Mitsuko Shirai Celebrates Her 70th Birthday

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JUBILEE EDITION / MALIPIERO: Le Stagioni Italiche per una Voce di Soprano e Pianoforte. MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde: Das abschied / Mitsuko Shirai, mezzo-soprano; Hartmut Höll, pianist / CARRILLO: Preludio a Colón / Mitsuko Shirai, mezzo-soprano; Bernd Buß, Ronald Hoogeven, violinists; Rainer Sachtleben, violist; Frank Wolff, cellist; Roswithe Staege, flautist; Monique Rollin, harpist; Juan Pablo Izquierdo, conductor / Capriccio C5324

Well, I’m royally embarrassed. I’ve never even heard of, let alone heard, Mitsuko Shirai, and here she is celebrating her 70th birthday (May 28) with this issue of recordings from 1972 (Carrillo), 1984 (Malipiero) and 1999 (Mahler). 1972? That’s when Jan de Gaetani was at her most active, and Tatiana Troyanos was gaining traction as an intense and very personal singer. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s career was still to come. I know of all those others, but somehow never heard of Shirai.

The loss was entirely mine. This is a voice not only of intrinsic beauty, but also of rare artistry. Shirai colors her tones like a master painter, and although it doesn’t sound like a very powerful voice (I doubt she could fill a hall the way Janet Baker did) she is extraordinary in her way of singing. It’s the kind of voice you never seem to get enough of, technically assured, interpretively spot-on yet never sounding as if she’s trying to impress you. The way she sings and what she sings seem to originate from deep within her.

Thus she makes Malipiero’s Italian Seasons come to remarkable life in her interpretation of them, and in addition to all her other virtues she can turn those little mordents like the Bel Canto singers of old. Indeed, one of her great virtues is her ability to caress the musical line regardless of composer or era. This was one of the secrets of Cathy Berberian’s and de Gaetani’s success in modern music, and it is also Shirai’s.

And of course one must also point out the exemplary accompaniment of Hartmut Höll, a pianist on a par with such greats as Geoffrey Parsons and Benjamin Britten. His complete emotional involvement in the music redoubles the effect that Shirai makes and thus brings the music to vivid life. Not that she needs the prodding. As one can hear in the eerie, ultra-modern music of Julián Carrillo, written in 1922 but extraordinarily forward-looking, Shirai can use her voice as an instrument in wordless singing and still sound vivid and interesting, but it’s still great to hear an accompanist this fine perform with her.

This recital ends with the original 1908 piano setting of Der Abschied, later used as the finale to Das Lied von der Erde. After so many decades of hearing it in the orchestral setting, it’s very peculiar to hear it this way, particularly since the piano accompaniment uses slightly different notes than the revised orchestral setting. But Shirai’s singing, here at age 52, is still phenomenal in its control and beauty, and expressive in its interpretation.

I really can’t say much more about this recording because it’s such an intense and personal experience. You really need to hear it to appreciate it. That’s all.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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