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Margaret Price (soprano)
In Recital
James Lockhart, Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. 1969-87
ELOQUENCE 4825237 [2 CDs: 139:43]

I think that few would disagree with the contention that Margaret Price had one of the great British voices of the 20th century. The purity was a characteristic of many British singers over at least the last hundred and fifty years, but the amplitude and metal core that Price had in addition were much rarer. She was born in 1941 and, surprisingly, she began her career as a mezzo, but on the advice of James Lockhart undertook further study after her Covent Garden breakthrough (though she claimed later in life that she hadn’t ever had a singing lesson). This was in 1963 when she took the place of an indisposed Teresa Berganza as Cherubino, and she re-emerged as a soprano. Price regularly suffered crippling stage fright, and indeed, as a result, simply disappeared immediately before her first Norma at Covent Garden in 1988. She was, I think, very unfairly criticised for these Norma performances; there were vocal problems, but I will never forget her singing of “Teneri figli” at the start of Act 2, which was heart-stoppingly beautiful and as moving as Callas’s in its utterly different way. She retired in 1999 aged 58 and died in 2011.

At the start of her career, she had never had any interest in singing opera, she saw herself as a Lieder and concert singer, and continued to give Lieder recitals throughout her career (I heard her at the Wigmore Hall several times in the 1980s and 90s) so this pair of CDs is reflective of that central interest in her life, though with the exception of the small Schubert group, the songs here are hardly among the great examples of the genre of art song.

The first eight tracks come from the solo recital LP from 1970 which first brought her to the attention of the general record buying public, and it is a pity that either the whole of that LP or a different selection was not used. We have the whole of her 1987 Verdi song recital in this set, so it would perhaps have been better to include Mozart’s rare “Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls” K619, Mussorgsky’s The Nursery or Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets from that recital rather than more Italian bel canto songs. Having said that, the singing of them is lovely and her voice was at its peak in 1970. The first song by Bellini encapsulates the glories and also the slight reservations about all that follows. The vocal line is exquisitely sustained, there is dynamic variety, and the pinpoint accuracy of the ornaments shows her technical accomplishment. However the enunciation of the text could be clearer; the consonants need to be further forward in the mouth and the engagement with the text more detailed. The three other Italian songs are equally fine, though perhaps little less British reserve in the Donizetti and Rossini would have made them even better.

The Schubert songs were recorded at the same time and came out on EMI’s cheap Music for Pleasure label. As all 12 songs have already been reissued on CD (on Classics for Pleasure), it seems even more strange to included just four here rather than the unincluded items listed above. The Schubert shows her inexperience at this stage. “Du bist die Ruh’” has lovely tone throughout and the high notes are perfectly poised, but the text is very vague. The words are better in “Heidenröslein” but there is no real distinction between the words of the boy and the rose. Both “Gretchen am Spinrade” and “Die Forelle” are similarly under-characterised. The traditional Welsh songs which follow are from her very first recording session for the Cambrian label, which gained little attention until was reissued by Oiseau Lyre in 1976. They sound lovely, but I am totally unqualified to comment in any other way as we don’t even get a translation of the titles in the booklet.

The remainder of the first CD consists of 20th century songs. The Tate and Hoddinott songs are those tracks sung by Price from an LP of works by these composers by a variety of performers. The Phyllis Tate songs are rather like Britten’s folk song arrangements, the vocal lines certainly sound very much like folk melodies most of the time, but the booklet contains nothing at all about any of the music included, so that is pure speculation on my part. The accompaniments are very spare and more spiky and seem to add little to the melodies. The Hoddinott is considerably more modern in feel (though not sufficiently so to do more than mildly startle the horses) and seems quite effective, but in the course of the 15 minutes that the Tate and Hoddinott pieces last I doubt if I grasped more than about a dozen words. The Altenberg Lieder from 1970 are items from an LP originally issued by DG of works by Berg conducted by Claudio Abbado. Price also sang in the Lulu Symphonic Suite, and it is a shame that this was not able to be included in the present set. They are fine performances of these brief, enigmatic songs.

The second CD begins with the 15 Verdi songs which Price recorded with Geoffrey Parsons in 1986. I do not intend to go into any detail about these; the comments I made about the Italian songs on CD1 apply to these as well. I had hoped that a greater involvement with the texts would have shown itself after 16 years more experience and the influence of Parsons, but that is not really the case. Many are lovely performances, judged purely as singing, but, attractive as they are, the songs are not masterpieces, and need more expressive variety and characterisation in order for the attention not to end up wandering.

The final work, Ravel’s Shéhérazade conducted by Abbado from 1987, was from yet another issue of a miscellany of a composer’s work where Price sang only on some items – but here, at least, this issue includes all her contributions. Ravel specialists tend to be a little dismissive of this piece, but its perverse, fin de siècle sensuality appeals to me very much, and I think that a high, pure soprano of Price’s sort is exactly right for it. Much of Abbado’s conducting is marvellously detailed, though at times a little cool. The great climax after “Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien la haine” in “Asie” should engulf us in a deluge of sound, and Abbado doesn’t quite manage that. I think that this is the most successful example of Price’s singing on this set. There is a genuine sensuality and engagement with the text right from the thrice-repeated “Asie” which starts the cycle. Her use of portamento throughout perfectly conveys the voluptuousness of the fantasy.

The transfers are very well done, and my only real complaint concerns the lack of texts. The original issues of everything in this set came with texts and translations, so Decca do not have the excuse of claiming that it would be too expensive to commission them; why, then, are they not available online? With the exception of the Schubert songs and possibly the Ravel, nothing here could be considered standard repertoire, and several things could definitely by classed as rarities. If the bargain Brilliant label can put online the texts of every song in all three volumes so far issued of its complete Tosti edition (over 250 songs, many never previously recorded), Decca has no excuse for its parsimony. This aside, there is a great deal of pleasure to be got from these CDs, and the fact that many of the tracks on CD1 are first CD issues will give it great appeal to fans of the soprano.

Paul Steinson

CD 1                        
Bellini Almen se non poss’io
Donizetti La Conocchia
Verdi Ave Maria
Rossini L’Invito

Franz Schubert
5 Du bist die Ruh’, D.774
6 Heidenröslein, D. 257
7 Gretchens Bitte, D.564
8 Die Forelle, D.550
Traditional – Welsh Folk Songs
9 Y bore glas
10 Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn
11 Wrth Fynd Efo Deio I Dowyn
12 Dafydd y Garreg Wen
13 Y Deryn Pur
14–16 Tate Three Gaelic Ballads
17 Hoddinott Roman Dream, Op. 54
18–22 Berg Altenberger Lieder
CD 2                         
Giuseppe Verdi
1 Il tramonto
2 La seduzione   
3 Ad una stella
4 Lo spazza camina   
5 Perduta ho la pace                                                               
6 Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata
7 Chi i bei dì m’adduce ancora
8 La zingara
9 L’esule
10 Non t’accostare all’una
11 In solitaria stanza
12 Nell’orror di notte oscura
13 Il poveretto
14 Stornello
15 Ave Maria
16-19 Ravel Shéhérazade
Rec: CD1 tr 1-13 UK 1969; tr 14-17 London Jan and July 1971; Tr 18-22 London Dec 1970; CD2 Tr 1-15 Vienna Apr 1986; tr 16-18 London Nov 1987
James Lockhart, piano (CD1: 1–17)
Geoffrey Parsons, piano (CD2: 1–15)
London Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (CD1: 18–22, CD2: 16–18)

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