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
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.