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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Galina Vishnevskaya: The Ultimate Survivor

Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya was born in 1926 in Leningrad. This was certainly not an auspicious time to be born in Russia, for a singer or anyone else. The first half of the twentieth century was nothing less than an endless nightmare of revolution, civil war, foreign invasion, poverty and socio-political chaos. Vishnevskay's own biography, Galina, is a primary first-person historical source of information about the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. What she suffered at that time can scarcely be talked about, much less comprehended by anyone who did not have to go through it.

She began singing in opera reviews, or more nearly operetta reviews, during the last year of the siege. Where she and her fellow musicians found the strength to take their little show around I cannot imagine. They were surviving on 7 ounces of bread a day, if I recall correctly, along with a spoon of lard and a spoon of sugar. One night, one of the performers dropped dead on stage, from malnutrition and exhaustion, and they buried her outside the theater in her costume. Galina (who was a member of the Pioneer Corps) fell in love with a young officer around this time, who was killed in action. When the news got back to where she was stationed, some of the other women laughed at her and made fun of her for her loss, dreadful as that may sound. I mention these heart-breaking details for the same reason I chose the unusual picture that appears above, taken from her recent film. She was young and beautiful once, as you will see in the excerpts, but this photo shows her on the inside more than on the outside, in old age. It helps me keep ever in mind what the reality of her life was. To anyone interested in Russia in the early through mid-20th century, and what it meant to live there at that time, I strongly recommend her biography. Having read it (twice) I determined never to say a harsh word about her, because many of the things she did could be criticized (and have been). She was a hard woman, to be sure, ("hardened" would be a better word) who would do whatever she had to do to survive, and who would do exactly what she wanted to do for reasons of her own. Enough said, on to the artistic facts:

She won a competition in Moscow in 1952, and in 1953 joined the Bolshoi Theater. For the next seven or eight years, she worked her way up, and her voice developed into a powerful instrument that made the bigger roles accessible to her. She had made important contacts in the artistic and government circles (which were tightly interwoven at that time) and she was given permission to sing abroad in 1961, which was the year of her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in Aida, one of her most popular roles. Covent Garden followed in 1962. The La Scala debut was two years later. She sang many roles from the Russian repertoire (her Tatiana was noteworthy) but she also did Italian operatic roles, both in Russian and Italian. Principle among them were Aida, Violetta, Tosca, and Cio-cio-san. Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem with her in mind for the soprano lead. In 1966 she was named People's Artist of the Soviet Union, and her fame and reputation were solidly established. She made many recordings, and was, in general, celebrated as a great artist.

Eventually, difficulties arose. Her friendship with some artists who were critics of the Soviet Union was making her life there increasingly problematical. Realizing that she was in danger, she, along with her recently-acquired husband Mstislav Rostropivich, left the Soviet Union in 1974, purportedly for singing engagements abroad, but with no real intention to return. Clearly in de-facto exile, she was denounced by the Soviet government and all her recordings and videos were destroyed, a terrible artistic loss.

After many years abroad, she finally returned to Moscow in 2002 as an elderly woman, and established the "Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center." In 2007, she starred in Alexander Sokurov's film Aleksandra, in a straight acting role, and received excellent reviews worldwide. She was 81 at the time.

First, a very rare surviving video-clip of a fragment of "Ritorna Vincitor:" (You will have to click on the link for this one—it cannot be embedded.)

This is Vishnevskaya in her prime. The power of the voice is apparent, and the top—never all that easy in so large and powerful a voice, is nonetheless rock-solid at this period in her life. The finesse is also there, and the firm control of the voice makes possible the crescendos and diminuendos necessary to accommodate the musical and stylistic demands of the piece. This was a signature role for Vishnevskaya, for all these reasons, but—as is characteristic of Russian singers—she sang a wide variety of roles, some much lighter. Here, for example is a lovely rendition of "Un bel di," from Madame Butterfly:

This is very interesting to the degree that it shows how she could lighten the tone of the voice to more nearly approximate the color of a girl's voice, while at the same time relinquishing none of the power-potential or intense edge to the big passages where she must soar because of the dramatic demands of the text at that point. It shows how artistically she could hold her vocal powers in check when required to do so.

Finally, the darker, heavier demands of Tosca:

This is right up there with the interpretations of great Italian singers. It is all there—the power, the dramatic intensity, the color, and always the grand style of Italian opera seria. She was of course a prima donna; the fact that she was able to endure, to work, to ascend to that status, and survive there—for decades—is little short of a miracle.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Great Fritz Wunderlich

"Fritz"(Friedrich) Wunderlich was born in Kusel, in 1930, into a musical family. His mother was a violinist and his father a choirmaster. Wunderlich's youth was not at all a happy one, owing to the terrible times in Germany, which was suffering extreme economic depression and the rise of the Nazis. His father, wounded in battle during World War I, and beset by many problems, took his own life when Fritz was a small child. Fritz worked in a bakery as a boy and, as the years passed, began to be noticed by others for his obvious musicality. He took music lessons and finally obtained a music scholarship that made it possible for him to study at the Freiburg Musical Academy. It was there that his voice attracted serious attention, and he was soon spotted as a very promising young tenor.

He first attracted attention for his singing of Mozart, but soon expanded his repertoire to include popular Italian operas, which he sang in German, as that was the tradition in Germany.

Wunderlich's career, because he died very young, was largely limited to singing opera in Germany and making (thank God!) a very significant number of recordings. It is almost exclusively through these recordings that Wunderlich is known and remembered today outside Germany. His recordings include famous operatic arias (usually in German), lieder, at which he excelled (he was very widely praised for his recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe, for example), religious music, and popular operetta pieces.

Wunderlich's voice was flawlessly produced, and very beautiful; it was, however, his extraordinary musicality and sense of style that won him such fame. The voice, spectacular as it was, would not have brought him the great reputation he enjoyed among musicians had he not been so brilliant a musician. By age 35, his future, both as a man and as a musician, seemed assured. He had married in 1956 and had three children. His reputation had begun to spread outside Germany, and he was starting to make foreign appearances (France, England, Argentina, Italy) and had been signed to appear at the Metropolitan Opera. Then, just short of his 36th birthday, he suffered an accident—falling down a flight of stairs at a friend's home—and died from the injuries he received. It was unquestionably one of the greatest musical tragedies of the twentieth century.

First, here is the aptly-named Wunderlich in one of opera's best known pieces, the lovely aria from Von Flotow's Martha, "Ach! so fromm," known to most by its foreign Italian title "M'appari."

This is musical and vocal perfection. Where to start! First, the very beautiful quality of the voice. We are in the non-Italian world of opera now—this is a much more open and "white" sound than the heavily covered and dark sounds so characteristic of Italian singing. This is not to say one is better than the other, only to say that the tonal qualities of open vs. covered singing are distinct. I believe the more open phonation of the German singers results in more distinctly individualistic sounds. The darker sounds of most (not all) Italian singers can sometimes lead to one voice not sounding all that different from another. In German, however, I believe it is immediately apparent to a music lover that Tauber's voice is distinct from Slezak's and both are distinct from Wunderlich's. The quality of each voice tends to be individual as opposed to universal "tenor." In English, we notice this more in musical comedy. Did Ethel Merman ever sound like anyone else?) Apart from the sound, which is lovely, there is the range. Wunderlich was solid all the way to his spectacular high C, and this is very rare for German tenors. Both the language and the training in Germany have historically tended toward high voices that are much heaver in the lower and middle registers than their Italian counterparts. This, in turn, can result in a short top. Tauber is a good example. He almost never sang above a Bb, (and there is nothing wrong with that), but it tends to narrow the singable repertoire. The big opera arias can only be transposed so far.

Here is a perfect example of what I mean. Wunderlich's recording of "Che Gelida Manina" is as vocally perfect as it can be. Be sure to wait for the big high C. I know of no other German tenor, living or dead, who could match it. Here I must ask you to click on the link, for technical reasons. I have the only version of the aria up on youtube, and I don't want to embed my own video in my blog because it can jam my hit counter on Youtube. Here is the link:

How about that! This is so uncommon for a German tenor! I cannot imagine it done any better. Yes, we can all name Björling, and a host of Italians, but they are not German speaking singers. The range is extraordinary, and the most extraordinary thing of all is that the top is entirely in line with the other registers of the voice. It is a seamless ascent to the top, with no sacrifice in beauty of tone. Musically, it is perfect.

The near disappearance of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor from the operatic repertory has robbed modern music lovers of some very beautiful music. It contains, among other things, one of the loveliest tenor arias ever written, "Horch! Die Lerche singt im Hain!" ["Listen, the lark is singing in the Grove!"]
Again, I seem to have the only copy up on Youtube, so please click the link again:

I honestly believe that this is one of the most beautiful arias I have ever heard.
What it all comes down to at the end is that it is almost impossible to fault Wunderlich on any aspect of his singing. The voice is lovely to the point of being glorious, the range is very high, and tonally it is a solid column of sound from top to bottom. The musicality was immaculate, and was said to be so by virtually everyone at the time. It's just perfect singing. As his friend and colleague Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau said when Wunderlich died at 35 years of age, there is no way to calculate the irreparable loss suffered by the world of music. We are unlikely to see another tenor who was so nearly perfect for a very long time indeed!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Reflection On The Many Classifications of Operatic Voices

One of the curiosities of operatic musical nomenclature is the huge number of classifications created for the singing voice, compared to the relatively few such classifications for choral singing. A male singer of classical music, in the most extreme classification, can be said to fall within one of at least fourteen (purported) ranges. From bottom to top: basso profundo, basso cantante, basso buffo, bass-baritone, baritone, lyric baritone, dramatic tenor, Heldentenor, spinto tenor, lyric tenor, leggiero tenor, tenore di grazia, countertenor, male soprano. Women, on the other hand, are commonly classified as falling into one of five: contralto, mezzo-soprano, dramatic soprano, lyric soprano or coloratura, along with predictable sub-categories, such as "dramatic coloratua," etc. I would call the female ranges a more nearly reasonable sample of the kinds of voices one can hear in opera. The many male ranges are not informative. Most often, they reflect color of voice or flexibility of voice more than range of voice. Sometimes they overlap, or the nomenclature overlaps with that of female ranges. (It seems reasonable, for example, to call Philippe Jaroussky an alto, but one would never call Schumann Heink a tenor.) The reasons for all this are linked to aesthetics, repertoire, sociology, gender, history, theatrical convention, the science of harmonics, and, not infrequently, silliness. In fact, all voices—absent the drama of the stage, or of being Yma Sumac or Ivan Rebroff—break down reasonably to the very ordinary and unglamorous SATB scheme of choir music.

And that, in my judgment, is where the problem lies—choral singing versus that of individual singing actors. A nomenclature appropriate to anonymous individuals forming a global sound-cluster cannot be identified by so many fine distinctions. Some sub-groups within the choir sing high, some sing low, and all are capable of shifting, shading or coloring the sounds upward or downward, as required to cover the needed range of sound. In operatic singing, I would contend that range of voice is not so crucial as is commonly thought. Marilyn Horne is properly called a mezzo-soprano, by convention, but her upper register was extraordinary, and, repertoire permitting, she could equally legitimately be called a dramatic soprano, or, in some instances simply soprano, if one is to judge by singable note range. But that is not the issue. It is color of voice that matters. Darker ranges have serious or somber overtones, and thus lend themselves to certain roles and repertoire. So we enter the realm of theatrical representation. Darker versus lighter voices have sexual connotations. Voices suggest age. Higher male voices speak of youth, darker or lower voices speak of age or sometimes malevolence. ("Credo in un dio crudel!") would not be very convincing falling from the lips of Tito Schipa.)

If all this is granted, then we must consider the case of individual personalities—something that co-resonates with "star power." Some personalities, in combination with certain personality types, can be most attractive. The perfect "little girl" sound of Galli-Curci's voice, in combination with her small, almost fragile body and her refined manner, all came together to produce one of the most popular and beloved sopranos of all time. A very high male voice, coupled with an extroverted, even bombastic personality can give rise to the famous (or infamous!) tenor stars of opera. A gentle and tender tenor voice, however, in combination with an elegant, modest or somewhat withdrawn personality (Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Alfredo Kraus) can produce a star who, while usually not enjoying the extreme popular success of the bombastic type, can nonetheless win a very large audience of aesthetes, who are delighted by refinement and delicacy. (The Great Couperin, in his treatise on the art of playing the harpsichord, said that he, in matters of style, would much rather be pleased than surprised!) At the lower end of the vocal spectrum, a big, booming bass voice, coupled with an extremely comic figure (Salvatore Baccaloni) can redefine bass singing in the direction of comic, or "buffo" singing. Pol Plançon, on the other hand, was the exemplar of the famous French tradition of basso cantante singing, an uncommonly elegant art. The vocal classifications applied to any of these individuals usually reflects, in some degree at least, their appropriate repertoire, in combination with their public persona and the degree of acceptance their particular kind of singing and acting has earned them. Finally, men who sing extremely and artificially high, and who portray females on stage, or females who sing low enough to be taken as a boy, characteristically inherit from the audience a kind of fascination with the trans-gendered that can be reflected in the names given their particular kind of singing—there are, for example, subtle differences of perception that arise from being called a "countertenor" as opposed to being called an alto, yet from a purely musicological point of view there would not be any difference. A good male alto, if one cannot see him, can—and often does—sound identical to a female alto.

One could go on, but the essential point is that in operatic voice classifications, one is never dealing with voice alone, and while the many vocal classifications might not survive the cold and objective eye of the musicologist, they nonetheless speak in a direct and important way to the many fans of opera who actually care about why their favorite soprano, alto, tenor, or bass is different from (and usually superior to) all the other sopranos, altos, tenors or basses offering their artistic and aesthetic wares for sale. And of course, the classifications also matter to music critics ever bent on demonstrating that they are capable of making ever so much finer distinctions in such matters than anyone else. Present company excluded, of course! That goes without saying:D

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Helen Traubel: A Great Wagnerian Voice

Helen Traubel (1899-1972) was born in St. Louis. She studied singing and made her first appearances in St. Louis as a concert singer with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, at the relatively young age of 24. By the time she was 27, she had received an offer to join the Metropolitan Opera, owing primarily to one of her concert performances of the "Liebestod," under conductor Rudolph Ganz. She turned it down—perhaps a questionable decision—in favor of continuing to study and continuing with her concert career. She was not to appear in opera until she was 38 years old, more than a decade later. She demonstrated at an early age that she was capable of making difficult decisions which she felt were right. It also—perhaps—shows that at an early age, opera was not the end-all and be-all of her life, something that would come back to haunt her in later years.

Her Met debut was in 1937, when she was asked by Walter Damrosch to portray Mary Rutledge in the world premiere of The Man Without a Country. Her actual Met debut as a Wagnerian, however, was as Sieglinde, in 1939. Because the Met had Flagstad engaged at the time as their principal Wagnerian soprano, Traubel was not able to sing Wagner there very often. However, Flagstad went to Norway in 1941 and was unable, because of the war, to return. This provided an opening for Traubel, who had come increasingly to public attention, largely from having appeared with Melchior on an NBC Symphony radio performance in that same year. She would go on, over the course of the next 12 years, to sing 176 performances with the Met, in 10 roles, most often Isolde. She quickly established herself as a first-class Wagnerian soprano, and was a hit with both public and press. Traubel stayed with the Met until 1953, at which time Rudolf Bing, who did not approve of the night club and TV work that she had begun to do, rather bluntly told her that she might do well to think about taking some time off before signing any more contracts with the Met, in order to decide if she was really all that interested in opera. Traubel was understandably offended —she was by then a star—and replied publicly that it was rank snobbery to think that only what went on in the opera house was music. That, of course, was the end for Traubel at the Met. She went on to a very successful further career on Broadway, in night clubs, and on TV. Lauritz Melchior had, a few years earlier, suffered a similar fate, for similar reasons. Traubel's biography, including her troubles and triumphs, is easily consulted. It is her talent, which was prodigious, and her extraordinary Wagnerian singing, that merits our attention.

Traubel's voice was a magnificent and immensely powerful instrument. It had a brilliance, or shimmer that was positively thrilling, and perfect for Wagner. I can think of no finer examples than the following two brief excerpts, which I ask you to listen to together. It is not easy to find set pieces in Wagner to present, so we are often constrained to excerpted passages, such as Brünhilde's War Cry and "Fort Denn Eile", both from Die Walküre:

This is absolutely stunning singing! It is hard not to feel chills up the spine when she soars on the extended melodic passages in "Fort Denn Eile." This is virtuoso Wagnerian singing, without question. The power and steely sheen of the voice are clarion, rivaled by some (Flagstad, Nilsson) but surpassed by almost none. This is a voice made for Wagner; it is consistent from top to bottom, like a shining tower of sound. It is true that it was a bit short on top. She did not sing a high C, to the best of my knowledge, with the result that the War Cry is transposed one half tone. But that is a matter of little or no consequence. If no one could transpose, we would not have many tenors doing Manrico, Faust or Rodolfo! No, she has all she needs, and then some.

It was especially Wagner, but not exclusively Wagner, in which Traubel was brilliant. Here is "Divinités du Styx." From Gluck's Alceste:

The same brilliance, the same shimmer...all are there in force. Ancient arias are brought to life in a particular kind of way when great voices lend themselves to them, without stinting. As a well known New York opera coach once told me: "Everybody loves great Mozart arias, they just don't want to hear them sung by a church tenor." I believe that is true, and also holds in the case of Traubel and Gluck.

Finally, a song. Traubel had a very notable concert career, and this rendition of Tchaikovsky's "None but the lonely heart" is a fine memory of her concert career. For technical reasons,you need to click on this link:

Very beautiful, and very musically sung. Perhaps it was singing songs that was her true heart's desire. Who can say? Certainly the fact that she put the Met off for a decade, while she concertized, is a clue. Perhaps the night club and TV work (she was, by a way, a good Jazz singer) tell the tale. As for the famous flap with Bing, why bother? A strong woman and a difficult man, by all has the quality of inevitability about it. Bing went on to found a world-class Italian Met, which was where his interests lay, and she went on to a very multi-faceted career of opera, concert, jazz singing, comedy, film work, two detective stories which she wrote, and part ownership of a baseball team!—quite a character, all in all. No, she was fine. Like her friend Melchior, she had a fun-loving and down-to-earth side to her personality that endeared her to most. She laughed at pretense, snobbery and affectation and was pretty happy inside her own skin. If anybody lost out it was the lovers of Wagnerian singing, because Helen Traubel was about as good as that gets!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Leo Slezak: The Giant With An Angel's Voice

Leo Slezak was born in Schönberg (now Šumperk), Moravia, in 1873. Today, given all the geographical jumble of the intervening years, he is considered by many to be simply German. His father was a miller, who fell upon hard times. The family moved to Brünn (Brno) where, after finishing school, Leo became a gardener, and then a locksmith. He began to sing as an amateur in the choir of the local theater in Brünn, and, as so often happens, began to attract attention from people able to help him, in this case baritone Adolf Robinson. In 1896 Slezak made his stage debut in Brünn as Lohengrin. This led to a guest appearance in Berlin, further study, and a rapidly expanding repertoire, which quickly came to include roles such as Jean in Le Prophète, Manrico, Canio, Lohengrin, Florestan, Stolzing, Turriddu, Radames, Des Grieux, Tamino, Froh and Siegfried. In Slezak's time, the (often annoying) specializations of role and singer type did not exist. Essentially, a man was a tenor, baritone or bass, who sang opera, among other things. This was certainly Slezak's case, and he sang Mozart next to Wagner without giving it a thought.

Success followed upon success: in 1900, he debuted at Covent Garden, then on to the Vienna State Opera (then known as the Vienna Court Opera House),where he would spend many years. He went on to sing at the Met, and to tour America, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. It was the Vienna State Opera, however, that he adopted as his artistic home, and he basically sang there for the rest of his operatic career.

During WWI, he lost almost all his wealth, and so began to branch out into lighter entertainment. He was popular in operetta and films (he made 43!) and concerts. From 1932 on, he was essentially an entertainer, and quite a popular one. He was a gifted comic and character actor, and he always found excuses (common in films of the 1930's) to sing light-hearted tunes. (This was a model later adhered to by Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel.)

He was in addition (and very notably) an accomplished lieder singer, and this is, for many, his greatest musical accomplishment. His mezza voce and mixed voice were extraordinarily beautiful, and he could—like Gigli—sing in a voice that was very close to falsetto, and was ravishingly beautiful. In my own opinion, this is Slezak at his best. I do not believe his recording of Schumann's "Der Nussbaum," to take but one tiny example, has ever been equaled. [I refer the interested reader to a recent Youtube post of mine, "A Special Presentation: Leo Slezak Lieder Recital]

In 1943 he settled at Rottach-Egern, where died in 1946.

Slezak, as mentioned, could and did sing almost anything, with the possible exception of the most demanding Wagnerian roles. Here he is early in his career, singing Rodolfo's famous aria "Che Gelida Manina."

This is extraordinary singing. The voice is very smooth, and very consistent, all the way up to the high C, which seems to be no problem for him at all, something that cannot be said of many German tenors. In addition to a lyric and highly placed voice, he was extraordinary in his physical appearance. He was very tall—I do not know exactly how tall, but I have never, even once, seen a photograph or a movie clip where he did not tower over every other person in the scene. Also, in later life, he became quite heavy, with the result that he was a giant figure, one of the largest people ever to sing opera (and that is saying something!) Many called him the "gentle giant," or the "genial giant." He certainly was an impressive figure.
Here is a good chance to see many pictures of Slezak in a single posting; one which also provides a good example of his lighter voice, which he used to great advantage in popular songs:

As one goes through the photographs, in ascending order of age, it is possible to see how he directed his career as he grew older. His son Walter Slezak, known to my generation from his TV work, acted in much the same way, in similar character roles. A giant man can be a good Lohengrin or Otello, but he doesn't make a good leading man in the movies!

Because movies were such a big part of his later life, I provide a clip here that shows his comic acting ability very well. No need to watch much of it, because it is of course in German, but if you watch it until the point where he stands up to greet the two ladies who have come for an interview, you can see how huge he was, and also get a very good idea of his comic acting ability which was very notable, and at which he was very successful, in a Jackie Gleason kind of way:

Quite a comic!

To end on a more serious note, of which Slezak is more than worthy, here is one of my favorite recordings of his, from the presentation I recently posted. This is Schumann's "Der Nussbaum." I believe you will see what I mean when I say that I do not believe it has ever been surpassed. He sings of the sighing of the wind through the leaves of the trees, and how, to the young maiden who hears it, it whispers of love and her coming wedding. It is indescribably beautiful, and a perfect place to end our presentation of this truly remarkable and versatile artist. [For technical reasons, you need to click the link on this one]

What else can I say!