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Gundula Janowitz (soprano)
The Last Recital – In Memoriam Maria Callas

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die Götter Griechenlands; Iphigenia; An die Leier; Ellens Gesang I ‘Raste, Krieger! Krieg ist aus’; Fischerweise; Der Fluß; Im Abendrot; Die Winterreise - D. 911 (Op. 89/5): V. Der Lindenbaum; Das Lied im Grünen; Die Forelle (encore)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Myrthen, Op. 25: No. 9, Lied der Suleika; Lieder - Album fur die Jugend, Op. 79: No. 26, Schneeglöckchen; Myrthen, Op. 25: No. 7, Die Lotosblume; Sechs Gedichte und Requiem, Op. 90: No. 2, Meine Rose; Myrthen, Op.25: No. 3, Der Nußbaum
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Fünf Lieder, Lob des Leidens; Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Allerseelen; Vier Lieder, Morgen! Drei Lieder, Nachtgang; Fünf Lieder, Op. 39: No.4, Befreit
Charles Spencer (piano)
rec. live, 16 September, 1999; Herodes Atticus Odeon, Athens. DDD
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR56 [82:38]

This first release of Gundula Janowitz’s last public recital in Athens has been dedicated to her as a tribute on her 80th birthday. It finds her in astonishingly fine voice for a singer who had just turned 62 at the time of performance; her tone is still fine and pure and, as the conclusion of track 15 demonstrates, she could still float a line as beguilingly as ever, even if just occasionally an insecurity of intonation and a slight edge creeps into her silvery timbre, betraying the fact that she had been at the top of her profession for forty years. I am a self-confessed Janowitz nut and for me she could do no wrong. I know that I am in good company: two generations of voice-lovers have discovered the special allure of her vocal qualities and this valedictory album puts the seal on her status as one of the greatest of 20C lyric sopranos.

She retired from the operatic stage in 1990 but continued to give concert performances for almost a decade longer – testament to the reliability of her technique and the longevity of her voice. This recital was part of an annual tribute to Greek daughter Maria Callas, née Kalogeropoulos, and now commemorates the 40th anniversary of Callas’ death. Despite the caveat in the notes from the producers of First Hand Records regarding the difficulty of remastering the unofficial recording to exclude the extraneous noise inevitable in a live, outdoors performance, I find the sound to be first rate.

The generous 83-minute tripartite programme is very appealing, being a well-balanced selection of mostly valedictory Lieder from three of the greatest exponents of that genres. A few of the songs here have featured in Janowitz’ previous recordings, especially favourites like “Fischerweise”, and comparison with versions from 1976 and 1989 reveals little deterioration in the silvery fluency of her soprano. Schubert’s “Der Lindenbaum” is exquisitely poised and leisurely – one of the slowest on record out of the dozen I own and surpassed only by Jon Vickers’ dreamy account in a live recital from 1983. Janowitz is not the most interventionist of interpreters compared with great contemporaries such as Brigitte Fassbaender, relying instead on the plangency and purity of her singing to touch the listener’s heart. Similarly, Charles Spencer seems at times a bit literal compared with the greatest accompanists, but the songs emerge clearly and cleanly as compact masterpieces. The effect of a first listening is that of re-encountering an old friend, and I was frequently struck by the similarity in their middle and lower ranges between Janowitz and Beverly Sills, great lyric sopranos both. I do not think that that the relatively restrained approach adopted by Janowitz has anything to do with any caution regarding the passing of years; it is simply that understatement was always her watchword.

As much as I enjoy the Schubert and Schumann Lieder, for me the highlight here is the batch of songs by Strauss, the composer, along with Mozart, with whom Janowitz was most identified throughout her long career. Her singing of the concluding Lied, the celebrated “Befreit”, is astonishing in, first, its serenity and poise, then the power of the sustained, swelling line on “O Glück!”at its climax.

The most famous of Schubert’s songs provides a fitting encore. Full German texts and English translations are provided in the booklet, including an erratum slip, also with texts, substituting “Das Rosenband” for “Lob des Leidens”, which wrongly appears in track 15 of the listing, reflecting Janowitz’ last minute decision to change the programme.

Admirers of this great singer need not hesitate: this is more than just a sentimental tribute, but rather a thoroughly rewarding recital from a beloved performer whose voice defied the encroachment of the years.

Ralph Moore

 

 




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