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Wolf Schäfer’s Singing Dogs
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)

Bella figlia dell’amore, Quartet from Rigoletto [4:27]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)

Der Hölle Rache from Die Zauberflöte [2:51]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868)

Cat Duet [4:36]
Wolf SCHÄFER (b. 1942)

12 Etüden für singende Hunde [17:55]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)

Vocalise Op. 34, No. 4 [4:32]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825 – 1899)

An der schönen blauen Donau, Op. 314 [6:39]
Bonus Track:
Glenn MILLER (1904 – 1944)

Moonlight Serenade [3:41]
The Singing Dogs: Chelsea, Tiffany and Tia (sopranos), Nina, Alice and Eve (mezzos)
Bred, trained, conducted and accompanied by Wolf Schäfer (piano)
rec. at Wyastone Leys, Great Britain, 13 – 15 September 2007
Experience Classicsonline

The history of singing dogs goes back to the mid-1950s and older readers may well remember a record that was released in 1955 with among other songs a howling version of Jingle Bells.[sample] This was however a different kind of singing dogs than Nimbus are now proud to be able to present to the record buying public. The man behind that venture was the legendary Danish ornithologist Carl Weismann who had been specialising in recording bird singing for the Danish Radio. His problem was that the recordings were often disturbed by barking dogs and he spent hours and hours cutting out the cries, which in those days had to be done manually with a pair of scissors. Mr Weismann ended up with an enormous amount of tape snippets with barking and instead of throwing them away he cut them together to form Jingle Bells – just for fun and for possible use in a radio show for children. The tape ended up as an RCA record in USA, selling several hundred thousand copies, in the UK it was released by Pye-Nixa and in Sweden the Metronome label issued it. It was often heard on the radio at Christmas time when I grew up and I especially remember the family cat sitting fixed before the radio receiver, listening with awe and disgust – even joining in and, of course, in the wrong key.

What we have on the present Nimbus disc, the first in a planned series, is the outcome of the discovery of the New Guinea Singing Dogs (NGSD), which was a sensation in 1957, when a pair of the species was brought to a zoo in Sydney, Australia. They were regarded as a subspecies of the domestic dog – probably derived from the standard poodle but also closely related to the Australian dingo. By interbreeding these two species the German musicologist and zoologist Wolf Schäfer has been able to beget individuals with a special sense for pitch and after many years in Australia he brought a group of six particularly musical female dogs to UK in 2001. He has tried to train some males too but their tendency to cock their legs against microphone stands during performances was a major disadvantage. In his exhaustive liner notes for this issue Schäfer describes in detail the training programme and the many hours, weeks, months and eventually years, where he hovered between hope and despair. As recently as September 2007 he had a major breakthrough and the recording sessions soon followed.

Assessing this disc is no easy task, since it involves a quite new attitude to the art of singing and, at least partly, a new set of criteria. The sound of singing dogs, whether in ensemble or as soloists, is probably an acquired taste and I won’t pretend that I have fully digested the new sound world.

The repertoire might seem a bit odd with a number of hackneyed pieces from the Central European classical music, while I would have believed that music with a South East Asian or Australian origin would have been more these singers’ cup of tea – or rather afternoon treat. However, all learning, whether by human beings or dogs, is a matter of conditioning and reward, and being himself steeped in the European tradition, Dr. Schäfer maintains that these dogs have become so domesticated through his assiduous work that Verdi and Strauss are today second nature to them. Still I think that they have retained a certain roughness in their voice production and also a rhythmic freedom that seems wholly appropriate in solo passages but in their consorted singing there is a certain lack of discipline and as a consequence some of the members can occasionally be slightly behind the beat, while others tend to press on, resulting in less than unanimous music making. Intonation is another problem. I am not quite sure whether it is the singers’ natural talent or Dr. Schäfer’s intentions that make them frequently employ quite heavy portamentos – a way of producing legato through sliding from one note to the next. This was quite common a couple of generations ago: Fritz Kreisler, Elisabeth Schumann and further back in time Nellie Melba did so, and sometimes it works quite well. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is rather beautifully vocalised, even though the scooping creates a slight feeling of seasickness. This is more obvious in An der schönen blauen Donau, where the waves of the Danube a couple of times seem to sweep the singers ashore.

The quartet from Rigoletto poses another problem. Here are four distinct characters whose individual reactions to the situation are clearly depicted by Verdi but the lack of true enunciation of the text, pared with a certain unwillingness to listen, leaves the listener in a vacuum – we never get really involved. Still it is quite remarkable that they have been able to study this notoriously difficult piece.

These are all more or less concerted pieces, and so are the 12 Studies by Wolf Schäfer. He points out in the liner notes that they are no musical masterpiece – and on this point I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Schäfer – but he composed them for the basic training of the dogs and the conditioning and reward led to their full acceptance and now they love this music more than anything else. As studies they are intended for practicing specific skills, such as terrace dynamics, breath control and crescendo – diminuendo and it is certainly a pleasure to hear the enthusiasm from the singers.

The Cat Duet by Rossini is of course a hilariously funny piece of music and many readers may remember the live recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Victoria de los Angeles from Royal Festival Hall, who both lived their respective cats to the manner born. I can’t believe that the soprano and mezzo dogs on this recording have the same affinity for the feline family and they feel bland by comparison. It was also a mistake to include the Queen of the Night aria with its extremely high-lying tessitura and the difficult coloratura. The soloist here has an agreeable voice but her sense of pitch leaves a lot to be desired. Even though she isn’t quite as wayward as Florence Foster Jenkins on her historical recording it doesn’t give much pleasure.

To end on a happy note, however, I have to say that the bonus track, Moonlight Serenade, is the ideal encore. It is sung a cappella at a fair distance from the microphones and the arrangement is quite daring with complex chords and clusters. The feeling of four werewolves howling at a full moon isn’t far away.

The piano accompaniments are more than worthy of the situation and the recording is almost too realistic. Even though I have presented some objections concerning details I am convinced that this is a seminal recording that should be in every decent collection of curio. I urge tone-deaf readers and cat-haters to invest in the disc without delay. Others may wish to wait for future issues, which I understand will be on DVD.

Göran Forsling




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