31 Jul 2013

Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber

During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.

Indeed, it is doubtful that any opera singer has truly been an household name since the death of Luciano Pavarotti. Possessing an unique timbre that combined sweetness with power and an ironclad technique that enabled him to sing an effective, poised Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Covent Garden in 1947, after one of his lungs was fully incapacitated by the cancer that would take his life, Tauber was an extraordinary artist whose many recordings confirm that his charm and charisma were audible in every note that he sang. Sadly, though, even an artist such as Tauber falls victim to the erosive effects of time upon the reaches of musical legacies: once celebrated from Vienna to Vancouver and from Boston to Buenos Aires, Tauber is now but a name from history to many young artists; and, to many others, not even that. Equal parts homage to a fascinating artist of the past and opportunity for a young tenor to delight his admirers with a recital of music that suits his voice remarkably well, Heart’s Delight reminds the listener that Tauber’s ‘greatest hits’ having been enormously popular is in no way indicative that these gems composed for him by composers such as Franz Lehár (1870 - 1948) and Emmerich Kálmán (1882 - 1953) are musically insubstantial.

Though the selections on this disc rely principally upon the skills of the soloist, the support that the singer receives is nonetheless vital to the success of the performance. Having the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on hand to provide accompaniment is an embarrassment of riches, especially as some of the arrangements employed—most of which are credited to either Paul Bateman or Carl Michalski—subject the orchestra to service as little more than a string-heavy studio pick-up band of the type familiar from the musically chrome-plated recordings by the Mantovani Orchestra and similar ensembles. The Royal Philharmonic players take this in stride, however, producing lovely sounds that cushion the often ecstatic melodic lines. Violinist Duncan Riddell adds marvellously atmospheric playing to the orchestral fabric. Polish conductor Łukasz Borowicz presides over the performance with complete conviction, shaping each song with careful attention to the nuances of its text. Both Maestro Borowicz and the orchestra as a whole breathe in tandem with the soloist, conveying an unity of approach that makes even the too-familiar ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ sound newly-minted. Tinges of nostalgia in many of the songs prove surprisingly moving, kept in check as they are by Maestro Borowicz’s firm beat. The apparent enthusiasm for the project by both the Royal Philharmonic and Maestro Borowicz prevents this disc from ever seeming self-indulgent, a persistent peril with recital discs.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is one of the most acclaimed tenors of the current generation, with triumphs on all of the world’s major operatic stages to his credit. It was as the Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto that Mr. Beczala made his début at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, and he reprised the rôle in the MET’s much-discussed new production of the opera by Michael Mayer in January 2013. Fine as he has been in recordings of operatic arias and full-length operas, he is on career-best form in this recording, his lean lyric tenor filling out the vocal lines of the selections on this disc with impressive security. Closely recorded with microphones dating from Tauber’s own recording sessions at London’s Angel Studios, Mr. Beczala mostly avoids the forcing in his upper register that increasingly affects his operatic performances. One of the most arresting aspects of Mr. Beczala’s singing on this disc is the uncanny resemblance of his timbre to that of José Carreras: there are in Mr. Beczala’s singing the same sort of sunny brilliance and unapologetic sentimentality that shone in Carreras’s finest singing. Occasionally, Mr. Beczala’s highest notes disclose slight discomfort. Pavarotti suggested that tenors are born with a sort of account into which a finite number of top Cs has been deposited: every withdrawal, as it were, depletes the account. There are more interpolated top notes in this performance than are strictly needed to make the impression that Mr. Beczala seemingly intends, some of them stretching his resources, but it is a great pleasure to hear this superb voice sounding so well.

The recital begins and ends with the aria that Tauber did more than any other artist to popularize, ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Léhar’s Das Land des Lächelns. It was for Tauber that Léhar composed ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ when he revised the score that was transformed into Das Land des Lächelns for Berlin in 1929. The opening track of Heart’s Delight offers the aria as ‘You are my heart’s delight’ in an English translation by Harry Graham that was used by Tauber in London performances. The similar cadences of the English and German texts produce performances that are virtually carbon copies of one another: both are excellently sung.

Not surprisingly, the music of Léhar is prominent in this recital. In ‘Lippen schweigen,’ the famous waltz-duet from Die lustige Witwe, Mr. Beczala is joined by Russian diva Anna Netrebko. What could easily have been an embarrassingly hackneyed party number is a memorably lovely account of the duet. Drawing inspiration from her colleague, Ms. Netrebko’s voice is on fantastic form, the climactic top notes radiant and delivered with spot-on intonation. It is not indicated whether the English translation by A.P. Herbert that was used by Tauber in the London première of Paganini is employed for Mr. Beczala’s performance of ‘Girls were made to love and kiss,’ but the tenor is to be congratulated for making the dated, slightly chauvinistic lyrics sound legitimately romantic. Mr. Beczala enjoys the backing of the Berlin Comedian Harmonists, substituting for the chorus, in his ringing performance of ‘Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert’ from Giuditta.

Rudolf Sieczyński (1879 - 1952) would be completely forgotten today were it not for his lilting ‘Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume.’ As unabashedly sentimental paean to Vienna, the song became an unofficial anthem for the city. Mr. Beczala sings the song with unaffected fervor.

Emmerich Kálmán (1882 - 1953) was nearly as influential in the milieu of Viennese operetta in the early 20th Century as was Léhar, his command of the csárdás winning the hearts of Austrian and German audiences alongside Léhar’s waltz tunes. Kálmán’s importance to Tauber’s career is represented on this disc with two numbers from Gräfin Mariza, one of the composer’s greatest successes. ‘Auch ich war einst ein feiner Csárdáskavalier’ and ‘Grüß mir die süßen, die reizenden Frauen im schönen Wien’ are two of Kálmán’s most melodically distinguished songs, and Mr. Beczala relishes the fluid vocal lines.

Ralph Erwin’s (1896 - 1943) ‘Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame’ was sung by Tauber in Robert Land’s 1929 silent—except for Tauber’s performance—film of the same name. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as a free-thinking party girl whose aristocratic paramour turns out to be a mere waiter is one of the most subtle of her career, but it is Tauber’s singing of the title song that makes the film legendary. Mr. Beczala’s performance of the song is stirring. ‘Overhead the moon is beaming,’ Karl Franz’s Serenade from Sigmund Romberg’s (1887 - 1951) The Student Prince, is one of the most difficult tenor arias in the operetta repertory, and it was a particular gem in Tauber’s concert repertoire. It proves a highlight of Mr. Beczala’s performance, as well, his tone gleaming and his accent enchanting. In this song, too, the Berlin Comedian Harmonists back Mr. Beczala with perfect coordination. Carl Bohm (1844 - 1920) is now forgotten, but it was said in the 19th Century that his publisher’s profits from sales of Bohm’s songs financed publication of much of Brahms’s late work. The ‘old German love song’ ‘Still wie die Nacht,’ one of Bohm’s most bewitching songs, draws from Mr. Beczala a finely-wrought performance, the sound of the voice conveying the rapture of the text.

Robert Stolz (1880 - 1975) was one of Austria’s most versatile composers of the 20th Century, his career embracing operetta, film music, and a series of scores for Austria’s version of the Ice Capades. ‘O mia bella Napoli’ from Venus in Seide, transported to the sun-drenched streets of Naples by the inviting mandolin playing of Avi Avital, is a brooding, convincingly Italianate piece that brings out the most fetching colors in Mr. Beczala’s voice. The songs ‘Ob blond, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau’n’ (from 1935’s Ich liebe alle Frauen) and ‘Ich liebe dich’ (from 1937’s Zauber der Bohème) are taken from two of Stolz’s most successful film scores and are sung with appropriate amorous swagger by Mr. Beczala. ‘Das Lied ist aus,’ from the 1930 film with the same title, is a mesmerizingly tender piece, and Mr. Beczala sings it lovingly, imparting an enthralling sincerity without over-emoting or distorting Maestro Borowicz’s perfect tempo.

Never have advances in recording technology been put to better use than in allowing Mr. Beczala to duet with Tauber in ‘Du bist die Welt für mich’ from Der singende Traum, one of Tauber’s own compositions. Tauber’s vocals were recorded in Vienna in 1934, but the sound of his singing is so vibrant that a listener could easily believe that Tauber was in the studio with Mr. Beczala in 2012. There are no hints of the artificiality that spoil many similar efforts of combining recordings of artists past and present. The care with which Mr. Beczala matches his phrasing to that of his illustrious predecessor is apparent, and the engineers achieved a blend of the two voices—similar in timbre but very different in tonal placement and vibrato—that is a credit to both artists. As in all of the tracks on this disc, Mr. Beczala’s singing is sensitive but aptly large-scaled.

Very few recital discs planned as tributes to artists of prior generations are as successful as Heart’s Delight. Too many of these sorts of recordings are excessively academic or merely orchestrated manifestations of singers’ egos. Foremost among the many exemplary qualities of Heart’s Delight is the affinity of the singer for the music that he sings: Piotr Beczala never for a moment condescends to the notion of singing numbers from operettas and film scores. This is not an instance of an important opera singer ‘slumming it’ in a performance of music of lesser quality than that to which he is accustomed. Richard Tauber undoubtedly possessed one of the finest tenor voices of the 20th Century, and he gravitated to operetta not because his vocal capabilities were unsuited to grand opera but because his artistic soul found in operetta the opportunity to smile through music. When hearing his singing on Heart’s Delight, the listener is likely to find that the smile in Piotr Beczala’s voice is contagious.

Joseph Newsome

Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber—Songs composed for Richard Tauber performed by Piotr Beczala with Anna Netrebko, soprano; the Berlin Comedian Harmonists; Avi Avital, mandolin; Duncan Riddell, violin; and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz [Recorded in the Angel Recording Studios Ltd, London, during October 2012; Deutsche Grammophon B0018337-02; 1CD, 62:05]