03 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Revenge of the Big Voices – DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! by Inge Borkh, Dame Gwyneth Jones, & Nancy Tatum (DECCA 480 8139, 480 8161, & 480 8183)

CD REVIEW: DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! by Inge Borke, Dame Gwyneth Jones, & Nancy Tatum (DECCA 480 8139, 480 8161, & 480 8183)[1] Great Singers Series – Inge Borkh: Operatic Recital—Inge Borkh, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Wiener Philharmoniker; Anatole Fistoulari, Rudolf Moralt, and Josef Krips, conductors [Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 27 – 29 November 1957 (tracks 1 – 5) and in Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, June 1956 (tracks 11 – 12) and 3 – 4 November 1958 (tracks 6 – 10); DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8139; 1 CD, 77:57; Available from Amazon (USA), Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

[2] Scenes from Verdi: Gwyneth Jones—Dame Gwyneth Jones, soprano; Maureen Lehane, mezzo-soprano; George Macpherson, bass; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Wiener Staatsopernorchester; Sir Edward Downes and Argeo Quadri, conductor [Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 26 January – 12 February 1968 (tracks 1 – 5) and in Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 1 – 9 March 1966 (tracks 6 – 8); DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8161; 1 CD, 79:45; Available from Amazon (USA) and major music retailers]

[3] Nancy Tatum: Operatic Recital—Nancy Tatum, soprano; Geoffrey Parsons, piano; Wiener Opernorchester; Argeo Quadri, conductor [Recorded in Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 1 – 9 June 1965 (tracks 1 – 8) and in Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 5 – 8 December 1968 (tracks 9 – 18); DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8183; 1 CD, 79:29; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Big is beautiful. The origins of that platitude of course have nothing to do with music, but the affirmative sentiment expressed by those three words can quite naturally be applied to opera, to the voices that populate the genre as well as to the physiques that support them. There exists now a maddening proneness to mistake a voice's volume for its size: often, a loud singer is confused with one in possession of a large-proportioned instrument. In truth, how many opera lovers currently under the age of forty have heard a legitimately big voice? With theatres growing ever larger and acoustics ever crueler to Classically-trained singers, why are big voices now so little cultivated? Seemingly gone are the days in which Gino Penno sounded as robust when facing the back of the Metropolitan Opera stage as when projecting directly to the audience and Gertrude Grob-Prandl could be heard by passengers on trams passing along the Ringstraße as she sang Isolde's Narration and Curse at the Wiener Staatsoper; gone not only because these singers are dead but, more crucially, because their ways of singing expired with them. One of the most remarkable aspects of a 2010 MET Saturday matinée performance of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos attended by this listener was the manner in which soprano Nina Stemme—one of a few singers I have heard who possesses a natural instrument worthy of the MET in terms of vocal amplitude—filled the house with sound without singing at full power or volume in more than a handful of passages. Voices like Stemme's, Kirsten Flagstad's, Helen Traubel's, Birgit Nilsson's, Éva Marton's, and even Dame Joan Sutherland's are subject to damage by forcing, but these ladies had the technical wherewithal to understand that the health and effectiveness of large voices are just as dependent upon proper projection as are those of more lyrical endowments. The careers of Inge Borkh, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Nancy Tatum illustrate both the splendors and the stumbling blocks of managing powerful voices. These sopranos' entries in DECCA's Most Wanted Recitals! series, lovingly prepared by Víctor Suzán Reed for compact disc release in sound superior to many modern digital recordings, are relics from an era scarcely more familiar to today’s observers than those of castrati and Falcons. In a recording like the sterling account of Leonardo Vinci's Catone in Utica, DECCA's endeavors facilitate appreciation of a notion of how castrati may have sounded: this trio of discs from the label's archives restores to the enjoyment of the modern listener a veritable explosion of sounds from ladies whose tones might have caused those testosterone-deficient castrati to cower in fear.

Born in Mannheim [whether in 1917 or 1921 remains a matter of debate] and primarily trained in Italy, Inge Borkh is unique in having enjoyed a significant career in opera bookended by lauded stints as a thespian upon the theatrical stage. She is also unique in having displayed throughout the years of her singing career a thorough cognizance of her vocal resources. Though she was acclaimed as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, Elsa in Lohengrin, and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, she was not lured into singing the Brünnhildes or Isolde, all of which she might have managed with far greater facility than many interpreters of the parts could muster. Regrettably, though, her few commercial recordings—including a thrilling Elektra conducted by Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon, an underrated Turandot opposite Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi on DECCA, and a ‘live’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, also on Deutsche Grammophon, in which Borkh’s Färberin is both tough and touching—insufficiently document her exceptional versatility. Recorded in London in 1957 and ​in Vienna during the preceding and following years, the selections on Borkh's Most Wanted Recitals! disc not only honor the broad scope of her artistry but also preserve her vocalism at its freshest and most secure. The first three numbers on the disc could hardly be more different in style, but Borkh’s vocalism provides an uncanny symmetry. The account of ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém,’ the familiar Song to the Moon from Antonín Dvořák’s (1841 – 1904) ​Rusalka, here sung in German, that opens the disc is striking, both in terms of the actual singing and in the manner in which Borkh finesses the phrasing, up to the gleaming top B♭, as effectively as the finest lyric exponents of the music—Gabriela Beňačková, for instance. Then, still singing in German, Borkh rivals the most inspired interpreters of the title rôle in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714 – 1787) Alceste with her urgent, Classically-sculpted ‘Divinité​s du Styx,’ the ringing, secure top B♭s again commanding admiration. Singing ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ from Pietro Mascagni’s (1863 – 1945) Cavalleria rusticana with power that heightens the emotional intensity of the aria, she confirms that, with the exception of Giulietta Simionato, Santuzza is best served by a dramatic soprano.

A surviving recording of a Frankfurt performance reveals that Borkh was a potent presence as the dastardly heroine of ​Giuseppe ​Verdi's (1813 – 1901) Macbeth. Split between recording sessions in London and Vienna, the selections on this disc provide tantalizing vistas of the soprano's portrayal of the wayward Thane's power-hungry consort. From the first notes of 'Ambizioso spirto,' it is clear that few Macbeths could withstand the onslaughts of this Lady's ambition. Vocally, Borkh's grasp on the style of Verdi's music is not as tight as Callas's, but she comes very near to matching la Divina's unstoppable drive in this part. The lower reaches of 'Vieni t'affretta' draw from Borkh snarls of malevolent glee as Lady Macbeth contemplates her rise to the throne, and the top notes shine like comets. The coloratura in the cabaletta 'Or tutti sorgete' is not completely comfortable for Borkh, but the voice gushes through the vocal line with the force of a geyser. The dulcet femininity of her voicing of 'La luce langue' is thus quite surprising and all the more captivating. Singing with clear-sighted dramatic purpose and technical aplomb, she discloses the more precious metal beneath Lady Macbeth's brassy façade.

The most unusual offering among the selections on Borkh's disc is the Air de Lia from Claude Debussy’s (1862 – 1918) cantata L'enfant prodigue, 'L'année en vain chasse l'année.' A veritable tour de force that in both structure and its repeated top As hearkens back to Donna Anna's 'Or sai chi l'onore' in Mozart's Don Giovanni, the aria is here sung as a mother's ardent plea for relief from her suffering. The Gallic largesse of Borkh's singing brings Berlioz's Cassandre to mind—a rôle in which the soprano might also have enthralled. Recorded during sessions in Vienna in 1958, Borkh's traversals of 'La mamma morta' from Umberto Giordani's (1867 – 1948) Andrea Chénier and 'Io son l'umile ancella' from Francesco Cilèa's (1866 – 1950) Adriana Lecouvreur simmer with verismo passion, the soprano's phrasing withstanding comparison with the most renowned of her Italian colleagues. Two years earlier, she was wholly in her element in 'Ozean! Du Ungeheuer!' from Carl Maria von Weber's (1786 – 1826) Oberon, one of the most demanding arias in the German Romantic canon. Her performance is notable for the ease with which she sings the music, even in her negotiations of the awkward tessitura and climactic top C. She seems to actually enjoy singing the piece. Enjoyment is also the defining characteristic of her wonderful performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770 – 1827) 'Ah perfido!' (Opus 65​​); both the listener's enjoyment and her own. Borkh makes an opera in miniature of the scene, unearthing and faithfully depicting every emotional hairpin bend in Beethoven's music. Like many large instruments, Borkh's voice was difficult to capture with studio microphones, but she never sounded better on records than in the DECCA sessions on this disc.

Still a divisive artist two decades after singing her final Brünnhildes at Covent Garden and the MET, Dame Gwyneth Jones continues to use her voice in celebration of Richard Wagner in her capacity as President of Britain's Wagner Society. This disc focuses not on her legendary prowess as a Wagnerian but on her less-remembered but no-less-considerable achievements in Verdi rôles, however. It was as Leonora in Verdi's Il trovatore that the Welsh-born Jones enjoyed early triumphs at Covent Garden and the Wiener Staatsoper, where she was also acclaimed as Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo and Aida. Inexplicably except for the fact that her Italian spinto repertory was already well-served on disc by Callas and Tebaldi, Desdemona in Otello was the only one of Jones's very portrayals recorded in studio. This disc is an extremely valuable memento of Jones's vital work as a Verdian.

Recorded in London in 1968, four years after her career-making Covent Garden Leonora under Carlo Maria Giulini, the performances of arias from Aida, Don Carlo, Macbeth, and Otello on this disc preserve tonal beauty and liquidity of phrasing that might surprise listeners acquainted only with Jones's Wagner singing. Her accounts of Aida's 'Ritorna vincitor!' and the recitative 'Qui Radamè​s verrà’ and ubiquitous aria ‘O patria mia' are technically solid, the tricky breath control in the former and the ascent to the formidably exposed top C in the latter managed with tremendous poise and only the faintest hint of the beat that would evolve into the hotly-contested wobble. As evidenced by extant broadcasts from London, Vienna, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo, Elisabetta in Don Carlo was one of Jones's best rôles, and she here voices 'Tu che le vanità' with the regal manner of a legitimate queen consort. The delicacy and naïveté of her singing—qualities not often attributed to this artist—as Elisabetta recalls her native France are unexpectedly touching, and her breath control and piano singing are equal to the those of the finest recorded Elisabettas. On this disc, Jones's is not the ugly voice prescribed by Verdi for Lady Macbeth's music, but the power that she unleashes in 'Nel dì della vittoria io le incontrai' is bracing, there being no doubt of her command of the two-octave range. Her full-throttle 'Vieni, t'affretta' combines dramatic abandon with precision in passagework superior even to Borkh's achievements in this music. Considering Jones's mezzo-soprano origins, it is enlightening to scrutinize her infrequent negotiations of chest resonance: the skill with which the vocal registers are integrated is remarkable for a voice of such dimensions, only an ungainliness in the lower octave betraying a slight deficiency in the voice's technical foundation. Sampling the rôle that she recorded commercially with Sir John Barbirolli, Jones sings Desdemona's 'Era più calmo?' and 'Piangea cantando' with the sweetness of a thoughtful woman resigned to accepting a fate that she foresees but is powerless to alter. Her devout, demonstrative 'Ave Maria' is as beautifully sung as any on records, her mastery of quiet dynamics in the upper register rivaling Milanov's and Tebaldi's.

The three selections that close Jones's disc were recorded in Vienna in 1966. As stated before, Leonora in Il trovatore was a rôle in which she excelled, and she here sings the Act Four aria 'D'amor sull ali rosee' confidently. Missing are Cigna's temperament, Callas's stylishness, the utter suitability of Leontyne Price's timbre for the music, and the crispness of Sutherland's trills, but Jones introduces herself into exalted company with an admirable rendition of the piece. Better still is her monumental voicing of another Leonora's big moment of concentrated dramatic utterance, 'Pace, pace, mio Dio!' from La forza del destino. Few sopranos in the opera's history have hurled out 'maledizione' more convincingly or launched the aria's concluding top B♭ more compellingly.

Perhaps, then, it seems unjust to suggest that the finest singing on a disc devoted to fantastic performances of music by Verdi is heard in Jones's phenomenal voicing of Beethoven's 'Ah perfido!' Following Borkh's top-quality performance of this music, the superiority of Jones's showing in Beethoven's daunting scena is unexpected. It should not be: Jones recorded a near-definitive Leonore—it must have been something about that name!—in Fidelio under Karl Böhm's direction for Deutsche Grammophon and also proved an expert interpreter of Cherubini's Medea on a DECCA studio recording, after all. Even alongside her storied Wagner recordings, this 'Ah perfido!' may well be the single best example of Jones's singing on records. Where Borkh impresses, Jones exhilarates. In recitative and aria, cantilena and roulade, Jones sails through Beethoven's music as though it were written for her. With this number alone, appreciation of Jones's artistry is enriched immeasurably.

Distressingly, such is the neglect to which Nancy Tatum has been subjected even by her countrymen that very few details of her life and career are now documented. Most sources agree that her San Francisco Opera début was in 1969 as Leonora in La forza del destino, a recording of which has periodically circulated in ‘unofficial’ channels, but there continues to be debate about whether she was born in 1931, 1934, or 1937, in Memphis (seemingly the more preferred locale) or Nashville. [The soprano’s husband, tenor Wiley Tatum, settled the matter by verifying that she was born in Memphis on 25 August 1931.] Her sole appearance at the Metropolitan Opera was in the title rôle of Puccini’s Turandot—a part that she sang a number of times with New York City Opera—on 4 October 1974, opposite Franco Corelli, Lucine Amara, and James Morris. In a sense, Tatum seems to have been an American counterpart of the inconsistent but undeniably thrilling Greek soprano Elena Souliotis, whom she partnered in a near-disastrous 1967 Carnegie Hall concert performance of Bellini's Norma. Whatever her faults, Tatum's incendiary singing in that performance hinted at temperamental proclivities that would have made her Adalgisa very alluring to a virile, slightly predatory Pollione, and a recording of a 1971 performance in Grand Théâtre de Genève divulges that she was likewise a formidable Norma. Perhaps the best example of Tatum's artistry currently available is a recording of a 1966 performance of Verdi's Attila from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in which her Odabella is by no means an inadequate partner to the Attila of Jerome Hines and Ezio of Peter Glossop. Much of the excitement of that performance also permeates her singing on this DECCA disc, the principal flaw of which is the failure of the reproduction of the original LP jacket that accompanies the disc to expand the listener's knowledge of this intriguing singer.

Opening with an athletic traversal of 'Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder' from Wagner's Tannhäuser capped with a steady, shimmering top B, Tatum also sings Elisabeth's prayer from Act Three, 'Allmächt'ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen!' Though not as smoothly vocalized as by a singer like Kirsten Flagstad in her prime, the American soprano's performance is capably phrased and suitably heartfelt if occasionally vague of pitch. Her singing of 'Ozean! Du Ungeheuer!' from Weber's Oberon offers an opportunity to compare her artistry, side by side, with Borkh's. Borkh expectedly makes more of the text and has easier going in the approach to the top C, but Tatum's wilder, less-polished singing is more visceral: she generates more excitement because there is just enough insecurity to permit doubt about whether she can ultimately fully manage the music. She is on somewhat safer ground in Agathe's 'Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle' from Weber's Der Freischütz, and she is comfortable with the text. This is her most subtly-characterized number on the disc, a gnawing uncertainty lurking beneath the surface of her assured vocalism. Few sopranos since the heady days of Claudia Muzio and Rosa Ponselle have enjoyed great success with Elvira's 'Surta è la notte' and 'Ernani! Ernani involami' from Verdi's Ernani, and the earnestness of Tatum’s singing does not disguise the effort. Coloratura seemingly did not come naturally to her: the go-for-broke style of Odabella’s music suited her better than the more gossamer mode of Elvira’s vocal lines. Still, she produces engaging sounds. More comfortable aside from the fearsome top C are Aida’s ‘Qui Radamès verrà’ and ‘O patria mia.’ She phrases the aria alluringly, caressing the final statement of ‘mai più ti rivedrò’ with a moving evocation of the character’s paralyzing sadness. Though the basic construction of the voice as recorded suggests that Laura would have been the more appropriate part for her, Tatum sings the name part’s ‘Suicidio! In questi fieri momenti tu sol mi resti’ from Amilcare Ponchielli (1834 – 1886) La Gioconda grandly, tapping the vein of tragic eloquence that courses through the music. Her diction is better here than in any of the other selections in Italian, and her affinity for Ponchielli’s idiom is unmistakable. Tatum’s is a more plebeian reading of Leonora's 'D'amor sull'ali rosee' than Jones's, but she, too, successfully employs musical portraiture to depict the character’s aristocratic, uniquely Spanish bearing.

The selections from Tatum's homage to American Art Song make strange bedfellows for the operatic arias, but there is ever tremendous pleasure to be had from hearing a voice of size and thrust in Art Song repertory. Tatum's accompanist, Geoffrey Parsons, plays Edward MacDowell's (1860 – 1908) 'To a wild rose' (Op. 51, No. 1; 1896) elegantly and then joins the soprano in a surging account of 'The sea' (Op. 47, No. 7), Tatum using the sharply-defined cadences of William Dean Howells's words as the backbone of her performance.

Ernest Gold's (1921 – 1999) 1963 Songs of love and parting were famously recorded by Marni Nixon, the mellifluous singing voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Tatum's voice could hardly be more different from Nixon’s. In the Shakespeare setting 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day,' she is not completely successful at conveying the romance of the text, but the music is ably sung. More finely-honed are her readings of the Emily Dickinson songs, 'Parting' and 'Peace,' both of which she delivers with understated austerity. Tatum and Parsons devote their most thoughtful work to 'Time does not bring relief,' Edna St. Vincent Millay's words inspiring singer and pianist to expressivity of a high order.

Kathleen Lockhart Manning (1890 – 1951) supplied both text and music for 'Shoes,' and Tatum and Parsons honor her as poet and composer with a performance that radiates open-hearted communicativeness. The blind composer John W. Bischoff's (1850 – 1909) setting of Walter Learned's 'Five little white heads' is bathed in this performance in subtlety and good-natured irony, and the simplicity of the singer's reading of the traditional 'He's gone far away' is a welcome departure from typical opera singer antics in this sort of repertory. 'Cowboy composer' David W. Guion's (1892 – 1981) 'Mary alone' is a charming setting of a text by Lucile Isbell Stall, and charm defines Tatum's singing of it: without condescending, she adapts the scale of the voice to the architecture of the song. Always a considerate partner in performances of Lieder, Parsons complements Tatum's sensibilities and avoids seeming at odds with her in passages in which voice and material are not ideally matched. Tatum perhaps never fully realized her exceptional potential, but this disc enables the listener to recognize what a valuable voice she possessed.

A celebrated singer once reminisced about singing Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss's Elektra opposite Dame Gwyneth Jones in the title rôle by stating that, despite the considerable size of her own voice, she could only hope that she was on pitch when singing with Jones because, owing to the power of Jones's tone even when not singing at full volume, she could not hear herself until she reached high B♭. How can the impact of such a voice be reproduced on vinyl or plastic? Recording technologies have advanced during the past three quarters of a century to such an extent that pioneers from the early days of preserving singers' voices in the ether, as Caruso described it, perhaps would not recognize many of today's sonic engineering methodologies. The difficulty of recording large voices with fidelity to their timbres and overtones remains largely unchanged since the earliest days of documenting the artistry of singers like Erna Denera and Leo Slezak, but these three discs in DECCA’s Most Wanted Recitals! series verify that, with voices like those of Inge Borkh, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Nancy Tatum, the resulting recordings more than justify every frustration and expenditure of technical effort. In the cases of these voices and these discs, big is indeed beautiful.