Fascinating Songs by a Singing Legend

 

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VIARDOT: Mein Fluss. Der Gärtner. Er ist’s. Nixe Binsefuß. In der Frühe. Das Verlassene Mägdlein. Die Soldatenbraut. Agnes. Morgenlied. Im April. Zwei Rosen. Der Gefangene. Auf die Rose. Die Meise. Auf Grusiens Hügeln. O Sing, du Schöne, Sing mir Nicht. Märchen. Verlangen. Des Nachts. Die Kapelle. Die Klagende. Rätsel. Das Blümlein. Das Vöglein. Allein. Die Sterne. Die Beschwörung / Miriam Alexandra, soprano; Eric Schneider, pianist / Oehms Classics OC 1878

Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910), the kid sister of opera legend Maria Malibran, grew up to become as accomplished an artist—possibly even more so—than her sibling. By age six she was fluent in Spanish, English, French and Italian, and in later life added German and learned Russian so perfectly that when she sang Russian songs she was mistaken for a native. Originally an accomplished pianist, she took lessons with Franz Liszt and counterpoint-harmony classes with Anton Reicha, but her mother moved her in the direction of singing once her father, Manuel Sr., died in 1832. By the 1850s she was considered the most musically superb and dramatically interesting mezzo-soprano in all of Europe. She created Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. She sang the mezzo part in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Chopin’s funeral in 1849. Hector Berlioz wrote his arrangement of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurudice specifically for her, which she performed with him in 1858, and he had her in mind as Dido in his opera Les Troyens, which she strongly encouraged him to compose. Unfortunately, by the time Troyens was to be performed at the Paris Opéra in 1863, Viardot’s voice was in serious decline despite her relatively young age (she was only 41 years old), thus he assigned the role to another singer. But losing her voice didn’t stop her from teaching singing, just as it didn’t stop her older brother Manuel Garcia Jr., who had been a baritone, when he lost his voice before the age of 36. She taught a great many famous singers and pedagogues and died, full of honors, in 1910.

This superb collection of her own songs is a revelation. There’s not a single dull, uninteresting, or poorly-written piece on this album. If you were to hear this disc in a blindfold test, you would swear that these were songs by Schubert or perhaps even Schumann. That’s how good they are. The lively rhythms, lyrical melodies, interesting chord changes and ways of capturing the mood of each song bespeaks a master composer. So why haven’t we heard more of her work?

Beats me. There are collections of her music by Ina Kancheva (Toccata Classics), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Analekta), Julia Sukmanova (Fontenay Classics), Marina Comparato (Brilliant Classics) and Gyorgyi Dombradi (Ars Musici), and only the latter has a voice so fluttery as to detract from the quality of the music. In all of these, one is consistently impressed by the force of this woman’s writing, particularly in the piano parts which are generally even more brilliant and difficult than those in Schubert’s songs. In addition, violinist Ulf Schneider has recording her Violin Sonatine and 6 Moreceaux for violin on Ars Musici.

One of the most impressive songs on this album is Die Gefangene with its loping, “walking” tempo and feel, which in the second chorus morphs as the piano suddenly begins playing little fluttery 16ths on the second beat of each bar (the song is in 3/4) to break up the tempo a little. This is also a rare minor-key song for her, being in E minor.

As to the performances, pianist Eric Schneider is superb, able to make even the most difficult passages sound easy, and soprano Miriam Alexandra has a pure, clear soubrette voice. She only gives a generalized feeling of each piece, however; not for her the probing, brooding interpretations of Kancheva on Toccata Classics. This is a small drawback but a drawback nonetheless. Considering what an emotional, full-blooded woman and singer Pauline was, I would have liked rather more feeling in these performances, but it’s nice to have them sung by a soprano who at least has a fine voice and crystal-clear diction. Her only real drawback is the lack of a good, rich low range, which is a bit ironic considering that Viardot was a full-blooded mezzo-soprano. Other than that, these performances are clearly good enough to give one a good impression of these songs, each of which is a little gem.

In this particular song group, none of them really touch upon darker moods, but I’ve listened to one or two of Viardot’s Russian songs and those are much moodier. She was just a fine composer, plain and simple, and someone out there should be programming an entire evening of her songs…perhaps interspersed with some piano and violin pieces!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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