The name of Aafje Heynis doesn’t ring a bell as loudly
these days as once it did: unlike Kathleen Ferrier, the artist with
whom she most obviously invites comparison (if only because of their
deeply committed singing, their compellingly unaffected artistry, and
Roy Henderson, celebrated teacher of both Heynis and Ferrier) and who
– thanks to a considerable legacy of recordings – enjoys unparalleled
fame of the sort her Dutch counterpart never enjoyed, and perhaps never
I must first put my cards on the table. I approached
this disc with no more knowledge of Aafje Heynis than the few recorded
roles she undertook (usually with distinction, I might add) in the early
1960s under Van Beinum, Jochum, Klemperer and the young Haitink, in
whose first (1962) Resurrection Symphony recording she was a
memorable soloist. (Regrettably, not many of these discs remain in the
catalogue.) And the thought of more than an hour of heavy-handed, old-school
Bach and Handel playing, whatever one might anticipate of the singing
per se, persuaded me repeatedly to put this to the bottom of
my pile of review discs.
But I have been overwhelmed by the beauty of these
performances: indeed they have drained me emotionally!
Heynis sings with a gloriously mellow tone, and with
total conviction. Vibrato is used with discretion, and very much at
the service of the phrase; she can warm the voice to marvellous effect
at the highpoints of a line, or to heighten or vary emotional intensity.
Her phrase endings are always beautifully finished, and changes of register
sensitively managed: she uses her wide-ranging vocal palette to paint
the text tellingly and subtly.
The voice is so ‘clean’ that (one imagines, had she
been born 20 or 30 years later) she would have worked well in tandem
with a Gardiner, King or McCreesh. As it is, she is partnered by Gillesberger
and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, who – whilst they play competently,
even musically, within their own parameters – exhibit the weighty tone,
lazy articulation and broad tempi of yesteryear’s Bach and Handel. One
misses the precision, freshness and energy of today’s much-better-informed
performance practice. So ‘Erbarme dich’ is rather sluggish (it would
sound sentimental were it not for Heynis’ insight and eloquence) with
its laboured demisemiquavers, measured grace notes and plodding pizzicato
bass. The solo cellist (no gamba, I’m afraid) in ‘Es ist vollbrach’
makes little of his ornaments, resulting in the light and shade of Bach’s
wonderful line merging into an anonymous grey. And the breathless long
bows which the massed VSO violins adopt for Handel’s semiquavers in
‘Oh thou that tellest’ rob the music of all its smiling happiness: how
fortunate that Ms Heynis sings with such clarity of articulation and
verbal detail, full to the brim of understanding and meaning!
I could have done without the glutinous, sanctimonious
Bach-Gounod track, which is in any case mono, live, noisy (both tape
and audience) and let down by notably shoddy choral ‘support’.
Ave Maria excepted, the recordings are acceptably clean
and truthful. The booklet gives brief (too brief) biographical
details, tells us nothing about the music and offers no texts.
Ferrier fans (and anyone who admires fine singing)
need not hesitate. Notwithstanding my various misgivings, dividing the
top-of-the-tree artistry on offer here by Eloquence’s pocket-money asking
price amounts to a tempting bargain!
Peter J Lawson