the above volume.

Moving to the more rarefied world of art song, MARIAN ANDERSON • SCHUBERT AND SCHUMANN LIEDER RCA Victor 9026-63575-2 (), reveals that this extraordinary African-American contralto, born in Philadelphia in 1897, was absolutely one of the very great art song interpreters captured on record. For many, Anderson’s artistry has been overshadowed by the drama of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to allow her to present a 1939 Constitution Hall concert, and the subsequent intervention by Eleanor Roosevelt which enabled Anderson to sing to 75,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Due to her race, much of her career was built in Europe, with her color-barrier breaking 1955 Metropolitan Opera House debut coming when she was 58 years old (although she continued to concertize for at least another ten years).

What America did not hear, besides all the controversy over color, and what in large part never made it to disc, were her reportedly superb interpretations of the music of Sibelius, Debussy, Bizet, Ravel, Brahms, Wolf, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf. This issue helps assure Anderson her rightful place in recorded history.

These Anderson recordings of Schubert and Schumann (including the complete Frauenliebe und leben) were made later in her career, from 1945 to 1951. She is still in superb voice, singing with a rare intimacy and directness of expression which frankly astonish this reviewer. Anderson was a marvelous artist who seems to have chosen music as the way to fully express her humanity. A born storyteller, she clearly loved to sing, and thrived by sharing story and love through song. Her Liebesbotschaft is a wonder, the Erlkonig a stunning demonstration of her ability to color her voice to portray the different characters in this song. Der Tod un das Machen lets us feel death through use of her profound low register, while the delicate highs of her Der Nussbaum whisper of love and mystery with an intimacy that could convince a listener that she is singing just to them. Kudos to RCA Victor; the transfers are superb. If you love art song, or just plain love singing, GET THIS DISC.

The new label INA Memoire Viv, distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA, is releasing for the first time live “radiophonic documents” housed by the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel. SUZANNE DANCO EN CONCERT IMV002 () presents French chausson recorded in 1955 and 1949 by a soprano known especially from her Kleiber Nozze di Figaro recording. Approaching this disc with high anticipation, I found the singing tense, with many performances constantly bringing to mind superior interpretations by Maggie Teyte, Janet Baker and other greats. Far more satisfactory, revelatory in fact, and in quite good 20-bit transfer sound, is the 1956 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence recital by soprano TERESA STICH-RANDALL IMV008 (). Known for her many oratorio recordings of Bach, Handel and Haydn, and her wonderful Sophie in the famed Von Karajan Rosenkavalier, Stich-Randall’s art song interpretations of Mozart, Schubert, Brahms , Strauss, and Debussy are a revelation. My first thought upon hearing this disc was that, had not Walter Legge constantly promoted his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the supreme lieder interpreter of her generation, we might have a number of treasurable Stich-Randall lieder recordings on our shelves. True, she is best in quieter passages rather than declamation, but her purity of emission, delicacy of timbre, unfussiness of interpretation, and absolute poise are rare indeed. To begin a recital with a Mozart Abendemfindung this poised, relaxed and assured recording evidences a superb artist.

Does this man listen to singers recorded after 1968? Absolutely. Tune in next time for new issues by Thomas Quasthoff, Bryn Terfel, Christine Schafer and others.

 - Jason Serinus -

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