EMI Classics continue to issue Barbara Hendricks’ song recordings
in double-packs at affordable prices. Considering the great number
of her admirers this is laudable and gives listeners the opportunity
to fill gaps in their collections.
Since she first came to notice in the late 1970s I have regarded her as
one of the most agreeable of singers. This is not only because
of her pleasing personality and deep engagement in humanitarian
issues but also because she is the possessor of one of the most
beautiful soprano voices to be heard during the last few decades.
My first Hendricks record – and I believe it was her first solo
recording – was a Gershwin programme on Philips. There she was
accompanied by the Labèque sisters.
Possibly because of the repertoire I found close similarities
with the young Leontyne Price. This
was confirmed to some degree when I got out that old LP a while
ago and heard it again after more than fifteen years. There
is a certain likeness in timbre and in the way she moulds phrases.
Having heard Barbara Hendricks innumerable times since then – in the flesh
but mostly on record – I have come to recognise her voice and
have no problems distinguishing it from that of Ms Price. The
older singer, as most readers know just as well as I do, has
a larger, more rounded and … more flexible voice. Price was
able to colour her voice for dramatic or other interpretative
purposes. Barbara Hendricks, for all her inherent beauty and
deep musicality, is rather monochrome. In certain kinds of music
this doesn’t matter very much, as long as it is cleverly employed,
but especially in songs – German Lieder, French Mélodies,
Nordic Romanser - something
more expressive is needed. When she tackles Wolf, the colouring
of the voice and the word-painting becomes all-important.
Let me just pick one example at random. Ganymed was written in the 1770s
by a young Goethe as a counterweight to Prometheus.
Ganymed is a mythic youngster being
seduced by Zeus through the beauty of Spring. Schubert set the
same poem. Wolf’s setting is filled with passion. The opening
of the poem says, in translation:
How, in the morning brightness
You illumine around me,
With thousandfold love-blisses
The holy sensation
Of your eternal warmth
Presses itself upon my heart,
The boy is over-brimmed with happiness, joy, warmth and beauty. This is
a sensation he has never experienced before and he pours out
all his heart. Barbara Hendricks sings it with unerringly beautiful
tone, the slight flicker in the voice maybe reducing the flow
of the phrases, but it is well-controlled, equalized over the
whole register and she nuances exquisitely. The text is also
enunciated with care for the word-meaning and the dramatic build-up
has an intensity that is impressive. In fact she conveys everything
that is in the text. But still there is something missing. Imagine
an actor performing a role, all the gestures, all the textual
inflexions are there but the facial expressions are neutral.
Do we believe in her? Probably not, at least we feel a distance,
a kind of half-transparent veil between us and her. A Lieder-singer
on the concert platform may use her body-language - even though
in some circles this is sniffed at - and her facial expressions,
but on disc the only ‘visual’ aspects available are variations
of tone, of colour in the voice. It is unfair to say that her
vocal ‘face’ is blank but it is Buster Keaton-like.
Following the poem on a text-sheet - no such is enclosed in
this issue - a musical reading of the song can convey a lot
of pleasure. This is musical singing of the utmost excellence.
I am sure many listeners will be able to derive a lot of pleasure
from this disc – which I did – but that extra dimension, which
I persist in calling vocal ‘face’, is largely missing. One will
have to go to singers like Schwarzkopf or Seefried
or Janet Baker to get a more all-embracing interpretation of
Many songs are well executed, in spite of this lack: the lively Nixe Binsefuß for
instance, and the inward Schlafendes Jesuskind. Generally
speaking she is at her most attractive in the more restrained
songs. The Mignon songs
are in their own right delightful in their hushed inwardness.
But again I miss Schwarzkopf and Seefried. On the other hand Ms Hendricks’ relative objectivity
is preferable to the over-emphatic singing that is more aimed
at projecting the ego of the singer than illuminating the poems.
The second CD mirrors Barbara Hendricks’s affection for the Nordic countries
– she has been a Swedish citizen these many years – and the
repertoire extends beyond the most obvious choices. Carl Nielsen’s
vocal output has rarely been exposed outside Scandinavia and
Songs Op. 48 to German texts are not among his most frequently
heard, bar Ein Traum (CD 2 tr. 18), which is better known,
I think, in its Norwegian translation En Drøm. On the other hand the other six
Grieg songs belong to those most beloved of the musical public.
So do the six by Sibelius. That said,
a fatal misspelling the title of Wecksell’s
song (CD 2 tr. 26) can lead some readers to believe that it
is about some mentally deranged person – ‘dementen’
– walking in March-snow, when it should have been ‘demanten’,
which is an old form of ‘diamanten’
= the diamond. The Rangström songs,
insofar as they are known at all internationally, are also some
of his most performed – and best – songs.
When it comes to the interpretations my comments on the Wolf disc are generally
applicable here as well. There is no denying the care with which
she has approached the songs; her deep musicality is everywhere
in evidence. The readings are, however, rather generalized.
Moreover, as soon as she sings something at forte and above,
her tone hardens considerably and the vibrato is widened to
such a degree that - at least for this listener - some songs
are far from enjoyable. The more restrained songs are another
matter. Here her mastery at singing a hushed pianissimo is undiminished
and Sænk kun dit Hoved
(CD 2 tr. 4) and Studie efter Naturen (CD 2 tr. 6) among the Nielsen songs are quite
attractive. Generally speaking these songs are not the most
inspired of the Danish master’s output in this genre. The Grieg
songs (CD 2 tr. 7-12) on the other hand are masterpieces and
even though that hardness of tone and heavy vibrato mar Solveigs Sang and
to some extent Jeg elsker dig,
she is very good in Våren. She is better still in Med en vandlilje
and especially En
svane, where her pianissimo is at
its most enchanting. The six songs Op. 48 should definitely be heard more often.
They all show Grieg at his most inspired
and the Uhland setting Lauf der Welt is on a par with his most popularly celebrated
I have always regarded Ture Rangström’s songs as the best Swedish songs from the generation
after Peterson-Berger and Stenhammar.
The inward Melodi
(CD 2 tr. 19) and stormy Vingar i natten (CD 2 tr. 23) are comparable to anything written
during the first half of the 20th century. The Sibelius
songs presented here are established masterpieces. I am afraid
that at least some of them should be sung by someone with a
meatier voice than that of Barbara Hendricks. Among fairly recent sopranos
and the Hochdramatisch Kirsi
Tiihonen are far preferable. Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte suffers especially.
It feels seriously undernourished.
To end the review on a happier note I am glad to report that the encore,
the Swedish folk song Som stjärnan uppå himmelen så
klar, is ravishingly sung at an
extremely beautiful pianissimo. I wish the rest of the songs
had been on this exalted level.
The recordings, spread over a period of four years, cannot be faulted and
Roland Pöntinen is a superb accompanist.
That the piano part in Flickan kom lacks impact
is, as far as I can judge, more due to the lack of bite in the
singing than to uninspired playing from Pöntinen.
There are no texts and no notes on the music, just a short appreciation
Although everything is musical and sensitive this is a disc primarily for