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Julia Varady: Song of Passion [56.26]
A film by Bruno Monsaingeon
Julia Varady in recital [28.45]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Wesendonck Lieder (1857) *
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Kaby znala ia *
Bonus rehearsal [8.35]
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531 **
Julia Varady (soprano)
*Viktoria Postnikova (piano)
** Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (piano)
Film and recital recorded in Paris, 1998;
rehearsal filmed in Berlin, 1998.
DVD Region 0.
EMI CLASSICS DVB 3884589 [93.49] 

I heard Julia Varady sing live only once: in London as Tove in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder some ten years ago. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis gave a committed performance. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau took the role of the Speaker – the second I experienced, between Hans Hotter and Ernst Haefliger. As for Varady herself, my concert diary notes that she “lacked nothing in ardour of expression, creating more impact with her careful use of words than the size of her voice, but still able to cope well with the demands of Schoenberg’s late-Romantic beast. Should hear more of her …” Alas, I never did.

This DVD gives one the opportunity to get a full picture of Varady’s background, her art and distinguished career, and her prime motivations for singing. Indeed, Bruno Monsaingeon, director of the three films included here, “hopes that the viewer could enter Varady’s intense world … it might also provide a belated revelation of one of the most fascinating vocal and musical personalities of our time.” About that I have no complaint, but until reading the full text of Monsaingeon’s essay on Varady included on the DVD, I did slightly doubt his assessment of her Varady as “a mystery” and the embodiment of an unlikely fusion of vocal art: Maria Callas and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. To be frank, such a statement made me want to watch the DVD even more.

What emerges in the first of the films, “Song of Passion”, is an in-depth biographical portrait of Varady. From her childhood in Oradea, Romanian Transylvania, the daughter of ethnic Hungarians, she moved to Cluj to pursue what sounds like a monastic musical education. Then came her first operatic appearances as a contralto, closely followed by an assumption of soprano roles. Filmed in Portugal, she gives a lucid account of the claustrophobic atmosphere in Ceauçescu’s Romania, which led her to flee to the West in the early 1970s in search of a wider career. That she succeeded was the result of hard work, effort and sacrifice for her art. Speaking in German and French, she recalls the main opportunities that came her way and the high points of a career which spanned more than thirty years. Key moments are illustrated with archive film footage, recordings and photographs. If Varady is not the household name that the quality of her singing should have made her, she remains very much a musician’s musician. She talks at length about finding the right tone, timbre and quality for each composer and sees herself as a servant of music. Rightly, the score and the composer come first for her.

Even though illustrations of her in performance take in segments of Verdi, Richard Strauss, Mozart and Wagner amongst others, it is the opportunity to see her at work with other artists that can give the most insight. The film includes a rehearsal sequence with Viktoria Postnikova for the Wesendonck-lieder recital included later on the DVD.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Varady’s husband, features prominently as pianist and conductor. His wise counsel on the choice of repertoire throughout her career is acknowledged, and they often memorably shared the stage together. The ‘bonus’ film of Varady rehearsing Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen to his accompaniment shows the exacting results that she is willingly pushed towards. It’s quite an interpretive masterclass, given by one who knows the music better than most, but Varady meets most challenges of linguistic inflection, dramatic timing and distinctive tone with individuality of insight along the way. The richness of her lower register is impressive, as is the fluidity of her middle, whilst in the upper reaches it gains a slight vulnerability. When heard with orchestra, as on several releases from the Orfeo label conducted by Fischer-Dieskau, what impresses most is the integrity of her tone. Although it can be projected with strength, it hardly ever loses focus or wavers from the note. If there is any possible weakness, it is a slight indistinctness of diction in favour of an emotional involvement that carries you along with the conviction of her performance.

So to Wagner’s Wesendonck-lieder. The recital, given before an invited audience, was the first professional collaboration between Varady and Postnikova. Monsaingeon’s decision to deliberately bring together these two formidable, yet under-acknowledged performers was surely a gamble. But it paid off. Postnikova’s sense of balance within the piano part underlines the point that the two must be treated as equals – Wagner’s cultured accompaniment to Wesendonck’s amateurish, yet endearingly clumsy verses. In combination, he raises her to a higher plane of sophistication. For her part, Varady gives the words nobility and for moments an ethereal quality. Given that this piece continues to elude a ‘definitive’ performance in my opinion, Julia Varady’s has much to say that seems to identify with that elusiveness. She is no less searching in the Tchaikovsky encore, finding, to my ear at least, nuances of sound and emphasis with assurance.

Monsaingeon’s films leave me in no doubt that Julia Varady was an artist who never received the level of recognition she truly deserved. This DVD should help to rectify that to a large extent, and then leave you wanting belatedly to hunt out her recordings.

Evan Dickerson 

More on Julia Varady:

YouTube: Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Wagner and a superb extract from Verdi’s Nabucco



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