This disc is one of the first twenty, issued on the Decca label,
under the generic title ‘The Singers’. The series, with another thirty
in preparation, claims to present the artistry of the greatest singers
from the first hundred years of recording. The selection of these first
releases was made by the late John Ardoin and is somewhat idiosyncratic
in chosen repertoire, despite having access to the recorded annals of
DG and Philips as well as Decca. More significantly, these discs are
not merely sonic CDs. They are ‘multimedia’ items, being enhanced for
those with a CD-ROM drive, to include photo gallery, biographies and
texts. If you lack a ROM facility you get a booklet with brief essay
and track listing, the latter lacking such basic information as to the
operatic character singing the aria! The presentation aims to be different
and unique, being a cardboard case within a plastic slip case emblazoned
Gundula Janowitz made her debut in Vienna in
1960, quickly graduating to the great opera houses, festivals and recording
studios, particularly with Karajan on the rostrum. The possessor of
a high lyric soprano, a creamy centre and shining silver high notes,
she lacked greatness only in respect of vocal and histrionic characterisation.
Her artistry is only partly represented here, lacking as it does any
Mozart or extracts from choral works, for example The Creation
under Karajan, or The Seasons under Böhm, both memorable
The disc starts with Agathe’s aria Wie nahte
and is followed by the cavatina, Und ob die Walke from Der
Freischütz; immediately we can hear that ethereal silvery top.
She characterises the parts better in the 1973 recording of the opera
under Kleiber and prior to which the middle of her voice had richened
singing the heavier Mozart roles under Karajan’s tutelage. The Ocean,
thy mighty Monster from Oberon (tk 3), finds her stretched
at the climax and a little bland, whilst the extracts from Tannhäuser
(tk 5) in particular has singing of the utmost beauty – a most expressive
and impressive Elisabeth. Tracks 6 & 7 from Lohengrin
convey spirituality and innocence but lack a little of the fullness
of tone that would have been there later.
It is particularly gratifying to have a return to the
catalogue of Janowitz’s outstanding interpretation of Strauss’s Vier
letze Lieder (tk 10-13). Caught at the height of her powers (rec.
1973) her interpretation is perhaps only surpassed by Schwartzkopf (recently
re-issued on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century) and Jessye Norman
with Masur; both of which include other Strauss songs with orchestra.
Janowitz came to lieder only in the 1970s and the two
contrasting Schubert songs included here (tks 8-9) have a depth of expression
lacking in her younger self. Irwin Gage is the fully supporting accompanist.
The recording quality reflects DG’s best. My only grumble
is that tracks 10-13 are set somewhat louder than the rest. The booklet
essay by Richard Wigmore is an education in itself, really excellent.