> Samuel Ramey - A Date With The Devil [JN]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Samuel RAMEY (bass) 
A Date With The Devil - arias from the operas

BERLIOZ La Damnation de Faust
MEYERBEER Robert le Diable
BOITO Mefistofele
OFFENBACH Les contes d’Hoffmann
STRAVINSKY The Rake’s Progress
Münchner Rundfunk Orchester/Julius Rudel
Recorded München October 2000
NAXOS 8.555355 [55.04]


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Some may think that it is a sign of the times that an important artist like Sam Ramey’s newest album appears on a budget label. Others may not be far from the truth in suspecting that the majors think the time has come for Ramey to take a step down.

This latest recording is a registration of one of Ramey’s well-known "devil" - concerts - a sequence he started giving in 1996. At the moment of recording the American bass was 58, had a career of 27 years behind him and, sad to say, it shows. When one compares these renditions of these devil arias with his former efforts, be it the complete official releases (Mefistofele in 1988, Contes d’Hoffmann in 1989) or that wonderful pirate-record (Mefistofele and Other Operatic Villains LR 209), then the decline is marked.

The voice now has a wobble that may be more noticeable on record than in the house where he still cuts an imposing figure. However that wobble is there. Even worse, that noble timbre, maybe never over-rich but nevertheless distinct and personal, has lost its sheen and much of its colour. Though one never knows with recordings I get the impression that the tracks probably concur with the chronology of the actual recording. In the two first aria’s (Damnation de Faust) the voice is, at its most, unsteady, not very well focused and rather dry. One is at pains to recognize it as Ramey’s. In Mefistofele things improve as snarling is not forbidden but in Dapertutto’s Scintille diamant, where legato counts, the wobble is more pronounced than ever and he has to chop up certain phrases as the long breath is no longer there.

Ramey is at his best in the two arias from The Rake’s Progress where he finds some of his old bite. His state of voice lends itself more to declamation in his mother tongue than in the repertoire of the French ‘basse chantante’. And I wonder why, for some arias, we get applause while for others there is silence.

Julius Rudel, who inaugurated Ramey’s devil-concerts in 1996, is the spirited and trustworthy conductor of the experienced München Radio Orchestra. However I somewhat doubt that many people need yet another Rakoczy March or a few instrumental Liszt-pieces. On a CD of 57 minutes this results in only 41 minutes for Mr. Ramey. This is surely somewhat short value even for a budget-label.

Jan Neckers

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