Rita Gorr Sings Mahler

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MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde.* Songs of a Wayfarer+ / Rita Gorr, mezzo; *Kenneth MacDonald, ten; Orchestre de l’O.R.T.F.; *Georges Sébastien, +Pierre-Michel le Conte, cond / Opera Depot OD-11474-1 (live: *Besançon, October 8, 1969 [stereo]; +Paris, 1960 [mono])

For those of us who came of “operatic age” in the mid-1960s, Belgian mezzo-soprano Rita Gorr was one of our heroes. Possessed of a large, bright, cutting voice of great power and a wonderfully tight sound without a hint of unsteadiness, as well as a dramatic sense that rivaled that of the more famous Italian mezzo Fedora Barbieri, her thrilling voice drove us all crazy with excitement while being frustratingly elusive on records. Perhaps this was because she was signed to EMI, which apparently didn’t know what to do with her, and some of her records were only issued in France and Belgium: a 1960 La Damnation de Faust with Nicolai Gedda and Gérard Souzay, 1961 highlights from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride with Gedda, Louis Quilico and Georges Prêtre, 1963 highlights from Hérodiade with Albert Lance and Michel Dens and 1963 highlights from Cherubini’s Medea. Her only studio opera recordings during this period to come out in England and America were the 1957 stereo remake of Faust with De los Angeles, Gedda and Christoff, the 1960 Aida with Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers,  the 1962 Die Walküre with Nilsson, Vickers and George London, and the 1964 Samson et Dalila, again with Vickers, conducted by Prêtre. In addition, EMI issued one vocal recital by her, The Operatic World of Rita Gorr, an LP that, although only in mono, every opera lover worth her or his name simply had to own. It’s telling that two of these recordings, the Aida and the Walküre, weren’t made for EMI but for a then-reciprocal deal that British Decca and American RCA Victor had to release those operas on totally different labels in the two countries. All her other recordings either come from a much later date or were live performances from various opera houses that didn’t get released in their time.

Thus this unusual coupling of two of Mahler’s most famous vocal pieces, particularly Das Lied von der Erde, with Gorr singing is of particular interest since she never recorded either work. The Das Lied has also been issued by House of Opera as a download-only recording for $10.28 (temporarily on sale for $6.17), but this issue does not include the Songs of a Wayfarer. And the best part of this Opera Depot deal is—get this!—for the next week you can download it FOR FREE if you simply sign up to get their new release emails. I highly recommend this, even if you, like me, do not normally buy live opera recordings, many of which have poor sound. The occasional gem that Andy issues at his site, not only this but also Jon Vickers in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and other such rarities, are well worth investing in.

Although the performance quality is consistent in both works, the sound clearly is not. The 1960 Paris broadcast of Wayfarer is in fairly restricted mono sound whereas Das Lied is in surprisingly good stereo, with excellent balance and separation between the two channels. Scottish tenor Kenneth MacDonald, who partners Gorr on Das Lied, was a tragic case. Born in 1923, he studied voice with the excellent Italian tenor Dino Borgioli. Like Borgioli, he had a tightly-focused, bright tone, but lacked Borgioli’s honeyed sweetness. Yet he carved out an excellent career in England and France, singing primarily comprimario roles but including a fair amount of modern opera. In addition to Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Cassio in Otello and the Simpleton in Boris Godunov, he also sang the Captain in Wozzeck, Flute in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Robin Hood in Campbell’s Maid Marion. Almost exactly one year after this performance, on October 7, 1970, MacDonald died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 47 years old.

I certainly won’t pretend that his contribution here rivals that of the best tenors in Das Lied, among them Carl Martin Öhmann, Waldemar Kmentt, James King, Siegfried Jerusalem and Burkhard Fritz, but it’s clearly better than a great many others. Closely miked, MacDonald’s bright tone comes across, perhaps, a bit too aggressively, but it has a nice cut, is solidly produced (no strain or wobble), his diction is as clear as a bell, and he phrases with some delicacy when called upon to do so.

As for Gorr, remember that she was never a lieder singer by nature or inclination. She was clearly an operatic animal, one who could send chills up your spine as Ortrud in Lohengrin, Amneris, Iphigénie or Dalila. Those listeners seeking subtlety of expression here on a par with Kerstin Thorborg, Christa Ludwig or Alice Coote will surely be disappointed, but she is not an insensitive singer, and that makes all the difference. She simply sees Mahler as a vehicle for her splendid voice to ring out. Yet if she’s a bit disappointing here and there in Das Lied (though she’s not too bad in the long, final “Abschied”), she’s downright thrilling in Songs of a Wayfarer, normally sung by a baritone.

The bottom line, however, is that this is an interesting addition to Gorr’s still somewhat narrow discography. Neither the Iphigénie or Hérodiade highlights have ever been reissued on a commercial CD (nor, for that matter, the Damnation du Faust, although there is a live 1960 performance with Jean Giraudeau available on YouTube), and that 1962 Walküre was very poorly recorded, with even such huge voices as Nilsson’s and Vickers’ sounding as if they were singing down the hall in a high school locker room, so finding good performances of Gorr in her prime isn’t all that easy. As for Sébastien’s conducting, it starts out a bit on the slow side but quickly picks up steam and, in the end, is pretty good overall. With that being said, the little-known Conte is even better in Wayfarer.

I personally recommend that you go and sign up at the Opera Depot site ASAP and download this recording for free while you can. It’s definitely worth hearing at least once, especially if you’re a Rita Gorr nut like I am!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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