SELMA KURZ, VOLUME 2: French and Italian Arias, and Popular Songs • Selma Kurz (sop); various orchestras • PREISER 89717 (76:07)
There were many great singers in the early years of the 20th century, in a pan-European culture that was still opera-mad—but a select few, for a variety of individual reasons, were considered in a class by themselves. They commanded the highest salaries from the most celebrated international opera houses, where their most mundane comments were the subject of interviews and letter columns in a manner all tooRead more reminiscent of modern movie stars. Enrico Caruso was a member of this group, as was Titta Ruffo, and when the latter sang Rigoletto with the former as the Duke of Mantua at a gala Vienna Staatsoper performance in 1906, under Gustav Mahler’s strict baton, their Gilda was Selma Kurz (1874–1933). She, too, was part of this privileged circle.
Mahler gets the credit for “discovering” Kurz while searching for fresh talent in Frankfurt. He signed her to a lengthy contract in 1899, and only four years later she received the distinguished title of Kammersängerin. Perhaps more impressive still were Melba’s furious and repeated, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to keep Kurz from appearing at Covent Garden. The latter created the role of Zerbinetta in the Viennese version of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and turned down the chance to star as the Marschallin in the Viennese premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, because of the supposedly overbearing manner of the stage director, Hans Gregor. At the apogee of her fame, Kurz’s voice was considered a kind of litmus test for vocal agility, tonal purity, and ease of production, to which all other sopranos essaying the same roles were compared. Her perfect, seemingly endless trills in particular became famous—and to this day, a fine, lengthy trill to the Viennese is known as a “Kurz-trill.”
Kurz was one of those singers who defied the categorization of the Fach system. She could, and did, sing Sieglinde, Elsa, Violetta, Fiordiligi, Zerbinetta, Tatyana, Oscar, Norina, the Marschallin, and Mimi, roles associated with the lyric, lyric coloratura, dramatic coloratura, and light dramatic Fächer. If asked how she handled all this, she certainly could have replied, “With careful management,” for Kurz took great care of her voice. The soprano Desi Halban, her daughter, wrote that her mother practiced scales and vocalises daily, as well as insisting in her contracts on a light performance schedule that prevented vocal wear from over-singing. Kurz made many records of variable quality over much of her career, though all of the 1910–14 Gramaphones heard on this album display an active engagement with the medium. There is none of the reserve that afflicted many of her colleagues, caused either by primitive studio conditions or lack of a live audience. In fine, Kurz delivers.
What she delivers leaves no doubt that hers was a major talent. Take “So anch’io la virtù magica,” from Don Pasquale. The Italian is not only good, but sung with a saucy panache that’s spot-on for Norina’s character. Glissandi, diminuendi, runs: all perfect, achieved with ease and a delicacy that makes up for the placement of the soprano some distance from the recording horn. (This was common at the time, foregoing richer sound to avoid blasting in louder passages.) Kurz also supplies one of her famous trills in crescendo, and offers another specialty of hers: three flawless trills held for several seconds each, ascending the seventh chord before resolving on the tonic. The whole thing just glows.
Much the same is true of “Saper voreste.” True, there are a few dropped phrase endings toward the start, but the upward-sweeping arpeggios have immense finesse; and the slyness of the lines “Saper voreste / di che si veste” is wonderfully contrasted with the dazzling laughter of the tra-la-las. There is great lightness throughout—and another trio of ascending trills, the ultimate one lasting 17 seconds. Much the same is true as well of her “Nobles Seigneurs” from Les Huguenots, but sung here in German. (She did, however, study French singing diction with the legendary Jean de Reszke.) It includes several trills, fluid runs, a magnificent glissando, and a final, successful B?. The more sentimental selections from Bellini’s Il Puritani and La Sonnambula reveal a plastic phrasing that may be owed to the time she spent under Marchesi’s tutelage.
For emotional and stylistic contrast, there’s her “Tu che la vanità,” from Don Carlo, shorn of the usual figurations; Kurz revels instead in the strength and beauty of her voice, and the fearless accuracy of her leaps. The instrument is well equalized throughout its range, with a bright, attractive ring to the tone, thanks in part to closer than usual placement to the horn. The portamenti are strictly rationed, but were undoubtedly expected at the time as an affective ornament. Neither this nor her “Ernani, involami” possess great interpretative depth, but there’s real character here, nonetheless. She must have thrilled audiences with the seemingly spontaneous brilliance of what was in fact a lengthy preparation process.
There’s much more of this throughout the album, though of course not everything is perfect. What comes plentifully through in everything is that Kurz was no mere songbird, but an intelligent, conscientious artist with excellent voice, training, and insight. Preiser’s usual scrupulously clean surfaces and mild filtering help bring her sonically to the fore. Recommended.
Don Carlos: Tu, che la vanitá conoscesti del mondoby Giuseppe Verdi Performer:
Selma Kurz (Soprano)
Period: Romantic Written: 1867/1884; Italy Length: 4 Minutes 4 Secs. Notes: Composition written: Paris, France (03/11/1867). Composition revised: Naples, Italy (1872). Composition revised: La Scala Opera House, Milan, Italy (01/10/1884).