Monday, 19 December 2011

Singers Who Changed My Life

This week I would like to write about something that is a very close to my heart, but has, alas, become something of a minority pastime. Classical music, and more particularly classical singers. Earlier this year, John Steane, an expert on voices and an eminent critic, died at the age of 83. He had his favourites of course (who doesn’t?), but I learned a lot from old John over the years, and I will miss his wonderfully constructive musical criticism. Some years ago, the editor of Gramophone Magazine asked him to write an article detailing the 12 singers who had changed his life, the one injunction being that one of them should still be active as a singer. For someone who knew his writing, his choices didn’t come as much of a surprise. I recently re-read this article and it got me to thinking of who mine would be. Having decided to restrict my list to 10, I then got round to deciding on those that have said something personal to me, the voices that have spoken to me down the years, from when I first started to enjoy opera and lieder as an impressionable teenager, up until now. 

Maria Callas
Anyone who knows me won’t be in the least surprised by my first choice.  I first heard the voice of Maria Callas on an LP reissue of her first recordings, originally issued on 78s. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani was coupled with the Liebestod (in Italian) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from her early Cetra recordings of La Traviata and La Gioconda. This was a voice like none I’d ever heard. It was a large voice, with dazzling flexibility, a rarity in itself, but it was the way that voice penetrated your very soul, a voice bursting with emotion. I may not have appreciated then her amazing musicality, but I certainly recognised the work of a genius. Callas made you feel that the music sprang from her throat newly minted, that she meant every word, every note. More than that, it was the way the voice could change from the sweet innocent Elvra to the womanly Isolde, from the passion of the courtesan Violetta, to the almost primeval sounds of her Gioconda. It hardly seems believable now, given that Callas’s recordings have formed the backbone of EMI’s Italian opera catalogue for years, but most of them were unavailable at the time. I slowly built up my collection by scouring second hand shops and pouncing on any imported issues that made their way into specialist record shops.  As I slowly built up my collection, Callas introduced me to the world of Italian opera. Nowadays I can be aware of some of the vocal faults, especially in the later recordings, but nobody has ever come within a mile of her fantastic musicality. For evidence of her musical skills, no better example could exist than her Leonora in Il Trovatore, full of aristocratic phrasing and almost Mozartian delicacy. She was also an amazing vocal actor, and though she has a voice that is instantly recognisable, she continually changes the weight of that voice to suit the character. It is not, though, merely a change in vocal weight. For instance, she may use the same lightness of touch for Amina in La Sonnambula as she does for Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but they are still two completely different voice characters, and she can make us see that happiness, for instance, is quite a different thing for Amina from what it is for Rosina. Callas is still my touchstone for all the roles she sang (I can almost hear her in my mind’s ear in some of the ones she didn’t), and, though I recognise that some have made prettier sounds, there will always be a moment, maybe a single word, where Callas’s unique colouration will suddenly do something to nail the character as no other singer does. No doubt her glamour and tempestuous personal life did much to fuel my youthful ardour, but now she has been dead for over 40 years, the dust has settled, and it is her musical gifts for which she will be remembered.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
My next choice might seem a little more surprising, a singer as far away from Callas as it might seem possible to be. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who introduced me to Mozart, Richard Strauss and lieder. Her recordings of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and of the Vier letzte Lieder were my first exposure to these works, and have remained in my collection ever since. A voice shot  through with laughter, she also made many great recordings of lighter works, and her disc of Operetta Arias can lighten the spirits like no other. She and Callas admired each other enormously (their repertoires were very different of course), and though they only made one recording together (Puccini’s Turandot), they met often, as Schwarzkopf was the wife of Callas’s record producer, Walter Legge, on one occasion Schwarzkopf giving Callas an impromptu singing lesson in the middle of the restaurant at Biffi Scala. Schwarzkopf was a good person to ask. She rarely put a foot wrong, and it is this attention to detail, that some find gets in the way of the music. There can be a lack of spontaneity, it is true, and, where Callas is able to conceal the huge amount of work that goes into each of her musical recreations, Schwarzkopf can be accused of artifice. Her Liu in the above mentioned Turandot may not sound for one moment like a slave girl, but I love her singing of the role, so beautiful and so richly nuanced.  

Dame Janet Baker
Sifting through my memories now, I come to a singer I heard live before I heard on record. I first heard Dame Janet Baker in a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst I was at college. Unfortunately I never got to see her in opera, but I did hear her live in concert on many occasions. In a very different repertoire, she had an almost Callas like intensity and an ability to sing pianissimi  that somehow reached the furthest recesses of the hall. Dame Janet introduced me to the music of Monteverdi and Handel, Bach and, of course, Elgar’s Sea Pictures (memorably coupled to Jacqueline Du Pre’s seminal recording of the Cello Concerto). She was also a great Berlioz singer. I actually prefer her recording of Les Nuits d’Ete to Crespin’s famous one, and I doubt her recording of the closing scenes of Les Troyens has ever been bettered. 

Placido Domingo
Fritz Wunderlich
Placido Domingo’s was a voice I first heard on record in an early recital of arias, but I will never forget the thrill of first hearing him live at the Royal Opera House, in La Fanciulla del West, if memory serves me right. Domingo certainly had presence and a glamorous voice to go with it. A real singing actor, he seemed to improve as a performer every time I saw him. Incredibly, he is still singing today, though he has moved over to the baritone repertoire recently, taking on such roles as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto. He may not have introduced me to any new repertoire (though many of his recital records took him refreshingly off the beaten track), but he did instil in me a love of the tenor voice, which led me to investigate the work of other tenors, two of which also make it onto my list. Firstly there was Fritz Wunderlich, who had a voice of overwhelming heady beauty. He died at a time when his interpretative artistry would have been reaching its maturity, his final concert in Edinburgh being testament to that, but if you ever want to hear someone revelling in the sheer joy of singing, just listen to his DG performance of Lara’s Granada. Admittedly it is in German and the splashy arrangement is pretty vulgar, but he sings with a freedom and passion that would be the envy of any Latin tenor – and what about that final top C? Phew!

Jon Vickers
Then there was Jon Vickers, who had a voice and manner of startling individuality, and an intensity of performance that could almost be too painful to listen to. Starting in Italian opera (he sang Giasone to Callas’s Medea), he progressed to Wagner, singing towering performances of Tristan and Siegmund. His Otello suffered like no other and his Peter Grimes, mercifully preserved on film, is one of the greatest creations of all time.

Maggie Teyte
Next on my list are two more ladies, one from well before my time and one who died only recently. I first heard the voice of Maggie Teyte in a performance of Duparc’s Chanson Triste and was totally captivated. Her records were not easy to get hold of, but I finally managed to track down a copy of EMI’s “L’Exquise Maggie Teyte”, whilst a friend gave me a copy of a Decca recital, which included her wondrous rendering of ‘Tu n’es pas beau’ from La PĂ©richole, which shows off to advantage her gloriously individual chest tones, and a twinkle in the eye.
Victoria De Los Angeles

If Teyte lead me to explore more French song, then Victoria De Los Angeles helped and then added to it a new world of Spanish music. Truth to tell, I hadn’t much liked her when I first heard her as a rather insecure and out of sorts Hoffmann Antonia, and I think it was probably her record of the Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne that first led me to reassess. That Antonia was misleading and other operatic roles, not least her Manon, Marguerite (Faust), Butterfly and Mimi display a golden voice allied to a winning personality. I also had on LP a live performance of her singing a wonderfully touching and trusting Desdemona to Del Monaco’s Otello at the Met, which remains in my memory far more than many of the assumptions by singers we might think more suited to the role.

Tito Gobbi with Callas in Tosca
So far the list is rather top heavy with female singers, so I am happy to include as my next choice a baritone, colleague of Callas’s and one who encompassed many of her qualities. Like Callas, Tito Gobbi had an immediately recognisable voice and always sang with a wealth of colour and understanding. I can still remember the shattering effect of my first listen through Rigoletto, actually the first ever time I’d heard the opera. His cries of “Gilda” at the end of Act 2 after she has been abducted went straight to the heart. He may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world, but, like Callas’s, it had a myriad of different colours. And like her, though always recognizably himself, he was always able to change his timbre to suit the role he was playing. 

David Daniels
Looking back at this list of singers, I realise that they all have certain things in common; the individuality of their voices (you only have to hear a few notes to know who it is) and their ability to make the listener see as well as hear. This is no less true of my final choice, a singer still very much before the public today. Some years ago, I was more or less dragged to a concert of Vivaldi sung by David Daniels and accompanied by Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Till then, apart from the Four Seasons and the Gloria, I had had little enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s music and had a total antipathy for countertenors in general. Daniels changed all that. Here was a voice of surpassing beauty, coupled to a marvellously natural personality. It was a total conversion and Daniels has now opened the door on a whole world of music I had previously ignored, which shows it is never too late to expand one’s horizons. I have hardly missed any of his appearances in this country, and, like all the singers on this list, he has a gift for communication vouchsafed to just a few.

Of course, apart from these, there have been many memorable performances. I recall the excitement of Agnes Baltsa’s Carmen with the no less memorable Don Jose of Jose Carreras; the superb Dejanira of Joyce Di Donato; Angela Gheorgiu’s first Violetta, and RobertoAlagna’s Romeo; Kiri Te Kanawa’s exquisitely, if placidly, sung Fiordiligi (with Baltsa again, as an adorably funny Dorabella); Renee Fleming in Previn’s AStreetcar Named Desire. These too will always stay in the memory, but I send my gratitude to the ten on my original list, for through them I have discovered a whole world of great music. They may not necessarily be the ten greatest singers of all time but they have enriched and enlightened and can truly be called singers who have changed my life.

Selections from some of their recordings here

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