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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Franz Völker: A Great And Most Versatile Tenor

Franz Völker was born in Neu-Isenburg in 1899, and began his vocal studies fairly early in life, in Frankfurt. He was only 27 when he made his debut in that city as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio. His vocal stamina, along with the particular quality of his voice, made him a natural, in the eyes of most, for dramatic work and most especially as a Wagnerian. It is perhaps not entirely certain that he would have made that immediate impression today, because Völker's voice, from the beginning, was a singularly adaptive instrument, usable and convincing over a very wide range of musical genres. It may well have been the color of his voice, more than anything else, that suggested the heroic tenor label. In any case, that was the initial impression he made, as a young man, and his rise was rapid. He was a superb singer, and engagements followed in quick succession, as is so often the case when a truly remarkable talent appears on the scene. He went on to Salzburg, Bayreuth (particularly) and Covent Garden. His most outstanding roles, for which he was instantly applauded, were Lohengrin, Freischutz, and Walküre.

He made many recordings, which is most fortunate, because his career was exclusively European, and seldom outside Germany. Having made his career during Germany's darkest hour was necessarily limiting, as far as travel was concerned. He did, however, have a major career in Germany, and his many recordings testify to his remarkable versatility; in grand opera, operetta, and Lieder. He excelled in all three fields.

His first great impression was made as a Wagnerian, and so it seems appropriate to begin with his superb rendition of "Walter's Prize Song," from Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, an opera so difficult for the tenor that Melchior, to take but one example, would not sing it. The "Prize Song" is hard enough in itself, but it is repeated in choral fashion, always featuring Walter, in seemingly endless iterations toward the end of the opera:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzK1hcubdiI&feature=player_embedded


This is a markedly common-sense presentation, and it is a joy to hear the studio orchestra minimalized. Would that most conductors would do the same in the opera house! The smoothness of Völker's voice, all the way up and down the scale, is a beautiful thing to hear. His top was good, and the high A, which climaxes a series of progressively ascending phrases— and has been the downfall of many heldentenors who make the fatal mistake of starting the aria too intensely and too loud—is not a problem at all for Völker, who manages it smoothly and in line. All in all, a magisterial rendition of a difficult aria.

Many famous German opera singers have historically crossed back and forth across the line separating opera from operetta, and Völker was no exception. Here is the famous and ever-popular "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz," from Lehár's "Land of Smiles":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4Zr7G4Z-dQ&feature=player_embedded


Isn't that just perfect! It is hard to imagine it sung better. A wonderful voice, excellently trained, with great dramatic operatic range and intensity, harnessed into submission for a classic show tune! I have always found Völker's extreme flexibility as a singer to be nothing short of astonishing. And admirable! For one thing, it is a sure sign of superbly trained voice. People often complain that German singing teachers just don't know how to train a tenor voice, but when the tenor is an intelligent man with strong artistic instincts, wonders can be done, especially if the tenor sings exclusively in German.

Finally, here is a beautiful example of yet a third category in which Völker excelled—German Lieder. This is much less common; many good German opera and operetta singers also try to sing Lieder or even popular music (which Völker also did) but the results are less predictable. Völker, however, like Leo Slezak, managed it very nicely indeed. Here is Schubert's lovely "Du bist die Ruh":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVnR6yDeFzo


What can I say. Absolutely beautiful! Opera, operetta, Lieder; all beautifully done. What on Broadway would be called a triple-threat performer. This was not only a great German tenor, but a German tenor for the ages!

23 comments:

JD Hobbes said...

He is excellent. Your observation about the "Prize Song" is a good one. One can find it on YouTube by various artists, and they all seem to scream it out. Tucker is almost gasping for air, and Ben Heppner attacks it like Paul Bunyan felling a grove of oak trees. Voelker's version is one of my favorites.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. I very much appreciate your comment. And you are right, his rendition is simply so much smoother than that of most others, and it is seemingly comfortable for him. The ending of the aria is such a strain, that for most, yelling or belting is the only recourse. Voelker actually sings it, which actually helps in the characterization, since Walter has won his guild's singing contest with the song! Thanks again for your comment, and your unfailing loyalty as a reader. Much appreciated!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Excellent as always. I had not heard of this singer but will now go searching through his repertoire. The 1928 recording holds up well, too.
His "Dein ist mein ganzes herz" is one of the better versions I've heard - extremely elegant. I'm always fascinated to hear an aria sung in a language other than the one of the original composition e.g Volker singing "Celeste Aida" in German. Unusual but with Volker, or Wunderlich for that matter, it seems to work.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. Yes, I agree. Both he and Wunderlich overcame the question of original language by sheer vocal brilliance and stylistic excellence. What fascinates me about Voelker's Celeste Aida is the Germanic style. It's a different world, artistically, from the Italian. Both have points in their favor, but the difference is marked. Voelker was indeed an elegant singer. i think that's what makes him so convincing in the differert genres he undertakes--his innate musicianship and sense of style make each of the genres seem like a specialty.

Anonymous said...

What a fine singer! I didn't know about him, but you are right. The voice sounds the same on all the different songs and arias, but he seems to fit perfectly in each one! That's kind of amaZing. Thanks for introducing me to this tenor!

johanna

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Johanna, for the comment. I'm glad you like him. He isn't all that well known among some American music lovers, because he never sang here. But he certainly was a great singer, and I'm glad to see that you noticed how seamlessly he moves, vocally and stylistically speaking, from one genre to another. Remarkable! Thanks again for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Yes, he was a great master. Thanks for the article. I heard about him, but I didn’t know that he was such a versatile singer. He performed everything with perfect taste and sense of style. And the style is classic and at the same time his own . It seems that everything is easy and natural for him. The voice is beautiful too. It is interesting that in those years Germany had several great Wagnerian tenors with perfect voices. They are rare now , as it seems to me.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. I appreciate your comment. Yes, you sum it up very nicely when you say it all seems "easy and natural" for him. That is exactly right--that's one of the most attractive things about his singing. It is almost unbelievable how easily the voice is produced. There is never any stress or strain or grunting and groaning:-) He SINGS, and very beautifully. A real model for young singers. And you are right, there are not any more in evidence these days. Heppner was very good, but age is taking its toll on him. There are other German heroic tenors about, but in my opinion they have still to prove themselves. It remains to be seen if they have the staying power. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

"A real model for young singers."

I watched an operatic contest on TV, and it became clear that correct singing is a VERY difficult thing. There are good voices, but it's not easy to control them. I suddenly realized that every great singer is a rarity.

"People often complain that German singing teachers just don't know how to train a tenor voice"

I read a book by a well-known Soviet conductor, and he wrote that German tenors, with whom he had worked, sounded 'very German'. What is the problem with their voices?

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Боже мой! Теперь есть вопрос! If I could answer that one definitively, I could get rich writing books on singing! The only way I can even attempt to answer it is to be exceedingly simple: The sound that is most freely and easily produced, that is sung with the least active musculature of the throat, the sound that is produced on the very finest and thinnest edges of the vocal chords; that is sound that carries. That is the sound that cuts across the top of an orchestra and can be heard everywhere in the house. The heavy, umlauted, muscular singing that sounds so huge on stage, that sounds huge when you stand next to it, that sounds huge inside your own head, that is the sound that staggers across the footlights and dies somewhere in the violin section of the orchestra. It has taken some German coaches and teachers a long time to learn that lesson. That's why Wagner wanted his tenors trained in Italy. He might not have been able to articulate all the reasons why, but they just plain sounded better. It's their music, basically, their art form, and they learned how sing, and teach singing, ages ago. It's still the best place to go to learn how to sing. I think maybe now the Germans get it. Some of their tenors, certainly including Voelker and Wunderlich, are shining examples of good singing. Best to leave it there:-) Great question, not so easy to answer!

Satyr said...

Thanks for your very interesting posts and comments! And for emphasizing what's really important in the art of singing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. It's nice to hear from you, and I appreciate your comment!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hmm..your comments on Franz Volker are somewhat controversial.

An intelligent tenor with strong artistic instincts can work wonders with anything no matter what language he is singing in, whether it was German, Italian or what not..I wonder how on earth could people say that German singing teachers can't seem to train a tenor voice these days..I can't believe it..Before the 70s, you've got a stream of good tenors in the country and all of a sudden, it dries up.

Hmm..I feel Volker reminds me of Lemeshev..Of the Heldentenors I've listened to, I feel he stands out because of his gentle and sensitive approach towards singing. His voice is thinner than Melchior's and his isn't as beautiful as Lorenz's. But he was an acquired taste for me. I used to find some of the videos of him on YouTube a chore because I felt his voice seem forced especially when I heard him as Siegmund. It didn't feel as natural as Lorenz or Melchior sang it.

Speaking about Melchior and Lorenz, I'm intrigued to hear your views on Volker in comparison with those two Heldentenors. After all, those three were among the top of the Heldentenors at the same time, isn't it?

I wonder how Volker could be classified as a Heldentenor if he couldn't perform the roles of Tristan or Siegfried despite his excellence in singing Wagner's operas. But then again Slezak was classified as one though he didn't sing Siegfried or Tristan so I guess..

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you as always for an interesting and thought provoking comment. There are certainly some things there to think about, especially as relates to Lorenz. Perhaps it is time for me to turn my attention to Lorenz also. Thank you!

Darren Seacliffe said...

I really would look forward to an article from you on Max Lorenz. Now that there's an article on Franz Volker, I feel the next one should be on Max Lorenz. After all, I normally hear these two being referred to as the alternatives to Lauritz Melchior in one breath.

I'm very intrigued to know what you think of him as a Heldentenor. I could do the comparison of your opinions on them based on what you write on Lorenz and Volker.

Thanks for your encouragement and support.

Yours faithfully
Darren

Anonymous said...

Many thanks, Edmund, for a characteristically well-researched and written article on one of my favorites in this fach. In so far as vocal categorizations are significant, Völker could possibly be classified as a "jugendlicher heldentenor" (youthful heroic tenor), as distinguished from the more dramatic variety exemplified by Melchior. Whether one agrees with the classifications or not, there is no doubt that his singing is absolutely top class, with his smooth legato lyricism, keen intelligence and sensitivity to words. What he doesn't quite have in natural vocal beauty is more than made up for by his masterly phrasing, thus justifying that ability to produce a "great line" (as Pavarotti described Schipa's singing) is often a most important factor in identifying a great singer. His studio recordings are consistently excellent in terms of vocal production, yet his live recordings (capturing his performances at Bayreuth and the Vienna State Opera) add significantly to our understanding of his art - not only was he able to maintain his stellar qualities as a singer, the presence of an audience made his portrayals come alive in ways that the recording studio could not. I will be posting these live recordings on YouTube in a few weeks' time.

Tim

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Tim, for a brilliant comment full of information and critical acumen. I will look forward to seeing your postings. For readers who would also like to hear these postings of Franz Voelker, you can check into the channel of dantitustimshu by going back to the main page and looking in the right-hand sidebar for the link.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Darren Seacliffe: (Sorry my questions and answers are out of order) Thank you very much. I always appreciate your comments, which go right to the heart of the matter. Yes, I like your suggestion. I will have a go at Lorenz and you are right..a comparison with Voelker is indicated! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Just recalled that I had posted on YouTube a year ago one live recording - Völker's Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival in 1936 conducted by the great Wilhelm Furtwangler. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKpfLLldF48

Tim

Marie-Louise Rodén said...

Dear Edmund StAustell, I would like to thank you once again for posting an article on an exceptional historic tenor who is not sufficiently known in our days. I only discovered Völker about a year ago. I think that the predominance of Scandinavian singers in the Wagnerian repertoire in his generation has made us forget how many other exceptional artists were active at the same time. Thanks once again!

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank YOU, Dr. Roden, for your comment! Much appreciated. And please know that your article on Set Svanholm was one of the most viewed and best received articles that I have had for a long time on Great Opera Singers! My best, Edmund

Satyr said...

Inspired by this post I uploaded 3 Franz Völker 78s on my blog: Polydor recordings from 1928, 1930 and 1937, so I invite you to take a look.
Best wishes!
http://satyr78opera.blogspot.com/2011/11/franz-volker.html

Edmund St. Austell said...

If anyone is interested in Voelker recordings, do take a look this excellent site.

Thanks for the information! Edmund