The Truly Unforgettable Voice of Florence Foster Jenkins -
The legendary Studio Recordings of the worst singer in the world
RCA archive recordings, New York 1941-44 completely re-mastered; date unknown, of the recording of the Faust Travesty.
RCA VICTOR RED SEAL 88985 319622 [68.44]
The remark “The legendary Studio Recordings of the worst singer in the world” is not mine – although I share the sentiment; it is RCA’s printed on the front cover of this reissue album.
This latest reissue - there have been many - coincides with the release of the British-French film, directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena). It stars Meryl Streep in the title role with Hugh Grant as Florence’s partner and manager St. Clair Bayfield. Simon Helberg appears as her pianist accompanist, Cosmé McMoon heard on this CD. He is also interviewed on this disc and recounts, with tongue surely in cheek, his experiences accompanying her. He shares his memories of her extravagances including her extraordinary costumes, dances and a stage presence that beguiled and bewildered so many. There's also a hilarious account of her one and only appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall shortly before her death.
The CD, manifestly short on examples of her musical atrocities, is supplemented by the equally horrendous assault on sensitive classical ears by Ms Jenny Williams and Mr Thomas Burns; more about them later.
Most people will have heard and winced at the singing on this disc at some time in their lives so this CD will serve as a fond or excruciating reminder. One has in mind that odd (masochistic) saying, ‘It’s so bad, it’s good.’ That paradox escapes me but Florence’s eccentricities do in a sort of odd irritating way grow on you. Her first number here, Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria is something of a nightmare. She is pitch imperfect; her trills hardly thrilling. Mozart must have been not so much turning in his grave as revolving at top speed. The Lyadov piece has Florence demonstrating how and when not to breathe whilst delivering - or throwing perhaps in her case - a song. In the first the McMoon bird song, poor Florence would hardly charm the little creatures from the trees; more likely frighten them away for ever. In the second McMoon Mexicana piece, she is indistinct and shrill – maybe a Fisherman’s Friend cough sweet might have helped? Again the birds could hardly have been charmed in the David piece; oh dear, it’s enough to make an oyster cry and the comic opera The Pearl of Brésil sink without trace. Florence’s shenanigans probably did the same for Biassy and her idea of Adele’s aria from Die Fledermaus was no laughing matter.
As if all this was not torture enough, dear music-lover, we have to bear the disaster that is Mr Thomas Burns murdering Gounod. His rendering of ‘'ere I Leave My Native Land’ is unforgettable – unforgivably bad. His voice is a vibrato-filled nightmare; utterly, consistently off-key, the voice’s timbre excruciatingly awful. It has to be said that Ms Jenny Williams’s timbre appeals more to the ear although her sensitivity to line and dramatic resonances is questionable in the Jewel Song but oh dear, dear readers I have to report distinct queasiness on listening to their excruciatingly awful Faust Finale. That's especially at the ending as Marguerite looks forward to heavenly peace and Faust to eternal damnation. As far as Mr Burns is concerned the old song line applies ‘Don’t put your daughter (in this case, son) on the stage …’. As for Ms Williams she would best be kept in the wings.
Finally, a word of praise for the distinctly amusing album notes by Francis Robinson reproduced from the original liner essay for RCA Victor LP LM-2597. This for example: “... her flair for costume design [was] a faculty which was to prove almost as startling as her vocal flights. No Jenkins recital was accompanied by less than three changes. In ‘Angel of Inspiration’ a very substantial and matronly apparition, all wings and tinsel and tulle made its way through potted palms to the curve of the grand piano.”
Worth every moment of an 'Agony of the Month' award recording.
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflőte – The Queen of the Night’s aria (1790-91) [3.38]
Anatoly LYADOV (1855-1914)
The Musical Snuff-Box (1893) [2.25]
Cosmé McMOON (1901-1980)
Like a Bird (lyrics by Florence Foster Jenkins) (?) [1.19]
Serenata Mexicana (?) [2.10]
Félicien DAVID (1810-1876)
La Perle du Brésil (The Pearl of Brazil) – Charmant oiseau (Couplets du Mysoli) (1851) [6.00]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Count A. Pavlovich
Biassy (from opera Biassy, lyrics by Alexander Pushkin) Melody by Count A. Pavlovich based on Bach Prelude 16) (?) [3.34]
Johann STRAUSS II (1818-1893)
Die Fledermaus – ‘Adele’s Laughing Song’ (1873-74) [3.49]
Cosmé McMoon (piano)
Charles GOUNOD 1818-1893
A Faust Travesty (Gounod’s opera Faust composed in 1859)
with Jenny Williams (soprano) and Thomas Burns (baritone)
‘'ere I Leave My Native Land’ (Valentine’s Aria) [3.16]; ‘O Heavenly Jewels’ (Jewel Song) [6.01]; ‘Emotion’s Strange’ (Faust’s Cavatina) [4.46]; ‘My Heart is Overcome with Terror’ (Final Trio sung as a duet) [10.42]
Interview: Chick Crumpacker interviews Cosmé McMoon in 1954 [15.55]