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More Singers: Recordings, Films and Concerts

The privilege of taking part in performances in the opera house, recording and film studio and at concerts with superb artists – legendary singers from 1943 until 1979.

In previous chapters I have described the pleasure we had when playing in orchestras with wonderful solo violinists, cellists, pianists, other instrumental soloists and with our colleagues in the orchestra. It was not until I came to write about singers that I realised just how many wonderful artists I had been privileged to take part in performances with between 1943 until 1979. Before that time I had to rely like everyone else on the recordings made in the first half of the 20th century. It is fortunate that though recording techniques were primitive by today’s standards the legacy of recordings made by many legendary singers at that time is still available. In contrast to the instrumental and orchestral recordings made during the same period the voices remain uncorrupted even by the crackle and hiss that even the most sophisticated techniques cannot entirely remove.

Unless one is in a full-time opera orchestra the number of opportunities one gets to play opera will usually be quite limited. I was fortunate that the standard of the performances at Glyndebourne during the years about which I have written was so extraordinarily high. In fact I have never really enjoyed playing in the orchestra pit, with the exception of my time at Glyndebourne where other factors outweighed my prejudice. However some musicians prefer to play for opera and I know that a number of my colleagues in the Royal Opera House Orchestra would not exchange their job for one in a symphony orchestra.

Though we only played two operas in the theatre with Beecham, Ariadne auf Naxos at the Edinburgh Festival and Irmelin in Oxford, about which I have already written, we broadcast and recorded A Village Romeo and Juliet by Delius, broadcast Richard Strauss’s Elektra and The Trojans by Berlioz, recorded Gounod’s Faust and played for the filmed version of The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, under Sir Thomas’s direction.

When we broadcast Elektra from the BBC studios at Maida Vale with a very large orchestra plus chorus and soloists it felt very cramped acoustically and though there was an excellent cast that included Erna Schlüter, Ljuba Welitsch and Paul Schoeffler, there was not really enough time allowed for rehearsal. On the other hand Faust and The Tales of Hoffman were both wonderful. We recorded Faust at the EMI Abbey Road studios with an all-French cast. I remember a most terrific Mephistopheles, Roger Rico – not in costume but quite scary. Beecham took immense trouble over this recording and exceeded the number of sessions EMI had agreed. He decided to ask the orchestra to do four more sessions on the understanding that we would be paid when the royalties came in. Of course the orchestra agreed, though I can’t recall whether we ever received any further payment.

Best of all was the 1949 film The Tales of Hoffmann, over which Beecham again took an immense amount of time and trouble. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film directors and producers worked very closely with Beecham on every aspect of the film. All the music was recorded before the film was shot and the roles on screen were danced by a team of celebrated ballet dancers. Most of the female roles were danced by Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann took the part of Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr Miracle. Robert Rounseville both sang and acted the part of Hoffman.

In the past there were more performances of oratorios and other religious music at concerts, in churches and the concert halls than there are now. In the 1940s and 50s Handel’s Messiah and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius were regular items each year and provided opportunities for some of the best British singers. Two regulars were Elsie Suddaby,

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known as ‘The Girl with the Delicate Air’, who was a fine soprano, and Heddle Nash, a tenor with a lovely Italianate voice. He was a most wonderful Gerontius, thought of then as the best interpreter of the part, and for me he remains the best. Years later, long after I had left the LPO, when we were recording The Dream of Gerontius with Sir Adrian Boult with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1975, Nicolai Gedda another outstanding tenor whose recording of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin made with the Philharmonia in 1953 is very beautiful, was the Gerontius. Although he was someone whose singing gave me very great pleasure he was unable to bring the heart-stopping fervour Heddle Nash brought to the part of Gerontius.

It was only when in 1957 we were rehearsing the opera A Tale of Two Cities by Arthur Benjamin for a BBC broadcast that it became apparent that Nash could not read music. Each aria was played to him on the piano several times and because of his acute ear and ability to memorise quickly that was all that he needed. He was not alone in not being able to read music. One of the most important roles the répétiteur had in the past was to teach the singers their part. Not being able to read music is not a bar to being a great artist.

Another great tenor, Beniamino Gigli, only a few years older than Nash, had been a star for forty years and was thought by many to have inherited the mantle of Caruso. On one occasion when I went to play at a commercial recording session with the George Melachrino orchestra, I found to my surprise – and delight – that instead of the light music arrangements for which Melachrino was famous we were to record several Neapolitan songs with Gigli. It was an especial treat to hear these songs sung idiomatically and though he was then in his sixties and his voice had lost a little of its bloom it still retained the bel canto for which he was famed

The three outstanding tenors, Jon Vickers, Peter Pears and Placido Domingo could not have been more different to each other in voice and style. Vickers, powerful and virile was one of the finest heroic tenors of our time. He still remained very impressive when he sang some Wagner extracts at a concert with us at a Philharmonia concert not long before he retired

I first heard Peter Pears in 1943. It was on a broadcast of the then recently composed Serenade by Benjamin Britten for tenor, horn and strings, a wonderful performance with Dennis Brain playing the solo horn part. More than thirty years later in 1977 or 78 Pears came to sing it with the Philharmonia at a Memorial Concert for Benjamin Britten, his long-time friend and companion. This was another wonderful performance and because of the occasion particularly moving. It fell to my lot as Chairman of the Council to go and thank Pears after the concert. I had been so overwhelmed emotionally as I listened to this beautiful music that I found that I was quite unable to do more than mumble an incoherent ‘Thank you’ before I hastened away.

For the past forty years no one has had a more remarkable career than the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. He has performed over a hundred complete operas ranging from Mozart to Puccini, Verdi to Wagner, and including Berlioz, Ginastera and Zarzuela, the idiomatic Spanish form of operetta. No tenor has managed his voice and career more intelligently. But he has not been satisfied with being solely a great operatic tenor, he has also been a successful administrator. As well as continuing to sing new roles well into his sixties he increasingly conducts as well. I remember recording Tosca and Aida with him when he sang the roles of Cavaradossi and Radames. He was always charming, urbane and sang beautifully. He was also magisterial in an unobtrusive way. On the recording of Aida, with Riccardo Muti conducting, Domingo was joined by another Spanish artist, the soprano Montserrat Caballe, who had a beautiful creamy voice and superb legato.

The baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has had a long and prestigious career in opera and was one of the finest lieder singers of our time. The first time I saw Fischer-Dieskau was when he was only about twenty-four or twenty-five. We were rehearsing at the Abbey Road studios and as the tall young Fischer-Dieskau and the short elderly Sir Thomas Beecham came in through the door of studio they presented a surprising and amusing sight. They looked liked father and son, but with the father fifty years younger than his son.

My earliest recollection of taking part in performances with very fine singers was with the two sopranos, Joan Hammond and Maggie Teyte. This was when they sang with the LPO in the first half of the 1940s. By then Joan Hammond had been struck down by polio and was obliged to sing whilst in a wheelchair. This was particularly cruel for someone who had been an outstanding athlete and had had a distinguished career on the operatic stage. Nonetheless her voice remained full and strong when she sang Tatiana’s Letter Song from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. One of my all-time favourites remains Maggie Teyte. This beautiful and sensitive artist was renowned for her singing of French music, though born in Wolverhampton. She studied with Debussy and was famous for her performance as Mélisande in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. On several occasions she sang Ravel’s Scheherazade, three songs with orchestra, with the LPO. Not only did she have a lovely voice but she was also enchanting and I think the most refined and delicate artist I can recall. It is so seldom that one hears French sung with a true French accent, other than by French singers.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was married to Walter Legge who founded and owned the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1945 until 1964, and she sang with us quite a number of times. She was a very fine artist and I recall a number of her performances, in particular when she sang The Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, which I found extremely moving. There is one occasion I recall not only for her beautiful singing. We were at the Royal Festival Hall for a rehearsal in the morning for a concert that evening. Lucia Popp, then in her twenties and an extremely attractive young woman, looked very elegant when she came on the platform. She was followed by Schwarzkopf who was wearing an old raincoat and looked like a sack tied up in the middle. In the evening when Schwarzkopf came on she was wearing a beautiful white wig and a silver/blue dress, absolutely right for the arias from Strauss’s last opera Capriccio. When she came onto the platform it was with such dignity and grandeur that she made everyone else on the platform look quite dowdy. The applause for her performance was so great that she agreed to sing an encore. The item she chose was a song from the operetta Der Opernball, Im chambre séparée, by the little known composer Richard Heuberger. Her performance showed that like most very fine artists she could sing a charming and lovely trifle as beautifully as The Four Last Songs or the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven.

Several years later I was sitting in one of the cafes on the Ring in Vienna having a quiet cup of coffee. One of the other customers, seeing my clarinet case with a Philharmonia label pasted on it, came over and started talking to me. He told me that the great violinist Fritz Kreisler had been a regular customer and that one evening Heuberger had arrived, extremely distraught, and told Kreisler that he was at his wits end. The first rehearsals for his new operetta were to start the following week and he had still been unable to write a really good tune for it. Apparently, after a few minutes thought Kreisler had scribbled some music on the back of a menu. It is said that it is this music that became Im chambre séparée.

There were so many superb artists who were singing during my time in the profession that there is only room to write about those that remain most vivid in my memory. To give some idea of just how many there were I will list some of the most distinguished that I remember I actually heard ‘live’ (as we say now) when taking part in performances with them: Joan Sutherland, Isobel Baillie, Eva Turner, Anna Moffo, Ileana Cotrubas, Mirella Freni, Irmgard Seefried, Janet Baker, Fiorenza Cossotto, George London, Peter Glossop, John Tomlinson. There were many more I was not fortunate enough to work with.

It is generally agreed that the overall standard of singing is not as high now as it has been in the past, at the same time as the standard of instrumental skill on all instruments has increased to the point where virtuosity has become relatively commonplace. It would seem that for some years a good many talented young singers have been prevailed upon to undertake roles for which their voices have not yet developed sufficiently and to sing far too frequently. One now hears so many artists who as long as they sing piano and mezzo forte sound fine. But when they have to sing forte and project over a large orchestra they develop an uncontrolled and intrusive vibrato.

Perhaps, in a world dominated by commercial interests, agents and others may allow an ambitious young singer to exploit their voice too quickly rather than letting it mature more slowly so that it can develop at its own pace. Rapid air travel, rather than the much slower and relaxed journeys by sea that singers were obliged to take in the past, has made it tempting to sing in San Francisco one day and in London a couple of days later. But there is no instrument so easily damaged nor as precious and vulnerable as the human voice. More valuable than any Stradivarius. Once lost it is irreplaceable.

But there are still singers who have been granted a fine instrument by nature and yet fail to excite listeners as in the past. Artists of an older generation – Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland and others – make the point that they owed much to what they learned from the great conductors they worked with. Toscanini, Furtwangler, de Sabata, Walter, Beecham, Barbirolli and von Karajan and other very good conductors worked extensively in the opera house and had the same affect on singers that they had on orchestras.

It is the ability to express such a wide range of emotions with a beautiful and exciting voice that all the great vocal artists had, and some still have, that inspired audiences to such outbursts of enthusiasm. They can convey tenderness and rage, love and hate, charm and resolution, resignation, forgiveness and despair in a way that no instrument can hope to match.

Chapter 20


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