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Nicolai Gedda – French Connections
Hector BERLIOZ (1803–1869)
1 – 6 Les nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1840-1841) [32:18]
Henri DUPARC (1848–1933)
7 Phidylé [5:23]
8. Le manoir de Rosemonde [2:17]
9. Chanson triste [3:34]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845–1924)
10. Fleur jetée [1:42]
Trois poèmes d’un jour, Op. 21:
11. Rencontre [2:36]
12. Toujours [1:22]
13. Adieu [3:01]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
14. Beau soir [2:29]
15. Mandoline [1:32]
Pelléas et Mélisande, excerpt:
16. Mes longs cheveux descendent (Love Scene act 3) [13:18]
Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Silvio Varviso (tr. 1-6); Jan Eyron (piano) (tr. 7-15); Elisabeth Söderström (soprano), Kim Borg (bass), Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet (tr. 16)
rec. Stockholm Concert Hall, 25 February 1968 (tr. 1-6); 4 January 1976 (tr. 7-15); 7 July 1960 (tr. 16)
BLUEBELL ABCD 096 [70:13]

Nicolai Gedda (b. 1925) is definitely one of the most recorded singers in history, possibly only challenged by his exactly contemporaneous Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the somewhat younger Placido Domingo. All three are/were also among the most versatile of singers. Gedda, who speaks seven languages fluently and sings in even more, has made his mark in most genres. In opera he spanned two centuries, from Gluck to Barber – he was Anatol at the premiere of Vanessa – even singing Wagner, though on stage this was limited to one or two performances of Lohengrin in Stockholm in 1965. I heard the premiere on the radio and even recorded it on my reel-to-reel recorder, a recording I kept for many years until it started to deteriorate. His was a marvellous reading of the role but he realised that frequently singing such heavy music could seriously damage his vocal cord and wisely said no to future Wagner singing. Two excerpts from Lohengrin were however included in a recital with German arias. For many years, mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, he took part in practically every operetta recording that Electrola made and he must be regarded as one of the best tenors in this genre since Tauber. He sang in oratorios and passions, he recorded arie antiche, Swedish patriotic songs, he was a great Lieder singer, and was a near ideal interpreter of French melodies. In Russian music, both opera and song, he was second to none and his physical strength paired with high intelligence made him pick and choose repertoire that suited his voice and allowed him to continue singing at a very advanced age. I believe he still makes occasional appearances and as late as 2001 he recorded the part of the Emperor in the Chandos Turandot. Even later, in 2003, he sang the High Priest in Idomeneo. In 1992 he celebrated 40 years at the Royal Swedish Opera with a full-length recital, singing many of the arias one associates with him – the Flower Song from Carmen among them. No one hearing him then could guess that this was a 67-year-old singer and not someone half that age.

The present all-French recital, recorded during the 1960s and 1970s, allows many listeners to hear him in partly “new” repertoire. The songs with piano – at least some of them – were recorded for French EMI on 1968 with Aldo Ciccolini, but as far as I have been able to find they don’t seem to be available at present. Besides Fauré and Debussy he also sang Poulenc and Hahn on that occasion. I have some of them on one of those compilation albums that appear from time to time. I hope EMI will reissue all of them one day. At this concert in 1976 he was still in splendid shape and everywhere it is a pleasure to hear his care for the text and his exquisite phrasing. As an opera singer he also, when he feels it appropriate, invests the songs with drama, more so than most traditional French or French-oriented singers who sometimes can be too perfumed for my taste. Of course Gedda’s superb half voice is exactly right for the intimate pages as in the third song from Op. 21, Adieu, which is extremely beautiful. The summer atmosphere of Duparc’s Phidylé is also memorably depicted, while Fauré’s Fleur jetée is powerful and generously brilliant. Debussy’s lively Mandoline is sung with infectious rhythmic vitality. Jan Eyron is as always the ideal accompanist, pliable and alert.

Berlioz was no stranger to Gedda. He recorded La damnation de Faust twice, L’Enfance du Christ, Benvenuto Cellini and even Roméo et Juliette, but as far as I can remember his Les nuits d’été was never preserved on commercial discs. Today we think of these songs as soprano and mezzo-soprano territory but they were originally intended for several different voice types and Colin Davis once recorded the cycle that way as part of his epoch-making Berlioz cycle for Philips back in the 1960s and 1970s. Looking at the texts it is also obvious that several of them are from a male perspective. I am not sure but I think this is the only recording by a tenor. Initially I even thought it was the first by any male singer but José Van Dam recorded it around 1990, but then in the original piano version.

The opening of the cycle isn’t too inviting. Vilanelle is outgoing, energetic and not very subtle and Gedda’s tone is rather hard. The first stanza of Le spectre de la rose is also rather forceful, but the second stanza is subdued until the last line J’arrivé du paradis and in the third he shows his mastery at pianissimo singing. The song that really makes this a must-have disc is Sur les lagunes where he is dark-toned. Even without knowing the words one understands the sorrow: Ma belle amie est morte (My loved one is dead / I shall weep forever /into the grave she has taken /my soul and my love). He builds up the stanza with expansive, chilling intensity only to soften the tone to a gripping, hushed, extremely concentrated Ah! Sans amour s’en aller sur la mer! (Ah! to go loveless to sea!). I have to admit that the English translation I have quoted is sadly lacking in poetry but it gives the gist of the poet’s sorrow. He is deeply involved in Absence, contemplative in Au cimetière and sings the concluding L’île inconnue with a mix of exuberance and poetry. My favourite recording of this song cycle is since many years Régine Crespin on Decca, a version that I won’t easily be parted from. For a quite different approach I will probably return to Gedda’s now and then. Crespin, by the way, sings songs 3 and 4 in reversed order.

The excerpt from Pelléas et Mélisande is sung in Swedish. It is interesting to hear Elisabeth Söderström in a role she made very much her own and which she recorded ten years later with Pierre Boulez, a version that still counts among the top contenders. She is undoubtedly more youthful here and just as involved and it seems that both singers inspire each other to great things. Gedda is certainly one of the most engaging of Pelléas assumptions but as far as I am aware he never sang the role on stage. This present recording is from a concert performance where towards the end of the scene we also hear the sonorous and likewise involved Kim Borg as Golaud. The orchestra is thinner than on the Berlioz but it is still more than acceptable. Led by one of the foremost French conductors the excerpt has the stamp of authenticity.

There are no texts but Stig Jacobsson’s liner-notes are informative on both composers and music. For Gedda admirers this is an essential buy considering that the Berlioz and Debussy and possibly the Duparc are new to his discography.

Göran Forsling 


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