Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949):
‘Vier letzte Lieder’* [19’12"]
‘Du meines Herzens Krönelein’, Op.21 No.2 [2’25"]
‘Ruhe, meine Seele, Op. 27 No. 1 [3’41"]
‘Zueignung’, Op.10 No.1 [2’04"]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911):

‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen** [17’43"] (‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ [2’53"]; ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ [6’51"]; ‘Um Mitternacht’ [5’39"])
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897):

‘Wiegenlied’, Op.49 No. 4 [2’36"]
‘Ständchen’, Op.106 No.1 [2’15"]
*Sena Jurinac (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
Recorded in the Royal Albert Hall, London on 11 September 1961
** Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by André Cluytens
Recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, London on 2 December 1957
Christa Ludwig
Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
Recorded at the Summer Festival, Wigmore Hall, London on 15 July 1978
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4107-2 [66’47"]


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This BBC Legends CD is an attractive prospect, offering live performances by two of the leading singers of the post-war era.

The Yugoslav soprano, Sena Jurinac was especially noted for her performances of Mozart and Richard Strauss. She was, for example, a memorable Octavian in Erich Kleiber’s classic 1954 recording of Der Rosenkavalier. It is, perhaps, indicative of how times have changed that she was never invited to make a commercial recording of the Vier letzte Lieder whereas from the 1970s onwards virtually every Strauss soprano of note has made at least one recording of the work.

In fact, there is another extant recording of the work by Jurinac, made some ten years earlier, in May 1951 when she was in her thirtieth year. The earlier performance, also given in concert, took place in the Stockholm Concert Hall when the conductor was Fritz Busch (the performance was given only a matter of months before Busch’s death later in the same year). It was released, as part of a mixed recital, by EMI Références a few years ago (CDH 7 63199 2). The performance included on this present disc was given ten years later.

It is relevant to mention the earlier account because it is referred to by Alan Blyth in his characteristically well-informed liner note for this release. Whilst clearly impressed with the 1951 performance Blyth seems to prefer the later account which, he says, finds the singer in more expansive mood. He also feels that the voice is more faithfully recorded in 1961. I must say that I don’t entirely share this view. To be sure, Jurinac’s voice seems to have much more amplitude in 1961 – comparing the two versions is somewhat akin to hearing a Sophie and then a Marschallin – however, I’m not sure that the difference is all gain. To my ears the voice in 1951 has a much more affecting silvery quality though there is still ample power when it is needed. The high notes have a lovely ring in 1951 and there seems to me to be more poise, freshness and subtlety in the reading. I suspect there are two reasons for this. Firstly, in the first song, ‘Frühling’ (track 1) Jurinac gives a rather generalised account in 1961. Much of the singing is insufficiently varied in dynamics – in fact, it’s just too loud. I wonder to what extent this happened because she was just trying too hard to project her voice into the vast expanses of the Royal Albert Hall? Secondly, there’s the question of the accompanist. I wouldn’t have associated Sargent with the music of Strauss though, of course, he was a noted accompanist. The support he gives his singer her is characteristically efficient but turn to Busch and you feel that the conductor is much more inside the idiom (even if his orchestra commit a few fluffs). There’s also evidence of a less complete rapport between singer and conductor in 1961: several times Jurinac, perhaps out of spontaneity, rather rushes Strauss’ characteristic little semi quaver or triplet melismas and gets out of synch with the orchestra. Such little blemishes don’t happen in 1951.

After the first song there is more evidence of subtlety, such as the imperceptible holding back by Jurinac in the couple of bars before the transcendent violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (track 3, 1’20") - though I have to say that the violin solo itself sounds a bit prosaic and doesn’t take wing as it should. Thankfully, when the voice re-enters at the words ‘Und die Seele unbewacht’ Jurinac soars uninhibitedly and with full-throated ecstasy – is there a more glorious single phrase in the entire soprano repertory, I often wonder? The concluding ‘Im Abendrot’ is sung with deep expressiveness. In summary, I would say that there are many good things about this performance but, having approached it with high hopes, I was a trifle disappointed and I think I am more likely to return to the Stockholm performance when I want to hear this great singer in one of my very favourite vocal works – and this despite the maddening applause between every song! However, if you can’t track down a copy of the EMI version, or if you prefer a fuller voice in this work (which, after all was premiered by Flagstad, also in the Albert Hall) then the present performance has much to offer and admirers of Jurinac will probably want both versions on their shelves (as do I) to compare and contrast.

The lion’s share of the disc is claimed by Christa Ludwig (b 1928). I mention her date of birth, at the risk of appearing ungallant, simply to show that this CD very valuably includes performances from two very different points in her career. Though the recordings are some twenty years apart they both demonstrate many consistent virtues, including excellent diction, acute responsiveness to text, a fine sense of vocal line, magnificent breath control and a warm, full tone.

The music of Mahler was a cornerstone of her repertoire throughout her career and she made a number of very distinguished recordings of his works (crowned by her recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Klemperer). The account of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen shows that even by the age of thirty she was a highly effective exponent of Mahler. The first song (track 5) is distinguished by generous, full tone and a great care for the words. The accompaniment by André Cluytens is well characterised and detailed. Singer and orchestra give an intensely dramatic and well-projected account of the opening of ‘Ich hab ein glühend Messer’ (track 7). Indeed, Ludwig’s singing in this song is simply riveting. It’s just a pity that the audience accompanies both the orchestral postlude of this song and the start of the next one with a volley of coughing. Ludwig gives a really involving reading of the final song, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (track 8) with its thematic premonitions of the First Symphony. All in all, this is a very fine performance and the recorded sound is excellent, giving a much better reportage of the orchestra than we find in the Strauss recording, made four years later.

The remainder of the disc comes from a Wigmore Hall recital given in 1978.Here we find not only a tremendously experienced singer at the zenith of her very considerable powers. There is also the joy of hearing her in partnership with Geoffrey Parsons at his typically perceptive and supportive best. This recital was, of course, a more intimate occasion and the singing recognises that fact. There is a rapt account of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (track 10), surely one of Mahler’s most moving songs? Here Ludwig sings with great innigkeit and Parsons is with her every step of the way, establishing tremendous atmosphere from his first touch of the piano keys. The succeeding ‘Um Mitternacht’ is no less distinguished. Ludwig is intensely communicative, building to a radiant climax (track 11, 4’12"). All three songs offer some of the most spellbinding Mahler singing I have heard for some considerable time.

The Strauss group is just as successful. ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ (track 13) is commandingly dramatic, as it should be and the vocal line is superbly controlled. This is followed by a truly ecstatic ‘Zueignung’ (track 14). I presume this was the last item on the official programme for at the end the audience erupts into a storm of cheers – and rightly so. After the intensity of the Mahler and Strauss items the two Brahms encores were cunningly chosen. The touching simplicity of these two songs, especially ‘Wiegenlied’ (track 15) is like balm after the great emotions of the preceding songs and they constitute a perfect envoi. The recorded sound for all these Wigmore Hall items is very good with piano and voice in perfect concert hall balance.

To sum up. This is a most rewarding disc. The contributions of Christa Ludwig are highly distinguished. As I’ve said Sena Jurinac’s performance did not quite meet the high expectations I had for it but there is still much to enjoy there. What is the most important thing is that once again BBC Legends has put us in their debt by issuing performances of uncommon interest by great artists. What a shame, therefore, that they continue their perverse policy of not providing texts and translations for vocal items. It is a scar on what is one of the most important of historical series and, frankly, is unacceptable when the discs retail at not much less than premium price. It is claimed that the texts and translations are available via the web. However, leaving aside the fact that this is not really as satisfactory or accessible as having the words in the liner note, not all the texts are in fact available. At the time of writing this review (mid-January 2003) some of the Strauss texts including, crucially, those of the Vier letzte Lieder are not on the website. It really is time that BBC Legends addressed this important issue.

With that one, albeit significant caveat, however, I warmly welcome this issue and recommend it.

John Quinn

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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