Greatest Singer?

 


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GREATEST SINGER?

--Geoffrey Riggs


A) WHAT ONE MEANS BY "GREATEST SINGER":

Personally, of those singers whom I have actually heard, either on recordings or in person, one name has emerged above all others for me, while when it comes to the greatest singer of all time, my guess is one might have to go back further than the era of sound recording.

B) "GREATEST SINGER" THROUGHOUT OPERA HISTORY:

1. THE CASTRATI:

To tackle the latter first, the barbaric practice of rearing castrati apparently (to go by contemporary accounts) yielded certain singers who were so phenomenal that they effectively put all other vocal categories in the shade for decades, if not centuries. The only castrato of which there are any recordings is Alessandro Moreschi from the first decade of the 20th century. Never, even in his own time, is he described as having been one of the great singers, and we hear him on recording in the latter half of his career. So he may not be a reliable indication as to what the greatest castrati sounded like.

Contemporary accounts in the 1700s (the heyday of the castrato) spotlight three names in particular as superstars among the superstars (so to speak): Farinelli, Caffarelli and Pacchierotti. Farinelli may have been the most celebrated in his own time, but Caffarelli emerges as a potent rival in some accounts, and he did have the role of Handel's Serse (of "Ombra mai fu" fame) written for him. Pacchierotti was of a later generation, and, with a staggering range that went from soprano to occasional tenor (in concert), he was often written of as having exceeded all his forebears in sheer technical prowess. His career comes during the last full wave of castrato stars at the end of the eighteenth century. Perhaps Pacchierotti may have been the very greatest singer of all.

2. THE ROMANTIC BEL CANTO:

And yet, while the castrati were sometimes praised for the power (among other things) of their voices, they rarely had to contend with the more Romantic and assertive orchestral style that emerged in the 19th century. There was a significant crossroads in the first half of the 19th century when some of the intricate agility of the 18th century had not yet gone out of style, but that was complemented by a degree of heroic declamation (thanks -- partly -- to this more aggressive Romantic orchestral style) relatively new at the time. The result is that it's sometimes easier to cast some of the heroic parts of the later 19th century, including the works of the later Wagner and the verists, or the florid parts of the 18th century, than it is to cast some of these early 19th-century heroic roles, where a considerable degree of vocal agility is needed to balance the already heroic vocal requirements.

Thus, some of the artists for whom these earlier 19th-century parts were written may possibly have been even more plentifully endowed, in terms of the sheer contradictory variety of what they were required to do (everything from heroic declamation against an assertive accompaniment to intricate fioritura), than the castrati of a century earlier! Going by two sets of roles in particular, roles that seem to combine great flexibility with vocal heft, I would suggest that the staggering vocal/technical contradictions in tenor roles like Arnold (Rossini's Guillaume Tell) or the title role of Donizetti's Poliuto, or in roles for the prima donna like Donizetti's Gemma di Vergy or Elisabetta in his Roberto Devereux, may point to certain superstars of the 1820s and 1830s having been even more adept stylistically and vocally than anyone who came before or after. The vocal/technical/stylistic/musical somersaults of Arnold and Poliuto were written for the phenomenal Adolf Nourrit and the somersaults of Gemma and the Devereux Elisabetta were written for the equally phenomenal Giuseppina Ronzi-De Begnis. These two were particularly resilient singers, apparently, and it's possible these two may have set standards in sheer technical versatility and stamina that were unprecedented and may never have been surpassed.

C) MY OWN PRIORITIES WHEN GROWING ATTACHED TO A SINGER I'VE HEARD:

1. HEART, FRONT AND CENTER:

Of course, we will never know for sure, and one is probably on firmer ground if one attempts simply to explain to oneself which aspects have made the greatest impact on one's own ears among singers whom it has been possible to savor in one's own home on one's own sound system or "live" in the hall. Well....I suppose it comes as no news to those who are somewhat familiar with my preferences that my first and foremost criterion in a great operatic artist is "Heart", pure and simple. At the same time, I remain unconvinced that a conjunction of voice and circumstance is ever entirely absent from a gut response to a singer. Some imply that a conjunction of voice and circumstance cannot apply to one's immediate response to certain especially striking voices, particularly in those cases where the artistic imagination may seem relatively ordinary. Therefore, the conclusion seems to be that it must be the voice in such cases, and the voice alone, that's causing the goose bumps. And yet, at the risk of psychoanalyzing others' responses(!), I have to wonder......

Many a gorgeous voice that I've heard has left me unmoved, because its user seems (relatively) limited in expression. And yet, crude as a Lanza, to take just one example, can sometimes be in artistry, his range of expression, though relatively limited as well, can sometimes get at something pretty direct, IMO. He is certainly not a placid singer, IMO. There is a commitment to sheer sound of a sort there after all, and it is sound tied to some degree of honest communication, I feel. And sheer honesty is where "Heart" comes in. A sense of abandon, a sense of confession -- this is where/how singers attain greatness in my book. If they fool one into accepting their singing as utterly spontaneous expressions of their inmost souls, then -- ZAP, "they got me!"

I don't see it as beyond question that even a Lanza has let some fundamental instinct guide him in the visceral way he has shaped certain especially thrilling tones. Doesn't it take then the individuality of a Lanza to make the tones of an already superior instrument resonate deeply within some listener's soul? The freedom of those tones is a credit to that instrument, yes. But surely, it's also a credit to the possessor of that instrument that the tones are being produced in an uninhibited enough a way to allow those tones to ring out freely and bravely. I simply don't regard it as inevitable that the instrument of a Lanza -- or a Poncet, for that matter, or a Tamagno, or whoever -- should ring out no matter what the sensibilities of its owner. Instead, it is entirely possible, IMO, that a Lanza instrument might remain bottled up inside a possessor whose approach to making tones might be pathetically tied up in knots -- tied up in such a way that hearers would never guess there is any kind of remarkable tone imprisoned in there at all!

This means that -- up to a point -- it _is_ a function of heart, not merely voice, which allows the full potential of certain God-given voices to be fulfilled. Would Lanza grab certain listeners as much if his approach weren't so gloriously uncomplicated? Perhaps not. And that is where circumstances _do_ play as vital a role as the sheer sound of the instrument itself, IMO. And that is where circumstances _always_ play a role, even in the most instinctive responses, IMO. I simply believe that it is _never_ purely the voice that impacts one, and I recognize that I may be in a minority in thinking that.

By "Heart", I mean a network of various assorted characteristics, I suppose. There would be, first of all, an invariably effective projection of something uncannily compulsive, the projection of a _need_ to communicate, as if the feelings are there, just waiting to be expressed, rather than a sense of self-conscious cogitation and "work" in order to express them. IMO, Claudia Muzio or Lotte Lehmann would be striking examples of the former, while maybe the very cerebral Fischer-Dieskau (IMO) might be an example of the more self-conscious and calculated latter. (Remember, one singer once entitled an autobiography "Such Sweet Compulsion".)

It also comes down to an impression of spontaneity. Whether illusory or not, some artists just have this knack of conveying an impression that they are even surprising themselves with certain overwhelming feelings that appear to be happening to them "in the moment", not recollected in tranquility (to paraphrase a Wordsworth concept in poetry).

Hand in hand with this goes an extremely mercurial vocal "face" that seems capable of switching signals on a dime, depending on the message in the music -- the opposite of planned, capable of affording the listener a real surprise in the lack of any prior intimation of the switch. And the sudden switch never fails to be vivid and pointed.

Hope this makes my use of the term "heart" clearer.

2. REMAINING PRIORITIES THAT MARK AN ACCOMPLISHED ARTIST:

Only after the way that the heart of the singer is truly engaged or not engaged would I then move on to voice in a vacuum -- and I look for something that is both distinctive and intrinsically musical. It needn't necessarily be a sound that is sumptuous enough to efface everything else on stage (although that isn't bad;-). But it should at a minimum be a sound that is capable of crisp musical definition and capable of combining that definition with a totally focused musical tone that is both well tuned and capable of conveying an expressive "face" through the mere sound.

This means that words have to come through with a certain degree of nuance and "intenzione", as the Italians would say.

Technical consistency should be apparent through the long term as well. Of course, I prize the inspired communicators and vocal daredevils who throw everything of themselves into the music and the emotion of the moment. How could one not respond to a Di Stefano, for example, even though he ran into technical trouble relatively early? But it says something special for an artist, IMO, who is always engaged heart and soul in everything, the way Di Stefano was, and yet who can still maintain vocal discipline through the long term, which Di Stefano couldn't, IMO. My rule of thumb, FWIW, entails evaluating how much of an artist's work is still recognizably from that artist and still vocally resilient at the age of fifty. If the answer is yes, then that artist is in a very special class, I feel.

Musicianship comes next: the capacity of absorbing the style of whatever piece one sings, and while being true to that style still making it a richly personal statement and maintaining rigorous musical discipline with a completely responsive and healthy voice at the same time.

Presence and charisma are an asset if one wants to communicate the essence of a piece of music that has seized the artist's imagination.

Together with vocal consistency, it is a luxury, though not essential for all operatic genres, if one can maintain the suppleness, flexibility and agility needed to perform the most vocally intricate bel canto writing.

Finally, maintaining the utmost clarity and a genuinely idiomatic feel for a number of very different and contrasted languages in song is a gift that not everyone has. Prize it when you hear it.

D) MY PERSONAL PICK FOR "GREATEST SINGER" YET HEARD:

I once had a discussion with one aficionado, a Gunter Kossodo who moderated an all-day Ring des Nibelungen marathon on FM radio once a year and who was a regular lecturer at the New School and Bayreuth, who had seen both Jussi Bjoerling and Richard Tauber in person in Vienna during the '30s. He told me that, in person, the lower two thirds of the Tauber instrument were more resonant, heavier and more spinto-ish than Bjoerling, but that Bjoerling had greater strength and penetration when it came to the upper third. Personally, I happen to feel -- and Gunter Kossodo happened to agree -- that Tauber's top, while efficient enough, does not come off as much more than efficient on recordings. Certainly, his top is not on a par with Bjoerling's, Pavarotti's or that of many other lirico spintos regularly discussed.

Furthermore, so far as I know, Tauber never really had a high C. We hear one glancing high C in the "Che gelida manina" (1924), but it's definitely not sustained. Tauber also narrows his vowels higher up in a very Viennese way, which is disconcerting to a listener used to the golden outpouring of other tenors. With all this, it's remarkable what a vibrant core Tauber's upper tones still have. However weird his upper vowels up front, one has the feeling that his actual throat is always squared open in the fine Caruso manner! That said, his top is still not quite of the quality of some of the others even so. Yes, once in a while, as in the climax of his 1927 "La donna e mobile", he'll give one a ringing and open high B that's perfectly fine. But such notes are not his stock in trade.

E) WHY TAUBER IS NOW MY PICK FOR "GREATEST SINGER":

Given all this, though, Tauber is my favorite singer all the same.

Why?

Because of what I've been talking about: Heart.

Well, more than heart, actually, but that's where it all starts. Yes, one must at least have a genuinely musical and resilient voice capable of maintaining a vibrant, fully resonated vocal line. But all the greatest singers already have that. Once that necessity is established as a given, heart then starts to bulk hugely in my estimation.

In this connection, Tauber's apparent spontaneity in expression is nothing less than astounding. It is particularly so since it's always in the context of a wealth of detail and tonal shading. How come the variety of his dynamics and of his vocal coloring is so staggering while the impression of spontaneity of expression is still maintained so consistently at the same time? That such an abundance of the most insightful nuance should also come off as the ultimate in spontaneity is the greatest paradox of the sheer heart that Tauber brings to his singing. He can fool the listener into imagining that all that abundance of nuance is merely the inspiration of the moment -- when it clearly can't be. Hours and hours must go into it. But it doesn't sound that way. That is genius. That a singer should be able to combine the most scrupulous musicianship with the most extroverted and heartfelt style seems almost an impossibility. Tauber shows that it isn't.

Whether or not his voice is sumptuous in the Caruso/Bjoerling way, his command of musical communication is such that nothing he does sounds unmusical. Rather, I find his very tones intrinsically engaging in any case, and he certainly has a voice that is essentially attractive in absolute terms, even if relatively plain by certain standards. At any rate, I never feel that one has to make allowances for any unattractive sounds, the way one does for certain other perfectly fine artists. Instead, Tauber's voice usually has a truly magnetic and genuinely simpatico quality. It's just that it's not downright stunning like some others.

Especially to his credit is the way he maintains consistent technical security throughout an arduous career. In fact, at around the age of 48 or so, circa 1939, even the narrowed vowels start to open up somewhat! Arguably, his finest years technically (we can argue about when the _voice_ _itself_ sounds its best) were from around 1939 to 1943, from age 47 to 52. That shows tremendous discipline, particularly when one considers that his operatic career began in 1913, when he turned 22. Imagine: thirty years of solid arduous performing where the technical prowess and vocal resiliency continually get better! That is an astonishing track record. Decline does not first appear until the initial onslaught in 1944 (he was 53) of the first signs of the lung cancer that eventually killed him in 1948 at age 56. Even so, he painstakingly manages to learn how to "sing around it" a year or so later, and there is, in fact, an astonishing vocal recovery that is readily audible, starting around the second half of 1946 at age 55, less than two years before his death! This after he had been sounding like a singer on his last legs a year or so before! Again, sheer technical discipline that seems unfathomable! His most amazing feat (and we have recorded excerpts) was probably his final appearance on stage: a Don Ottavio in 1947 where he sounds perfectly fine again! Yet he was back in the hospital again within days, never to come out, fading inexorably until his death in early 1948. It soon emerged that he had performed that remarkable Ottavio on one lung...

Unlike many a tenor, he was a genuinely charismatic showman in terms of his physical deportment across the footlights. Even though afflicted with a slight limp and a slight squint(!), and hardly a man known for conventional matinee-idol looks, his control as an actor of the space around him was still exceptional for an opera singer. There are even certain films -- his early film of Land des Laechelns and his later Blossom Time and English-language Pagliacci spring to mind -- that happen to be pretty expertly acted. No, he is no Lawrence Olivier, but the camera does not "catch him out" as a liar, a rare gift among singers. Instead, he is able to wear his heart on his sleeve in all these movies and to do so with a modicum of real "Presence". Even when he first sang Ottavio in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden (1939), his critical notices drew attention to his dominant presence whenever he was on stage: [paraphrase] "He proved the chairman of any 'meeting' he'd attend", as one critic wrote. Not easy with matinee-idol Pinza on stage alongside him in the title role! That's real charisma. (And Pinza had the true matinee-idol looks and the more sumptuous voice, let alone the bigger role!)

In Lieder especially, we hear yet another gift: Tauber's true romance with words. No matter how eccentric his diction, he always manages to get the words across like a true story-teller, but without compromising legato and tone. So many singers seem to believe that in German Lieder one must compromise either one or the other to a degree. Tauber shows this isn't so. Instead, with a gift for infinite vocal shading, nuance is applied to each and every line of poetry reminiscent of some expert Shak[e]spearean actor. All this while the blandishments of true bel canto line are never compromised. Other equally fine Lieder singers sometimes sacrifice certain bel canto attributes for the sake of the kind of nuance Tauber is so expert in. But Tauber never does. He always sings an unbroken legato through all the range of verbal/poetic nuance. An unusual combination as rare as it is welcome.

Of course, his highest operatic achievement was in Mozart. This meant that his vocal agility had to be of a high order. And when we hear his cuts of certain arias and duets from Auber, Rossini, Mozart and the like, we are aware of deftly articulated passagework (even in Verdi, try his cadenza at the conclusion of the "La donna e mobile" from '27) throughout. He didn't just sing a bel canto line, he had the adeptness to surmount all the intricate vocal agility entailed in true bel canto singing. We even have a respectable shake at the conclusion of his "Am stillen Herd", a Wagner aria that requires this but that is rarely undertaken by a true bel canto tenor!

Finally, though reared in the traditions of Central European houses of the prewar period, with everything sung in German, he acquired later in his career a gift for languages that was striking. This is testimony to a sharp ear, among other things. In his annus mirabilis, 1939, we have him performing that famed Don Giovanni at Covent Garden with Ezio Pinza in the original Italian (even though he had first learned it in German). In the same year in concert, we hear him performing Don Jose's "Fleur" aria in the original French (and in fairly good French in the bargain). His growing fluency in English, once he became a naturalized British subject following the 1938 Anschluss in Vienna, was perhaps partly responsible for his having opened up his vowels generally in the years following. We hear this especially in his popular-song recordings during the early '40s, where the English becomes notably more natural and relaxed. Sure, it still has a recognizable accent, but it flows more euphoniously than earlier. Linguistically, the icing on the cake during this phase (alas, no recording exists) was his once singing the one song most indelibly associated with him, "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz", in Arabic during a concert tour in the Middle East!

So there we have heart, impeccable vocal control and longevity, artistic imagination, strict musicianship, charisma, a romance with words, vocal agility and linguistic facility of a high order rolled into one. Few other singers, let alone tenors, have excelled at such a high level in all eight aspects. This is why Tauber, to this day, remains my favorite singer, let alone my favorite tenor.

F) THOSE I'VE HEARD IN PERSON

The single artist who reflects these Tauber-like traits the most -- at least of those in my personal experience, having attended evenings by the artist in person -- is Christa Ludwig. Having been born too late to see Tauber in person, I find that, like Tauber, Ludwig is able to combine rich and (seemingly) spontaneous vocal expression with rigorous musicianship. And, although she ran into severe vocal trouble in her '40s -- during the 1970's -- she had the discipline to emerge from it triumphantly with a Kundry in 1979 that remains my most enthralling experience ever in the opera house. By that time, I never dreamed we would hear such authoritative singing from her ever again. So her vocal resurgence from that time on (into the early '90s!) remains as astonishing to me today as it ever was then. And her amazing resilience in this respect was complemented by a Tauber-like mastery of roles in the French and Italian repertoire along with the German, by a charisma on stage that seems to recall contemporary accounts and films of Tauber himself, by an attentiveness to words that made Ludwig, like Tauber, as effective in Lieder as in opera, and by an agility that could encompass roles like Adalgisa alongside the heavyweights of Wagner and Strauss.

It was experiencing Ludwig's Kundry in '79 that convinced me that Wagner is at his most psychologically acute in Parsifal. Thanks to Ludwig, I now prize a great Kundry as worth even more than a great Isolde. The contrasts in this part, psychologically, stylistically, vocally, musically, seem insuperable when not presented in an inherently organic way in which poetry, feeling, vocalism and phrasing all flow together to such an extent that it seems impossible to distinguish one from the other. Ludwig made the "action" of Kundry appear indivisible, as though the only way that Kundry could "live" was through musical utterance where poetry and song become one. Ludwig attained an ideal for me that day that I still hope others may equal at some point in the future but that I cannot ever imagine being surpassed. (How?!)

Ludwig's recorded Kundry with Solti of approximately a decade earlier is quite strong, but that organic quality in her singing that I prize so much is, perhaps, best heard on her recorded Fidelio with Klemperer.

G) TODAY'S GREATEST?:

Among current-day singers, I find it wrenching not to be able to include the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a mezzo who left us all too early while still in her vocal prime. At the age of fifty, she gave a staggeringly varied recital at the new Zankel Hall (an adjunct to Carnegie Hall) in 2004. Here was an artist who was able to put a deeply personal stamp on a tremendously varied repertoire. That night she included not only a vocally intricate Handel cantata (Lucrezia) but other kinds of pieces as well in a bewildering number of different languages and musical idioms. Yet she managed to make each and every piece seem like the most deeply personal statement, maintaining impeccable vocal and musical control throughout. And her voice was still in excellent shape.

Hunt Lieberson would have been my candidate for the most consistently assured and most deeply expressive performer on the opera stage today.

In her absence, my second choice would probably be Thomas Quasthoff, although I would probably not cite him at all were it not for his having just broken into opera recently. His Don Fernando (Fidelio) was quite moving, but the most heartening display I've heard (and I'm just sorry I couldn't have been there) was a very recent Amfortas at Vienna that I've now acquired on CD. This is amazing: heartbreaking and utterly musical at the same time. Like everything that Hunt Lieberson sang, not only does Quasthoff invariably maintain an innately attractive, utterly musical tone, but everything he sings seems imbued with his inmost soul. There is nothing "learned" in his delivery. He fools the listener (the way Hunt Lieberson did) into accepting what he sings as a spontaneous utterance conceived on the spot. Genius.

And finally, I would have to cite Sumi Jo, who is now developing some of the same transparency of musical expression in as difficult a repertoire for the soprano voice. The only reason why I might not yet place her as high as the others is because she has not yet reached that benchmark age of fifty. If she does, and still remains intact, I feel she would be entitled to parity with the other two.

Fortunately, I feel lucky in that I've attended Hunt Lieberson, Quasthoff and Jo evenings. I only mention this in order to stress that I've come to deeply admire all three from having actually heard them in person, not just on recordings, thus becoming familiar with their true impact when heard "live".

Let me add that like many I also greatly admire both Rene Pape and Karita Mattila a great deal. In fact, Mattila is my second-favorite soprano of those before the public today. And both Mattila and Pape combine deeply expressive singing with unfailing vocal discipline. A rare combination that they share with Hunt Lieberson, Quasthoff and Jo.

I suppose the main reason why I would still place Mattila and Pape in the silver tier, so to speak, and not the golden one, involves the sheer amount of different kinds of music I've heard from the golden three. Yes, Pape, for instance, is undoubtedly quite versatile, but the ease with which Hunt Lieberson conquered Handelian coloratura, Quasthoff's phenomenal ease with the most difficult concert pieces of Mozart's, plus Jo's triumphant resilience in extremely agile music of all kinds and styles, each impart a virtual halo around their accomplishments in my eyes. Their flexibility is just the icing on the cake for all three.

Yes, it's just possible that Mattila and Pape may be capable of the same thing in as much abundance and with as much consistency. But I've not heard them add such accomplishments to what are already two amazing careers. They may yet.

 

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

MARIA CALLAS (1923 - 1977) -- HER BEST RECORDINGS IN GOOD SOUND

CARMEN -- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY

ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

FRANCO CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS

DON CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

DONIZETTI AND BRINKMANSHIP

THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

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The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK

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