Under wraps: fah-la la-la-lah Figaro

Lawrence O’Toole December 10 1979

Under wraps: fah-la la-la-lah Figaro

Lawrence O’Toole December 10 1979

Under wraps: fah-la la-la-lah Figaro


Lawrence O’Toole

While most people may not know it, they’re living in a new Golden Age of Song. The new Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, smiles out from the covers of magazines and is the darling of the chat shows: a household name. A horde of new singers such as Kiri Te Kanawa, Edda Moser, José van Dam, Jessye Norman, Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Hildegard Behrens, Illeana Cotrubas and Edita Gruberova may well be remembered as legends. Older, well-established singers—Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Leontyne Price, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Victoria de los Angeles—show no signs of expiring vocally. Classical record companies are churning out expensive boxed opera sets and recital albums at a rate that would have been financial folly a few years ago. All the majors—Columbia Masterworks, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, RCA, Angel and London—report that classical sales in general are up this year, in some cases to the tune of 40 per cent. Classical companies are, on an average, releasing a dozen or so vocal (opera, recital and choral) recordings within a six-month period. Angel, for instance, has released five world premiere opera boxed sets this year. Some of the new releases, such as Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover, are considered esoteric even among the musical cognoscenti—but they’re selling. North America is listening more than ever to classical song; fanatics can hardly find the time to listen to it all.

According to Dennis Kashyap of Angel, classical records sales are “exploding.” He credits the rapport that some musicians, such as violinist Itzhak Perlman, have with the younger generation as an explanation—“communication in the most common way.” Classical music has come down from the clouds. Another explanation offered by Paul Gardner, formerly of CBS (Columbia Masterworks), is that previously very little was done to market classical records in Canada. “We did 1,000 units on Cendrillon [heavily hyped at this year’s National Arts Centre Festival Ottawa]. That’s unheard of for a French opera.”

And then there’s the impact of TV: live performances from the Met; superstar singers such as Bubbles Silverman, aka Beverly Sills, showing up on talk shows and shattering more stereotypes than glasses; PBS’s musical programming. A few years ago it was ballet; nowadays the new conservative generation is cuddling up to the classics.

Though recordings are looked upon by some as not quite the real thing— similar to having someone else have sex for you— they are still a reasonably cheap method of transport into the concert hall and onto the stage. Herewith some of the more important recent vocal recordings—sonic stocking stuffers:

SPIRITUALS Jessye Norman (Philips)

This isn’t a case of a classical singer trying to be a hell-bent-for-Jesus joyjumper; it’s a classical singer weaving her powers to bring a new dimension to spirituals. The artistry Norman lavishes on them raises numbers such as Soon Ah Will Be Done and There's a Man Going Round to a level that can even be appreciated by those who don’t know what a honky is. Luscious and beautifully, brazenly black, the voice makes you want to cry during My Lord, What a Morning, and start spittin’ nickels up at the sky in Do Lawd, Oh Do Lawd. And the great gift of Jessye’s voice in Great Day makes you jump on the inside.


Pavarotti: Favorite Neapolitan Songs (London)

That big bundle of good news, Pavarotti, brings bushels of freshness to such old standards as Come Back to Sorrento, 0 Sole Mio and even the fizzled-out Funiculi Funicula. Golden showers of sound pour out from some seemingly endless source. His heart is as big as a tuba. Whereas most tenors singing Neapolitan crow themselves into frenzies of high Cs, Pavarotti liquefies the tonal language of the songs. The Italians call it, simply, dolce. If you were wondering how to warm up a winter night...

HUMPERDINCK: HANSEL AND GRETEL Conducted by John Pritchard (Columbia Masterworks; 2 discs)

HUMPERDINCK: HANSEL AND GRETEL Conducted by Sir Georg Solti (London; 2 discs)

Pritchard’s is utterly charming. The fairy tale, lit up by some of the most seductive voice boxes going (Ileana Cotrubas, von Stade, Te Kanawa and Ruth Welting), turns into a convention of nightingales. If you want to get children interested in classical music, just leave them with this and you won’t hear a peep. Also for those who yearn to feel five years old.

Charming isn’t quite the word for Solti’s version. Germanic is. He con-

ducts as he would Wagner: heavy on the brass and percussion, the baton bearing down on the rhythms. This one shows the darker side of the fairy tale: if there’s enchantment, it’s eerie. Wellsung, especially by Julia Hamari and Walter Berry as the parents, but Lucia Popp’s and Brigitte Fassbaender’s voices are, shall we say, too mature for the kids. The sadder but wiser version.

KIRI TE KANAWA: STRAUSS—FOUR LAST SONGS, ORCHESTRAL SONGS Conducted by Andrew Davis (Columbia Masterworks)

Perfection, for want of a better word. Richard Strauss wrote his Four Last Songs shortly before his death; they’re his fond farewell to the world. In her first solo album, Kiri Te Kanawa, the Maori soprano, preys upon each goodbye with a silken and sapphire sound. At the top it flames blue where the thin filament turns lambent. This is the voice that Strauss wrote for—and must have prayed for. In the orchestra swelling underneath, Andrew Davis catches the sounds of dusk. Extremely moving in and of itself, but also in the thought that human beings can manage to make such things as these.



When opera companies start feeling the financial squeeze they drag out Cav and

Pag (Cavalleria Rusticana coupled with 7 Pagliacci). A murky melodrama of crime and passion set in Sicily, no wonder Cav is so popular: it has all the things that matter—love, lust, revenge, violence and lots of good tunes. Placido Domingo is in fine form as the rakish Turiddu; but the fettle is finer in Renata Scotto (usually as variable as the weather) who sings a big and mellifluously blistering wronged woman. Levine’s conducting in this, the best stereo version, is rhythmically exciting and irresistibly melodic, but the old CallasSerafin monaural set is still the one to

beat. RCA has managed to fit everything on one disc (it has always been a tworecord set), and these days a bargain is a bargain.

CABALLE SINGS WAGNER Conducted by Alain Lombard (RCA)

Montserrat Caballe, renowned for her prowess in the Italian repertoire, sings the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and Dich, teure Halle from Tannhäuser with the loveliness and grace of a banshee. A mistake of the most mammoth proportion.


Conducted by Mario Bernardi (Columbia Masterworks)

A fountain-like mezzo-soprano, as rich as ochre on the bottom and often light yet sturdy at the top. The aria from Rossini’s Semiramide takes its toll, and in the little-known and fairly fiendish stuff by Paisiello, Broschi and Leoncavallo, von Stade’s seams aren’t exactly straight. The real achievement of the disc is by the National Arts Centre Orchestra under conductor Mario Bernardi: hardly a murmur misplaced.

BEETHOVEN: MISSA SOLEMNIS Conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Deutsche Grammophon: 2 discs)

Composed after Beethoven had gone deaf, the Missa Solemnis is one of those awesome achievements of man. Bernstein, with the aid of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, brings the deepest understanding to its massive choral configurations, feverish fugues and moments of sublime near-quiet, such as the Benedictus with its piercing violin solo. The voices of the soloists, particularly the formidable soprano of Edda Moser, rise to the top of some imaginary cathedral in eloquent tangles of tone that tear their way to rapturous shouts of joy.