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MAGGIE TEYTE (1888-1976): A Vocal Portrait
CD 1

Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)

King Arthur: Fairest Isle, The Libertine: Nymphs and Shepherds (01.08.1941) (1)
Giovanni Battista MARTINI (1706-1784)

Plaisir d’amour (16.01.1942) (1)
André-Ernest-Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)

Le tableau parlant: Vous étiez ce que vous n’êtes plus (21.09.1946) (2)
Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)

La serva padrona: Aria di Zerbina (in French) (21.09.1942) (2)
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Nuits d’été: 2. Le spectre de la rose, 4. Absence (31.07.1940) (3)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Oh! Quand je dors (26.10.1947) (1)
Piotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Tears, op. 65/5 (in French) (26.10.1947) (1)
Georges BIZET (1838-1975)

Chanson d’Avril (07.06.1943) (1)
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)

Le Colibri (07.06.1943) (1)
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)

La Périchole: Tu n’es pas beau ... Je t’adore brigand (22.09.1932) (4)
André MESSAGER (1853-1829)

Véronique: Petite dinde, ah quel outrage – Ma foi! Pour venir dr Provence (22.09.1932) (4)
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)

Phidylé, L’invitation au voyage (31.07.1940) (3)
Joseph SZULC (1875-1956)

Clair de lune (22.08.1941) (1)
Henri de FONTENAILLES

Obstination (20.07.1944) (1)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Après un rêve (26.03.1941), Nell (10.02.1943), Clair de lune (06.01.1942) (1)
Émile PALADILHE (1846-1926)

Psyché (26.03.1941)
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)

L’heure exquise, Offrande (17.04.1941) (1), Si mes vers avaient des ailes (20.09.1932) (5)
CD 2

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Fêtes galantes I, Fêtes galantes II, Trois Chansons de Bilitis (12.03.1936) (6), Le Promenoir des duex amants (13.03.1936) (6), Proses lyriques: 2. De grève (13.03.1936) (6), Ariettes oubliées: 5. Green (17.04.1941) (1), Beau soir, Romance (10.02.1944) (1)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Histoires naturelles: 4. Le martin-pêcheur, Deux épigrammes: 2. Anne jouant de l’espinette (05.10.1947) (1), Shéhérazade (12-13.07.1948) (7)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Pleading (23.12.1941) (1)
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)

Now sleeps the crimson petal (23.12.1941) (1)
Arthur Goring THOMAS (1850-1892)

Night hymn at sea (25.11.1941) (1, 8)
Kennedy RUSSELL (1883-1954)

By Appointment: White roses (10.1934) (4)
Sigmund ROMBERG (1887-1951)

The Student Prince: Deep in my heart dear (22.09.1932) (4)
Dame Maggie Teyte (soprano), Gerald Moore (piano) (1), Orchestra/Jean Paul Morel (2), London Symphony Orchestra/Leslie Heward (3), anonymous orchestra (4), George Reeves (piano) (5), Alfred Cortot (piano) (6), Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden/Hugo Rignold (7), John McCormack (tenor) (8)
Dates as above, locations not given
CD transfers by Ward Marston
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110757-58 [2 CDs 77:48, 75:39]

 

Naxos were, I suggest, ill-advised to open with the two Purcell songs. The irresistible impression is that of being transported back to our grandparents’ drawing-rooms, to a world of scones and muffins and water-cress sandwiches and silver teapots and genteel ladies with wavery voices singing "Neemphs and sheepards come a-wee!" In an age which has, I hope, rediscovered something of Purcell’s own vocal world, I fear this has nothing to say.

Equally questionable is the decision to call the album "A Vocal Portrait" and then represent a recording career which spans over four decades, from 1907 to 1948 (plus broadcast material which extends to 1958), by nothing earlier than 1932 and with a considerable concentration on her wartime recordings, by which time she was getting on for sixty. It is true that she retained her voice remarkably well, her high notes sweet and easy, but there is a waver – I won’t go so far as to call it a wobble – in the 1940s that wasn’t there in the 1930s, and it doesn’t exactly help the present-day listener to relate to her.

Before dealing with the French songs, which account for the larger part of this tribute and on which her fame was chiefly based, let us examine an English song which belongs to Teyte’s own days, "Now sleeps the crimson petal" by Roger Quilter. First of all, as regards English pronunciation we have to admit that times have changed. Who, today, would make the "on" of "crimson" rhyme with "con" rather than with the "en" of "open"? Who now, except as a parody, precedes the "w" of "white" with a strong aspirate? How can we not smile at "The firefly weakens, weaken thou with me" (instead of "wakens"), at "lily" with a double "l" (at least) in the middle and at "r"s which are not exaggeratedly trilled but which seem to come from the back of her throat as in French? Not many years separate this from Kathleen Ferrier’s 1951 recording, but Ferrier was a generation younger and, while we may find her academic, even schoolmarmy, in her frigidly perfect elocution (in this song, I don’t say ‘everywhere’), the actual language is as we know it today. However, if we turn to Benjamin Luxon’s 1975 version, can we not deny that the art of singing English has evolved – for the better – over the years? Luxon gives the words their natural speech rhythms, and he also drops them effortlessly into a long legato line.

Here we have another important point; Teyte seems to spell out the syllables one by one. Good as her singing is, this word-by-word concept of phrasing prevents it from becoming truly melodious; we get a heightened recitative. Ferrier was moving away from this type of delivery but her tragically shortened life did not give her time to complete the work. I have little doubt that this change has come about because today every conservatoire student is expected to sing in a wide range of languages, and probably learns to sing in Italian (the ideal language for legato singing) before he learns to sing in English. The past generation of singers could get away with singing everything in their own language. French was a second mother-tongue for Teyte – imagine if an English singer today recorded Pergolesi, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in French! English singers today are less provincial.

However, there are interpretative points to be noted in Teyte’s performance. Firstly, her actual tempo is more convincing than Luxon’s lugubriously sluggish one. Ferrier is in the middle. We may note, if not emulate, the way in which she dwells on the "Now"s and "Nor"s which start each line and also the downward portamentos at "the lake" and "into my bosom" but also the avoidance of one at "the firefly wakens". We may also note that Ferrier uses a firmly projected tone and Luxon seems to be crooning to himself. Would he have sung in this way in a concert-hall? Teyte, on the other hand, uses no more voice than Luxon, but with such forward production that I am sure she could be heard in the furthest reaches of the largest hall.

I should like to make a more general query before leaving this song. How many editions of it are there? The copy I have says nothing about it being a revised edition, yet Teyte and Ferrier and their pianists depart from it at a few points, and in the same way, suggesting they are both following a different copy. The triplet arpeggio in the piano is missing after "now the white" and "sweetness up", the piano has an extra passing note after "bosom of the lake" and, fundamentally, the word "slip", before "into my bosom" is sung twice, with a change to the vocal line. Quilter was still alive when these recordings were made. Do they enshrine suggestions from him, changes made after publication? Luxon follows the published copy, except that at "Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk" he sings "the" to a G instead of the printed C. A mistake, or did he have inside information too?

Has the French language changed in the same way as English? With the famous Académie to keep it in line, probably not. However, I have to admit that, if Teyte’s French were as old-fashioned-sounding and twee as her English, I should probably remain blissfully unaware of the fact. Perhaps a French reader would care to comment. Concentrating on purely musical matters, a comparison of her "Colibri" with two modern versions produces results that are rather different than was the case with Quilter. Jessye Norman brings her refulgent tone to bear, building the song up urgently (02:27 compared with Teyte’s 02:46) and passionately. It is glorious to hear but I wonder if Chausson would have recognised himself in it. Anne Murray and Graham Johnson in Hyperion’s complete Chausson edition dawdle somewhat (02:59); Murray adopts a basically lyrical approach in itself not unlike Norman’s except that the voice is not always so perfectly under control. Teyte and Moore are gentler, more conversational; they do not attempt to make great climaxes and Teyte’s singing is again slightly more "spoken", avoiding long bel canto lines. They evoke the claustrophobic, hot-house world of Chausson in a way that escapes the others. Norman at least offers a reinterpretation for our own times, and some may prefer this; Murray falls between the two stools.

It is now clear that the hallmarks of Teyte’s singing are an easy vocal emission with a very forwardly placed production that allows her to sing extremely softly and yet project her voice towards the public, and a conversational – as opposed to bel canto – concept of the relationship between words and line. This may be questionable in Quilter, and it is not the only way to sing Chausson, but in Debussy we find a perfect marriage of style and music. Occasionally the modern listener may wish to hear Debussy’s few flights of actual melody expand with a more lyrical tone, but Debussy himself might not have been of this idea. After all, Teyte spent much time with Debussy studying Mélisande and many of his songs so we must accept that these performances are about as authentic as we can get. Add to this the presence of one of the 20th Century’s most supremely imaginative pianists, Alfred Cortot, appears in fourteen of the songs. Though he could be a wayward soloist, here he collaborates wonderfully, the two apparently as one in the most subtle rubatos. Incidentally, what a fascinating effect he gets in "Le faune". I can only guess that, to obtain this dry, percussive effect in the bass ostinato while the rest of the piano is warmly sustained, he must have placed some object (maybe a pencil?) on the low G and D. A "prepared piano" which predates John Cage’s by a good few years!

In the wartime recordings Teyte’s partner is Gerald Moore. His post-war recording career was mainly dedicated to the German lied so it is good to note his subtle range of colouring and complete sympathy with the French repertoire. Good, too, to hear the young Hugo Rignold as a passionate partner in Shéhérazade; this performance happily effaced my memories of the dead-alive Von Stade/Ozawa version that last came my way. Teyte also had a charming touch in the lighter repertoire, as the final Russell and Romberg items show; no apologies need be made for evoking period flavour here. And I have to say that, as my listening proceeded, I found this a voice which carved a niche in my memory, following me in my daily work even while the disc was not playing. There’s certainly a well-defined personality that comes across.

In short, as long as you are prepared to approach this album with an open mind, Maggie Teyte still has a lot to teach us, and the Debussy deserves all of its legendary status.

Christopher Howell

 



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