FOLK SONGS OF THE WORLD / Ablakomba, ablakomba besütött a holdvilág; Nem messze van ide kis Margitta (arr. Béla Bartók); I Bought Me a Cat (arr. Aaron Copland); Of What Use is a Girl? (arr. Isaac Taylor Headland); Kullan Ylistis (Finnish, anonymous); Lepi Juro (Croatian, anonymous); Di-li-do (Bulgarian, anonymous); Roumania, Roumania (Aaron Lebedeff); O No John (arr. I. Sharg); Dve gitary (Two Guitars) (arr. Nick Manoloff); Vo Luzern uf Weggis zue (Swiss, anonymous); El Vito (arr. Fernando J. Obradors); Ar hyd e nös (arr. Joseph Haydn); Da brava, Catina (arr. Beethoven); Die Bergblume (Chinese, anonymous); Kerinoto purvo libe (arr. Pantscho Vladigerov); Desejo (Heitor Villa-Lobos); Canção do Carreiro (Villa-Lobos); Old Jerusalem (arr. Julius Chajes); Fregt die Welt die alte Casche (arr. Maurice Ravel); Lecioły zórazie (arr. Karol Szymanowski); Im Yerki (Kurken Alemshah) / Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; Harold Lester, pianist / SWR Music 19010CD
STRAVINSKY: SONGS / Fav’n i pastushka (Mary Simmons, mezzo-soprano; Igor Stravinsky, conductor; CBC Symphony Orch.); 2 Poemes de Paul Verlaine (Donald Gramm, bass; Stravinsky, cond; Columbia Chamber Orch.); 2 Poems of Constantin Bal’mont; 3 Japanese Lyrics; 4 Russian Songs: IV. Tilim-bom (Evelyn Lear, soprano; Robert Craft, conductor; Columbia Chamber Orch.); 3 Little Songs (Recollections of my Childhood); Pribaoutki; Berceuses du chat (Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; Stravinsky, conductor; Columbia Chamber Orch.); 4 Russian Songs (Adrienne Albert, mezzo-soprano; Louise di Tullio, flautist; Dorothy Remsen, harpist; Laurindo Almeida, guitarist; Craft, conductor); 3 Songs from William Shakespeare (Berberian, mezzo; Stravinsky, conductor; Columbia Chamber Orch.) / Sony Classical 886445702293
I’ve often said that such legendary artists as Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin, Leo Slezak, Arturo Toscanini, Yehudi Menuhin and Eileen Farrell could never have major careers nowadays because they didn’t learn the craft that made them world-famous at a conservatory (though Toscanini did study the cello), and neither they nor many of the legendary names who came up shortly after them, like Glenn Gould, ever entered or won a single competition.
To that list you could also add the name of Cathy Berberian (1925-1983), the legendary mezzo-soprano who did indeed study at New York University and Columbia, went to Milan to study singing and won a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her studies there. That was about the extent of her formal education, and she, too, never entered a single competition. Yet she arrived full-blown on the avant-garde scene in 1957 with a debut at Incontri Musicali, Naples’ contemporary music festival. Prior to that she had popped up in informal concerts and radio broadcasts in Italy, but nothing that could be called a debut. Nonetheless, she quickly became a name to reckon with in modern music, with her husband, composer Luciano Berio, writing several compositions for her. Along with Bethany Beardslee and Jan DeGaetani, Berberian became the darling of the New York avant-garde and was the only one of the three who did not previously sing early music (Beardslee was even a member, briefly, of the New York Pro Musica under its founder, Noah Greenberg).
Somewhere along the line, Berberian adopted a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek performance style that sharp observers noted was a parody of the standard operatic diva. This, along with two off-the-wall projects in 1966—her own composition Stripsody and her album of
Beatles songs arranged for mezzo-soprano, harpsichord and a small Baroque ensemble—made her a cult figure. Stripsody, which is (oddly enough) being revived and performed again nowadays, was nothing more than a string of comic-strip sound effects brought to bizarre life by her vocalizations in rhythm, while her album of “Beatles Arias,” released in America under the LP title Revolution (with cover art similar to that of the Beatles’ Revolver), took off like a rocket and became an underground classic. From this point forward, in addition to her straightforward and serious musical performances, Berberian was a darling of gay opera fans who saw in her serio-comic performances a “reverse drag queen” effect. No matter what she sang, whether one of Berio’s outlandish vocal works, a piece by John Cage, arias by Monteverdi or her deadpanned but tongue-in-cheek replication of a 1902 vocal recital at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival (later released on an RCA Victor LP under the title There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden) in which she was dressed like an overstuffed sofa, her coterie of gay fans followed her loyally. Unlike Maria Callas or Montserrat Caballé, who merely tolerated them, Berberian reveled in their attention knowing that most of them understood what she was doing and got the joke. (She even performed at the funeral of one of them when he died of AIDS in the early 1980s.) In the parlance of the day, Berberian’s performances were a “happening.”
The problem was that this newfound talent of hers for self-parody and tongue-in-cheek humor led some critics to dismiss her as a “camp” act, which was far from the truth, but as even the annotator of the Folk Songs of the World album puts it, audiences sometimes didn’t know from this point on if Berberian’s strongly emotional performances of certain songs were meant to be taken seriously or as a joke.
Nonetheless, the folk song album is one of her real gems, made relatively late in her career (1977) with the superb pianist Harold Lester. Most of the performances pretty much speak for themselves and are superb in every way. Berberian was a meticulous musician—as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who used her in two of his Monteverdi opera recordings, once said, she was a composer herself and therefore “saw” music from the inside out—and her remarkable ability to sing virtually any language well is certainly on display here. Hungarian, Finnish, Croatian, Bulgarian, Russian, Hebrew, even Chinese all emerge from her with surprisingly good diction. In the wryly humorous Roumania, Roumania, familiar to most of us through Joel Grey’s famous recording, you can sit back and enjoy Berberian’s zesty rendition (in Yiddish) without worries, but I have to admit that I wondered when hearing her over-the-top British accent in Of What Use is a Girl?or the way she sings the Swiss yodeling song Vo Luzern uf Weggis zue if she was being serious or putting us on. That was Berberian’s genius, though; she could hold an audience in the palm of her hand this way. The recorded sound on this disc is a little more resonant than I normally like, but hey, it’s Cathy Berberian so you can’t really complain.
The Stravinsky song album, which she splits with four other singers (although bass Donald Gramm only gets two songs), nevertheless shows what a great and musical singer she was. I had not previously heard or been aware of mezzo-sopranos Mary Simmons and Adrienne Albert, but although they were good singers they were not Cathy Berberian. Both she and soprano Evelyn Lear (then at the peak of her vocal estate) literally steal the show here; every time they sing, you sit up and take notice. Interestingly, there are two different renditions of Tilim-bom from Stravinsky’s 4 Russian Songs, one sung as part of the cycle (with flute, harp and guitar accompaniment) by Albert, the other sung by Lear with an orchestral accompaniment conducted by the composer, and you can easily tell how much more lively Lear is. Yet as fine as the soprano is, it is Berberian who truly give you 3-D performances. Her renditions are not merely good, they are alive in every respect. The recorded sound on the Stravinsky album is much cleaner and less reverberant, typical of Columbia’s excellent classical stereo sound of the period (they saved the “360 Sound” for the pop and jazz releases).
Both are certainly worth getting, but especially the folk song album. No one was ever really in Cathy Berberian’s league. She was the owner and manager of her one-woman all-star team.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley