(Oh, all right, I admit it, the convenience of CD’s has long outweighed any attachment I could possibly have to the benefits some audiophiles hear in analog, and I have kept my vinyl collection around, to the despair of those who have had to help pack and move my belongings, to hear performances that aren’t available on CD or that I can’t justify buying again on CD. True audiophiles, and you know who you are, will probably have to read another review to find out just how good the sound quality of these SACD’s is or isn’t—although if you read on, I can give you some clues.)
So when I put the Mozart concert arias into the CD player and heard once again the radiance of Ameling’s performance with the English Chamber orchestra, there were two of me listening to it: my mature self determined to make an objective assessment, and my much younger self, falling in love all over again with Mozart’s arias through a voice that at the time I thought of as the “definitive” lyric soprano. Years later, having sung (after a fashion) most of these pieces in voice lessons and opera workshops, I still can’t help thinking of her performances “Yes, that’s how they should be sung.” My more experienced ears tell me that there are more intrinsically gorgeous voices around, but the diction, phrasing, and breath control are all admirable, along with a grace and elegance that, for me, really bring this beautiful music to life. The Mozart selection includes many of the most familiar arias of Zerlina, Cherubino, and Susanna, from Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, along with “Come Scoglio” from Così fan tutte, the difficult runs and skips of which she navigates very competently. The concert arias include the tour de force “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” with Dalton Baldwin providing the thrilling piano obbligato that Mozart wrote for himself to play as Nancy Storace, for whom the aria was written, bid farewell to Vienna. The rest of this disk consists of music Franz Schubert wrote for various projects for the stage that never were very successful. Ameling’s performance of them with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra make it clear that the projects’ failure to enter the repertoire was not due to the music. While the two pieces from Goethe’s Claudine von Villa Bella are better known as lieder in their piano transcriptions, there are also some more substantial arias, and all of this music shares the disc with Mozart’s arias very comfortably.
The second SACD that I heard also combines a re-released favorite of mine, entitled Lieder für Gretchen, Ellen and Suleika, with Schumann’s Frauenliebe- und Leben, of which I’ve probably heard more performances than I would have chosen to, because it makes its way onto compilation discs that I buy for other reasons. I guess for each of us there are is a masterpiece or two that we just cannot find it in ourselves to love, and I have long resisted this one because of the text. I had wondered why great artists kept performing and recording it, until, in listening to this aria with the care that a review requires, I realized, of course, that it is really wonderful music. The program on the original Frauenliebe und -Leben LP was split up so that this cycle could be combined with a set of Schubert Lieder that also take the point of view of female characters: Goethe’s Gretchen from Faust, the Suleika texts he lifted from his friend Marianne von Willemer to include in his West-östlicher Divan, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ellen, from The Lady of the Lake, as well as Craigher’s “Die junge Nonne”, which the liner notes misleadingly imply is part of Goethe’s Faust set. The listener can compare Schumann’s interpretation of the kind of domestic drama that he was about to enter when he wrote the cycle in the year of his marriage, with the decidedly undomestic emotions of the young women that Schubert presents. Ameling and Baldwin perform all of these songs with their characteristic high standard of musicianship and technical achievement.
Conscience required me to at least try to evaluate the audio quality of these discs, which are Hybrid Super Audio Compact Discs, playable either on standard CD players or on multiple channel equipment with which I was, frankly, unfamiliar. Apparently the original analog recordings were quadraphonic, although, according to the liner notes, “it turned out to be almost impossible to reproduce the major increase in quality on the gramophone record of the time in combination with the sound systems used by consumers in their homes.” Hence my vinyl copies were released as “stereo” or “deluxe”, and it is only recently that multi-channel reproduction systems have made enough inroads into the consumer market to make it worthwhile to release these recordings with the original four distinct channels of sound. So, on a snowy weekday morning when I figured business was likely to be slow, I took the discs to my local high-end audio establishment, Magnolia Audio-Video, figuring they’d have the equipment if anyone would. They were kind enough to set me up in their plush home theater room, where I was treated to some of my favorite music sung by one of my favorite singers on a carefully prepared recording through about $50,000 worth of McIntosh audio equipment. Needless to say, it was heaven while it lasted.
Not being a true audiophile, I am not expert enough to say where these discs fit in the spectrum of high-quality audio, or even, to tell the truth, to say for sure whether the discs succeed at what they set out to do. Did I feel like I was in the space where the performances were taking place? Yes, for the most part (except I’ve never yet sat in a leather lounge chair in a concert hall). I did notice that, when a track began, rather than hearing dead silence before the music started, I could hear a bit of the noise from the original analog recording. At the climax of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“und ach…sein Küss”) I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought there was some sound that was not actually the vibrato in her voice. I would hesitate to call it distortion without knowing for sure and had no one at hand to ask about it. And, although I was listening on a system that included “effects speakers” all around me, I did not in fact hear much coming from behind me, which is what would be expected if one were sitting in a hall where the performance was coming from the stage and there was absolutely no coughing or fidgeting in the audience, or there was no audience at all (which was presumably the case when the recordings were made).
I asked what would be the lowest end equipment one could own on which the special audio characteristics of these discs could be heard and was told that the “theater in a box” systems that can be had for about $350 would pick up all the channels. It would not sound the way I had heard it, of course, but it would be an option.
At the other end of the spectrum, I needed to do some serious multi-tasking while preparing both to celebrate the holidays and to write this review, so I downloaded the lieder tracks onto my Palm Zire to rehear as MP3 tracks through ear buds. It was in this format that I found myself most deeply aware of the clarity of the recording and of Ameling’s diction, as not a word was lost.
So if your family clamors for a theater-in-a-box this Christmas to better enjoy the special effects on today’s movie DVD’s, you might want to pick up one or more of these discs too. Then, if you are fortunate enough to find a moment when you can have the sound system to yourself, treat yourself to this music. My personal choice for several minutes of pure transcendence would be the coda of “Ch’io mi scordi di te”, where Mozart builds the virtuosic voice and piano parts together to a spectacular conclusion. But if you seek even more peaceful transcendence, you may prefer “Ave Maria”, which closes the lieder disc. Either way, you will rise from your chair renewed.
The liner notes include information about the recording process itself and notes about the songs and arias in English, German, and French, as well as texts and English translations of the works. For those who, like me, have some or all of these tracks on vinyl and might be trying to figure out which CDs might replace which LPs, the Arias disc includes all of Philips LP 6500 544 (Mozart Opera and Concert Arias) and the pieces from Philips 9500 170 (Schubert on Stage) in which Elly Ameling performs solo. The lieder disk includes all of Philips LP 9500 169 (Songs for Gretchen, Ellen, and Suleika), except for D126 (“Scene from Faust”), which was not a solo, and the “Frauenliebe und -leben” from Philips 6500 706 (Frauenliebe und -leben). The remainder of the songs from Philips 6500 706 are on the third SACD in this series (PentaTone 5186 132: Schubert Lieder), along with more songs by Schubert, originally from Philips 6500 704 (Schubert 16 Lieder).