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Rosa Ponselle - American Recordings 1939 and 1954
see track listing at end of review
Rosa Ponselle (soprano)
Romano Romani (piano) (CD 1: 1-8); Igor Chichagov (piano) (CD 1: 9-20, 24; CD 2: 1-11, 13-16; CD 3: 1-14, 19-21); Rosa Ponselle (piano) (CD 1: 21-23; CD 2: 12); Igor Chichagov (organ) (CD 3: 15-18); Mischa Schmidt (violin) (CD 1: 6, 7)
rec. RCA Victor Hollywood Studios 31 October, 1 November and 7 November 1939 (CD 1: 1-8); in ‘Villa Pace’, Baltimore, Maryland, 16 – 21 October 1954 (all the remaining tracks)
NAXOS 8.111142-44 [77:14 + 66:23 + 74:55]
Experience Classicsonline

After an enormously successful career at the Met, Rosa Ponselle called it a day in April 1937 when she was just forty. Only months before that she had married and soon after the final performance the couple moved to Hollywood, where she had many friends. In 1939 RCA Victor recorded eight songs with her, six of which were published at the time, but even though she was immensely popular there was no continuation of the contract. In 1940 they moved to Baltimore where she built a house named ‘Villa Pace’. In 1951 they divorced and Ms Ponselle had a period of depression but began to work with what was later to be known as the Baltimore Civic Opera. She still sang and record companies were alerted to contact her with propositions for further recordings. She was persuaded by her old company RCA Victor but refused to go to New York. Instead RCA sent equipment and technicians to her ‘Villa Pace’, where during five busy days in October 1954 they recorded more than fifty songs. Sixteen of these were issued on an LP entitled Rosa Ponselle Sings Today and in 1957 another sixteen titles were issued under the header Rosa Ponselle in Song. But after that the company lost interest in the material, and the master tapes were sent to her. The unissued titles were later released on the ASCO and FJS labels. The master tapes for the two RCA Victor LPs were given to the Library of Congress by Rosa Ponselle and they were used by Ward Marston for this issue. The remaining tapes have however disappeared and also the acetate records that were made for test listening. Those were, luckily, copied before disappearance and this third-generation source is all that Marston has had to work with. They are of course inferior in sound quality but still fully acceptable as documents of what the legendary soprano sounded like when she was 57.
 
As can be seen from the header it was a catholic selection of songs that Ponselle presented to the recording team, but apparently all of it attracted her and inspired her to involved singing – even of what in some cases can be labelled as ditties.
 
Ponselle recorded extensively during a period of ten years but after the Wall Street Crash she made no recordings until the Hollywood sides. Her old acoustic and electrical records have always been admired as some of the best soprano singing ever reproduced and I lavished praise on a couple of volumes issued by Naxos not so long ago. Since for some reason I hadn’t heard her later efforts I was very curious to find out if there had been a decline in her vocal armoury during the intervening years. To be honest there is very little to complain about. It may be argued that the voice has aged, but I think that is inevitable and playing at random some titles with other outstanding sopranos, recorded with roughly the same intervals, confirmed this very clearly. What had not changed was her superb breath control, her expression, her marvellously controlled pianissimo and the crystal clear high notes. Moreover it seems that her lower register had expanded and taken on a contralto quality. In A l’aimé (CD 1 tr. 2) both extremes are clearly illustrated within a few bars. Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Nightingale and the Rose is splendidly vocalised, but the supreme achievement is Schubert’s Ave Maria with beautiful violin introduction and obbligato. Here Ponselle’s tone is almost instrumental without in any way sounding mechanical. The version with only piano was never published at the time but that was hardly for musical reasons – I presume that RCA Victor didn’t trust the record-buying public to invest in two versions of the same song. In Arensky’s On Wings of Dreams her portamento is beautifully judged.
 
The rest of the first CD is occupied by the second of the two LPs issued with material from the ‘Villa Pace’ sessions. Another fifteen years had passed – unnoticed? No, not quite. Isn’t the voice a little darker? Isn’t there more effort? Hasn’t the vibrato widened? The answer to all three questions has to be: Yes! But it is still a fine instrument: her phrasing and expression is as musical and sensitive as before. What cannot be denied is that the highest notes tend to be disjointed from the rest of the voice. There isn’t the same support as in the rest of her voice register and the effect is that she sometimes sounds – well, not out of tune but there is a lack of overtones that gives the same effect as when hearing some soprano records from the acoustic era. My wife reacted more negatively than I did but after more than 1½ hours of concentrated listening she admitted that ‘one gets used to it’. Once one has accepted the sound per se and can focus on what is most important – the songs and the readings of them – one is in for some highly inspiring moments. The validity of the readings is never in question and there is a special treat in discovering little unheard-of gems as well as old friends being refurbished by Ponselle’s deeply felt advocacy. Plaisir d’amour always pleases and the lively Jeune fillette is sung with a girlish freshness that totally belies the singer’s age. Debussy’s Beau soir is sensitively phrased and the brilliance of Ponselle’s upper register is stunning in Delibes’s Bonjour, Suzon. Paisiello’s Nel cor più is lovely and the Tosti songs, too often vehicles for leather-lunged tenor equilibristics, are here treated as art songs with all the care she would lavish on a Schubert Lied.  Ideale is a dream of sensitivity. A real find was Sadero’s Fa la nana, bambin, a lovely lullaby, tenderly sung with a pianissimo end that is a thing of wonder.
 
On CD 2 one can admire her regal singing of Lully and the nuances in the Persico song. Chausson has rarely been so marvellously sung and Trunk’s Mir träumte von einem Königskind is inward and beautiful, making amends for her less than steady and a shade glaring rendition of Brahms’s Von ewiger Liebe.
 
Erlkönig is well characterized with an impressive contralto war tot! at the end, and Beethoven’s In questa tomba oscura is noble and solemn – more in line with Beethoven’s intentions than Chaliapin’s famous recording (HMV DB 1068) which, as a commentator once wrote, ‘is less Beethoven than Chaliapin’. Of the remaining titles from Rosa Ponselle Sings Today her superb phrasing in O del mio amato ben is something to marvel at, Tosti’s Aprile is light and with a spring-like flutter in the voice. Sadero’s Amuri, amuri, accompanied by herself and sung in Neapolitan dialect, also involves some spoken phrases and sounds of kisses. Drink to me only with thine eyes is inward and seemingly simple but there is so much art in her phrasing; her rubatos makes the melody come almost to a standstill – idiosyncratic maybe but also proof of her deep affection for the song.
 
In Farley’s The Night Wind she expressively imitates the howling wind – down to the basement of her contralto register. Del Riego’s Homing, finally, is lovingly phrased. The last fifteen minutes of the disc has an interview where Ruby Mercer discusses the songs on the original LP with Ms Ponselle. This was not on the LP but sent to radio stations as promotional material. Hearing Rosa Ponselle’s first spoken phrases I couldn’t help feeling that this was the wrong voice for a celebrated soprano. It isn’t very sonorous but very dark, so it’s no wonder she had those contralto notes when singing.
 
The remaining twenty-one titles from those intensive sessions in ‘Villa Pace’ occupy the third CD. Why didn’t RCA Victor want to release them? Are they markedly inferior? I don’t think so. The sole standard opera aria among all the sides, Cherubino’s  Voi che sapete, is a fine reading, Ciampi’s Tre giorni son che Nina, formerly attributed to Pergolesi and in latter days sung by Alfredo Kraus, is strong and assured. The Schubert songs, especially Der Tod und das Mädchen, impressive. Richard Strauss’s Morgen!, on the other hand, is too laboured but Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage is subtle. Tristesse éternelle, which is an arrangement of Chopin’s celebrated Etude in E major, lets the melody unfold in all its beauty. She also has good feeling for de Falla’s songs.
 
A group of four sacred songs is heard with organ accompaniment. The only really well known one is Bizet’s Agnus Dei, recorded by Gigli, ‘the three tenors’ and many others. This is an arrangement of the Intermezzo from L’Arlésienne. Then follow four beautiful settings of Ave Maria. Luzzi’s version seemed to me the finest. The encore is Buzzi-Peccia Colombetta, a charming song here adorned with some spoken contributions.
 
To sum things up: the Art of Rosa Ponselle is just as apparent here as on her earlier recordings, but her voice has aged and readers who are not die-hard Ponselle freaks are advised to listen before investing. First priority remain her still unsurpassed recordings from the 1920s.
 
Göran Forsling

Track listing
CD1
Paolo TOSTI (1846 – 1916)
1. Si tu voulais [2:52]
Nicholas de FONTENAILLES (19th Century)
2. A l’aimé [3:51]
Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
3. The Nightingale and the Rose [3:51]
Ernest CHARLES (1895 – 1984)
4. When I have sung my songs [2:04]
5. When I have sung my songs (unpublished on 78 rpm) [2:18]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
6. Ave Maria [5:15]
Anton ARENSKY (1861 – 1906)
7. On Wings of Dreams [3:42]
Franz SCHUBERT
8. Ave Maria (unpublished on 78 rpm) [5:09]
Johann Paul Aegidius MARTINI (1741 – 1816)
9. Plaisir d’amour [4:02]
Anon. (arr. WECKERLIN, J.B.)
10. Jeune fillette (18th-century Bergerette) [1:41]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
11. Beau soir [2:36]
Leo DELIBES (1836 – 1891)
12. Bonjour, Suzon [2:48]
Claude DEBUSSY
13. La chevelure [3:33]
Arr. ROSS, Gertrude
14. Carmen-Carmela [2:23]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867 – 1916)
15. El Mirar de la Maja [3:22]
Fermin Maria ALVAREZ (1833 – 1898)
16. La partida [4:11]
Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740 – 1816)
La Molinara:
17. Nel cor più non mi sento [1:54]
Attr. ROSA
18. Star vicino [1:47]
Paolo TOSTI
19. A Vucchella [2:02]
20. Ideale [3:47]
21. Marechiare [2:56]
Geni SADERO (1886 - 1961)
22. Fra a nana, bambin [2:47]
Rodolfo FALVO (1874 – 1936)
23. Dicitencello vuje [3:22]
Paolo TOSTI
24. Could I [5:01]

CD 2
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632 – 1687)
Amadis:
1. Bois épais [3:16]
Mario PERSICO (1892 – 1977)
2. Rosemonde [3:30]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
3. Guitares et mandolines [1:35]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855 – 1899)
Poème de l’amour et de la mer:
4. Le temps de lilas [4:59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
5. Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43 No. 1 [5:11]
Richard TRUNK (1879 – 1968)
6. Mir träumte von einem Königskind, Op. 4 No. 5 [3:12]
Franz SCHUBERT
7. Erlkönig,  Op. 1, D328 [4:04]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
8. In questa tomba oscura, WoO 133 [3:26]
Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876 – 1948)
9. Rispetto [1:12]
Stefano DONAUDY (1879 – 1925)
10. O del mio amato ben [4:34]
Paolo TOSTI
11. Aprile [3:00]
Geni SADERO
12. Amuri, amuri [4:21]
13. I battitori di grano [1:16]
Trad.
14. Drink to me only with thine eyes [3:02]
Roland FARLEY (1892 – 1932)
15. The Night Wind [1:41]
Teresa DEL RIEGO (1876 – 1968)
16. Homing [2:37]
17-31 Interview with Ruby Mercer [15:27]

CD 3
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Le nozze di Figaro:
1. Voi che sapete [2:48]
Vincenzo CIAMPI (1719 – 1762)
2. Tre giorni son che Nina [2:40]
Franz SCHUBERT
3. An die Musik, Op. 88 No. 4, D547 [3:06]
4. Der Tod und das Mädchen, Op. 7 No 3, D531 [2:54]
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Wesendonck-Lieder:
5. No. 5, Träume [5:06]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
6. Morgen! Op. 27 No 4 [4:06]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
7. Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, Op. 6 No. 6 [3:26]
Henri DUPARC (1848 – 1933)
8. L’invitation au voyage [4:30]
Emil PALADILHE (1844 – 1926)
9. Psyché [3:15]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810 – 1849)
10. Tristesse éternelle [3:29]
Manuel de FALLA (1876 – 1946)
Seven Popular Spanish Songs:
11. No. 3, Asturiana [3:02]
12. No. 5, Nana [1:46]
George MUNRO (1680 – 1731)
13. My Lovely Celia [2:25]
Kathleen LOCKHART MANNING (1890 – 1951)
14. In the Luxembourg Gardens [2:21]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
15. Agnus Dei [3:19]
Luigi LUZZI (1828 – 1876)
16. Ave Maria [4:24]
Harrison MILLARD (1830 – 1895)
17. Ave Maria [5:59]
Miguel SANDOVAL (1903 – 1953)
18. Ave Maria [4:32]
Paolo TOSTI
19. Ave Maria [3:42]
Luigi DENZA (1846 – 1922)
20. Se [4:32]
Arturo BUZZI-PECCIA (1854 – 1943)
21. Colombetta [3:35]
 


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