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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Gabriela Beňačková in Prague
Giulio CACCINI (1545-1618)

Amarilli, mia bella
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Vado, ma dove, K.583, Bella mia fiamma --- resta, o cara, K. 528
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Traum durch die Dämmerung, op. 29/1, Ich trage meine Minne, op. 32/1, Allerseelen, op. 10/8, Zueignung, op. 10/1, Ariadne auf Naxos: Es gibt ein Reich
Mikuláš SCHNEIDER-TRNAVSKÝ (1881-1958)

Little flowers
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

In Folk Tone, op. 73, 8 Gypsy Melodies, op. 55
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Otello: Ave Maria
Gabriela Beňačková-Čápová (soprano), Ronald Schneider (piano)

Recorded live at Žofín, Prague, 8.10.1995
SUPRAPHON SU 3027-2 231 [79’23"]


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In 1982-3 Supraphon recorded their digital Rusalka, bringing to the fore a soprano whose light yet warm and expressive timbre seemed made for the role and who provided the principal reason for buying a recording which in many other ways failed to match the standards of its predecessor under Chalabala. Though Beňačková (to make life easier for us westerners, she usually drops the Čápová) has not specialised in Czech music – a lovely, if not always idiomatic, disc of Italian arias was made in 1986 – she has been particularly associated with certain Czech roles and she has taken Rusalka to places such as Vienna and New York where it had rarely or never been seen before.

Those who heard (live or broadcast) her 1993 Rusalka at the Metropolitan noted a marked darkening in the voice, a process not dissimilar to that undergone by Mirella Freni, who also started out with a light, golden timbre. Both of them seem to have come to terms with the change in a similar way, opting for high notes seemingly dredged up from below, providing security, plenty of "heft" and a thrill of sorts. But whereas this is a reasonable enough way to sing Freni’s latter day repertoire, Puccini and a smattering of veristi, Beňačková aimed at far more and, as we can hear, by 1995 the results were far from happy.

The mixture of strenuous high notes and weird Italian (Vordor mor dorvay? Is the closest I can get to the first Mozart piece) mean that the opening items are better passed over. She is more at home in Richard Strauss, without offering any particular illumination, and the Ariadne excerpt lacks the luscious, creamy soaring one expects of a Straussian soprano. Also, while I thought that Czechs of her generation tended to learn German, however reluctantly, as a second language (perhaps I’ve got this wrong), even here her vowels are, shall we say, not quite those we are used to from native singers.

I certainly wouldn’t presume to pick holes in her Czech, which constitutes the second part of the recital, but there are other problems. The manner of production of high notes which has them billowing up from below gives security of sorts but is too hard-hitting to be effective in vocal chamber music. The trouble is, perhaps as a result of years of militancy in opera houses a size too large for the voice, when she takes the high note more delicately, from on high, it tends to go sharp. Frankly, as the second half proceeds on its way the high notes seem to get more and more strained, and almost consistently sharp. Had she not the stamina to get through a 70-minute recital? The last of the Gypsy Songs finds her practically screaming her top B flat (the pianist, good elsewhere, goes in for some unsubtle bashing at times in this cycle) and for encore we get a bumpy Ave Maria, culminating in a far from effortless high A flat.

To judge from the ecstatic audience reception this singer may have powers of communication not evident to the ear alone, but I can only report what I hear. It gives me no pleasure to write in this way about a soprano who enchanted me nearly twenty years ago. Since this disc is a Ludwig, readers get three samples with which to see if they agree with me. Take the opening of the most famous of all Dvořák songs, “Songs my mother taught me". (Track 21). Listen to how, in the first upward ascent, the high note is not perfectly tied to the preceding note, the listener (or at least this listener) is not carried up with it but perceives it as a slap round the face and, finally, the note is sharp (this, surely, cannot be a matter of opinion or of personal taste). Then hear the beginning of "Vado, ma dove" (track 2) to decide whether the Italian worries you or whether the general style seems to you to be suited to the music. And finally, sample the beginning of the Ariadne aria (track 8). On a disc, as opposed to a live recital, a Strauss excerpt would have to be of imperishable quality, vocally and interpretatively, to justify repeated hearings with a piano reduction of the score. Judge for yourself if you find them here.

The booklet contains adulatory comments in four languages but no texts. A recent school of thought is that this hardly matters nowadays since you can download practically anything from Internet. Well, if you can find texts and translations of Schneider-Trnavský’s attractive cycle Drobné kvety on the Internet, you’re a better man than I am.


Christopher Howell

 



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