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The Art of Gérard Souzay
11 Dec 2005

The Art of Gérard Souzay

If anyone had played the soundtrack of those first numbers of the 1955 telecast, I would have looked up in surprise at first and would have wondered if an electronic wizard had cleaned up the acoustic recordings of that giant of French singing: Jean-Emile Vanni-Marcoux.

The Art of Gérard Souzay

Gérard Souzay, baritone/baryton. Telecasts of February 3, 1955 and March 3, 1966. Orchestre de Radio-Canada, Roland Leduc & Jean Beaudet, conductors. Dalton Baldwin, piano.

VAI DVD 4312

 

This was that kind of singing at its very best: each syllable and of course each word perfectly enunciated while not once chopping up the line and keeping perfect legato; a noble and warm timbre with a fresh, round and very attractive small vibrato. Then doubt would have set in as the voice was somewhat higher-lying with an even more homogenous sound than Vanni-Marcoux had. In short this was Gérard Souzay at the height of his powers; a legendary baritone whom nobody French nowadays even approaches. Maybe José van Dam during the seventies, early eighties came somewhat near though the very impressive voice of the Walloon never had that utter beauty. And Souzay didn’t solely rely on his sound but employed it to tell a story with all its shades and corners in the two mélodies and the one opera aria that was broadcast in 1955. The kinescope picture is black and white and clear but with this kind of singing one would have even accepted murkiness.

Eleven years later Souzay once more appeared on Québec Television with a far longer programme. Though still in black and white television had taken some strides and such a thing as a simple registration from a lieder and melodies-recital wasn’t good enough anymore: imagine that some viewers “watching the show” would be bored so a director made it somewhat jollier. Thus Souzay recorded several opera arias and then acted them on camera in costume and with the aid of a few sets while his dubbed sound ran on. And those scenes were inserted between a recital of well-known mélodies so that a little action was served. At the end of the recital the director even had some more clever ideas. A traditional song was illustrated with arty photographs that had no whatsoever relationship with the text of the song Souzay sang. To my delight I even saw a picture of a boy reading “L’Etoile Mystérieuse”, an adventure of comic hero Tintin produced during the war, all anti-Semitic illustrations carefully deleted in the album the boy had in his hands. Meanwhile Souzay was enumerating all kinds of birds in May. And why the great singer consented to have his voice used as an echo during the famous “Baïlero” is anyone’s guess.
Anyway one can grumble as much as one wants but it’s not as if VAI had a choice and one can only be grateful for this issue which may well be commercially less rewarding than another tenor disc.

In the second part of the DVD the singer was eleven years older and was now slowly on the way back. The voice is still beautiful but the 48 year old baritone had been on the scene for more than 20 years and some of the velvet had gone. The top still rings free and clear but in the lower register there is some huskiness. The timbre is less warm because the vibrato has somewhat gone out of the voice. These beautiful overtones, typically for the sheen on all youthful voices, have now gone. The pianissimo is still beautiful but the honeyed sound is less remarkable. This is still a magnificent voice and what artistry but he cannot completely compete with his unique younger self. Of course he has lost nothing from his interpretative powers. His diction remains impeccable and one listens in awe to the opera arias where there are far more competitors. Such beautiful French and such fine legato and one doesn’t think for one second of French as a nasal and difficult language; a complaint one always get from less talented singers. His German is fine too and for this reviewer he is even helped by the fact he is not a native speaker so that he doesn’t fall in the trap of Dieskau- or Schwarzkopf-mannerisms. It is good to see his legendary accompanist Dalton Baldwin too, who, as always, makes a perfect team with the baritone. In short, this DVD is a must.

Jan Neckers

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