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Classical Legends - In Their Own Words

Release Date: 06/08/2010 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 08972   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Various
Performer:  Jon VickersJohn TomlinsonMstislav RostropovichGiuseppe Di Stefano,   ... 
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

I occasionally run through all-time sports elevens, or fifteens. Or compile the ultimate concerto performance, real or imagined. Brahms conducting Joachim for example, captured in-house. Or maybe, thinking of symphonies, Dvorák conducting his own Seventh Symphony. I don’t go back much before 1870, but there’s plenty of mileage there. One thing I also imagine is a compilation disc of musicians talking about their lives and careers. Majoring in string players I take in Kreisler’s (real) 75th birthday speech, some Heifetz, being laconic. Both exist and have been released commercially. But what did Huberman sound like, or Thibaud, or Busch, or Sammons? Was Kulenkampff Hanseatically witty? Did Maud Powell speak recognisable Illinois? Read more Was Jaroslav Kocian’s accent hard? Did Kochanski lisp?

Back in the early 1940s as War raged the BBC ran a series of radio programmes devoted to just this idea. A leading musician would be invited to the studio, would have a (scripted) conversation with an interlocutor, and would then play a movement from a sonata or some such. Lionel Tertis went along, and Sammons too when he essayed the slow movement of John Ireland’s Second Sonata with the composer. No evidence now exists of these programmes.

This four disc set fits comfortably into this existing pattern. A musician is interviewed, recordings are played, a character or composer or work is analysed, sometimes briefly; a portrait emerges. The words ‘EMI’ appear so often in the narration that one becomes resistant to presumed product puffing. But I’m prepared to let such things go. For the sake of the preservation of the interviews and the concept in general I’m even prepared not to go to war over the overused words ‘legend’ and ‘legendary’ – is Kissin really a legend? Is John Tomlinson? Angela Gheorghiu? Pappano? Come to that are any of these singers and instrumentalists really legendary? Would Di Stefano describe himself as a ‘legend’?

Enough of the business of promotion and puffing-up, of flogging a product: the idea seems to me sound to preserve the speaking voices of important musicians. You never know how important a musician will be in years ahead. I’m all for preservation and archiving.

Jon Tolansky is the interviewer. The tracks are in the main brief; editing ensures we hear the musician in the main, though we do obviously hear some of Tolansky’s questions. He is heard extensively in the narration tracks. These cover motivations and plot developments in the extracts to be heard from EMI recordings, or biographical detail. This has clearly been deemed necessary to create a self contained unit, an experience with a context – and not just snippets of people talking. It’s not the same therefore as the British Library’s recent releases devoted to poets and writers giving broadcasts. These are heard within the context of the writer’s other broadcasts. Here, with music, one can broaden the experience, though I should think most people reading this would skip many of these tracks, and I dare say they might skip some of the music tracks as well.

My main focus is on the musicians’ own words. Freni for example was ‘prudent’ with her voice when young. She learned Nanetta in three days flat ‘but I was young’, she adds with a laugh. Giulini was thoughtful, Karajan thorough. Grace Bumbry tells of her church beginnings, a recurrent theme, and the influence of Lotte Lehmann. Students ‘depend too much on CDs’ and they need instead to get down to the score. With Vickers one feared for one’s life, he was ‘so real – but perfectly timed’. Things do indeed come alive with Vickers who gets a correspondingly larger whack of disc time. Not surprising really as he’s a riveting chap to listen to. He too had a church background, though he sang in prisons and asylums (not that he was incarcerated, you understand), and worked for Woolworth. His encounter with David Webster of Covent Garden is recounted with relish. He mentions a debt of gratitude to Edward Downes, and especially to Herman Geiger-Torel, who taught him how to inhabit an operatic role; talks too of the famous Trojans production and his subsequent international stardom. Most contemporary opera singers bore Vickers; they don’t ‘reveal’ the person they seek to impersonate, rather they get in the way. Frankly I could listen to JV for hours.

A more obviously emollient singer is the personable Nicolai Gedda. Humorous, affable, linguistically marvellous, he admits he was scared stiff when young. He pays his own dues – to Kurt Bendix amongst others. The Italian School is the one for him and his admiration for Schipa, for example, is vast. Indeed of all the singers here his appreciation of eminent predecessors seems the most acutely developed, though Fischer-Dieskau is no slouch either. Amongst that group Gedda nominates Suthaus in Wagner. He is also acute on language distinctions, noting that the ‘strange’ nasality of much French singing is a result of the language itself. He was a melancholic young man, unhappy, and a dreamer; he identified most with Lensky and Werther. Gedda’s the one I’d most like to spend an hour with, talking of the past and hopes for the future.

Di Stefano’s interview is not in as good quality as the others. I assume it took place al fresco as there are obvious noises off, not unpleasantly so. I imagine him with a glass of wine reflecting on his life - albeit he does so briefly. As all the interviews are in English it’s those whose command is less fluent that are the shortest. Di Stefano insists that ‘the drama comes before the music’ and asserts that ‘I sing the words, the feeling’. The ability to communicate with an audience is the primary concern; he touches briefly on Callas.

Gheorghiu and Alagna are heard in disc one and two respectively. She talks about character-driven development and about early life in Ceausescu’s Romania. He talks of his early love of Sicilian song, of cabaret and the strong feeling he still possesses for the lighter side of things. Inevitably the young guns are of less compelling interest. Ruggero Raimondi, from Bologna, like Verdi, talks finely and acutely about Filippo II and his singing and acting of the role. What kind of man was he, is the question, operatically speaking and Raimondi shows how well developed is his awareness of the problem and its best solution. John Tomlinson is equally convincing, at greater length, on Duke Bluebeard. In fact his analysis – madness and alienation, and the function of compassion both in this work and an allied one such as The Flying Dutchman makes one stop and think. Bluff though he appears, Tomlinson’s lexicon is profound. He too had a chapel background. He is honest about his early struggles; his voice had no top. He pays tribute to his teacher Patrick McGuigan. This feature is a constant one and shows the lasting, fundamental value of a good coach to young singers.

Fischer-Dieskau cites Rudolf Bockelman as an inspiration. Ludwig too was admired. Fischer-Dieskau’s famously precocious Winterreise (he was 16) is duly noted. There is a brief analysis of Wolf. One wishes there were more of his speaking voice. He is followed by Antonio Pappano who is something of an in-house EMI opera conductor, as well as an orchestral one and a fine pianist too. Crucially he knows all about the voice, via his father and his own studies. He cites the importance, the primacy indeed of ‘the general rhythm of the words’ which dictates so many things, not least tempo. He is good on the explosive nature of Italian religiosity and fear. There are two instrumentalists to complete the set. To be frank I wish this had been an all-vocal box (Pappano included for his insights – maybe) and Rostropovich and Kissin excluded. Kissin’s statuesque conversational style is too clipped to be revealing. His problems with Beethoven are ‘spiritual’ and he feels for the composer ‘love without reciprocation’, which is a neat summary. The familiar tones of Rostropovich – like Menuhin and Tortelier, also of EMI’s stable, one hardly believes he’s dead – talk of his father’s terrible death when the young cellist was 14. Shostakovich’s famous insult to a musician – you’re a ‘mezzo fortist’ - is here. It means an avoidance of dynamic extremes, and the composer apparently loathed timidity in these matters. But the thing of which Rostropovich was most proud in his life? Not his musical memories, not his premieres or honours or awards; it was his latter to Pravda. ‘I have a clean conscience’.

Nevertheless these instrumentalists do feel like a sop to try to round out the box. Why not keep it an all-singers box and do something similar with instrumentalists? I noted my own archival interest in recorded voices. I don’t know how generally this is shared. I can say that the words and music aspect has been well attended to and if there is a deal of self-promotion by EMI then that’s the name of the game.

-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International Read less

Works on This Recording

Work(s) by Various
Performer:  Jon Vickers (Tenor), John Tomlinson (Bass), Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello),
Giuseppe Di Stefano (Tenor), Ruggero Raimondi (Bass), Mirella Freni (Soprano),
Evgeny Kissin (Piano), Nicolai Gedda (Tenor), Angela Gheorghiu (Soprano),
Grace Bumbry (Mezzo Soprano), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone), Roberto Alagna (Tenor)
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano

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