Just occasionally a CD comes along for review which
is, in some way, so exceptional that the (very pleasant) job of the
reviewer is simply to encourage others to share his pleasure. This is
such a disc.
It enshrines Leontyne Price’s recital debut at Carnegie
Hall, New York. Remarkably, this did not take place until 1965 by which
time she was 38 and had been a front rank singer for over a decade,
gracing the world’s concert halls and opera houses. Furthermore, she
had appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall on eighteen previous occasions
since 1954. Quite why she had not previously given a solo recital in
this famous hall is unclear – probably because she was in such demand
all over the world. However, the delay meant that when the debut arrived
she was at the height of her very considerable powers.
RCA recorded the complete recital but, inexplicably,
only two items (the Brahms songs (tracks 5 –12) and the Cilea encore
(track 29)) were ever released – and even then not until the 1990s.
The rest of the recording has slumbered in RCA’s vaults until now.
Let me say at once that I have rarely encountered such
a sustained example of vivid, communicative singing. I would strongly
recommend to listeners that the very best way to experience this disc
is to start at the beginning and listen straight through. By so doing,
one gets a true sense of ambience. Some judicious editing apart, RCA
have retained the applause. Sometimes this can be a distraction when
listening to ‘live discs’. Not here. One can really feel the growing
excitement of the audience as the recital progresses and Miss Price
manifestly responds to her audience, whose appreciation spurs her to
give ever more generously.
The programme opens with three Handel arias. These
are regally delivered with sumptuous tone and generous phrasing. The
Brahms songs which follow are sharply characterised. However, although
the recital has been of high quality up to this point it comes electrifyingly
to life with the Giordano aria (track 13). Here we experience a great
dramatic artist in full flow. Price has no scenery, no props, no orchestra
to support her but her superbly characterful singing conveys Madéleine’s
emotions with searing intensity. The audience erupts at the end, and
After the Giordano aria is placed a quartet of songs
by Poulenc. I would not immediately have associated Miss Price with
this repertoire but she is a most persuasive interpreter of these songs.
The author of the notes tells us that Miss Price almost
invariably included American songs in her recital programmes. Apparently
she described herself as "an American troubadour" with a "duty
to express the beauty and prowess of our composers." I was particularly
glad to find that on this occasion she had chosen a group by Samuel
Barber. In my opinion Barber was one of the very finest of twentieth
century songwriters, allying a marvellous melodic gift with a discerning
eye for texts. Leontyne Price was a formidable champion of his music.
(Seek out, if you can, her
marvellous RCA disc which includes the three songs in this present
recital together with the world premiere performance of the Hermit
Songs – all accompanied by Barber himself – together with a definitive
account of Knoxville: Summer of 1915.) In this recital Price
gives a wonderful account of the haunting ‘Nocturne’. She also gives
a pert, charming rendition of the early ‘The Daisies’ and is memorably
intense in the complex Joyce setting, ‘Sleep Now’.
Two songs by another American composer, Lee Hoiby,
follow the Barber items. These were songs which I had not previously
heard but they are well worth hearing, especially ‘Winter Song’ (track
21), an atmospheric setting of a poem by Wilfred Owen.
By this stage in the proceedings Miss Price had her
audience in the palm of her hand. However, in the four spirituals with
which she closed the official programme she took this rapport to new
heights. This is clearly music with which she identified very strongly
and the performances are deeply felt, including plenty of "note
bending". The listener is left in no doubt that spirituals, jazz
and the blues as musical forms are inextricably entwined. What we hear
is urgent, impassioned singing, real ‘live’ music making caught on the
wing. Listen to ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’ (track 24) and
be borne along on a tide of bittersweet emotion. Even more intense is
‘Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Cryin’’(track 25), music from the heart.
The Carnegie Hall audience, by then rapturous, demanded
more from her and were treated to no less than four encores. Some might
object to the bluesy decorations to the vocal line of ‘Summertime’ but
in the context of the occasion I think it would be curmudgeonly to do
so. All four encores are magnificent but the concluding ‘Vissi d’arte’
(track 30) is in a class of its own, even by comparison with what has
gone before. Refulgently sung, it is deeply moving.
If by now I haven’t persuaded you of the merits of
this CD let me add that the sound is very good; Miss Price is sensitively
accompanied throughout by David Garvey – a true musical partnership,
this; there are good notes and all texts and translations are supplied.
Finally, the booklet contains some contemporary photographs which show
Miss Price looking as strikingly beautiful as she sounds.
This is one of the most compelling, charismatic discs
to have come my way in a long time. The singing is thrilling with a
voluptuous voice used with great intelligence. Additionally, though
there are many recordings of Miss Price in opera and in some of her
concert roles such as the Verdi Requiem, recitals are not so
prominent in her discography, a fact which enhances the value of this
However, the real value of this release lies in the
sense of occasion. Rarely have I encountered a live recording which
is so vividly communicative, giving the atmosphere of the concert itself
- which is why it is especially rewarding to listen right through. However,
you can pick any track at random and find a really great singer at the
height of her powers, plainly relishing the occasion and reaching out
to her audience. This, surely, is what being a diva really means.
The power of words allied to music makes singing, for
me, the most satisfying of all forms of music making, whether as performer
or auditor. This disc is a supreme example of the singer as communicator.
I recommend it urgently to all lovers of the singing voice. If you only
buy one disc of vocal music this year make sure it’s this one!