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By Joel Kasow


Irmgard Seefried, soprano
Erik Werbam, piano
DGG 477 6514 (2 CDs; notes in English, French and German)

Irmgard Seefried is for many today merely a name, but a name that evokes a bygone era, when singers of charm nonetheless possessed the wherewithal to transport us to other worlds. Recordings from Vienna in 1944 (Meistersinger and especially Ariadne auf Naxos) preserve performances that remain touchstones, while her participation in the Vienna Opera’s Mozart performances in the late 1940s and 1950s (the galaxy included Lisa della Casa, Sena Jurinac, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) are also documented. As a liedersängerin she was at the other end of the interpretative spectrum from Schwarzkopf, everything sounding totally natural and spontaneous, sometimes "overstepping" the bounds of propriety. But the generosity is always in evidence. Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben avoids the sappiness that disfigures so many performances yet remains involving. A generous Mozart selection shows the singer to advantage as do Schubert and Strauss. It is interesting to hear Bartok’s Village Scenes, but the German translation results in grave distortion, even more disturbing in Mussorgsky’s Nursery, for some reason minus its final song (as was the case in the original lp issue). Erik Werba seems more galvanized in the live performances (Mussorgsky, Bartok and some of the Schubert, Brahms and Strauss), but is otherwise his usual prosaic self. 


Gitano: Zarzuela Arias
Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid; Plácido Domingo, conductor
Virgin 365474 2 8 (texts and translations in English, French, Spanish and German)

Well now we have this month’s appearance of Rolando Villazón, this time singing zarzuela arias. The CD is guaranteed to appeal to the tenor’s fans, but those of us who demand more would like to hear a more detailed, less generalized account of this music. There are occasional pleasant touches, but the lightness with which some of the arias should be dispatched is nowhere present. And this is music that deserves better. Maestro Domingo tries his best, but I’m not certain that he is able to make Villazón find the individual touches that characterize the best recordings of this repertoire: de los Angeles, Berganza, Kraus, and even Domingo himself. For fans only.


Evelyn Lear & Thomas Stewart: A Musical Tribute
DGG 00289 477 5219 (5 CDs; notes in English, French and German)

What better way to celebrate the careers of two of America’s great singers, who were often overshadowed by figures with bigger publicity machines but whose work was always exemplary. This 5-disc compilation includes a number of items not previously released on cd, such as their duet album (running from Schubert to Grechaninov), a Te Deum by Otto von Nicolai, and a much-needed version of Wolf songs in the composer’s orchestrations. Both singers also participated in a number of highlights albums auf Deutsch in the 1960s, which allow us to appreciate the versatility of both: did Lear ever sing Oscar (Ballo in Maschera) or Senta on stage? These recordings make us wish she had. Stewart was known for his Wagner, especially after being chosen by von Karajan for his famous chamber version of Wagner’s Ring, but we also hear a model Verdian (Nabucco in German) or Dappertutto (Hoffmann in German). Lear’s Wolf and Strauss with the workmanlike Erik Werba remain fascinating, though it must be admitted that her voice lacked radiance in the upper register. This is nonetheless an important release, allowing us to appreciate the importance of U.S. singers in post-War Germany.


Great Handel
Ian Bostridge (tenor), with Kate Royal (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Harry Bicket, conductor
EMI 0946 3 82243 2 7 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in C minor, D958; Gesänge der Harfners D478; Totengräbers Heimweh D842; fragments
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
EMI 0946 3 84321 2 8 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Two of the many faces of Ian Bostridge can be sampled in the two CDs under review. The Schubert is the fourth and last album coupling late piano sonatas and songs, this time including several instrumental and vocal fragments that make one wonder why the composer broke off in the midst of highly promising material. Both Andsnes and Bostridge have made it clear in the previous albums that they can have their own view of the works in question that are entirely valid. A worthy successor. Great Handel is another issue. As the tenor grew up in the land of Handel and was in constant exposure to some of the works, we can understand his affection. Neither the oratorio nor opera selections enlarge our acquaintance with the composer, while the opera selections, in fact, amply demonstrate that Handel knew best when he specified the type of voice for a work. Bostridge takes Serse’s opening aria to the plane tree and two of Ariodante’s arias, written for castrato and today sung either by a mezzo or a countertenor and appropriates them because he likes them. "Ombra mai fu" has been sung by all voices for the last 100 years so we are not that discombobulated, but Ariodante has in our time been sung only by mezzos, for who the music lies far more gratefully. Much as Bostridge claims to love the lament with bassoons, "Scherza infida", his over-emphasis leads to distortion in the vocal line, while the two-octave range of "Dopa la notte" simply keeps pulling him into vocal territory that is far from comfortable. More to the point would have been some of the arias actually written for tenor, especially those written for insertion into performances of Giulio Cesare when the role of Sesto was rewritten. Kate Royal’s contribution (two duets) is pleasant but distracting, while Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment contribute positively.


Terezín: Theresienstadt
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Bengt Forsberg, Gerold Huber (piano);Daniel Hope (violin); and Bebe Risenfors, Ib Hausmann, Philip Dukes, Josephine Knight
DGG 477 6546 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Once again Anne Sofie von Otter has come up with a splendid CD, her indefatigable curiosity this time landing on composers at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The range is wide, from cabaret songs to folk-like ballads to "art song". And both von Otter and Christian Gerhaher are totally at home in this collection. Some of the composers have already been "discovered" (Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff), and they are responsible for the "serious" element, but Ilse Weber, who wrote her own texts and music, was the resident nurse, wrenches one’s heart with her lullaby, "Wiegala", but the more popular songs have a certain bittersweet charm. Krása’s Three Songs after poems by Rimbaud require an instrumental group of clarinet, viola and cello, while Bebe Risenfors can be heard playing either the accordion, double bass or guitar. Daniel Hope concludes the disc with Schulhoff’s Sonata for solo violin, indicating the high aims that are entirely fulfilled.


Mahler: Lieder
Thomas Hampson (baritone); Wiener Philharmoniker; Lucia Popp (soprano); Walton Groenroos (baritone)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
DGG DVD 00440 073 4167 (notes in English, French and German)

Leonard Bernstein and Mahler are always a potent combination, and this dvd is an important contribution to the Bernstein legend. The performances with Thomas Hampson of the Kindertotenlieder, Rückertlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are the distillation of a lifetime’s experience, and the encounter with the then-young baritone (performances from the late 80s and early 90s) serve as a stimulus. One might perhaps question some of the exceptionally slow tempi, but the singer is never at a loss to sustain the long lines, infusing them with the requisite weltschmerz but never overdoing it. A 1984 performance of songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn feature the delicious Lucia Popp alongside the pedestrian Walton Groenroos, the latter wearing the most amazing hairpiece. The Israel Philharmonic may not have the suavity of their Viennese cousins in the other selections, but the 12 songs are more folklike in character and can take a bolder rendering. The sound, unfortunately, is not as good as on other reissues of the same era, but the documentary value is here paramount.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.com

Related CK Archives

The Legacy of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

A Fresh Look at Schwarzkopf and the "Champagne Operettas"

101 Best CDs for Opera: Lieder

An Interview with Thomas Hampson

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