27 Jun 2006
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vols. 1 and 2
Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.
Two new recordings from highly acclaimed specialists Opera Rara - Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe.
It is not often that a major work by a forgotten composer gets rediscovered and makes an enormously favorable impression on today’s listeners. That has happened, unexpectedly, with Herculanum, a four-act grand opera by Félicien David, which in 2014 was recorded for the first time.
This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.
Félicien David’s intriguing Le désert, for vocal and orchestral forces plus narrator, was widely performed in its own day, then disappeared from the performing repertory for nearly a century.
This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).
This new release of John Taverner’s virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea (produced by Gimell Records) comes two years after The Tallis Scholars’ critically esteemed recording of the composer’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary. The recording also includes Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum.
Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.
Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc
Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
As the editor of Opera magazine, John Allison, notes in his editorial in the June issue, Donizetti fans are currently spoilt for choice, enjoying a ‘Donizetti revival’ with productions of several of the composer’s lesser known works cropping up in houses around the world.
Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France
Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” — and if you are not one of those it is about time you were.
This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.
This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.
We see the characters first in two boxes at an opera house. The five singers share a box and stare at the stage. But Konstanze’s eye is caught by a man in a box opposite: Bassa Selim (actor Tobias Moretti), who stares steadily at her and broods in voiceover at having lost her, his inspiration.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era was produced in 1997 by Jan Schmidt-Garre as a television series of thirteen episodes broadcast on a variety of European networks. The series was packaged as four videos and then as two DVDs. Highlighted in Volume I of this latest incarnation are Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, and Joseph Schmidt (the episode on Schmidt received mention at the Louvre’s 1998 “Classique en images” international film festival). The second DVD features segments on Lauritz Melchior, Helge Rosvænge, Jussi Björling, John McCormack, Georges Thill, Ivan Koslovsky and others, including a final episode on “The Singing Robot”—the record player. Timed fairly equally at just under 30 minutes, each episode has a similar format: following a “canned” introductory film of a nameless tenor in a recording studio (usually singing from L’Africaine), the viewer is taken back into the lives of these great singers. In the case of Caruso, we are introduced to New Yorkers who knew the tenor when they were young; to get a glimpse of Slezak’s past, we are transported into the mountains where dirndl and lederhosen-clad mountainfolk with beer steins recall how the tenor loved his free time there among them. Other episodes offer less-stereotypical portraits, but the pattern remains: an exploration of where these men lived and performed, interviews with people who knew them as friends or colleagues, and various commentaries on recordings of their voices. Although the soundtracks of recordings of the singers, particularly of lesser known voices like Schmidt’s, are worth the viewing time, the dissections of their vocal styles not only leave much to be desired but make one question the overall point of the exercise.
In general, the listening “analyses” in these episodes are so subjective that one is reminded of the childhood game of “Telephone” in which everyone supposedly hears the same phrase yet each repeats it back differently. It is absolutely true that recordings have become “primary source” research materials, and historians of both opera and recording science use them to trace issues like the technical influences singers of the past have had on present performance practices. Yet such commentary often slips into the realm of subjective interpretation. Clearly, there are objective judgments that one could make about listening to recordings; one might, for example, note that an artist’s approach to a particular phrase was technically correct or that a certain critical pitch was delivered sharp or flat. One can also compare the recordings of singers to trace the transmission of stylistic elements from an important voice teacher to his or her pupils. However, comments—all too frequent in these episodes—such as “He caresses the melody” are senseless and, in fact, detract from the worthwhile moments. What is even more puzzling is why the producer would include contradictory comments one right after the other. For instance, one commentator will applaud a certain singer’s ability to control volume; the very next person interviewed will bemoan said singer’s dynamic weaknesses. One can only expect differences of opinion in a format such as this, but it becomes difficult for the viewer to know precisely whom to believe.
Most interesting in the series are the interviews with other performers who share their memories of working with these great artists. Next come the portions dedicated to recording historian Jürgen Kesting; it is a revelation just to watch him as he listens to recorded excerpts. He provides a living example of audience interaction with recorded sound. By far the weakest portions of the series are those featuring Stefan Zucker; he may well be an expert in this repertory but his comments do anything but demonstrate this. For example, he comments that when Joseph Schmidt sang in the synagogue, he was performing in the florid style of the nineteenth-century opera house; to cap off this reference to Rossini and his colleagues, the video cuts to a cantor who is singing a traditional prayer. Although there a thread of logic here—that cantors and singers embellish vocal lines—it is so poorly stated that Zucker’s point goes far afield of its intended mark.
Perhaps the wisest remark is offered by John Steane, who seems to be commenting on the series title: Bel Canto. The term, he notes, is “so vague. I sometimes think that the term should be banned. It’s used without any definition. Its principle use is negative—we know what isn’t bel canto.” In fact, the series title, Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, demonstrates the lack of focus of the entire series: does it center on the singers and their careers? On recordings of their voices? On clips that document their cinematic activities? The latter—even if they are the only ones available—offer unflattering profiles of Slezak’s activities with the Ufa and Gigli’s appearances in Fascist-era movies; the former would hardly appreciate being remembered in a scene that shows him singing “Kleine Frau” while surrounded by a roomful of merry Nazi officers. While there are moments of wonderful music and interesting information in these episodes, one can not help but wonder why the producer did not simply let the singers’ eloquent voices speak for themselves.