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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Nuits d’été, op. 7 (1), Béatrice et Bénédict: Dieu! Que vien-je d’entendre" (2), La damnation de Faust: D’amour l’ardente flamme (2)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Shéhérazade (1)
Frederica von Stade (mezzo-soprano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (1)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard (2)
Dates and locations not given
SONY CLASSICAL SBK87797 [69’11"]

What is a mezzo-soprano ? part (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7),(8),(9)]
What is a mezzo-soprano (10)?

"What is a mezzo-soprano?" is a question you may well ask if you look up the discography of Shéhérazade and find that it has been recorded by singers such as Teyte, Crespin, Norman, Ewing, Margaret Price and Hendricks, whom no one has ever suggested may not be true sopranos, but also by Berganza, Baker and Horne. One of the most successful interpreters has been Suzanne Danco, who is classified as a soprano but who was particularly associated with roles such as Cherubino which belong equally to sopranos and mezzos; this points towards the existence of both borderline cases and borderline repertoire. Les Nuits d’été, too, has been recorded by both sopranos – Steber, de los Angeles, Crespin – and mezzos, including Baker and Graham. Frederica von Stade herself has been particularly appreciated on disc as Cherubino (with Karajan, 1979), as well as Dorabella (Lombard 1978) and Octavian (De Waart 1977), other roles which are allotted to either voice type according to the conductor’s overall vision of the work. But she has also been notably successful in certain roles, such as Cendrillon (Rudel 1979), Hänsel (Pritchard 1979) and Mélisande (Karajan 1980), which are normally taken by straight sopranos. Indeed, in a recital disc issued in 1980 she included two Rossini arias – "Di tanti palpiti" (Tancredi) and "Bel raggio lusinghier" (Semiramide) of which the first is standard mezzo territory and the second a famous war-horse of Sutherland and the like. For this disc she was labelled as "soprano", but the "mezzo" soon came back and is there today in large, elegant letters on her own website. So which is she?

What strikes the listener from this disc – and having looked up a number of old reviews the same thing seems to have struck critics all through her career – is the sheer evenness of her tone through a wide range. She has a basically light (but not bodiless) timbre which remains effortlessly the same up to a high B (the highest note on this particular disc) where a mezzo often becomes heavy. But the really remarkable thing is that this same sound which, heard in the middle register might suggest a light soprano, extends equally effortlessly down towards middle C, where a soprano would start mixing in chest tones to help out, and then lower still. Though she is not a "dark" mezzo or a "quasi-contralto" mezzo, I can hardly think of another mezzo who has such little recourse to the chest voice below middle C. The same light, gentle timbre just goes on down.

As stated above, Sony provide no dates, but I can help a little. The two Berlioz arias under Pritchard come from her first recital disc, which was dedicated to French composers. Reviewing this in Gramophone (July 1976) John Steane began by remarking that "Frederica von Stade is one of those rare artists of whom one never seems to read a bad or even a mildly critical review". Obviously he was not to know that over the way at the EMG Monthly Letter an anonymous colleague was busy writing just such a review! He then followed with an encomium of her technique which expresses so exactly what I have just said above that you will think I cribbed the lot. He pointed out that "the voice is a genuine mezzo-soprano, neither a pushed-up contralto nor a short-range soprano", that "she can call upon depth and richness of tone, yet there is nothing plummy or chesty about the sound", and that "the high notes are sung with ease and resonance". And a whole lot more in equally positive vein. The reservations made by the EMG Monthly Letter did not regard her ability to sing (for this relief much thanks!) or even her French pronunciation (a happy hunting ground for critics who have failed to find holes to pick elsewhere); but it was suggested that she had shortcomings as an interpreter (in which role Steane continued to admire her). Phrases such as "soporifically dismal pace", "the interpretation is rather dead", "she is without, at present, the art of characterization" and even "vulgar, arch pronouncement" leap to the eye. To be fair, the Berlioz was more liked, but I quote this nonetheless since the two opposing views which, reconciled, might suggest that she produces an unfailingly beautiful sound but doesn’t do very much with it interpretatively, have tended to follow her ever since.

Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is a work which, notoriously, requires such a range of voices that no single singer is likely to be equally successful in all six songs. A two-voice version has been tried and the Berlioz conductor of the late 20th Century, Sir Colin Davis, divided it between four voices for his epoch-making Philips cycle. But suppose all four voices were not all equally good … In the present performance, made (or issued) in 1984, it is as if the problem has not even occurred to the interpreters. Ozawa knows well that Berlioz’s reputation as a white-hot revolutionary enshrined a profound admiration for the classicism of Gluck, of Cherubini and of Spontini. The conductor proceeds with a calm unflappability, a serene monumentality which allows von Stade to float her exquisitely even tone around every hurdle as if it did not exist. And there you have it. Evenness. It all sounds the same. While theoretically applauding the interpretative stance and recognising that this may be the best sung version ever, I was plain bored stiff. The conductor sounds dead on his feet and the performance is stillborn. Not that von Stade seems other than content to leave things the way they are.

England has had a notable Berlioz tradition (but goodness, with Monteux and Münch so has Boston!). Pritchard was not its greatest exponent but he knew very well that while Berlioz adulated Gluck, Cherubini and Spontini, he was also a fanatical proponent of Beethoven, and there is a certain Beethovenian drive and mobility to the proceedings. Pritchard also tolerates a degree of imprecision that might have caused Ozawa to wake up and protest, but at least there is life here.

Back to Ozawa for a Shéhérazade from 1981. I put this on one side and came back to it a couple of days later, hoping to find something I’d missed the first time. Alas, I still found that the conductor’s static approach was one I just couldn’t engage with. I haven’t got Crespin’s recording but I do have an off-the-air tape of a 1970 Rome performance in which she is accompanied by the unjustly forgotten (but not in Italy) Thomas Schippers. Here immediately I found the nervous little hairpin crescendos and diminuendos, the sudden volatility of a wind phrase, the homing in on a textural detail, which brings the music to life. I can’t see that Crespin’s singing as such is superior to von Stade’s, if anything it is a little more effortful, but the whole context changes everything. So go to von Stade for beautiful singing, and just that. Sad, isn’t it; both von Stade and Ozawa have the reputation for being charming and engaging personalities in a profession where bitchiness reigns, and yet twice over they seem to have gone to sleep on the job. It makes you lose you faith in human nature.

But wait a minute, why should this be the last word? There is nothing more frustrating than spending a Saturday afternoon searching for a review you are sure you have read not all that long ago, but there it is. I wish I could quote chapter and verse but on the occasion of a reissue of one of von Stade’s recordings the critic began by referring to those singers who had briefly passed through our lives, lightening them as they went. The idea being that von Stade has come and gone. I must say that I, too, had rather supposed her to have gently faded out. As you will have seen from the recordings mentioned above, her recording career was intense from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Such few records as have appeared in the last decade or so have mostly been of musicals and the like, the sure refuge of a classical singer with a failing voice. And yet it seems not to be. Her career continues, on the stage and on the concert platform, and her much-delayed Wigmore Hall debut took place on October 22nd of this year. She is now 57, but a well-trained and properly husbanded voice, which hers certainly seems to be, should still have several years’ life left in it at that age. So instead of reissuing twenty-year-old recordings which were unsuccessful through no fault of hers, why not record her again in the two song cycles here, taking care to engage some bitchy, foul-tempered martinet of a conductor guaranteed to bring proper conviction to the proceedings?

Christopher Howell


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