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Fame is a strange phenomenon. Who ends up being famous and who doesn’t often seems to have relatively little to do with actual relative merits. Even in the comparatively rarefied world of classical music, where one might hope that more intelligent criteria were at work than in the world of, say, TikTok influencers, artists do not always get their just deserts. The present CD set is being issued to celebrate the 80th birthday of a singer whom I believe is among those who have never had the acclaim they deserved. Julia Varady was born in 1941 in Nagyvárad in what has then Hungary (border changes after the second world war led to its now being in Romania and renamed Oradea). She made her debut in Cluj in 1962, joined the Bavarian State Opera in 1973, retiring from opera in 1998 and from recitals in 2003. Although she did travel abroad, singing in pretty well all the great opera houses, she had no aspiration to have the permanently peripatetic lifestyle necessary to achieve stardom, choosing to make Munich and Berlin the centres of her career. She married Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1977, a marriage which continued until his death in 2012. She had a very solid career and was highly regarded by critics, but was barely more than a name to many music lovers. She had fairly scant attention from record companies, but fortunately, the German Orfeo label took her under their wing, resulting in the 10 CDs in this set. They have also issued a number of live performances of complete operas and excerpts, though everything in this set is a studio recording.
She didn’t sing very often in Britain, but I was fortunate enough to have heard her in two roles at Covent Garden (Desdemona in Otello in 1987 and Senta in Fliegende Holländer in 1992) and at the Festival Hall (Abigaile in a concert performance of Nabucco in 1991, Bluebeard’s Castle under Solti in 1995 and Gurrelieder with her husband under Andrew Davies in 1997). In a number of these roles, it could be argued that her voice would ideally have been a notch or two bigger, but the beauty, technical assurance and interpretative depth of her performances put any such reservations firmly in the shade. I will never forget her in the last act of Otello. She sang the Ave Maria with an extraordinary rapt calm, ending with an exquisitely poised pianissimo top A flat, but then her face seemed to crumble. Desdemona had found a few moments’ escape in the prayer, but when it ended the full horror of her situation came crushingly back upon her, and Varady almost gasped he final Amen. It was utterly heartbreaking.
The first six CDs in this set stem from a series of operatic recitals she recorded during the 1990s, beginning with two of Verdi arias conducted by her husband. Varady’s voice does not perhaps have the opulence and depth of tone that a good Italian-school soprano would have, but the clarity and gleam of her sound bring their own pleasures. I think that she is, unexpectedly, actually most suited to early Verdi. Her style is essentially classical, and she can lack the “grand manner” that middle and late Verdi needs. Both the Nabucco and Macbeth excerpts are excellent, and her fine florid technique means that she is not at all phased by that aspect, as many larger-voiced sopranos are. The recitatives are superbly characterised, and before “Vieni t’affretta” (Macbeth) she reads the letter like someone who is actually reading a letter, not knowing what it will say. The great John Steane used to talk about singers who sang with “face” on record, meaning that the listener could “see” the expression on the singer’s face because of the interpretative communication, and Varady has this ability triumphantly. Her wonderful chest register is also put to great use in these arias - you simply cannot do any sort of justice to Abigaille or Lady Macbeth without a proper chest register. In the Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth she presents a character of deep vulnerability. In the Trovatore arias, she shows her wonderful legato and beautifully poised top notes, though she can’t quite float the tone in “D’amor sull’ali” as Caballé could. In Traviata she shows a real intelligence in the recitative to “Ah fors’è lui”, beautifully registering each change of emotion as Violetta considers her situation, and the aria itself is a lovely subdued performance. In “Follie! follie!” there is almost anger, and Varady really conveys the manic avoidance-strategy that “Sempre libera” is. So many sopranos either don’t understand or can’t convey this, and end up sounding is if Violetta really were looking forward to getting back to her whirligig of pleasure. We see a less successful aspect of Varady’s Verdi in “Addio del passato” from the last act. The letter reading is very good - “è tarda” again allows her character a flash of anger - but the aria itself is too stoic for my taste. Granted, we don’t want hysteria here, but neither do we (or at least I) want stiff-upper-lip. The Ballo in Maschera, Forza del Destino, Don Carlo and Aida arias are similarly a little emotionally reticent and lacking the necessary “con espansione” grandeur, though all are excellent in parts, and full of intelligent detail. The Willow Song from Otello is very well done and the farewell to Emilia has a tremendous dramatic punch, but the Ave Maria left me a little disappointed. I suppose the emotional impact that I mentioned earlier when I saw her in the part at Covent Garden is something that can only really be experienced at a live performance.
Having found Varady a little too emotionally reticent in middle and late-period Verdi, I feared that it could be a real stumbling-block in Puccini, but she is far too intelligent an artist for that. She clearly sees that the styles appropriate for each composer are substantially different. She begins the third CD with Doretta’s Dream from La Rondine. The legato is a little lacking, but there is a fine dynamic variety to her performance. In Bohème she is even finer. Both “Mi chiamano” and “Donde lieta” have not only wonderful legato, but are so full of perceptive verbal and dynamic detail that Mimì positively stands there in front of you. In Manon Lescaut she is again lacking in the full-frontal emotional blast that a good Italianate soprano provides - her musical character simply cannot go to the places that a Callas or Olivero can - but there is still much pleasure to be had, and, again, her chest register is a great help (though at times it can feel a little detached from the rest of the voice). She is back on top form for Suor Angelica and Tosca. “Senza mamma” is superb, with an exquisite top A at the end, and “Vissi d’arte” shows probably a clearer realisation that this is a prayer than any other version I have heard. In Butterfly’s “Un bel dì”, there isn’t really the sense of eager anticipation and certainty that Pinkerton will return. Varady is too tragic, singing as though Cio-Cio-San already knows that he won’t. This sense of tragedy is wonderfully employed in “Che tua madre”, however, which is a deeply moving performance. In Turandot, both of Liù’s arias a very good (they have often been performed better by German sopranos than Italian, Lotte Schoene being perhaps the supreme example), but I don’t think that Varady has either the ice in the heart or the steel in the voice for Turandot herself. Marcello Viotti provides fine, if not ultimately memorable, conducting.
The fourth CD is of excerpts from Tchaikovsky operas. It begins with the whole of Act 1 Sc. 2 (25 minutes), which includes the Letter Scene. This is a beautifully natural, detailed performance in which Varady catches perfectly Tatiana’s mixture of impulsiveness and reticence. Tatiana was a role Varady sang onstage, and it certainly shows in her complete identification with the part. Her other Tchaikovsky stage role was Lisa in Queen of Spades, and the excerpts here shows the same understanding. Both the Act 1 aria and the Midnight Aria wonderfully capture Lisa’s sadness and desperation. The other tracks are less compelling; as far as I know, she never sang any of them onstage and they don’t feel “lived in” to the same extent, good though they are. Roman Kofman conducts all the tracks with considerable style and understanding.
The fifth CD of Wagner includes roles which she could never have sung onstage, she had nowhere near the vocal heft needed for Isolde or Brünnhilde. This lack of a true heroic tone is a definite disadvantage in the Immolation, but Varady’s clear and detailed understanding of the text compensates to a large extent, making it a more satisfying performance than those of many sopranos who have a more natural vocal fit. Her Liebestod again displays that artistic reticence which does not make her right for roles where eroticism is a requirement; the “liebes” half of the matter is underplayed. She is unsurprisingly at her best in the opening work, the Wesendonck Lieder. Here, her Lieder singing skills come into their own and make for an excellent performance. “Der Engel” has a lovely legato, in “Stehe still” she perfectly moves from the hyperactivity of the first half to the calm and contentment of the second. “Im Treibhaus” slightly lacks languor and “Schmerzen” pain, but “Träume” is expertly paced.
Richard Strauss should have been a perfect fit for Varady, but as far as I can find from an internet trawl, the only roles that she sang on stage were Arabella and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. Why not Ariadne herself, or the Marschallin, or the Countess in Capriccio or several others? Their lack is a great loss. The sixth CD begins with a role that I don’t think could ever really have been hers: Salome. She could have managed it vocally (we should never forget that Strauss begged Elisabeth Schumann to sing the role, so a big, heroic voice was not at all something he considered essential). Varady’s performance of the final scene is a lot better than I had thought it might be, and is excellent is the “nasty” (as opposed to the “perverted”) parts. Listen to the way she spits out the text describing Jochanaan’s tongue when he condemns her - “diese Scharlachsnatter” (this scarlet viper) or the wonderful use of the chest register at “sind jetzt geschlosen”, but it is not really her. Both parts of Ariadne’s big scene (here stitched together to form a continuous piece), however, are very much her forte. She may not quite have the ability to float the high notes as exquisitely as Janowitz, Margaret Price or te Kanawa had, but her use of the text is more acute than any of these. The excerpts from Liebe der Danae and Capriccio are superb. In the latter she has all the perception of Schwarzkopf with none of the archness (though with a very elderly-sounding Fischer-Dieskau as the Haushofmeister). The two excerpts from Arabella are from the 1981 complete recording under Sawallisch, and she is perfect in the part, which was recorded at her vocal peak. Her dueting with an equally lovely Helen Donath’s Zdenka in the Act 1 “Aber der Richtige” duet is simply glorious, though Fischer-Dieskau in the Act 3 finale is not a Mandryka. The character is a slightly slow-witted, unsophisticated, butch backwoodsman with a heart of gold - the very opposite of the singer. Sawallisch, though good, is a little “Captain Sensible” and no match for Böhm or Thielemann.
I approached the seventh CD of “Operatic Rarities” with little enthusiasm, though it turned out to be a more mixed bag than I feared. I enjoyed Meyerbeer’s Gli Amore di Teolinda. Although written in 1816, it has more of the feel of a late-18th century piece, and the recording dates from the same year as the Arabella, so shows Varady at her best vocally. Her singing is superb, with a real feeling for the style, outstanding florid technique and a thrilling top. The voice is much more seamless than it was in the following decade. The chest voice was still marvellous in the 90s, but it did sometimes have the feel of being disconnected from the rest of the voice, which is not the case here. There is excellent clarinet playing from Jorg Fadle, and I think it would be hard to imagine a better case being made for the piece. The lack of any texts or even plot summary was very frustrating, however. The excerpts from Spontini’s Olympie and Spohr’s Jessonda both come from complete recordings which do not seem to be available except as downloads at the moment. Both are very fine performances, though I was able to find little musical interest in the Spontini. The Spohr has a bit more going for it, however.
In the eighth and ninth CDs we can appreciate Varady’s excellence as a Lieder singer. The sequence of ten Mozart songs captures a perfect balance between verbal clarity, characterisation and musical line. The sequence also displays a highly intelligent programme which is in effect a sort of Frauenliebe und Leben, exploring aspects of the way love affects the lives of women and the indifference of nature to these, from the unfortunate Doris who stumbles upon Cupid in a wood, to the grumpy Old Woman, complaining about how everything has gone to the dogs. The eight Strauss songs which follow also deal with love and nature and are also given outstanding performances. All the qualities mentioned above apply to the CD of Tchaikovsky songs. Varady has the ability to think in paragraphs and give a wonderful dramatic and musical arc to each song. Her singing always has momentum, even at its slowest, and the legato is faultless.
The final CD of songs by Spohr was a surprise, and not a pleasant one. Two thirds of it do not feature Varady at all, but are sung by Fischer-Dieskau. When these were recorded in 1984, he was not yet 60 years of age, which should not be considered tremendously old for a singer of his repertoire, but he sounds much older. The tone is grey and lacking any juice and the vibrato has loosened, so he resorts to huffing, puffing and badgering the musical line. It is all made even more depressing by the poor quality of the music. Listening to this CD made it abundantly clear why Spohr’s songs form no part of the Lieder canon. Knowing Schubert’s setting (or even Loewe’s) of “Erlkönig” makes Spohr’s feebleness unendurable. In “Der Spielmann und seine Geige”, a song about a jilted lover, at one point the text commands “Dissipate, violin, the throng of demons./ My magic wand waves, -/ Storm, insanity, dark serpent-locks,/ Be the grave of my sorrows!” Spohr’s music would be more fitting to a song about flower arranging. The final six songs for soprano and clarinet are sung by Varady. They seem to be of higher quality than the first 12, but that may simply be because there is pleasure to be had from her performances of them. Even here, though, the clarinet part consists almost entirely of the clichés of clarinet writing (fast scales and arpeggios, sudden leaps from one extreme of register to the opposite one) which have no discernable connection to the text.
The ten CDs are contained in an attractive and sturdy box, in plain paper sleeves. It is however not acceptable that Orfeo have not even put the texts on their website. This does not matter too much for the standard Verdi, Puccini and Wagner excerpts, but even the Tchaikovsky are not all easy to find, and the Meyerbeer, Spontini and some of the Spohr are impossible if you want a translation too. I have four of the original CDs, and three of those had full texts and translations, so it should not have been impossible to achieve.
Despite the odd caveat, this is a wonderful set. The original issues are now hard to find and quite expensive, so this box is a bargain. Every track contains some detail to treasure, and many are treasurable in their entirety.
CD1 - Verdi (1813-1901)
Ben io t'invenni (Nabucco); Tacea la notte placida (Il Trovatore); D’amor sull’ali rosee (Il Trovatore); Ah fors’e lui and Sempre libera (La Traviata); Addio del passato (La Traviata);
Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa (Un ballo in maschera); Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Un ballo in maschera); Pace, pace, mio Dio! (La forza del destino)
CD2 - Verdi(1813-1901)
Vieni t’affreta and Or tutte sorgette (Macbeth); La luce langue (Macbeth); Una macchia è qui tuttora - Sleepwalking Scene (Macbeth); Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo (Don Carlo) Ritorna vincitor! (Aida); O patria mia (Aida); Piangea cantando and Ave Maria (Otello)
CD3 - Puccini(1858-1924)
Chi il bel sogno di Doretta (La Rondine); Sì, mi chiamano Mimì (La Bohème); D'onde lieta uscì (La Bohème); Oh! Mio babbino caro (Gianni Schicchi); In quelle trine morbide (Manon Lescaut); Sola, perduta, abbandonata morbide (Manon Lescaut); Senza mamma (Suor Angelica); Vissi d'arte (Tosca); Un bel dì vedremo (Madama Butterfly); Che tua madre (Madama Butterfly); Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio (Madama Butterfly); Signore, ascolta (Turandot); Tu che di gel sei cinta (Turandot); In questa reggia (Turandot)
CD4 - Tchaikovsky(1840-1893)
Complete Act 1 Scene 2 including Letter Scene (Yevgeny Onegin); Prelude (The Maid of Orleans); Prostitye vi, kholmi, polia radnie - Farewell to the Forest (The Maid of Orleans);
The Battle of Poltava (Mazeppa); Spi, ladenets moi prekrasny - Maria’s Lullaby (Mazeppa); Goppak (Mazeppa); Glyanut s Nizhnevo, so krutoi gory (The Enchantress); Gdye zhe ti, moi zhelannii (The Enchantress); Otkuda yeti sliosy (Queen of Spades); Uzh polnots blisitsya - Midnight Aria (Queen of Spades); Prelude (Iolanta); Otchevo eto prezhde ne snala (Iolanta)
CD5 - Wagner(1813-1883)
Wesendonck-Lieder; Prelude and Mild und leise wie er lächelt (Liebestod) (Tristan und Isolde); Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt (Götterdämmerung); Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort (Immolation) (Götterdämmerung)
CD6 - Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan! - Final Scene (Salome);
Overture (Ariadne auf Naxos); Ein Schönes war, hieß Theseus (Ariadne auf Naxos); Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist (Ariadne auf Naxos);
Interlude to the 3rdAct (Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83); Wie umgibst du mich mit Frieden (Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83); Mondscheinmusik (Capriccio); Wo ist mein Bruder? (Capriccio);
Kein Andres, das mir so im Herzen loht - Final Scene (Capriccio); Er ist der Richtige nicht für mich (Arabella); Das war sehr gut, Mandryka (Arabella)
CD7 - Operatic Rarities Gli Amori di Teolinda - Cantata (Meyerbeer)
Mais, quel trouble inconnu s'empare de mes sens ? (Olimpie - Spontini); O reine! Accomplissez le serment qui vous lie! (Olimpie - Spontini); Cassandre est libre (Olimpie - Spontini); Viens! Suis-moi! (Olimpie - Spontini);
Als in mitternach'ger Stunde (Jessonda - Spohr); Ich hatt' entsagt der Erde Freuden (Jessonda - Spohr); Mein Schritt, beflügelt von Entzücken (Jessonda - Spohr)
CD8 - Mozart (1756-1791) and Strauss Lieder
Mozart - Ridente la calma (Myslivecek attrib. Mozart K. 152); Oiseaux, si tous les ans, K307; Dans un bois solitaire, K308; Das Veilchen, K476; Sei du mein Trost, K391; Der Zauberer, K472; Als Luise die Briefe, K520; Un moto di gioia, K579; Abendempfindung an Laura, K523; Die Alte K517
Strauss - Schlagende Herzen (Op. 29 No. 2); Ich wollt ein Sträußlein binden (Brentano Lieder Op. 68 No. 2); Säusle, liebe Myrthe (Brentano Lieder Op. 68 No. 3); Befreit (Op. 39 No. 4); Meinem Kinde (Op. 37 No. 3); Waldseligkeit (Op. 49, No. 1); Schlechtes Wetter (Op. 69 No. 5); Frühlingsfeier (Op. 56 No. 5)
CD9 - Tchaikovsky Songs
Khotel bi v edinoye slovo (I should like in a single word); 6 Romances, Op. 6 (No. 1, Nye ver, moi drug; No. 5, Otchevo?): 6 Romances, Op. 28 (No. 3, Zachem?): 7 Romances, Op. 47 (No. 1, Kaby znala ya; No. 2, Gornimi tikho letela dusha nebasami); 6 lieder on poems by Daniel Rathaus, Op. 73 (No. 1, Mi sideli s toboi; No. 2, Noch; No. 3, V yetu lunnuyu noch; No. 4, Zakatilos solntse; No. 5, Sred mrachnikh dney; No. 6, Snova, kak prezhde, odin); 6 French lieder for Désirée Artôt de Padilla, Op. 65 (No. 1, Sérénade; No. 2, Déception; No. 3, Sérénade; No. 4, Qu'importe que l'hiver; No. 5, Les larmes; No. 6, Rondel)
CD10 - Spohr(1784-1859)
Six lieder for baritone, violin & piano, op. 154 (No. 1, Abendfeier; No. 2, Jagdlied; No. 3, Tone; No. 4, Erlkönig; No. 5, Der Spielmann und seine Geige; No. 6, Abendstille)
Schottisch Lied (Op. 25 No. 2); Zigeunerlied (Op.25 No. 5); Lied beim Rundetanz (Op. 37
No. 6); Vanitas! Vanitatum vanitas (Op. 41 No. 6); Schlaflied (Op. 72 No. 6); An Mignon (Op. 41 No. 3); Six German Songs for soprano, clarinet & piano, Op. 103 (No. 1, Sei still mein Herz; No. 2, Zwiegesang; ; No. 3, Sehnsucht; No. 4, Wiegenlied; No. 5, Das heimliche Lied; No. 6, Wach auf)
Bayerische Staatsorchester/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - CD 1, 2
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - CD 5
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - CD 6
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Marcello Viotti - CD 3
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Gerd Albrecht - CD 7
Munich Radio Orchestra/ Roman Kofman - CD 4
Bavarian State Orchestra/ Wolfgang Sawallisch - CD 6
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra/Gerd Albrecht - CD 7
Jorg Fadle (clar) - CD 7
Elena Bashkirova (piano) - CD 8
Aribert Reimann (piano) - CD 9
Hartmut Höll (piano) - CD 10
Dmitry Sitkovetsky (vln) - CD 10
Hans Schöneberger (Clar) - CD 10
Stefania Toczyska- CD 7
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - CD 6, 7, 10
Franco Tagliavini- CD 7
George Fortune- CD 7
Kurt Moll- CD 7
Daphne Evangelatos - CD 4
Renate Behle - CD 7
Thomas Moser- CD 7
Helen Donath - CD 6
Lothar Odinius - CD 1
Stella Doufexis - CD 2