Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Christine Brewer Pays Homage To Encores Of Past Sopranos

Dramatic soprano Christine Brewer is set to release a new CD that features the encores offered by great artists of the past including Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel and Eleanor Steber. Perhaps the single common link between today's artist and these four women of the past, is the composer Richard Wagner. The size and magnitude of the voice it takes to project this music is rarely thought to be the same instrument to deliver "When I have sung my songs" or "Now like a lantern," but this disc presents 22 examples of what these voices offered up at the end of long lieder or song recitals to please a public that was often waiting simply for the encore(s) of the evening. Release is set for March 2011. [Source]

Click here to sample each track of the CD. Detailed program notes and full track list are after the jump.

Encores as sung by Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel and Eleanor Steber

01. SIDNEY HOMER (1864-1953) Sing to me, sing [1'49]
02. EDWIN McARTHUR (1907-1987) Night [3'14]
03. ARTHUR WALTER KRAMER (1890-1969) Now like a lantern [2'24]
04. MILDRED LUND TYSON (1900--) Sea Moods [2'51]
05. SIR LANDON RONALD (1873-1938) O lovely night! [3'22]
06. JAMES H ROGERS (1857-1940) At Parting [1'48]
07. JOHN ALDEN CARPENTER (1876-1951) The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes [2'26]
08. PAUL SARGENT (1910-1987) Hickory Hill [2'34]
09. VINCENT YOUMANS (1898-1946) Through the years [3'56]
10. PAUL NORDOFF (1909-1977) There shall be more joy [2'12]
11. FRANK LA FORGE (1879-1953) Hills [2'31]
12. FRANK BRIDGE (1879-1941) Love went a-riding [1'54]
13. IDABELLE FIRESTONE (1874-1954) In my garden [3'43]
14. SIGMUND ROMBERG (1887-1951) Will you remember- ‘Sweetheart’ [4'21]
15. IDABELLE FIRESTONE (1874-1954) If I could tell you [3'19]
16. FRIEDRICH VON FLOTOW (1812-1883) The last rose of summer [2'48] from Martha
17. HAROLD VICARS (‘MOYA’) The song of songs ‘Chanson du coeur brise’ [4'47]
18. JOHN LA MONTAINE (b1920) Stopping by woods on a snowy evening [1'50]
19. HAROLD ARLEN (1905-1986) Happiness is a thing called Joe [4'00] from Cabin in the sky
20. LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Some other time [2'34] from On the town
21. ERNEST CHARLES (1895-1984) When I have sung my songs [2'17]
22. CELIUS DOUGHERTY (1902-1986) Review [5'10]

Christine Brewer, soprano
Roger Vignoles, piano

Recording details: December 2009, All Saints, Durham Road, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard


This delightful disc, performed by one of the most admired sopranos of today, accompanied by her long-time collaborator, pays homage to an important musical tradition and part of performance history, and to four great sopranos from the past.

The repertoire includes the encore-songs, mainly by American composers, performed by Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel and Eleanor Steber at the end of their recitals. As Christine Brewer writes in an intimate performance note: ‘These little gems evoke an era of recitals not often encountered these days. Stepping back into that era has been a joy to Roger and me, and I hope it will bring back memories to those who might have heard these women sing these songs, or perhaps ignite a new love affair for younger listeners!’

'Encore-time is best.’ That, most concert-goers would protest, is going too far. But change the tense—‘Encore-time was best’—and yes, many will happily recall occasions when that has indeed been so. A famous coloratura soprano of yesteryear will arrive, present a dutiful programme of songs, and do it sufficiently well to send her admirers away pleased to have seen and heard her again, somewhat wistfully content to note that her voice, if not all that it had been, remained true, pure and steady. Come encore-time she announces an aria by Rossini, a dazzler, then one of her old favourites by Donizetti. And she can still do it! Joy unbounded! For wistful contentment read rapture. Or (let’s say) a mid-European is announced to sing a programme of Lieder. We approach with well-justified caution and at the end are about to pack up and go home, when she returns to the platform alone and, as an encore, offers a folk-song from her native land. Wonderful woman! Everyone sits motionless but deeply moved. The applause is tremendous; the evening is transformed.

At best, encore-time turns a recital into a party. So it was when Gigli sang at the Royal Albert Hall, or, in the days of her adorable prime, Victoria de Los Angeles at the Royal Festival Hall. With Gigli, all the Italians in London would come and call for their favourite songs and arias—‘Santa Lucia!’, ‘Mamma!’, ‘Pagliacci!’. With Victoria, a more decorous audience would leave the choice to her, hoping that it would not be the guitar-accompanied song to Granada, for that always signalled the end of the concert. What we do not want at such a point is more Hugo Wolf: this is not the time for concentration upon subtleties of text or exploration of the unfamiliar. This is the time for melody, for the known and loved, or (if not that) for something which we can welcome into that category.

Singers have their own favourites. Sometimes it will be a song so closely associated with them (Melba’s ‘Home, sweet home’, Tauber’s ‘You are my heart’s delight’) that an audience will not leave quite satisfied until it is sung. Others will have become recognized as a kind of signature (de Los Angeles’ ‘Clavelitos’, the song of the carnation-seller, or Schwarzkopf’s ‘Gsätzli’, the Swiss folk-song learnt from her famous teacher, Maria Ivogün). In the present recital Christine Brewer assembles favourite encore-songs of four famous sopranos of the past, all sung in English, many the work of American composers. This is that kind of middle ground in music which has almost been squeezed out of existence in today’s world. Once popular in the home as well as the concert hall, it now finds little room in either. Too easy and comfortable for the ‘classical’ market, insufficiently raucous or sexy for ‘pop’, it languishes in a few rarely opened piano stools and in the memories of those who recall these as ‘songs that mother sang’ (and father too). Their number is dwindling, but in the time of the singers represented here would still have been substantial. These four sopranos are now dead, but many will remember them and their choice of encore-songs will at least have the appeal of nostalgia. They may even be rediscovered as having merits and attractions in their own right.

The oldest of the four singers, and the most widely honoured, was Kirsten Flagstad (1895–1962). I myself remember her in concert, and particularly in two kinds of encore. One was the sort, not specifically commemorated here, which repeats on the spot, and spontaneously, a song which has given the audience, and maybe the singer as well, a special pleasure. On one occasion, the printed programme had ended with a group of songs by Grieg. One of these, not the last, was the one sometimes called ‘St John’s Eve’ (‘Og jeg vil ha mig en Hjertenskjaer’, Op 60 No 5). In it, a young girl sings of the white horse and silk dress she will have on Midsummer Day, and the rhythm is a galloping 6/8. Flagstad was a handsome woman rather than a pretty one, and by this date was in her fifties. As she sang, a radiant happiness came over her face, a Brünnhilde riding to market. Her sturdy arms bent eagerly, and they were the capable arms of a housewife, handy with smoothing-iron and rolling-pin. And she was enjoying the song as much as we were. She sang it again, and the applause doubled. Also the temperature of the afternoon concert rose. Truth to tell, it had been a somewhat formal occasion, in which the great soprano had sung well but not so as to set the heart on fire. Now here she was, and we all suddenly woke up to the reality that we had Kirsten Flagstad in our midst. There were two more songs by Grieg and then it was encore-time. She sang only two, the second of which was ‘Love went a-riding’, the song by Frank Bridge also associated with the name of Helen Traubel. This will always stay in my memory as the very essence of Flagstad. And—essence of that essence—there was the last phrase of all, ‘On Pegasus [she pronounced it “Pegazoos”] he rode’. The final note, a high G flat, rang out, clear, pure and resoundingly sustained. It echoed through the hall and seemed to sound on in the mind all the way home.

Flagstad was, of course, the great Wagnerian soprano of the age and probably of the century. One says ‘of course’, yet it is quite possible (such is fame) that there will be some readers for whom she is little more than a name, and that somewhat misty in its connotations. She came on to the international scene in the mid-1930s, when she herself was forty years old, having twice been on the point of giving up her career and returning to a simpler life as wife and mother. In America, perhaps more completely than in England, she became instantly the operatic wonder of the age, recalling to veterans a glory they reckoned not to have encountered since their ‘golden age’ of the 1890s and 1900s. To all the heroic roles of Wagner (then more central to the operatic world than today) she brought a vocal splendour which was seemingly unimpaired when she returned after the war. Her art seemed also to have gained in depth of feeling and power of communication. She continued to sing, judiciously limiting herself in range, repertoire and frequency, into her sixties. Though Astrid Varnay and Martha Mödl were very ably equipped to take on her roles, she really had no immediate successor. When Birgit Nilsson arrived it was with a very different vocal character, and in more recent years it has been first Jessye Norman and then Christine Brewer herself who have commanded the warmth and regality of tone at least to call their great predecessor to mind.

Eileen Farrell (1924–2002), second of the sopranos on the list of remembered singers, had many of the qualities which would have enabled her to do so, but, for one reason or another, was denied opportunities. Her career had this one strange and central anomaly: she was a great Wagnerian singer who sang no Wagner on stage. In her autobiography (Can’t Help Singing, 1999) she writes that she herself was not keen to go further with Wagner than excerpts in concert, adding that she had seen too many voices ruined. When eventually she was recruited to the Met she sang only six roles in as many years, none of them in Wagner. Before that she had been known chiefly as a singer of popular songs on radio. Of these she had a large repertoire yielding, for concert performances, plenty of material for encores of the kind sampled here.

The same would be true of Helen Traubel (1899– 1972), except that during her twelve-year span as principal dramatic soprano at the Met she sang there nothing but Wagner. For years before coming to New York she had enjoyed herself singing in the halls, churches and clubs of her native St Louis, and she would accept cabaret and comedy engagements even while under contract at the Met. Many besides Rudolf Bing, who became General Manager in 1950, considered it demeaning: ‘slumming’ was his word.

In 1953, after a concert tour of India and the Far East, she made her London debut (and never, so far as I know, returned). I heard her in the Royal Festival Hall, an auditorium not known for its singer-friendly resonance. Admittedly from a seat which was in direct line of fire, hers seemed to me the most alarmingly ear-endangering voice I had ever heard. Even the lighter songs were emitted as though by Joshua’s trumpets—in Schubert’s airily waltzing ‘Seligkeit’, I remember, the walls might well have come tumbling down. And when it came to the climax of ‘Du bist der Lenz’ …! That, Sieglinde’s rapturous solo in Act 1 of Die Walküre, was, I think her single encore, though she incorporated ‘Love went a-riding’ into her group of songs in English. Hearing her was a memorable experience, though not for one moment did it suggest that the song recital with piano accompaniment was her métier.

The last of these singers, Eleanor Steber (1914–1990), could make any platform, stage or studio her natural habitat as long as she could sing there. And almost any repertoire seemed to suit her. Like Farrell and Traubel she cultivated an enlarged ‘popular’ public, largely through the radio. She too had a career centred on the States, and she also had her differences with management at the Met. Given an encouraging start there in the last years of Edward Johnson’s regime, she ran into constant trouble with Bing. All of these singers were big American women with manners, appetites and humour uncongenial to this European ironist. It was often said of Steber that she was her own worst enemy; if so, it is equally true that her achievements were her strongest advocates. And she was loved, there is no question of that. The greeting elicited by her arrival on stage after a long involuntary absence is testimony: the miners in Act 1 of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West are to sing ‘Hello, Minnie!’, but on this night it was ‘Hello, Steber!’ and the audience rose to give her an ovation.

To judge from the number of songs chosen with reference to her in this present programme, Steber appears to be a favourite with our singer too. Perhaps in fairness it should be noted that Steber’s recitals were typically of a quite different kind. When she sang in London, for instance, giving three recitals at Wigmore Hall in 1964, her programmes included a cantata by Handel, a set of songs by Alban Berg and Britten’s cycle Winter Words. But there was also the Steber of ‘If I could tell you’ and The Voice of Firestone, the radio and—later—television programme that expertly aimed to please a middle-brow audience: the ‘brow’ that in the second half the century was to be plucked almost bare and then assumed extinct.