What I’ve Been Listening To This Summer

With less theater to review in the summer, I spend more time listening to music – specifically, catching up on CD purchases, and revisting old favorites. Here are a few highlights…

Julia Varady Bayerischen Staatsoper
Julia Varady — Live at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Orfeo CD)

Varady’s name is well known among hardcore opera fans – especially those lucky enough to have seen her, mostly in Europe – but this soprano’s American career was relatively minor. (Seven performances in 1978 as Donna Elvira were all she sang at the Met.) One might have expected bigger things from a singer who was also the wife of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though I suspect that Varady had more offers than she chose to accept (or fulfill – there were a number of cancellations).

Fortunately, her many recordings – especially a series of recitals for the Orfeo label – preserve her brilliant talent in a wide repertoire. Varady is, in the best sense, a non-specialist – Mozart and Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky – she’s magnificent across the board. (Her recorded performances also include some fine Lieder singing, though I think she didn’t do much in concert.)

This is unquestionably great singing, but it’s not perfect. Even in the studio, intonation isn’t always precise. Maybe more surprisingly, Varady can be careless with words and pronunciation (it’s mostly noticeable in Italian). But she’s always deeply committed to the emotional underpinings of those words, and her performances have a distinctive combination of specificity and dramatic sweep. (You can sample some of this via Youtube – try E strano… Sempre libera from Traviata, and Senta’s ballad from Fliegende Hollander. I’ll be very surprised if you aren’t hooked!)

Pretty much all of Varady’s Orfeo recordings are favorites of mine, but if you’re starting out, among the studio recitals, I’d recommend the Tchaikovsky arias collection, both for Varady and for the repertoire. (I’m particularly taken with two selections from The Enchantress – gorgeous music that’s not often recorded.) Maybe even better are two CDs of live material (one from Vienna and Salzburg, the other from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich), which showcase the breadth of her talents in very varied styles.

If I have a single favorite selection here, it’s “Or siam soli,” from Forza del Destino, where Varady is paired with the great German bass, Kurt Moll – these two non-Italian singers (Varady is Hungarian/Romanian) give what may be the best performance of this scene I’ve ever heard.

Barbara Cook Carnegie
Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall (CBS Sony CD)

This concert and its history may be familiar to many musical theater fans of my generation, but it might be new to younger folks.  To fully understand its transformational impact (for Cook herself, let alone her fans) it’s worth remembering that in 1975, when she gave this performance – her first solo outing at Carnegie – she was 47 years old, and her string of Broadway ingenue roles was more than a decade behind her.

Has any performer more brilliantly reinvented herself?  Nearly 40 years after this event, Cook continues to perform with much of the voice – and all of the style – intact.

Still, the Carnegie concert is special – I’d forgotten just how much so till I took if off the shelf recently.   Her shining soprano has never been in better shape, as she tackles an exceptionally imaginative program that includes some old favorites (songs from Gay Life and She Loves Me) alongside a lot of new repertoire.  I’m not entirely persuaded by her outings in contemporary pop (songs by Burt Bacharach and Judy Collins), where the polish of her tone and manner seem too self-consciously sophisticated.

But the rest is sheer bliss.  If you’re sampling, I recommend especially “When I Marry Mr. Snow” – it’s a song that has been very well done by many singing actors (Audra McDonald included, of course), but to me Cook brings unique spirit and verbal life to the character.  And my favorite of all is “My White Knight” from Music Man, the show that won Cook her Tony Award – but this is an early version of the song, with extended patter that ties the character of Marian even more closely to Harold Hill.  It’s an absolutely delightful piece, brilliantly done.  (I’m sure that Meredith Willson had a good reason to use the shorter, simpler version in the show, but I’m so glad we have this souvenir!)

Throughout the concert, the audience goes crazy – as well they should!


Brava, Divas!

So what have you been listening to?  Any recommendations?

Categories: Music, Theater

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