The Long-Singing Singers

A famous musical anecdote concerns the eighteenth-century composer and vocal teacher Nicola Porpora, who once kept his pupil Caffarelli singing a single page of exercises day after day for six years. At the end of that time Caffarelli asked when he might go forth and sing, and Porpora answered: “You may go now, my son; you are the greatest singer in the world.”

Things nowadays are quite different, as any singing teacher will attest. Porpora’s pupils today would not only be appearing in public long before six years, they would be making records as well — at least if one can judge by the number of new vocal recital recordings that enter the Schwann catalogue monthly.

Actually, while long-playing records are ideal for bringing a lengthy opera or oratorio into the living room, they really do very little for a solo vocal concert made up of a dozen or more disconnected numbers. But that hasn’t stopped singers of all vocal ranges, nationalities, and degrees of aptitude from turning out records hopefully built around some supposedly unifying theme. Joan Sutherland Sings Noel Coward, Jenny Lind Songs by Elisabeth Söderström, Old Spanish Romances and Folk Songs by Pilar Lorengar, My Favorite Hymns by Leontyne Price, Three Centuries of Baritone Art by Geraint Evans — these are some recent issues. Often such records represent little more than catchy titles bestowed upon unrelated songs and arias. But some of these really do illuminate a musical style or epoch, and provide some highly agreeable listening in the process.

The most surprising, though certainly not the most satisfying, of these records is Joan Sutherland’s collection of Noel Coward songs. Miss Sutherland must be the world’s busiest soprano these days, for simultaneously with her Noel Coward record (OS-25992, stereo; 5992, monaural), London has released new recordings of Rossini’s opera Semiramide (OSA-1383, stereo; 4383, monaural: three records) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (OSA1159, stereo; 4159, monaural: two records).

Is it easier to sing Semiramide and Beethoven’s Ninth than the show tunes of Noel Coward? Apparently for Joan Sutherland it is. The Australian soprano is nothing less than brilliant in Rossini’s absurd opera about the complicated love life of a legendary Babylonian queen, and she is similarly equal to the quite different demands of the taxing soprano part in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

But strangely enough — or perhaps it isn’t so strange at that — the sophisticated lyrics and deft melodies of Noel Coward quite elude her. In addition to the normal difficulty a “classical” singer has in adjusting his voice to the narrower compass of popular songs, Miss Sutherland misses most of the piquancy and the frothiness of the Coward lyrics. Her enunciation has never been sharp, and this defect somehow seems more noticeable in songs like “I’ll See You Again” and “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” than in “Bel raggio” from Semiramide.

It is only fair to note that Mr. Coward apparently does not share these views. Not only does he like the way Miss Sutherland sings his songs; he actually joins in two of them in the recording. He hasn’t much of a voice, but one can understand every word he says.

Elisabeth Söderström doesn’t exactly pretend she’s the Swedish Nightingale in her new album, Jenny Lind Songs (London OS-25949, stereo; 5949, monaural), but she does recreate a vivid and delightful impression of one of the great personalities and epochs in vocal history. Jenny Lind, who lived from 1820 to 1887, was famous for her florid operatic singing, but she also developed her own repertory of simple Swedish songs, much as John McCormack, who also was a remarkable operatic singer, did with Irish ballads. These folklike songs made up a large part of her repertory when P. T. Barnum brought her to the United States in 1850 for a triumphal tour.

Miss Söderström, who also is a Swedish girl who has made good in America, is the possessor of a fresh and radiant voice, and she has assembled a singularly graceful collection of songs. Jenny Lind evidently preferred melodies that were light and romantic, and she was particularly partial to those written by her friends. Two of them, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad and Jacob Axel Josefson, are liberally represented on this record, and it must be acknowledged that they wrote some very pretty songs indeed.

Also taken from the Jenny Lind repertory are familiar lieder by Schumann and Mendelssohn and two songs in English, “Last Night in England” by Charles Jefferys and “Greetings to America” by Julius Benedict. The former is an affectionate tribute to England, where the singer spent her final years, and the latter a number especially composed for Jenny’s American tour. For all its bombastic words (“I greet, with a full heart, the Land of the West,/ Whose Banner of Stars o’er a world is unrolled”), the song has a certain majesty about it, and Miss Söderström unrolls it in flawless English. Jenny Lind left no recordings of her own (Thomas Edison came along just a bit too late), but this belated tribute to her suggests that at least in one instance P. T. Barnum’s customers got their money’s worth.

Spain, like Sweden, has produced an uncommon number of internationally famous singers over the years, and among the most accomplished is Pilar Lorengar. The power and purity of her voice are evident in a record of operatic excerpts released by London (OS-25995, stereo; 5995, monaural) in which such familiar arias as “Un bel dì, vedremo” and “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” are heard side by side with such neglected numbers as the haunting invocation to the moon from Dvořák’s Rusalka and “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s early La Rondine.

But an even more unusual record is Deutsche Grammophon’s Old Spanish Romances and Folk Songs, in which Miss Lorengar is accompanied on the guitar by Siegfried Behrend (139155, stereo; 39155, monaural).

The Spanish romances, which occupy one side of the record, are brief love songs and snatches of heroic ballads by a variety of sixteenthcentury composers, including the ever present Anon., whose contribution is a sad little song about three Moorish maidens named Aixa, Fátima, and Marien who went to pick olives in Jaén only to find that they were already picked. A startling entry in the list of “Spanish” composers is George Frideric Handel, who, it turns out, wrote in his youth a brief Spanish Cantata for Soprano, Guitar, and Viola da Gamba.

As engaging as these pieces are, it is the nine Spanish folk songs on the reverse side of the record that really bring out all of Miss Lorengar’s natural warmth and fervor. These are songs about bullfighters and muleteers, soldiers and pilgrims, and lovers both enraptured and unrequited. The question of what makes Spanish songs sound Spanish is an old one, and the best answer always is to listen to a singer like Pilar Lorengar sing them.

Geraint Evans is a Welshman, born in the village of Cilfynydd, and it is no secret that the Welsh have a special affinity for strong, virile baritones. That is the kind of voice Mr. Evans has, and he displays it handsomely on a record entitled Three Centuries of Baritone Art, with Byron Balkwill conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (London OS-25994, stereo; 5994, monaural).

For all its imposing title, the record consists merely of a series of operatic arias running chronologically from Handel’s Berenice to Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with stops along the way at Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Although Mr. Evans performs in a manner at once strong and supple, there is only minimal artistic cohesion between the numbers on the record. What really might be interesting would be to hear Geraint Evans in a sequence of Welsh songs, or possibly a set of Kipling songs, or some similarly sturdy baritone specialties of a sort which used to be quite popular some years back, but which nobody seems to be recording nowadays.

A good Irish collection is provided by a contralto named Bernadette Greevy on an imported Argo release entitled Over Here (ZRG-5459, stereo; RG-459, monaural). Miss Greevy also is a singer of operatic quality, as she demonstrates on another excellent Argo release devoted to Handel arias (ZRG-5501, stereo; 501, monaural). But it is in the songs of her native land that her voice really seems to take on its true color and vibrancy. Included are such songs as “Wee Hughie,” “The Song of Glen Dun,” “A Ballynure Ballad,” and “Sea Wrack.” The title song, “Over Here,” is one of the most famous and touching of the songs of the Great Famine: “Oh, the praties they are small,/Over here, over here!/ . . . Oh the praties they are small,/And we dig them in the fall,/And we ate them coats and all,/Full of fear. . . .” To hear Miss Greevy, who is Dublin born, sing these woeful measures to the accompaniment of a solo harp is quite a moving experience.

Equally affecting is a record by Leontyne Price entitled My Favorite Hymns (RCA Victor LSC-2918, stereo; LM-2918, monaural). Miss Price has made dozens of records ranging from Italian operas to Negro spirituals, but her voice has never seemed more rich, round, and beautifully focused than it does in these hymns. To hear her stride magnificently into “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the first hymn on the record, is nothing short of thrilling. And her voice soars just as effortlessly through “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Bless This House,” and the other familiar religious songs on the record.

Joining with Miss Price is the Choir of Men and Boys of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York, an American group which closely approximates the pure and floating singing of an English cathedral choir. Some of the choral arrangements, such as that for Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” arc overly elaborate and fussy, but for the most part choir and soloist blend ideally. Such songs as “Lead, Kindly Light” and “The Church’s One Foundation” can hardly claim the virtue of novelty, but this record demonstrates that it takes only a singer like Leontyne Price to return them to grace and glory.

Record Reviews

Henze: Five Symphonies

Hans Werner Henze conducting Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon 139203/04 (stereo) and 39203/04: two records

At the age of forty, Hans Werner Henze is Germany’s most important new post-war composer, and esteem for his works, including several operas, extends beyond his own land. These five compositions, some of them more rhapsodic than symphonic, show an impressive ability to draw upon the musical resources of the century, reaching as far back as Mahler and extending toward the twelve-tonalists. But Henze’s personal contributions are equally imposing: a sure-handed mastery of the orchestra, an admirable terseness and brevity, and most important of all, a genuine lyric gift. He writes music rather than mere sounds, which is something of a distinction for a young composer nowadays. He is, moreover, a prolific composer, and there seems no doubt that further works of quality are on the way.

Strauss: Don Quixote

Herbert von Karajan conducting Berlin Philharmonic, with Pierre Fournier, cellist; Deutsche Grammophori 139009 (stereo) and 39009

Sleekness, smoothness, suavity — whatever word is applied, it can only suggest the seemingly effortless playing that goes into this almost luxuriantly rich recording. The Berlin Philharmonic under von Karajan is a master orchestra, and Fournier is a master cellist. Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote is a pretty masterful piece of musical biography, too, and it is hard to think of a finer recording of it than this.

Moore: The Ballad of Uahy Doe

Emerson Buckley conducting New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, with Beverly Sills, Walter Cassel, Frances Bible, and others; Heliodor HS-25035-3 (stereo) and H-25035-3: three records

Perhaps the Great American Opera hasn’t yet been written, but The Ballad of Baby Doe can serve at least as a thoroughly admirable stopgap. Its libretto, by the able John Latouche, is an authentic story drawn from Colorado’s silver-mining days, and its music, by Douglas Moore, catches the zest, liveliness, and eventual tragedy of the participants in that lusty era. And what other opera ever written can boast Chester A. Arthur and William Jennings Bryan among its cast of characters? This is a bargain-price reissue of a recording once available on the MGM label, and it’s a pleasure to have it back.

Verdi: Nabucco

Lumberto Gardelli conducting Vienna Opera Orchestra and Chorus, with Tito Gobbi, baritone; Elena Suliotis, soprano; Bruno Prevedi, tenor; and Carlo Cava, bass; London OSA-1382 (stereo) and A-4382: three records

This opera about Nebuchadnezzar not only has the virtue of shortening the Babylonian monarch’s name; it also provides him and his cohorts with some darkly dramatic music. Nabucco is early Verdi, as anyone can tell; its crudities and shortcomings are self-evident. Yet it is a powerful work, and the veteran baritone Gobbi makes the mad king a moving and sympathetic figure. Elena Suliotis, a young Greek soprano raised in Argentina, has an intriguingly beautiful voice, though some of the tones she produces are excessively explosive. But the big moment in Nabncco always is the chorus “Va, pensiero,” which once served as an Italian patriotic hymn and really is a soaring Verdian adaptation of the psalm “By the waters of Babylon.”

Spanish Strings

Enoch Light and the Light Brigade; Project 3 PR-5000-SD (stereo) and PR-5000-M

“Project 3” is the name of the new label devised by Enoch Light, who, as former chief of Command Records, established a reputation for high-quality sound in both the classical and popular fields. Spanish Strings, the first in Light’s new line, has his familiar engineering characteristics — absolutely silent surfaces, clear and brilliant highs, rich and full-bodied lows, sharp separation of the two sound channels. It still makes for exciting listening for stereo and hi-fi buffs, even though the Spanish accent of the music is mostly Broadway Latin.

Whaf Now My Love — Richard Tucker Sings Today’s Great Popular Favorites

Richard Tucker, tenor, with orchestra conducted by Franz Allers; Columbia MS-6895 (stereo) and ML-6295 The Association of Admirers of

Richard Tucker — of which this writer professes himself a charter member — would do well to petition their man to avoid records of this sort like the cholera. Songs like “What Kind of Fool Am I?”, “Who Can I Turn To?”, and “What Now My Love?” (curious that all end with question marks) need Tucker’s powerful vocalism no more than “Vesti la giubba” needs Frank Sinatra’s cozy tones. This recording is not only a mishmash but a mismatch, with both the songs and the singer — not to mention the listener — coming out as losers.

The Best Loved Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Read by Hal Holbrook; Caedmon TC1107 (monaural)

Longfellow is hopelessly out of fashion nowadays, but even so, there may be a schoolchild somewhere with a secret yen for “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Village Blacksmith,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” or even “Hiawatha.” Such a lad will find great joy in this record, for Hal Holbrook reads these poems as if he, too, believed in them. Without trying to adopt a deliberate New England accent, he has just the right amount of crisp businesslike clarity in his approach, even down to the tumultuous “Wreck of the Hesperus.”

Stephen Spender: Selected Poems

Read by the poet under the direction of Arthur Luce Klein; Spoken Arts 953 (monaural)

Spender has recorded his poetry before, of course, but what lends new interest to this recording are the little spoken introductions that precede each of the verses. In a few words the poet briefly sketches the history or the background of each work, and sometimes even suggests the significance of his symbols and images. Among the well-known poems thus revealed are “The Truly Great,” “The Landscape Near an Aerodrome” (in which Spender explains that at the time he wrote it he thought aircraft shut off their engines while landing!), and “An Elementary School Classroom in the Sun.” More than most other recordings of poetry readings, this gives a highly intimate sense of the presence of the poet himself.

A Heritage of Song From Old Russia

Maria Christova, soprano, with Dobrynia Choral and Instrumental Ensemble directed by Daniel Salmanoff; Nonesuch H-72010 (stereo) and H-2010

Nothing on the record jacket tells where this recording was made, nor is the background of the singers divulged. So it can only be said that the Russian-language performances have the ring of authenticity and a properly Slavic quality about them. In fact, they are quite beautiful, with an exotic tinge to their sad tales of frustrated loves and tragic separations. Maria Christova, who docs most of the singing, has a lovely limpid soprano voice, and the accompanying choristers are rich in sonorous Russian bassos. The English translations are printed on the jacket, but not the Russian words. This is one of those rare folk-song records that is a musical delight, quiLe apart from its ethnic values.