SCHUBERT: Seligkeit. Gretchen am Spinnrade. Der Einsame. An die Nachtigall. Waldesnacht. Die Gefangenen Sänger. An die Musik. SCHUMANN: Widmung. Der Nussbaum, Kommen einen Gruss. Mignon. Röselein. Der Schatzgräber / Bethany Beardslee, sop; Lois Shapiro, pno / WOLF: Wir Wandelten. Sonntag. Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht. An die Nachtigall. Unbewegte laue Luft. Botschaft / Bethany Beardslee, sop; Richard Goode, pno / Bridge 9504
The apparently indestructible Bethany Beardslee—if she makes it until this coming Christmas, she’ll be 93—is undoubtedly one of the most important sopranos of the 20th century, despite the misgivings of opera aficionados who don’t think that anyone who didn’t sing mostly opera and did so in a major opera house for 16-20 years qualifies for that honor. Over her 37-year career (she officially retired in 1984, the year these Schubert songs were recorded, but continued to record and occasionally concertize up until 1993), she has sung an astonishingly wide range of music, from pre-Baroque (with the New York Pro Musica) through the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods. In her early years, vying with a number of equally high sopranos who sang the standard repertoire, Beardslee went the route of modern music because she was a top-flight musician and a killer sight-reader, performing the music of Milton Babbitt, Igor Stravinsky, Ernst Krenek, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez and Arnold Schoenberg. Her recording of the latter’s Pierrot Lunaire with conductor Robert Craft (Columbia, out of print) was the very first to follow the composer’s specific pitches perfectly in Sprechstimme (the composer’s own 1940 recording approximated several pitches sung by Erika Stiedry-Wagner), and I would like to urge Bridge Records to obtain the right to re-release it, as it is no longer available anywhere and needs to be for study and enjoyment.
Yet, to everyone’s surprise except her own, Beardslee veered into other music as mentioned above. In addition to her stint with the New York Pro Musica, she made an absolutely extraordinary 1966 album for Monitor of Haydn’s cantatas Miseri noi, misera Patria and Solo e pensoso and the Armida aria “Barbaro! E ardisci…Odio, furor, dispetto,” Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria aria “Lieto cosi tal volta” and Stephen Storace’s “Peaceful slumb’ring on the ocean” from The Pirates, a disc so perfect in every respect (and far closer to true historical performance practice than most such recordings produced nowadays) that it became an instant classic among collectors of such music. This, too, desperately needs to be reissued.
Here, Beardslee is heard in the type of repertoire she sang a great deal of in her later years, the Romantic-era lieder of Schubert, Brahms and Wolf. As in everything she ever did, Beardslee brooks no unnecessary ritards, rubato or rallentandos in the music. Tempos are fairly steady throughout, with very slight moments of rubato (particularly in the Schumann songs) for expression, and compared to most sopranos of the leggiero type (meaning a light, very high voice with the capability to sing trills, roulades and ornamentation, often referred to as “coloratura” sopranos), her diction and abilities of expression are outstanding.
In her late 50s when these recordings were made, Beardslee’s voice was still firm and steady but the tone had become slightly wiry on some notes, which is covered up in some of the recordings (particularly the Schubert songs) via a judicious use of reverb. Yet when your artistry is this great, a few quibbles about tone or timbre seem negligible. Your attention is riveted to the voice as an expressive instrument, which was always her forté anyway. Beardslee was first and foremost an artist, and artistry is what you hear in each and every track on this amazing disc. I was absolutely stunned to hear her descend into the depths (low Gs) in Schumann’s Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure-Seeker), which she interprets with stunning drama, and quite surprised by her version of the same composer’s Röselein, less light and frivolous than most singers of her range perform it. In Brahms’ Wir Wandelten (from 1986, also swathed in reverb) her breath control is almost beyond description. Both Lois Shapiro (playing here on an 1828 Graf Hammerklavier) and Richard Goode (playing a modern Steinway) are outstanding accompanists who are with her every step of the way.
But every song in this well-chosen program has its own delights. If you’ve held off discovering Beardslee because of her modern repertoire, this is a good chance to appreciate what a great singer she was, and if you already love her in everything she did, it’s a must-have disc.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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