was born Françoise-Jeanne Schütz in St Petersburg in 1860.
Her father was Russian, her mother French-Canadian and
at the age of fifteen the girl went to Paris to study,
eventually taking lessons from the famed Pauline Viardot-Garcia.
She made her debut in 1883 and travelled to Brussels, the
Paris Opera and back to St Petersburg and Moscow and was
invited to La Scala in 1890. A little hiatus after her
marriage saw her leave the stage but she soon returned
giving Parisian premieres of Wagner (Isolde, Brünnhilde
in Götterdämmerung in 1899 and 1902 respectively). And
it was as Isolde that she made her Covent Garden premiere,
later singing Aida, Gioconda and Donna Anna. Though she
was renowned as a Wagnerian she did a lot of work in other
repertoire, from Gluck to Saint-Saëns, until her operatic
retirement in 1917, though she continued to sing in recitals.
Thenceforth she became as notable a teacher as she had
been a singer, counting Koshetz and Lubin amongst her pupils.
nine years she recorded for three companies – G&T,
Pathé Frères and Fonotipia/Odeon, in chronological order.
They began in approximately late 1902 and ended around
1911 – documentation regarding precise dating has long
since disappeared. The discs represented in Marston’s splendid
two CD edition contain her known surviving recordings;
a handful of others were made but none are known to have
survived. One of the pieces here – the Odeon Ich grolle
nicht - exists in only one copy, so far as is known.
There are twenty-seven operatic items and eight songs,
though some naturally suffer from judicious cutting and
sort of voice did Litvinne have? Hers was a strong dramatic
soprano with a big range and well suited to Wagner. It
had a powerful centre but a more strained top and embodied
a certain contralto depth. It's not an especially beautiful
voice - but then neither does it curdle - and is forcefully
projected even in the 1902/03 sessions, with a fine technique.
It was, I suppose, a cosmopolitan French sound and less
explicitly Gallic than others. Her Massenet, though, is
noble and loftily phrased with that mezzo power to the
fore. Her Schumann Ich groll nicht is not for everyone.
It's a frankly operatic voice barely scaled at all in this
or other lied. Nor can the recording cope - there's some
blasting - but against the sheer inappropriateness of a
voice this big taking on a song of this kind we can still
listen to her thrilling chest voice. An exciting, exaggerated,
utterly "wrong" performance - but insightful
into her way of doing things on the recital platform. I
say Ich grolle nicht but as with other performances
she re-recorded a lot of her repertoire and there are two
recordings of it here. The earliest sessions were made
with none other than Alfred Cortot and the later ones with
an unidentified pianist.
We can test her technique
in the coloratura demands of Meyerbeer - full of trills,
registral leaps, and divisions - all fine. She has some
dicey moments up top in Verdi in a brace of performances
that doesn't really show her at her best and her Samson
reveals something that contemporary critics didn't seem
to comment on - a certain shortage of breath deriving from
insufficient breath control.
Carmen is slightly untidily phrased but the Gramophone Le
Cid (Cortot's recordings were always with them not
Fonotipia) reveals much the same qualities as her Fonotipia,
though in worse sound. Her Isolde is rather compromised
by the recording and some technical limitations in the
voice but her Gounod Sapho is very accomplished indeed.
Her Ho jo to ho is dramatic and fiery if scrunchy
at the top of her range - but one can certainly see why
she was so admired in Wagner - and we get a surprise in
the Cortot-accompanied and earlier Ich grolle nicht This
one is much better - phrasing is much more appropriate,
she is more measured and less operatically insistent; the
voice is better reined in. It's hardly a lieder voice but
it shows how changeable interpretation can be. She was
actually a pioneer of mélodie on disc. Her Fauré comprises
a big voiced and rather no-prisoners Les Berceaux and
her Hahn might be a discographic first.
surviving Litvinne sides have never been available en masse
in this way. Two companies of late however have transferred
a large percentage of them – Malibran [MR552] and in Symposium’s
Harold Wayne Collection series. Comparison between all
three is instructive. The Symposium and Malibran transfers
sound largely similar; often rather rough transfers, with
commensurately rough starts, unprocessed clicks and often
dim sounding. The great advantage of Marston’s work is
that he and his collaborators have been able to stabilise
the inherent piano instability without any damaging collateral
effect on the voice. This is a blight that has afflicted
all previous transfers. Marston’s transfers are not always
quite as “forward” as Symposium’s but they certainly make
for much more sympathetic listening, are better balanced,
have removed as far as is possible extraneous intrusions
and have got to grips with the fundamental issue of piano
instability. They are, in short, very convincing albeit
rather more interventionist than is usually the case from
Marston, as he acknowledges in a lengthy booklet note.
notes are fulsome about her career and in analysis of her
operatic recordings. I was disappointed to note that the
writer didn’t extend his analysis to her rare and pioneering
song recordings – the apartheid that seems to exists between
the operatic and song will be bewildering to non-specialists.
Wonderful photographs complete this most desirable acquisition.
that’s not all. We also have a selection of recordings
by the Russian dramatic soprano Natalya Yermolenko-Yuzhina
(1881-c.1937). She was clearly on this evidence a powerful
if rather insistent Wagnerian and one who, like Litvinne,
had a useful chest register. She is however, as has been
acknowledged before, a somewhat inconsistent and often
unsubtle artist. Her uniform dynamics are unusual even
for 1909, though it is undeniably significant to hear her,
not least in her native repertoire. She joins with her
husband in a couple of these discs – Boito and Verdi. And
she certainly has range and vibrant tonal qualities, cemented
by a good technique as she adeptly demonstrates on the
exceedingly difficult Judith extract. Those who
come for Litvinne will be well advised to stay for Yermolenko-Yuzhina;
undeniably a lesser artist but a significant one nonetheless.
last encounter with Marston’s vocal output was their splendid
Mary Lewis reclamation (see review);
this one is just as good.