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!’
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'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.
‘If I could tell you’ is the chef d’œuvre of Idabelle Firestone, a name which probably trips more naturally off the American tongue but is rolled around in wonderment by the English. Née Smith, she became Mrs Harvey Samuel Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. They were sponsors of the Firestone programmes, catering for a large audience and engaging many of the best-known singers in America. The programmes were somewhat like the Palm Court series in Britain: for the singer an operatic aria and a couple of melodious songs with light orchestral music in between. The American programme had, by stipulation of the sponsors, to open with ‘If I could tell you’. Eleanor Steber was said to be, of all their singers, the one who sang it best.
Another of Mrs Firestone’s compositions, ‘In my garden’ is also included in the Steber group, followed by ‘Will you remember?’ with music by Sigmund Romberg. He is one of the relatively few composers in this programme whose name will still be familiar. As the composer of The Desert Song, The Student Prince and The New Moon he was one of the most successful of his time. ‘Will you remember?’ was the hit of the musical Maytime, which became world-famous with the MacDonald–Eddy film of 1937. The equally once-popular ‘The song of songs’ by the composer known as ‘Moya’ resembles it in nostalgic-romantic appeal and the general feeling it engenders of its having a well-connected background. ‘Moya’ was in fact an Englishman, Harold Vicars, conductor of opera and musical comedy, and remembered today by ‘The song of songs’ alone.
Two other British composers are represented. Sir Landon Ronald, whose best-known song ‘O lovely night!’ is among the Flagstad encores, was piano accompanist to Patti and Melba and conductor in many once-famous recordings. Frank Bridge was a composer of a quite different order, one of the most original of his time and teacher of the young Benjamin Britten. ‘Love went a-riding’ is probably his most popular song, but he is valued now principally for his chamber music. Perhaps to this list of non-Americans should be added the name of Friedrich von Flotow, whose opera Martha introduces the Irish air ‘The last rose of summer’ by Thomas Moore.
The rest are American. Probably the only one whose name now needs no annotation is Leonard Bernstein. His ‘Some other time’, with its lightly sighed, slightly Noël Cowardish ‘Oh well’s, is one of the most charmingly well-attuned encore-songs of the whole collection. Of the others, Edwin McArthur will be remembered at least by older American readers. He was closely associated with Flagstad as accompanist, conductor and biographer, and (as here) for the songs he wrote with her voice specially in mind (‘Night’). In a different musical world Harold Arlen’s fame—or at least that of his best-known songs—may well constitute him the most celebrated composer of all. ‘Over the rainbow’, ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘Blues in the Night’ and ‘Happiness is a thing called Joe’ are titles extracted from a long list.
Then there is that other list—the composers of ‘ballads’, here yesterday and gone today. Sidney Homer (‘Sing to me, sing’) may possibly be remembered now as the husband of Louise Homer, who may possibly be remembered not so much as leading contralto at the Metropolitan in the Caruso era but because she was the aunt of Samuel Barber. A[rthur] Walter Kramer (‘Now like a lantern’) was a prolific composer and orchestral arranger, an indefatigable music critic and editor, and known to record collectors as the composer of a song called ‘Swans’, rather beautifully sung on an old recording by John McCormack. As well as ‘When I have sung my songs’, Ernest Charles wrote a number of songs which had the good fortune to be taken up by famous singers—John Charles Thomas with ‘Clouds’, Eileen Farrell with the waltz ‘Let my song fill your heart’. James H Rogers (‘At Parting’) was a distinguished organist and church composer as well as being a versatile contributor to the musical life of Cleveland.
John Alden Carpenter is one of the more interesting of these composers. His works include two symphonies, one of which was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Bruno Walter. He had an interest in jazz, writing a jazz pantomime called Krazy Kat and a set of four Negro Songs. And, after Delius and based on Whitman’s poem, he wrote a symphonic poem Sea Drift, said to be the best of his works. The song included here, ‘The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes’, recorded by Flagstad, is one of several compositions reflecting a feeling for childhood.
Vincent Youmans (‘Through the years’) is one more who will be remembered. He was in showbiz, a song-plugger for Tin Pan Alley with a lifestyle to match. His songs include ‘Tea for two’ and ‘I want to be happy’ (No, no, Nanette), ‘Without a song’ and ‘Flying down to Rio’. Paul Sargent, whose ‘Hickory Hill’ was recorded by Eileen Farrell, also wrote a well-known setting of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’, heard here in a version by John La Montaine. An accomplished pianist, he wrote a Piano Concerto called ‘In Time of War’, played in its premiere by Jorge Bolet. Paul Nordoff (‘There shall be more joy’), in addition to his work as a composer, was a noted music therapist. Frank La Forge (‘Hills’) had a long career as accompanist to the most celebrated singers of his day and became much sought after as a teacher.
Celius Dougherty was another who combined his profession as an accompanist with composition and work as a music critic—and it is the critic more than the singer who is the butt of his satirical song ‘Review’, with which the programme ends. This is a clever piece of writing and a fair sample of a kind of encore-song not yet mentioned. It’s what you might call the comic pay-off. Throughout the average celebrity recital, the audience has sat with serious faces, some of them concentrating as for dear life, others sitting expressionless because, frankly, they aren’t really concentrating at all. But now, at the end, we can lighten up. It’s not exactly a comic song, in the Old Time Music Hall sense, but there’s definitely a joke in it, and, ladies and gentlemen, ‘You may laugh’.
A risk is always entailed. Delight and instant sunshine are the rewards if it succeeds, disaster if the joke falls flat. With an audience of any sophistication it must be worth the singer’s while to make sure that they have not heard the song before or at any rate for a good long time. There have been occasions when the collective cry of dismay (‘Oh no, not this again!’) might almost have been spoken out loud.
Christine Brewer need have no such apprehensions over Celius Dougherty’s ‘Review’: over this side of the Atlantic, at any rate, it is a welcome and refreshing novelty. Indeed most of the programme is new to us as, very probably, is the whole conception. For any kind of predecessor (and then a very inexact one) you would most likely have to go back best part of a century to the ‘Jenny Lind recitals’ given by Frieda Hempel. This is a parade of many talents: those of the four great ladies, the variously gifted composers and our wonderful hostess herself. And, of course, that other, without whom no show, remembered only just in time, and added piano on a low note in the final sentence: ‘the sympathetic accompanist’.
John Steane © 2011