Until the arrival of EMI’s The Record of Singing Volume
4, I was not at all familiar with the voice of Dame Joan Hammond.
However with that fantastic fourth (and final) compendium of
the 78 era I came to know her “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s
opera Die Tote Stadt. In this she put nearly every other
interpreter to shame. It very much left me wanting more.
For those unfamiliar with her life, she was born in Christchurch,
New Zealand on 24 May 1912 and studied violin at the Sydney
Conservatory. Much like the character portrayed by the late
Katherine Hepburn in the film ‘Pat and Mike’, her primary interest
was in sports. Like that character, she couldn’t decide between
golf and tennis as to which one to pursue; she was very good
at both. She was able to juggle her sports career with playing
violin for the Sydney Philharmonic Orchestra. In the meantime,
she began taking singing lessons, which she paid for by writing
sports reports for newspapers.
In 1928 she made her operatic debut as Giovanna in Verdi’s
Rigoletto and from 1931 through 1936, she sang occasionally
with visiting opera companies. It was then that she left Australia
to study in Vienna, Florence and London with Dino Borgioli.
Sir Thomas Beecham invited her to perform Handel’s Messiah
in 1938 in London. Shortly thereafter, she made her Viennese
debut at the Volksoper as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.
During that season, she also sang the title role in Flotow’s
Martha and Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus
dem Serail. She returned to Vienna the following year when
the Staatsoper invited her to sing Mimi and Violetta in Puccini’s
La Boheme and Verdi’s La Traviata respectively.
Back in London during the war, Hammond was an ambulance
driver in addition to giving the occasional concert. Wartime
audiences did not necessarily want her to sing opera and she
often obliged with traditional songs. The first seven tracks
are of Puccini arias and duets in English. They were recorded
in 1941. They represent some of her finest singing. I must say,
however, that hearing these well known selections sung in English
takes a little getting used to. Apparently, the British public
has no problem with it at all since she received a gold disc
in 1969 after one million copies of O my beloved father had
been sold. The quality of the sound, however, is not as good
as the arias recorded in Italian (and English) during the late
1940s and early 1950s. She was fortunate to have such excellent
partners as David Lloyd and Webster Booth in the love duets
from La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. They acquit
themselves admirably here although neither of them appeared
very often on stage in opera nor did they make many operatic
The arias in Italian, recorded between 1947 and 1953,
are truly stunning. It really makes one want to hear her complete
performances of Manon Lescaut, La Forza del Destino,
Adriana Lecouvreur and even La Wally. Cilea’s
Poveri Fiori is especially luminous possibly because
it is from the same 1953 sessions with Walter Susskind that
produced the Korngold aria mentioned at the beginning of this
According to the well written liner-note by James Murray
“During the 1950s many complete operas with Hammond were broadcast
by the BBC ... including La Forza del Destino, Massenet’s
Thais and Eugene Onegin.” One can only hope that
they will some day be made available. On the subject of Onegin,
the version of Tatiana’s Letter Scene, recorded in 1943,
is astounding. Her voice was at its peak and the English translation
by Shilovsky is excellent. The only unfortunate thing across
the track’s eleven minutes is the “frenched” notes by the horn
player at 6:49-6:51. The repeats of the phrase that follow are
all fine, but I suppose the overall take was so breathtaking
and since horn players only have so much “lip”, they decided
to let it pass. A recording I have by Elisabeth Söderström on
a Swedish EMI LP (recorded in 1972) is the only version I can
compare it to.
The other aria in English O Silver Moon from Dvořák’s
Rusalka is one that I collect recordings of and is, therefore,
close to my heart. I first encountered it in the 1970s on operatic
aria albums by Inge Borkh and Pilar Lorengar (both sung in German).
There are at least 25 versions currently available, all in the
original Czech including Renée Fleming, Teresa Stratas, Gabriela
Benacková (all from complete recordings), as well as Lucia Popp,
Nancy Gustafson, Lesley Garrett, Leontyne Price and even Sarah
Brightman. I pulled out all of these and more, but Dame Joan
held her own against all but the ladies in the complete recordings.
It was in this role that she scored one of her greatest triumphs
when Sadler’s Wells Opera gave her the first fully professional
British premiere of Rusalka in February 1959.
The Last Rose of Summer and Home, Sweet Home from Bishop’s Clari,
both recorded in 1950 with Ernest Lush at the piano, are exquisite.
It takes a very special interpreter to put these “songs of sentiment”
over without making them mannered or cloying. Another one such
is another Dame Joan (Sutherland) who was from the same part
of the world as Joan Hammond. Her version of the Bishop aria
is performed ravishingly with just a harp accompaniment. The
final track, Eric Coates’ Green Hills o’Somerset is something
of a disappointment because the disc used for the transfer is
so noisy. Recorded in 1941, it is nonetheless an important document,
especially with the inimitable Gerald Moore providing the accompaniment.
Dame Joan Hammond died in Bowral, New South Wales in 1996 at
the age of 84.