Welitsch Was a Spitfire, But Borkh Was a Blowtorch

Borkh - Welitsch

VOCAL RECITAL: INGE BORKH, LJUBA WELITSCH / Rusalka: O lovely moon (Dvořák); Alceste: Divinites du Styx (in German) (Gluck); Cavalleria Rusticana: Voi lo sapete, o Mamma (Mascagni); Macbeth: La luce langue (Verdi); L’Enfant Prodigue: Air de Lia (Debussy) / Inge Borkh, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Anatoule Fistoulari, conductor / La Forza del Destino: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi); Un Ballo in Maschera: Ecco l’orrido campo (Verdi); Macbeth: Ambizioso spirto…Vieni, t’affretta (Verdi); Andrea Chenier: La mamma morta (Giordano); Adriana Lecouvreur: Io son l’umile (Cilea) / Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Rudolf Moralt, conductor / Oberon: Ozean, du ungeheuer! (Weber); Ah, perfido! (Beethoven); Salome: Ah! du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund kussen (Strauss) / Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic; Josef Krips, conductor / Queen of Spades: Ich muss am Fenster lehnen; Es geht auf Mitternacht (in German) (Tchaikovsky); Un Ballo in Maschera: Ma dall’arido stelo; Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Verdi); Ziguenerleben: Song and Czardas (Lehár); Die Lustige Witwe: Vilja Lied (Lehár); Die Dubarry: Ich schenk men Herz (Millöcker); Der Zarewitsch: Einer wird kommen (Lehár) / Ljuba Welitsch, soprano; Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Rudolf Moralt, conductor / Wien, Wien Nur du Allein (Sieczynski) / Welitsch, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Herbert von Karajan, conductor / Decca 28948202836

Here is a reissue pairing two famous sopranos of the late 1940s and 1950s, the German-born-of-Swedish-parentage Borkh and Bulgarian-born Welitsch. Both were very long-lived: Welitsch made it to 83 and Borkh, bless her, is still alive as of this writing (if you accept the 1917 birth year and not 1921, she’ll be 99 years old on May 26, 2016 if she makes it that far), but for whatever reason Welitsch remains a legend while poor Borkh is largely forgotten.

To listen to this dual recital, however, you’d think it was the other way around, for Welitsch, though possessing a pretty voice, sounds relatively contrived in everything she sings. Yes, she does all the right things, and although by the time she made this recital her volume of voice had decreased considerably from the 1940s, it is still steady as a rock and attractive to the ear, but absolutely nothing is sung “from the inside.” Listen, for instance, to her performance of the ubiquitous “Vilia lied” from Lehár’s Merry Widow. Even Eleanor Steber—who, in my view, is a vastly underrated soprano because she was a nasty bitch who sabotaged her own career—sang it with more inward feeling than this. In short, Welitsch, nice as she is, is Just A Voice. In person at the Met, she was well remembered for her spitfire Musetta in La Bohème, waving her arms around in Act 2 and exiting the stage after jumping on Alcindoro’s back, but that’s not acting. It’s low comedy.

Inge Borkh recital

Original LP cover of Borkh recital

Not so Borkh. From first note to last in this amazing recital—actually made up of two recitals recorded in the 1950s—she is, as they say in the business, a “live wire” in every way. She is so deeply connected to the characters she sings that it’s almost scary. The Maria Callas Cult loves to harp on what a great actress she was, but in several of Callas’ recordings (and some of the live performances) she’s just OK. Borkh, like Martha Mödl or Anita Cerquetti, seemed incapable of giving less than 110%. She will have you on the edge of your seat from first note to last of this amazing recital, in a fairly wide range of music ranging from Gluck to Strauss, German, French and Italian repertoire. She had an unusual voice: big yet controlled, with plenty of metal (or Squillo) up top, yet with an almost contralto-like low range to which she would plummet without a moment’s notice. It has a certain prettiness about it, but when you listened to Borkh sing, you didn’t hear Inge Borkh. You heard Leonora, Alceste, Santuzza, Lady Macbeth, etc.

Borkh as Clytemnestra in Iphigenie in Aulis

Borkh as Clytemnestra in Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Aulis”

So what happened to Borkh’s career? Apparently two things, one named Renata Tebaldi and the other named Birgit Nilsson. Almost all the operas in her repertoire were the specialty of one or the other. Not represented here are the Princess Turandot, Leonore in Fidelio or Strauss’ Elektra, all Nilsson specialties along with Salome and Lady Macbeth, and the only reason she got to record Turandot complete (1955) was that Nilsson hadn’t hit the big time yet. You listen to Borkh get deep into the other characters here—Santuzza, Leonora in Forza, Amelia, Maddalena, Adriana Lecouvreur—and the first thought that pops into your mind is, “Wow! Why wasn’t she on complete recordings of these operas for Decca?” And then the answer comes back: “Tebaldi.” Yet in listening to her singing here, it’s very easy to believe that she was initially an actress before she took up singing as a profession. She is an actor first and a “singer” second. One of the more interesting performances is Santuzza’s “Voi lo sapete,” which she phrases like a Russian singer. While listening to it I was struck by her similarity of phrasing, in Italian opera, to someone like Feodor Chaliapin. If you prefer the creamy voices of Zinka Milanov and Renée Fleming you might be disappointed by Borkh’s performance of “O lovely moon” from Rusalka, but for me, this is the definitive reading, full of passion and deep feeling if not the loveliest tone on earth.

Moreover, the conducting on the Borkh performances is absolutely terrific. One of the few recordings for which she is remembered is her RCA Victor (stereo) version of Salome’s final scene with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner, but except that it’s in mono there’s nothing to dispel you from enjoying the one here with Krips. In fact, I would have to say that I’ve never heard either Krips nor Rudolf Moralt—who also conducts the Welitsch recital—dig in so deeply and give so much emotionally in their performances, and I credit this to Borkh’s electrifying presence. It’s as if the conductor and orchestra were also plugged into DC current while making these recordings, so intense is their participation.

It might be noted that the last Welitsch track is taken not from the Decca studio recording of Die Fledermaus made by Karajan, but from the live performance of December 31, 1960 in which Welitsch sang Wien, Wien Nur du Allein as part of the “gala party sequence.” Oddly enough, she sounded more relaxed there than she did in any of the studio recordings. But by and large, this is the Inge Borkh Show with the Inge Borkh Players, Cameo Appearance By Ljuba Welitsch.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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