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Softly Awakes My Heart - The Majestic Career of Louise Kirkby Lunn
by Michael Letchford With accompanying CD of performances
If you were to mention the name of the contralto Louise Kirkby Lunn to most present-day music lovers, you would be met with a completely blank look; she is an essentially forgotten singer today. Even among the few of us who have a passion for performers of the past, she is not a particularly highly-regarded singer. In the 50 years that I have been collecting 78s, I don’t think I have once consciously gone out of my way to buy a Kirkby Lunn, though the fact that I have about 25 of her records which I have somehow or other acquired over the years (mainly from the junk shops of my youth) is testament to her popularity and record sales in her day. Michael Letchford, however, is clearly an enthusiast for a singer whom he believes is “due for a celebration” and has spent much time researching for this book.
Kirkby Lunn (the second k is silent, though I have never heard anyone treat it as such when talking of her cousin Stanley Kirkby, the music hall entertainer) was undoubtedly an important singer. She gained the highest accolades from such as Elgar, Henry Wood and Charles Santley, and sang regularly at Covent Garden and the New York Metropolitan to great acclaim. Born in Manchester in 1872, she died aged only 56 in 1930, studying first with local teachers and then for a short time at the Royal College of Music in 1893. She made her operatic debut in 1896 in the world premiere of Stanford’s Shamus O’Brian, moving on to the Carl Rosa company the same year and becoming a regular at Covent Garden from 1902 to 1914 and again in 1919. At Covent Garden she sang with singers and conductors of the highest quality from Caruso and Hans Richter downwards in the German, Italian and French repertoires. In 1904 she sang Kundry in a 13-city tour of America with a production of Parsifal (can you imagine such an undertaking today!), in 1903 and from 1906 to 1908 she took major contralto roles at the Met. In 1912-13 she toured Australia and New Zealand. When Covent Garden re-opened in 1919 she returned for eight performances as Amneris in Aida, but after that, with the exception of four Kundrys in Parsifal for the British National Opera Company in 1922, she became essentially a concert singer.
After a brief introduction, the book begins with a slightly odd section about the family’s history. This includes a quite extensive family tree of 30 members, only three of whom are even mentioned in passing in the book. It also gives the precise addresses of the eight houses in which she lived over her life and the address of her son’s final home. It is a little difficult to see the value of all this. The succeeding almost 100 pages are a series of chapters detailing the singer’s career, in the great majority of cases accompanied by contemporary reviews of the performances. A brief chapter about Kirkby Lunn’s recordings is provided by Tully Potter, followed by a further selection of reviews and reprints of a couple of magazine interviews with the singer. There then follows an excellent discography by David Mason (it seems odd that this was not paired with Tully Potter’s chapter) and a 40 page chronology of her career.
When approaching this book, it is probably wise to note the qualifying second half of the title – “The majestic career of Louse Kirkby Lunn”. Anyone who approaches the book in the hope of gaining any insight into the character of the singer will be disappointed; apart from a quotation from the autobiography of Henry Wood and a brief paragraph of obituary tributes, there is nothing at all about her as a person. I realise that, 100 years after the events, it is probably almost impossible to ascertain such things unless there are surviving family memories or documents, but it does leave a large hole in the narrative. I do feel that at least something could have been attempted, though. Particularly notable by his absence is her husband, William Pearson, whom she married in 1899. He is mentioned briefly only in the family tree section (and even here without a date of death, so we do not know which survived the other) but we are given the tantalising information that in the 1911 census “Mr Pearson is described as Manager of Bechstein Hall [Wigmore Hall]”. Surely this would have merited at least a little investigation; Kirkby Lunn sang many times at the Bechstein Hall between 1902 and 1925, and a chapter is dedicated to her programmes there and their reviews, but without so much as a passing mention of her husband. The great majority of these recitals took place between 1905 and 1910 – did these coincide with his tenure? It would be interesting to know whether he had any influence on her programmes, which are at times very interesting and forward looking. In her 1st November 1907 recital, for example, she included songs by Debussy, Mahler, Strauss, Goldmark, Wolf and Sibelius as well as the more expected Schubert and Brahms. Pearson must presumably have had musical interests and perhaps training to be chosen to manage London’s premier small concert hall, so was he an influence here? Mr Letchford has clearly had access to the Wigmore Hall archive, so I would have thought it possible to have found out something about his tenure there and entertained at least a little speculation about these matters.
Mr Letchford must certainly be highly commended for his research about the singer herself. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of quotations from newspapers and magazines ranging from the Luton Times through the Manawatu Times to the New York Times. I was particularly tickled by one from my own home town of Preston from the Lancashire Evening Post, the newspaper for which my father worked as a printer for over 30 years. The reviews do tend to be very general in their comments, so little specific can be gleaned about the actual performances, but the sheer volume of overwhelmingly positive reviews is in itself a measure of the effect her performances had on her audiences.
It is a bit of a shame that the proof-reading was not done a little more carefully. There really are quite a number of errors in names: Jeager for Jaeger (p27 and 33), Blauveldt for Blauvelt (p27), Gianna Russ for Giannina (p35), Celeste Boninsegna for Celestina (p59), Cavilieri for Cavalieri (p60), Tamimi for Tamini (p70), Leon Sibiriakov for Lev (p73). Also the tenor is Agustarello Affre, not Charles (p67). I also noticed a few problems in reviews which may well have resulted either from auto-correct or OCR scanning errors – “declaration” for “declamation” (p49), “disclaiming” for “declaiming” (p55) and the two sentences which begin seven lines from the bottom of page 42, which don’t seem to make any sense.
Coming to the accompanying CD, I find that I have to be rather less enthusiastic than I would have liked. Firstly, the contents are entirely operatic and all but one date from between 1909 and 1912. Surely a CD which accompanies a biography should attempt to cover as wide a cross section of recordings as possible. I would like to have seen at least one of the 1902 recordings and something from the 1920s (her final published recording dates from1924). I would also like to have seen some song recordings; although she was primarily an opera singer, recitals were always a significant part of her life. Though I must admit that it is one of her rarer discs, I would like to have seen included her 1923 recording of Brahms’ “Sapphische Ode”, a piece central to her recital programmes and for which she was regularly specifically praised. The CD lasts 65 minutes, so there was certainly room. The quality of the copies used for transfer is also a real cause for regret. The great majority of Kirkby Lunn’s records are not remotely rare, so it should have been possible to find copies in excellent condition of all but a few of these tracks. The note with the track listing says “many original discs have distortion, mainly in loud climactic passages. Kirkby Lunn possessed a big voice which some of the early recording ‘experts’ seem not to have been able to accommodate.” I’m afraid this is disingenuous. The distortion is due to worn copies having been used for transfer – I know this for sure because I have original 78s of 14 of the 18 discs on this CD. This is something which the transfer engineer, Norman White, would not have been able to rectify. I know Mr White’s work well, and it is of excellent quality, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
I had hoped that the performances themselves might have made me reassess my view of the singer, but in all honesty they have not really done so. The voice itself is undoubtedly of superb quality from top to bottom, though there is a something of a gear change into and from the chest register that is not uncommon in singers of this period. Personally, I do not mind this at all (it is certainly preferable to the feeble low notes that many present-day female singers possess), but it is something very much frowned-upon nowadays.
The problem that I find is the lack of real drama or engagement with the characters. This was a criticism in the earlier reviews of her performances, but was not a regular complaint after about 1905, so I can only assume that she gave more on stage than in the recording studio. In his chapter on her records, Tully Potter says “Great as she is, [Clara] Butt tires me after a while, whereas I can listen to Kirkby Lunn for hours” (p113). I must say that I find just the opposite to be true. Butt has a constant engagement with the detail of the text, which make it impossible not to listen with attention; she grabs the listener by the lapels with the intensity of her communicative ability. Kirkby Lunn is never unmusical, but Butt’s imagination and total immersion in the piece do not seem to be within her capabilities. I find that the attention wanders after a while in a way it never does with Butt. In all honesty, the CD seems to me to explain exactly why she has ‘dropped off the radar’.
The CD begins with “Si le bonheur”, the little aria for Sièbel that Gounod added to Faust for Didiée at Covent Garden in 1863; it is almost never performed today, but was a standard part of British performances in Kirkby Lunn’s time. On the CD track list it is mistakenly given as “Versez vos chagrin”, but this was the title of an aria in the original score which Gounod cut before the first performance. It is sung with a well-controlled line and nice sense of melancholy. The next three tracks are from Carmen and are all well sung and with some character, but this is not a sexy Carmen, and the ‘Séguidille’ does not have the earthy spirit it really needs. Her Card Song is the most successful, the depth of her tone giving an effectively baleful feel, though she does sound more like Erda than Carmen. The next three tracks are from Samson et Dalila and I find these even less successful, despite her studying the role with Saint-Saëns. There needs to be something both fanatical and very sexual (one might even say “vampish”) to do real justice to the role. ‘Printemps qui commence’ is the most successful, as a well sustained line is the most important thing here, and that is something that Kirkby Lunn was well-able to provide, but you only need to listen to the contemporary recording of Schumann-Heink in this aria to hear what is missing. ‘Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse’ lacks any real drama. I don’t think anyone would guess that Dalila is calling on love to help her destroy Samson, though, as always, the line is beautifully sustained. In ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’, there is little sense of seduction. The singer should slither erotically down the semitones at ‘Ah réponds, réponds à ma tendresse’, but this is not in Kirkby Lunn’s armoury.
The next section consists of Verdi extracts. Track 8 is surprisingly the only extract she recorded from what we would call today her signature role, Amneris. In this extract from the Act 2 duet with Aida, it is very interesting to compare her with her Aida, Emmy Destinn. Destinn’s part is full of specific verbal characterisation and a real sense of desperation, but Kirkby Lunn is comparatively stately and fails to convey Amneris’s cunning at the start or her triumph when she has tricked Aida into revealing herself. ‘Stride la vampa’ (Trovatore) is again well sung and with some rhythmic vigour, but the crazed fanaticism of Azucena is not to be found. Don Carlo is an opera Kirkby Lunn did not sing on stage, so ‘O don fatale’ would only ever have been performed in concert. Again, this is a character in a situation of desperation, which Kirkby Lunn does suggest to an extent, but the ‘O mio regina’ section is sung almost as though it were from Elijah.
‘Gerechter Gott!’ from Wagner’s Rienzi is much more satisfactory, her style and timbre seem to me to be more suited to the German than the Italian repertoire. There is some real momentum in her performance, though her enunciation of the English text is not at all clear. ‘Voce di donna’ from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is also the sort of piece that suited her; the sumptuous line and restrained emotional feel are very well conveyed. The duet with Destinn from the same opera shows exactly the same contrast between the two singers as the Aida duet. This is one of those operatic cat-fight duets, and Kirkby Lunn is far too much the lady to indulge in the necessary blood and guts. The duet from Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioelli della Madonna finds both Kirkby Lunn and McCormack as fish out of water – both singers were completely unsuited to this piece of hard-core verismo set in the slums of contemporary Naples, beautifully sung as it is by both of them.
The final section is devoted to 18th century opera, and though the emotional restraint of this world would seem to suit her better, our expectations of how this music should sound have changed radically over the last century. ‘Non più di fiore’ (Clemenza di Tito - Mozart) has a lovely line and the fioriture are finely turned. ‘Che faro’ is sung with a great deal of rubato and portamento, which you will either love or hate. It is a great pity that she sings an English version of ‘Ombra mai fu’, the text of which apparently forces her to break the line between the first note and the rest of the phrase. I say “apparently” because despite having had the record for about 40 years and having listened to it several times again for this review, I have been able to make out barely a word of the text. ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ is much more successful, and the line and tone find her at her most beautiful.
This a useful and interesting addition to the fairly scant library of books devoted to British singers of the past. It is well written and full of information, though I would have preferred a wider focus on both her life and the times in which she lived.
CD Contents GOUNOD: Faust –
When all was young (Versez vos chagrins) [actually it is “Si la bonheur”]
z5474f 03257 rec. 1911 BIZET: Carmen - Habanera
z5473f 2-033029 rec. 1911 BIZET: Carmen - Séguedille
z5472f 2-033028 rec. 1911 BIZET: Carmen - Air des cartes
z5493f 2-033030 rec. 1911 SAINT-SAËNS : Samson et Dalila - Printemps qui commence
z5469f 2-033031 rec. 1911 SAINT-SAËNS : Samson et Dalila - Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse
z5495f 2-033032 rec. 1911 SAINT-SAËNS : Samson et Dalila - Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
3401f 2-033002 rec. 1909 VERDI: Aida - Ebben qual nuovo (with Emmy Destinn)
5145f 2-054023 rec. 1911 VERDI:Il Trovatore - Stride la vampa
z5494f 2-053067 rec. 1911 VERDI:Don Carlo - O don fatale
3197f 2-53000 rec. 1909 WAGNER:Rienzi - Gerechter Gott!
z5667f 03440 rec. 1911 PONCHIELLI:La Gioconda - Voci di donna e d'angelo
z6316f 2-053074 rec. 1912 PONCHIELLI:La Gioconda - L‘amo come il fulgor (with Emmy Destinn)
5143f 2-054020 rec. 1911 WOLF-FERRARI:I Gioielli della Madonna –
T’eri un giorno ammalato (with John McCormack)
HO201af 2-054040 rec 1912 MOZART:La clemenza di Tito - Non più di ﬁori
z5500f 2-053068 rec. 1911 GLUCK:Orfeo - Che farò
HO1222ac 2-053121 rec. 1915 HANDEL:Serse — Rest (Ombra mai fu)
z5669f 03272 rec. 1911 HANDEL:Rinaldo — Lascia ch’io pianga
z6320f 2-053075 rec. 1912