Monthly Archives: April 2009

An Earth Day tribute to Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Ferrier

In addition to being Earth Day, April 22nd is also the birthday of the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953). I can’t think of a more fitting tribute for both events than these two selections from her stunning 1952 studio recording (Decca 466 576-2) of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

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The Solitary One in Autumn
Blue autumn mists undulate over the lake;
the grass is standing stiff with frost;
One might think an artist had strewn jade dust
over all the fine blossoms.

The sweet fragrance of flowers has flown away;
a cold wind forces them to bow their stems low.
Soon the wilted golden leaves
of lotus flowers will drift upon the water.

My heart is weary. My small lamp
has gone out with a splutter;
it reminds me of sleep.
I am coming to you, comfort place of rest!
Yes, give me rest - I have need of rejuvenation.

I weep much in my solitude.
The autumn in my heart has lasted too long.
Sun of love, will you never shine again,
gently to dry my bitter tears?
(English translation by Emily Ezust)

Das Lied von der Erde – “Der Einsame in Herbst

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Of Beauty
Young maidens pick flowers,
pick lotus flowers at the edge of th shore.
Among bushes and leaves they sit,
Gathering blossoms in their laps and calling
to one another teasingly.

Golden sunlight weaves among the figures,
mirroring them in the shiny water.
The sun reflects their slender limbs,
their sweet eyes,
and the zephyr lifts caressingly
the fabric of their sleeves, wafting the magic
of their fragrance through the air.

O see the handsome young men galloping
there along the shore on their lively horses,
glittering like sunbeams;
already among the branches of the green willows,
the fresh-faced young men are approaching!
The trotting horse of one whinnies merrily
and shies and canters away;
over flowers and grass, hooves are flying,
trampling up a storm of fallen blossoms.
Ah, how wildly its mane flutters,
how hotly its nostrils flare!
The golden sun weaves among the figures,
mirroring them in the shiny water.

And the fairest of the young women sends
a long, yearning gaze after him.
Her proud appearance is only a pretense.
In the flash of her large eyes,
in the darkness of her ardent glance,
the agitation of her heart leaps after him, lamenting.
(English translation by Emily Ezust)

“Von der Schönheit”

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Leonard Warren

Leonard Warren (1911-1960)

Leonard Warren (1911-1960)

Today would have been Leonard Warren’s 98th birthday, and to mark the occasion I spent most of the morning and the better part of the afternoon listening to some of the more obscure items in his discography, including bits and pieces from live Metropolitan Opera performances of Otell0 (1948 and 1958), Falstaff (1948), Simon Boccanegra (1950), and Ernani (1956). These latter recordings are–how shall I say?–“unofficial,” and since I don’t want to run afoul of the Met’s licensing department. I won’t post any of them here. I will, however, share a few of my other favorite Warren moments with you.

Warren’s was one of the first non-contemporary voices I remember hearing back when I started discovering opera. I’ve written elsewhere about how, as a teenager, I would escape to my bedroom and surrender to his recorded portrayal of Scarpia. And after all of these years, familiarity still hasn’t bred contempt. If anything, I’m drawn even more to Warren’s full, rich, and resonant sound, and above all, to those big, meaty high notes, the likes of which we rarely–if ever–hear nowadays.

Here, then, is a small sampling of the best Leonard Warren had–and has–to offer, some familiar fare along with a couple of interesting surprises.

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These first two clips have a rather unusual provenance. In 1940, the New York Post, hoping to boost circulation and to carve a niche out for themselves as a newspaper of “culture,” issued a series of operatic excerpts under the title “World’s Greatest Operas.” The discs eventually became known as the “No Name Records,” because none of the singers who were involved received credit for their work, but subsequent research has revealed the identities of those taking part in the project. In addition to the following arias from Pagliacci and Rigoletto, Warren, who had just turned twenty-nine, also recorded selections from La Traviata, Aida, and Carmen.

Leoncavallo – Pagliacci, “Si può?” (1940)

Verdi – Rigoletto, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (1940)

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Here’s another early recording, made in 1941, this time of Dapertutto’s Act 2 aria, “Scintille diamant,” from Les contes d’Hoffmann. I’m not sure what to say about that final G#, except that I am humbled by its very existence.

Offenbach – Les contes d”Hoffmann, “Scintille diamant” (1941)

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Warren’s Met debut took place on January 13, 1939, as Paolo in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra opposite the company’s leading baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, who would eventually pass the mantle on to his younger colleague. Although Warren never committed the role to disc, he did record the Recognition duet with his Met colleague, Astrid Varnay, in February, 1950.

Verdi – Simon Boccanegra, “Dinne, perche in quest’eremo … Figlia a tal nome palpito,” with Astrid Varnay (1950)

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Two very rare studio clips of Warren as Marcello in La bohème, a role he never sang on stage. I know people who swear Warren joined in on the high B flat near the end of the quartet (at about 3:15), but I honestly can’t tell. He had the note, so I guess it’s possible. What do you think?

Puccini – La bohème , “Dunque è proprio finita?”, with Licia Albanese, Patrice Munsel, and Giuseppe di Stefano (1951)

Puccini – La bohème, “O Mimi, tu più non torni,” with Giuseppe di Stefano (1951)

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There are plenty of terrific examples of Warren singing the Act 2 finale from Rigoletto, but I happen to like this one at the moment. It’s taken from a 1954 KNBC Standard Hour broadcast and features the French coloratura Mado Robin. Kurt Herbert Adler conducts the San Francisco Opera orchestra.

Verdi – Rigoletto, “Si, vendetta,” with Mado Robin (1954)

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Finally, the only commercial recording of Warren singing Wagner, made during a 1958 recital in Moscow. As far as I can tell, the faint sound of a violin in the background probably came from a student practicing somewhere else in the building.

WagnerTannhäuser, “O du mein Holder Abendstern,” with Willard Sektberg, piano (1958)

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So there you have it. I could easily have added another dozen clips, but maybe it’s best to leave you wanting more.


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Kozlovskiana

Ivan Kozlovsky

Ivan Kozlovsky

As promised, here’s a little audio sampling of some of the more unusual items from Ivan Kozlovsky’s discography. All of these selections are in Russian, which takes a little getting used to. I’d suggest playing these clips in this order, as you really need to experience the Rossini aria at the very end.

Kozlovsky was born on March 24, 1900, in Poltava, Ukraine. He made his professional debut as Faust at the State Theater there in 1918. By 1926, he had joined the company at the Bolshoi, where he would stay for the next 30 years. In addition to receiving the Lenin and Stalin Prizes, Kozlovsky was also made People’s Artist of the USSR in 1940. From 1938 to 1941, he ran his own opera company, producing, among other works, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Massenet’s Werther, both of which he recorded. Although he retired from the stage in the mid-1950s, Kozlovsky continued to sing in concert and recital settings until 1971. In 1954, he appeared as the Simpleton in Vera Stroyeva’s film version of Boris Godunov. He died in Moscow on December 21, 1993.

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Schubert – Serenade

Rachmaninov – Vocalise

Schumann – Dichterliebe – “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”

Schumann – Dichterliebe – “Ich grolle nicht”

Planquette – Les cloches de Corneville  – “Chanson du Mousse”

Rossini Il Barbiere di Siviglia – “Ecco ridente in cielo”

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Mystery singer revealed

A little over a month ago in a posting on Bellini’s La Sonnambula, I included the following clip of Amina’s aria “Come per me sereno” and asked if anyone could identify the singer:

A few people emailed me with guesses, but no one got it. (Don’t worry–this was tough. If I didn’t already know who it was, I wouldn’t have had any idea either.)

Before I reveal her name, I thought it might be interesting to hear a student of hers in the same selection, recorded 45 years later:

You may have recognized Maria Callas in that second clip, which means that our soprano incognito is Elvira de Hidalgo.

De Hidalgo was born in Val de Robres, Spain, some time between 1882 and 1892. She made her professional debut as Rosina in 1908, and the following year she reprised that role in Monte Carlo for a production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia featuring Titta Ruffo, Dmitri Smirnov, and Feodor Chaliapin. In 1910, Giulio Gatti-Casazza lured her to the Met–mainly as a foil to Luisa Tetrazzini, who was the house coloratura at the rival Manhattan Opera Company–but the few appearances she made there were not well received. The music critic for the Times had this to say about her:

“[De Hidalgo] has the advantage of youth, beauty, and self-possession on the stage, and they seemed to be the most important qualifications she has for her appearance in such a part. In voice, which has in the past counted for a good deal of performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, she has a much smaller equipment. It is a slender thread of voice, with very little charm of quality in its best range, and a positively disagreeable shrillness, and worse, in its higher notes.

“These go high, to be sure, but they are perhaps of the most singular and startling quality that has been heard [here] for a long time, approaching at times to that of a shrill cackle. Miss Hidalgo has a considerable facility and dexterity in the singing of florid music…Skill in other and more important elements of good singing she possesses in a much less ample measure–such elements as fine legato and fine phrasing. So far as she revealed her powers last evening she is a singer lacking in many of the requirements for meeting the standard that has prevailed at this Opera House.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) these negative reviews, de Hidalgo continued to get work in opera houses thoughout Europe, and she even returned briefly to the States in the mid-1920s. By 1930 a series of appearances at smaller venues in Lisbon, Helsinki, and Corfu more of less signalled the end of her career. After retiring from the stage in 1932, she moved to Athens, where two years later she was granted a position as professor of singing and opera at the Conservatory. She later taught in Ankara–the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer was one of her pupils–and Milan. She died on January 21, 1980.

In the prologue to his book, Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, John Ardoin includes several of that singer’s remarks about her early studies with de Hidalgo, and these are well worth reading for the insights they provide on a tradition of vocal pedagogy that has largely disappeared.

“De Hidalgo had the real bel canto schooling; perhaps hers was the last of this great training. As a young girl, only thirteen, I was thrown into her arms to learn the secrets, the manner of bel canto. This training is not just ‘beautiful singing’; that is a literal translation. Rather, bel canto is a method of singing, a sort of straitjacket you must put on. You learn how to approach a note, how to attack it, how to form a legato, how to create a mood, how to breathe so that there is a feeling of only a beginning and ending. In between, it must seem as if you have taken only one big breath, though in actuality there will be many phrases with many little breaths….

[She] taught me that no matter how heavy the part, a voice must be kept light, never overweighted, and limber like and athlete’s body. I also enjoyed working for this lightness, because it has always amused me to conquer a difficulty…This lightness I sought was not only a part of the bel canto training de Hidalgo gave me; it was a part of her philosophy that a voice must be put into a zone where it will not be too large in sound, but nonetheless penetrating. This approach also made it easier to master all the bel canto embellishments–a vast language on its own.”

De Hidalgo and Callas have very different sounding voices to be sure, and their interpretive approaches to Amina’s aria are quite distinct, but I can definitely hear elements of di Hidalgo’s teaching in Callas’ 1955 recording.

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On a walk with Hugo Wolf

To take my mind off Portland’s string of cold, rainy, and windy days, here’s a charming little song entitled “Auf einer Wanderung” from the Mörike-Lieder by Hugo Wolf. The tenor in this recording (Harmonia Mundi 6990257) is Werner Güra, and his accompanist is Jan Schultsz.

On a Walk
Into a friendly little town I stroll -
in its streets lie the red evening glow.
From an open window,
across the most splendid riot of flowers,
one can hear the gold chimes floating past,
and its one voice sounds like a chorus of nightingales,
so that the blossoms tremble,
so that the breezes come to life,
and so that the roses glow even redder.

Long I pause, astounded and oppressed by joy.
How I finally found myself past the gate
I truly do not know myself.
Ah, here, where the world lies in such light!
The heavens sway in a purple crowd,
back there, the town is a golden haze:
how the alder brook rushes,
how the mill roars on the ground;
I am as if drunk and disoriented;
o Muse, you have stirred my heart
with a breath of love!
(English translation by Emily Ezust)

Wolf – “Auf einer Wanderung”


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