'As Amy, the SCO Librarian, has shared with us, there are many ways to access music and performances on-line at present. I imagine that, like me, some of you are also enjoying new CDs or downloads, ordered online from such independents as Presto, and delving into CD collections (or even LPs).
No recordings, however great, or personally meaningful, can replace the experience of hearing and seeing music and opera live. But until the SCO is up and running once again, here are some recordings that have given me a lot of pleasure, and a little background as to how and why. They should all be available to listen to, whether on CD / downloads / streaming etc., although one or two may take a bit of searching out.'
Professor Chris Kelnar
No 1: Schumann: Dichterliebe - Beethoven ▪ Schubert
Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen
Nearly everything performed by that greatest of German lyric tenors, Fritz Wunderlich in his sadly short career is cherishable, but particularly moving is the live recording of his final recital (accompanied by Hubert Giesen), given at the 1966 Edinburgh International Festival. He also sang Tamino form The Magic Flute at that festival, which allows me additionally to sneak in a mention of his incomparable performance of Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön conducted by Karl Böhm. His final encore was Schubert’s An die Musik and, introducing it in heavily accented English, he says “I vould like to end zis rezital….” which produces a ripple of laughter from the audience that drowns out the rest of his introduction. Recorded by the BBC and subsequently issued by Deutsche Grammophon (DG), the whole recital, which includes Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Beethoven and much other Schubert, is intensely moving, and not just because it was his last public appearance before his death in a tragic accident.
No 2: Donizetti 'Lucia di Lammermuir'
Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan
There are other voices that mean a lot to me. Paradoxically, two of them are singers whose voices per se are not the most intrinsically beautiful, but what they did with them was incomparable. The first is Maria Callas. Warner have reissued her complete studio and live recordings. But, If I could pick just one (and it is available separately), it would be the live recording from Berlin, given by the La Scala company and thrillingly conducted by Karajan, of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermuir. The great sextet (encored) features a wonderfully ardent Giuseppe di Stefano, and the ‘Mad Scene’ is riveting. Lucia was the first opera recording I bought as an LP as a 12-year old in 1960 (Callas’s second studio recording with her ‘mentor’ Tullio Serafin conducting), but the live performance is much more dramatic.
No 3: The Complete Recordings
The second is Feodor Chaliapin, perhaps the greatest singing actor of the 20th century. Such is the expressiveness of his singing that one can completely visualise his performances. In a wonderful labour of love, Ward Marston (Marston records) has released a marvellously annotated and presented thirteen-CD set containing every one of his known recordings. A treasure-trove, but the tracks I absolutely could not do without comprise all the available excerpts from the live performances of Mussorgsky’sBoris Godunov at Covent Garden and the Royal Albert Hall recorded by His Master's Voice between 1926 and 1928. Some of these I first got to know as a child on an LP in the HMV Great Recordings of the Century series.
No 4: Russian Traditional Folk Songs
The Russian State Academy Choir
Perhaps because of my Russian/Polish/Ukrainian ancestry, I find the sheer sound of Russian choral singing intensely moving, particularly those deep basso profundos. A mono DG LP of Russian Songs performed by the Russian State Academy Choir conducted by their founder, Alexandr Sveshnikov, was something I listened to often with my parents. If I could only pick one track, it would be The Lonesome Warrior, featuring a wonderful tenor soloist from the choir with a uniquely ‘Russian’ timbre – as well as those basses.
No 5: Kathleen Ferrier – A Tribute
Another unique voice was that of Kathleen Ferrier. There is something wonderful about the true contralto voice (as with really deep bass voices). I was tempted to include Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (a live Carnegie Hall performance from 1948 with Bruno Walter, recently released by Somm) that is even finer than their later Decca recording (1952) that I grew up with. But there is an anthology, Kathleen Ferrier – A Tribute, that sums up her art: Purcell, Gluck, Bach, Handel, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, Mahler and, not least, traditional folksongs, including ‘Blow the Wind Southerly (recorded in 1949). It’s enthralling (Decca).
No 6: Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen
I have often said that Leoš Janáček would be my ‘desert island composer’ and that makes a choice of what to pick particularly difficult. In the end, it has to be one of the operas and, perhaps above all, the life-affirming The Cunning Little Vixen. Charles Mackerras’s Decca recording is wonderful, and I also have a particular love for the old (1958) Supraphon recording conducted by Vaclav Neumann. But I think I would pick the Glyndebourne production on DVD/BluRay conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and directed by Melly Still (Opus Arte), which is a delightful staging and beautifully performed.
No 7: Rameau, Premier Livres de Pieces de Clavecin
Of the live piano recitals we have been to in the last few years, a couple were amongst the greatest performances I have ever experienced. The first was given by Grigory Sokolov, in a small church in Passau, Germany. Sublime! The CDs of his 2019/20 tour, together with a DVD of the repertoire we heard him play, is being released by DG imminently. Meanwhile, take your pick from any of his available performances – some of his encores, from Rameau’s Premier Livres de Pieces de Clavecin, are a particular delight (DG).
No 8: Beethoven, Piano Sonatas Opp 90, 101 & 106
Equally special was Steven Osborne’s performance of the last three Beethoven Piano Sonatas Opp. 109, 110 and 111 at the Lammermuir Festival last September, but which already seems a lifetime ago and in a parallel reality. Thankfully, Hyperion have issued his studio recording which captures the magic.
No 9: Verdi, Don Carlos
Claudio Abbado, Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
I couldn’t be without something conducted by Carlos Kleiber, but I’ll happily direct you to his Beethoven already recommended by Roderick Wylie, and instead choose another of my favourite conductors, Claudio Abbado. His recordings of Mahler, Rossini’s Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola are unmissable and his Verdi conducting is unsurpassed. It’s a toss-up between his fabulous Simon Boccanegra with Mirella Freni – Roderick, she was a favourite of mine too – and, my narrow ‘winner’, the five-act French version of Don Carlos (DG). As an appendix, this additionally features 45 minutes of music that Verdi cut for reasons of excessive length and for increased dramatic focus. Amongst it is the wonderful passage “Mon fils, reprenez votre épée...” that Verdi later reworked as the Lachrymosa in his Requiem.
No 10: Schumann Symphony No 4
Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berliner Philharmoniker
Passing (sadly) over other favourite conductors such as Ferenc Fricsay, Karel Ančerl and Carlo Maria Giulini (that Rigoletto!), my other unmissable conductor is Wilhelm Furtwängler. Tempting as it is to include one of his Beethoven Ninth Symphony recordings, or Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, I will plump for Schumann’s Fourth Symphony – no other live or recorded performance I have ever heard has approached the tension he generates in the linking passage into the start of the finale (DG).
No 11: J.S. Bach
Mozart has already scraped in (via The Magic Flute, courtesy of Fritz Wunderlich), but although I would need a lot more Mozart, I would have to have some Bach. As John Eliot Gardiner has said, you can find a piece by Bach to suit any mood, and that range is encapsulated in the recent and outstanding piano recital by Víkingur Ólafsson which enshrines a wonderfully put-together programme, superbly played, with a series of additional contemporary ‘re-imaginations’ of Bach by Ólafsson himself and the likes of Hildur Guðnadóttir, György Kurtág and Peter Gregson (DG).
No 12: Leonard Bernstein At Harvard - The Norton Lectures 1973 "The Unanswered Question"
I would also have to smuggle in some chamber music, and much else but, for my last choice, I would warmly recommend Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures at Harvard “The Unanswered Question” (1973). I revisited this wonderfully stimulating journey into music when Sony reissued them compete on 13 CDs on the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth (2018). I am sure that anyone with time on their hands would find listening to them not only informative but inspirational.
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