Lynn René Bayley
, May 2009
This interesting compilation, optimistically titled Great Voices of the Golden Age, brings into question what exactly constitutes a “Golden Age” of singing and what criteria are used to judge it so. By the reckoning of most people, the “real” golden age of singing ran roughly 40 years from circa 1890 to about 1930, starting from a time when there were so many outstanding voices around that many were cast—by their own choosing, or management’s—in subsidiary roles as well as leading ones, to a time when economic circumstances and the plunging of the world into the blackness of class and territorial wars not only split the classical world asunder but led to a fragmentation of regional voice types and the loss of “method” singers who were able to build up phenomenal techniques to match whatever interpretive skills they happened to possess.
In retrospect, however, the entire concept of a Golden Age was brought into question by the post-World War II emergence of singers, conductors, and directors with a vision of opera and Lieder quite different from their predecessors. And since this compilation recital is largely comprised of song, we’d do well to recall that the earlier “golden age” was by no means so splendid when it came to song interpretation. If you had talked to composers such as Strauss, Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, or even Mahler during that period, you’d have discovered that they were not nearly as excited about the singers of their day as song interpreters as they may have been of their skills as opera singers. A purview of that earlier “Golden Age,” in fact, shows only a handful of artists who met the demands of musical exactness and interpretation of text that the composers wanted: Mary Garden, Maggie Teyte, Elena Gerhardt, Johanna Gadski, Paul Reimers, Earnestine Schumann-Heink, Leo Slezak, John McCormack, Karl Erb, Heinrich Rehkemper, and Alexander Kipnis. Of that group, only six names (Garden, Gadski, Schumann-Heink, Slezak, McCormack, and Kipnis) were what you would call “superstars” who were equally lauded in opera. The others fell into that realm known as “specialists,” and many of them had odd-sounding voices that wouldn’t have been accepted by general audiences in opera at all.
In this brief but fascinating survey covering a little more than a decade, then, we have six singers who were certainly big names in their time, but only half of them would be accepted today as great interpreters. As a perfect example of voice vs. style we have mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, undoubtedly one of the most impressive singers of her generation, totally overpowering Brahms’s Vergebliches ständchen. Gone is the light, wistful touch that Elisabeth Schumann (one of the finest of the post-1930 Lieder singers) brought to it, or which soprano Rita Streich brings to it here. This 1962 performance may best be described as “Fricka tries to be coy.” Sapphische Ode is a little subtler, but not much. Only in the less sensitive song from Mahler’s Des knaben wunderhorn do Ludwig and her material sound like a good match.
From the earnest if failed attempts of Ludwig to sound subtle, we move on to Gundula Janowitz blithely singing Beethoven’s Ah, perfido! with Alain Lombard and the l’ORTF Orchestra in 1965. I’m not sure who decided to include this on the DVD, but it’s a total waste of time. Janowitz had one of the creamiest, most luscious soprano voices of her time, but absolutely no interpretive skill. She didn’t even have enough fire to make the forte passages stand out. The visual and audio quality of this clip is also abysmal, not to mention so soft in volume that you have to turn your volume knob up considerably just to get some sound out of it. (One question, though: wasn’t Janowitz a longhaired blonde? In this clip, she is a shorthaired brunette.)
Following Janowitz (in back cover order) is Irmgard Seefried singing modern music, the Quattro canzoni of Werner Egk in 1967. This is fascinating music, teetering on the brink between tonality and bitonality, and Manuel Rosenthal, fine conductor that he was, does a pretty good job with it. But Seefried was another of those singers who had nothing to say, and she doesn’t say it here either. Moreover, the sound quality is so badly distorted that it “phases” in and out like a tape caught in the rollers and moving up and down the capstan.
But we’re saved, for the last three singers are not only exceptional singers but exceptional artists as well. This rare, darkly lit excerpt from a 1970 Paris recital catches Vishnevskaya at the end of her vocal prime, her dark, pungent timbre well controlled. Though the cover and booklet credit Janine Reiss as pianist, it is clearly Rostropovich. Only one moment mars these excellent Tchaikovsky performances, and that is in the second song, where the cameraman obviously thought it was really cool to photograph the back of Vishnevskaya’s head while she sang.
This is the only footage I’ve ever seen of Gré Brouwenstijn, one of my all-time favorite sopranos and one of Wieland Wagner’s as well. When Brouwenstijn lamented in 1957 that she could not return to Bayreuth that summer because she was too drained to perform a summer season, Wieland regrettably informed her that her refusal meant that she was no longer part of his fold, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to use her in other productions he directed in other cities. She retired from opera in 1965 but continued to concertize until 1971. Happily, both picture and sound are in good shape here, and it was a distinct pleasure for me to see and hear her sing two of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder as well as the Tristan “Liebestod.” Charles Bruck, a conductor I was not previously familiar with, gives an equally outstanding performance from the podium. Your appreciation of Brouwenstijn’s distinctly vibrant voice may not be as high as mine or Wieland Wagner’s, but if it is, you will not fail to be moved by her performances here.
Though listed second on the DVD’s menu, Rita Streich, “the coloratura with a brain,” is listed last on the cover, and happily gets the lion’s share of the disc. Streich bridged the gap between the light soubrette style of Elisabeth Schumann and such interpretive coloraturas as Bethany Beardslee, Beverly Sills, Cristina Deutekom, and Natalie Dessay. She could sing anything, from Mozart to Milhaud, with perfect control, outstanding style, and a good if slightly generalized sense of interpretation. Janine Reiss does indeed appear for two songs here, and she is an ineffectual accompanist, but Christian Ivaldi and Maroussia le Marc’Hadour are excellent pianists who match her mood and style superbly. Among the highlights of Streich’s fairly lengthy composite recital are her versions of Die lotosblume, Seligkeit, Nacht und träume, Die vögel, and Vergebliches ständchen, succeeding in the latter where Ludwig failed.
Your definition of Golden Age may differ from mine, but for the three singers I liked most, highly recommended.