A New and Fascinating Berberian Recital

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CATHY BERBERIAN: IN THE VOICE LABYRINTH / PURCELL: Nymphs and Shepherds. ARMENIAN SONGS: Siroohis (Mio amore). Loosin Yelav (La luna sorse). Xundai Dzar (Il Melo). Im Yerke (La mia canzone). Aravad (Il mattino). VILLA-LOBOS: Desejo1. Xango1. WEILL: Song of Sexual Slavery. Le Grand Lustucru. Surabaya Johnny. BERIO: Sequenza III. Avendo gran disio. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Yesterday. Michelle. Ticket to Ride. BERBERIAN: Stripsody. OFFENBACH: La Périchole: Ah, quel diner, da2. SATIE: La Diva de l’Empire3. Chanson3. Air du Poète3. Adieu3. Daphénéo3. STRAVINSKY: Tilim-bom (2 vers)4. Les Canards, Les Cygnes, Les Oies4. Chanson de l’Ours4. WALTON: Façade: Tango-Pasodoble; Tarantella; Something Lies Beyond the Scene; Fox-Trot, “Old Sir Faulk.” 5 ANONYMOUS: Canto dell’Azerbaijan2 / Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; 1Luciano Sgrizzi, harpsichordist/ pianist; 2Bruno Canino, pianist; 3Dario Müller, pianist; 4RTSI Orchestra, Francis Travis, conductor; 5Gruppo Musica Insieme Cremona, Giorgio Bernasconi, conductor / Ermitage ERM1036

Now that Cathy Berberian has been dead and gone since 1983, it has been open season on reissues of her recordings (though, surprisingly, not her “camp” vocal recital at Edinburgh, issued on an RCA LP, titled There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden). I reviewed two of the better ones on this blog back on April 11 (Two Superb Reissues by Crazy Cathy), and now here’s a new reissue.

Or is it? The very first number on this disc is Henry Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds, a song she skewered at that Edinburgh recital by singing it a quarter-tone flat throughout. But this isn’t that performance; this one is sung perfectly straight, and she is accompanied by an anonymous harpsichordist, not by pianist Bruno Canino. Moreover, as one will discover, the performances here of the Kurt Weill songs, the Lennon-McCartney tunes and Stripsody are not the ones she recorded commercially, but rather live versions (there’s even applause after Surabaya Johnny). And we now have performances, previously unknown to me, of Berberian singing two songs by Villa-Lobos, five by Erik Satie, a different aria from Offenbach’s La Périchole than the one she sang in Edinburgh, Stravinsky songs recorded in the Columbia studio by Evelyn Lear, not Berberian, and four excerpts from William Walton’s Façade. These recordings may indeed have been available in Europe on various labels over the years; I wouldn’t really know; but to me all of this material is fresh and new, and so I must review it as such.

To begin with, Berberian seldom changed her approach to certain material once she found her way, the one example that disproves that rule being Nymphs and Shepherds. As a result, you won’t find too much difference here from the commercially recorded versions, except that the Beatles songs sound just a bit less tongue-in-cheek than the recording and the other material (particularly Stripsody and the Périchole aria) more outgoing. She is obviously having fun with the Façade excerpts, but in “Tango-Pasodoble” she is off-mike for much of it and the Italian orchestra and conductor has a hard time playing Walton’s music with the right jazz-age swagger. Yet she has a ball with “Tarantella” and she is surprisingly light and childlike in Satie’s delightful Daphénéo. Everything here is sung well, and all in all it’s a wonderful introduction to new listeners as to what Cathy Berberian was all about. Most of the performances are simply brilliant, and some of them quite surprising even to some fans. For instance, she had her own “take” on Satie’s La Diva de l’Empire: instead of singing it with a swinging beat, as is normally done, she slows it down, adds moments of rubato, and drags out certain phrases in a prima-donna style. She was definitely her own person.

Annotator Piero Rattalino makes two observations in the liner notes, one of which I agree with and the other of which I don’t. I disagree with his judgment that she was basically a comic artist with a light voice, and thus “born to sing operetta.” It’s true that Berberian had a wicked sense of humor and wasn’t shy about showing it off, but she got into singing in the first place because she really loved music, not because she wanted to lampoon it. The observation I do agree with is that “For those who saw her, Berberian’s recordings are like family photos that are there to bring back emotions that have been lived, not to produce those emotions.” Everyone I met who saw her in person said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The problem with this CD is that very few of the accompanists are credited (in the case of Stripsody, Canino is credited but there’s no piano on this track!), no recording dates or venues are provided, and we don’t even know for sure which of these are studio recordings. Yes, most of them definitely sound like live performances or radio studio recordings, but the Armenian songs—which she does flawlessly—sound very much as if they came from a recording studio. No accompanist is credited. And ironically, considering Rattalino’s comments, the majority of this album presents Berberian the serious artist, not counting the tongue-in-cheek performances of Beatles songs or Stripsody, the Périchole aria or the Walton Façade excerpts.

berberianI regret to say I never saw Berberian in concert. Her live appearances, particularly in the U.S., were actually pretty limited. Most of the time she sang strictly avant-garde music, which at that time didn’t appeal to me, and tickets were both fairly expensive and hard to come by…her fan club usually snapped them all up within a couple of hours of their going on sale at the box office. Yet although she had a wacky sense of humor that she exercised fully and often, and in addition had a voice too small to sing any but Baroque operas in tiny theaters, I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was primarily an operetta and comic singer. She just never let boundaries be set up around her; she refused to be pigeonholed. That’s why she made the album of Beatles songs and did the Edinburgh recital dressed like an overstuffed sofa from 1904. Her performances were, in the parlance of the day, “Happenings” (the same way Salvador Dali was a “Happening”), and it’s kind of sad that we don’t have such things nowadays to break up the monotony and the dark, daily drudge of life. Cathy Berberian enjoyed life, enjoyed singing, and enjoyed both being serious and putting people on. She had a complex personality, see? She was a person! And everyone I knew absolutely adored her—avant-garde repertoire or not.

And you’ll love her, too.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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