Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the young Russian baritone who made such a spectacular American debut earlier this year, can now be heard on his first recording (Philips 426 740-2) in the kind of repertoire -- arias from five operas by Tchaikovsky and five by Verdi -- that should make him a legend in the next 20 or 30 years.
When he sang at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, Hvorostovsky was impressive for his verbal clarity, well-rounded tone and exemplary control of breath and phrasing in the non-operatic songs (with piano) by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff that made up his formal program. But the music's emotional and artistic climax came at the recital's end in the operatic encores, particularly in Rodrigo's scene and aria, "Son io, mio Carlo," from Act 4 of Verdi's "Don Carlo." The same music ends and climaxes the CD, even more effectively with Valery Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic providing a full operatic sound in support of the voice.
A priori, many critics (myself included) thought that Hvorostovsky would make his strongest early impact as Eugene Onegin, a role for which he seemed born, but in conversation, Hvorostovsky wasn't so sure. On this disc, he sings two of Onegin's arias, and the results are impressive, as they are in arias from "The Queen of Spades," "The Sorceress," "Iolanta" and "Mazeppa." But he makes the strongest impression in familiar Verdi arias, where his recorded competition is most formidable. He should probably wait a few years before taking the roles of the elder Germont or Macbeth on stage, but he sounds ready to be Rodrigo or the Count di Luna in any opera house in the world.
Unfamiliar music by familiar composers is sung by Jose Carreras, with pianist Martin Katz, on "Italian Opera Composers' Songs" (Sony SK 45 863). Those who worry about the Spanish tenor's health after his recent triumph over cancer will be reassured by the freshness and strength of tone he brings to 17 little salon pieces by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. The style is just right, except for an occasional excess of vibrato.
Carreras's voice is in excellent form, as is Renata Scotto's, in a series of scenes from "La Traviata," "I Lombardi" and "Madama Butterfly" taped at live performances in 1973 and 1974 and available from Legato Classics (LCD 150-1). The sound is better than one often gets from this company, but annotations are very skimpy. Unlike Philips and Sony, Legato does not supply texts and translations. Similarly interesting material, variable sound and skimpy documentation can be had from this company in a host of other records: "Leonard Warren: Live Radio Broadcasts" (BIM-707-1), with material from 1940 to 1958; "Sills and Domingo: Great Scenes" (LCD-142-1), with material recorded live between 1965 and 1971; and "Tristan und Isolde: Act III" (LCD-145-1), a sizzling 1937 performance at the San Francisco Opera with Fritz Reiner conducting and Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior singing.
This year marks the centennial of Beniamino Gigli's birth, and record companies are putting out Gigli records at an incredible pace. One I have been enjoying particularly is "Beniamino Gigli Volume 1: 1918-24" (Nimbus NI 7807), which catches the tenor's voice in its prime and restores the antiquated sound of that era with remarkable success in 22 numbers that are mostly operatic but include a few songs such as "Funiculi Funicula." The material is all operatic in RCA's "Beniamino Gigli" (7811-2-RG); most of the material is from somewhat later in his career and the sound is also good. Overlap of material is minimal, but one item, "Un di all'azzuro spazio" from "Andrea Chenier," is the same recording, made on Oct. 5, 1922. The RCA sound is close up with lots of impact and some extraneous noise. Nimbus presents the voice a bit more cleanly, distantly and with a sense of room ambiance. Other titles well worth hearing in the Nimbus "Prima Voce" series include "Tetrazzini" (NI 7808) and "Caruso in Song" (NI 7809).
English tenor Edward Lloyd was born in 1845, and that makes his the oldest singing voice I have ever heard. He performs three works of Sir Arthur Sullivan (from "The Mikado," "Pirates of Penzance" and "Martyr of Antioch") on a Legato issue in which historic interest compensates for often execrable sound: "Creators' Records" (SRO-818-2, two CDs). This fascinating set has 57 recordings by 34 members of the original casts of some 35 operas composed between 1877 and 1903. The first interpreters of a piece of music are not necessarily the best, but at least they give an idea of the style in which it was first heard. There are some legendary moments on these discs -- for example, Francesco Tamagno and Victor Maurel singing arias from Verdi's "Otello," Maurel as Falstaff, and original cast members performing "La Boheme" (Puccini's and Leoncavallo's), "L'Amico Fritz," "Werther," "Cav and Pag," "Tosca" and "Pelleas et Melisande." There are also mementos of many (sometimes rightly) long-forgotten operas and singers.
A singer who did not win a struggle against cancer was mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, who died of leukemia in September 1989. Her last recording was made in May of that year, during a remission after six weeks of hospitalization, and a sensitive listener may detect signs of fatigue -- reduced energy, attenuated contrasts.But in her performances of Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'Ete," five songs from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" and Mahler's Five Ruckert Songs, the voice is used with the usual precision of intonation and phrasing and depth of expression. In this recording (Bridge BCD 9017), the music is heard in special chamber orchestra arrangements made by Philip West with David Efron conducting the Eastman Chamber Ensemble. The disc is a tribute to one of the great American performing artists of our time -- not only her singing ability but also the indomitable courage that kept her doing what she loved and did best right up to the end.
Recordings from earlier, happier years have been reappearing recently on compact disc, and they reconfirm what was known for years to lovers of vocal music: that Jan DeGaetani was one of the most skilled and imaginative singers of her time, at home in a wide variety of styles and gifted with a voice of extraordinary expressive power and tonal beauty as well as a high level of musical intelligence. One disc, a collection of three Brahms cycles (the "Gypsy Songs," the "Four Serious Songs" and Five Songs, Op. 72, was made in 1983 for the Arabesque label (Z6141), produced by Teresa Sterne, with whom DeGaetani had often worked earlier at Nonesuch Records. The pianist, as usual in DeGaetani's recordings with piano, was Gilbert Kalish and the style was, as usual, flawless.
Four other discs are from Nonesuch, which made most of her recordings, and they show an artist whose interests were as wide-ranging as that adventurous label's. The one that will probably attract the largest audience is a collection of 28 "Songs of America" (Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79178-2) by composers who range from Stephen Foster and Carrie Jacobs Bond to John Cage, Elliott Carter, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Ives -- a disc full of wonderful discoveries. Her collection of 17 songs by Ives (9 71325-2) became a classic on LP and is welcome back on CD.
Personally, I think her most impressive work (though it will appeal to relatively specialized tastes) may have been in the nightmare landscapes of Arnold Schoenberg's strange and wonderful "Pierrot Lunaire," one of the masterpieces of 20th-century music. This can be heard in a 1970 recording, together with his earlier and slightly less unconventional "The Book of the Hanging Gardens" on Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79237-2. Finally, DeGaetani's performance of Ravel's haunting, exotic "Chansons Madecasses" is, to me, the high point of a generally interesting collection of Ravel's music (9 71355-2) that also contains his Sonata for Violin and Piano, beautifully played by Isidore Cohen and Timothy Eddy, and his youthful "Sites Auriculaires" for two pianos, played by Paul Jacobs and Gilbert Kalish. Fans of Teresa Sterne (i.e., anyone interested in the amazing early years of Nonesuch Records) will be interested to hear her supplying the fifth hand in Ravel's brief (92 seconds) "Frontispiece" for five hands on one piano -- probably the only professional recording by this wonderfully imaginative recording producer.
One of the best performances of "I Pagliacci" I have heard has been issued on an Austrian label (Preiser 90030) with the great tenor Helge Rosvaenge in the leading role and several fine singers otherwise unknown to me in supporting roles. There are only two serious problems with this recording: It is sung in German (titled "Der Bajasso") rather than Italian, and it was recorded in Nazi Berlin in 1943. It is still, however, an unusually fine "Pagliacci."
The Preiser label has been documenting quite a few excellent and relatively unfamiliar singers of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Lovers of antiquarian recordings should specially enjoy those devoted to the extraordinary baritone Marcel Journet (89021), tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi (89012) and mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani (89014).
One of the best-loved sopranos in Vienna during the period between World Wars I and II was Elisabeth Schumann, not only for the purity of her tone and the superb control of her voice, but also for the warm personality that she projected both in opera and in Lieder recitals. Audiences respected Flagstad and Lehmann, but they took Schumann to their hearts. A record is different from a personal appearance, but a lot of her personality comes across in two discs (Pearl GEMM CD 9379 and GEMM CD 9445) devoted to her recordings of the 1920s and '30s.
The highlight of the first disc (amid 25 selections) is a selection of a dozen songs by Richard Strauss -- who was, of course, a very active composer and a great admirer of the singer when these recordings were made. Also noteworthy is some interesting operetta material and a bit of Handel and Reger. On "Elisabeth Schumann Volume II," there are two pieces from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and the exquisite "Bist du bei mir," but the highlights are six arias from Mozart's operas ("Don Giovanni" and "The Marriage of Figaro" sung in German like "The Magic Flute"), and a soulful Schubert "Ave Maria." One hopes to hear much more of this lovely voice.
For diehard fans, one of the most exciting moments in bel canto opera is the cabaletta, the fast and brilliant music sung (usually by a soprano or tenor) after a slow aria -- for example, "Sempre libera," following "Ah, fors' e lui" in "La Traviata." Exactly what is meant by the term is shown vividly in a collection, "Great Soprano Cabalettas," featuring 21 singers in live performances dating from 1940 to 1988 (Legato LCD-161-1). A lot of the material is relatively unfamiliar, and one would appreciate texts. The booklet is thicker than Legato usually provides. It contains some fine, mostly autographed, photos of the singers and nothing else.