Anu Komsi Sings Duke Ellington

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SACRED CONCERT / ELLINGTON: Praise. Heaven. Freedom. The Majesty of God. Freedom is a Word. David Danced. Almighty God. Freedom is Sweet. Freedom Spoken in Different Languages. Praise God and Dance – Finale / Anu Komsi, sop; Marzi Nyman, org/voc / Alba ABCD 450

As John Cleese used to say, “And now for something completely different.” Here is classical coloratura soprano Anu Komsi singing the sacred music of Duke Ellington, drawn from all three of his famed Sacred Concerts of the period 1966-1970. Most of the music here was originally sung by the multi-talented Swedish soprano and jazz artist Alice Babs (see my appreciation of her HERE), but a few pieces were originally sung by others in the cast.

Perhaps realizing that no modern orchestra, no matter how well-intentioned, is going to come close to sounding like Duke Ellington’s. she chose to record this album with classical and jazz organist Marzi Nyman. This, of course, also brings the material on this album more in line with sacred music one would normally hear in a church in addition to letting us hear just how good Nyman is playing jazz accompaniments on a full-sized pipe organ.

As someone who grew up with the Ellington-Babs recordings, these performances make an interesting contrast. Perhaps most interestingly, despite Komsi’s well-deserved reputation as a major “coloratura” soprano, her high range is not quite as free and easy-sounding as Babs’, but her low range is much richer and more “settled.” Since Babs had been singing American jazz and popular songs in English since she was 15 years old, her English diction, although very slightly accented, was perfectly clear and acceptable to American ears whereas Komsi sounds a bit more foreign (the words “ultimate degree” emerge as “el-timate degg-rrree”). In some of the tracks, such as Heaven, Nyman sings along with her, and though his voice is clearly not a trained one he swings a bit more easily. But by and large, this disc is quite enjoyable—dig the extra cadenza that Komsi throws into Heaven—and in addition to her vocal pyrotechnics it gives us a chance to hear Nyman’s very fine improvisations.

In the first version of Freedom, Komsi has multi-tracked her voice to create a virtual choir, out of which her solo voice rises in some upper-extended cadenzas, and Nyman doesn’t play on this track.

Yet what makes the album work is Komsi’s unquestioned sincerity and seriousness of delivery. She does not take this music lightly, but gives it everything she has. On Freedom is Sweet Nyman doesn’t play the organ at all, but sings behind her as a rhythmic accompaniment, “playing” his voice the way Bobby McFerrin did.

Praise God and Dance is the album’s finale and climax, just as it was in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. Nyman opens with a long, extempore organ solo, somewhat more classical than one might expect, before Komsi enters around the four-minute mark to recreate Babs’ famous solo. I don’t think I missed the Ellington orchestra as much as I missed the Ellington rhythm section. I think that adding a bassist and drummer to this selection would have helped, though it would clearly have changed the effect of just voice and organ—although both Komsi and Nyman use some wild electronic effects to place her voice (and some of his playing) in a distant echo chamber, and some hand-clapping is heard as well. Nyman also multi-tracks his voice to create a backup chorus to some of Komsi’s extempore cadenzas.

It’s a strange and enjoyable album for what it is, but for me I’m not sure it’s a keeper. As sincere as Komsi’s homage to Ellington and Babs is, it doesn’t really equal or surpass the original recordings.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Paisiello’s Excellent “La Serva Padrona”

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PAISIELLO: La Serva Padrona / Valeria La Grotta, sop (Serpina); Giuseppe Naviglio, bar (Uberto); Orchestra Barocca Santa Teresa dei Maschi; Sabino Manzo, cond / Bongiovanni GB2578-2 (live: Taranto, Italy, April 19, 2018)

Poor Paisiello had the misfortune to write an opera based on the same exact libretto as a timeless classic by his predecessor Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and even by the time his version premiered in 1781 everyone was still going to see and hear the Pergolesi version. Yet although Paisiello’s version is not quite as bouncy as Pergolesi’s, it is by no means musically inferior, as this new issue of a live performance clearly shows. But that wasn’t the end of Paisiello’s misery. A year later, in 1782, he wrote a hit opera of his own, Il barbiere di Siviglia, but unfortunately lived long enough to see it wiped off the boards by Rossini’s version, which premiered in February 1816 (Paisiello died in June of that year).

This is not its first recording—there are competing versions on the ARTS Music and Nuova Era labels—but it is the first to use the unpublished critical edition which has no cuts in the recitatives or pezzo chiuso numbers. As a gimmick, it is also pitched down to 415 Hz (which, as I’ve pointed out in my chart on pitches used in European theaters of the late 18th century, is incorrect, as many of them were using A=440 or higher) and has one of those whiny, innocuous-sounding straight-tone orchestras.

But what a lively and interesting work this is…in my opinion, actually superior musically to the Pergolesi, whose music is exceedingly simple and strophic, with very little in the way of melodic invention or overall musical development. Paisiello was clearly no Mozart, but he certainly wasn’t a hack composer, either. Uberto’s aria “Sempre in contrasti con te si sta” clearly had some influence on Rossini, and in fact the manner by which Paisiello makes him sound impatient is much better than Pergolesi’s. In addition, although Paisiello, like Pergolesi, used a fairly small orchestral palette, his orchestration is subtler and more interesting. In short, the music is just plain better. Even when he throws in a few bits of fioratura for the soprano, the effect is humorous and charming rather than sounding intrusive. The only set piece that I didn’t particularly like was Serpina’s aria “Donne vaghe i studi nostril,” which was kind of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, using a very simple and repetitive melody.

It also helps that our two principals (the servant Vespone is again a mute role) have both excellent voices and a keen comedic sense. Baritone Giuseppe Navigilio has a fine, rich voice with a very attractive timbre and not a hint of wobble. and I also liked the fact that, in addition to her bright tone and excellent command of fioratura, soprano Valeria La Grotta has a “smile” in her voice, an extremely rare commodity among singers nowadays. I was not terribly surprised to read, in the booklet, that her voice teacher was the superb Roberta Invernizzi, whose singing I have long admired. Also, both singers have crystal-clear diction, also a rarity nowadays.

As for Sabino Manzo’s conducting, it is brisk and serviceable enough to not annoy one too much. although the strings seem to be out of synch in attacking one particular chord during Uberto’s recitative “Ah! poveretta lei!.” I wish I could say more about the orchestra, but in addition to the bizarre sound of the straight-tone strings it suffers from under-recorded sound. I’m guessing that the microphones were placed right above the singers, who come across clearly, but which receded the orchestral sound somewhat. Yet given the overall excellence of both the work and its performance, I was rather taken aback by the sound of the applause. It sounds as if only about 30-50 people were present, and for the most part they don’t sound very enthusiastic.

Recommended, particularly to lovers of late-18th century opera.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Dausgaard’s New Nielsen CD

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NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Dausgaard, cond / Seattle Symphony Media SSM1024

It’s still hard for me to grasp that Carl Nielsen is still not a repertoire composer in the United States. In fact, it was Alan Gilbert’s programming of the complete Nielsen Symphonies, along with a few concerti, that in part led to his separation with the New York Philharmonic—the board was dead-set against it. But for me, Nielsen is right up there with Mahler as the most interesting symphony composer of the early 20th century, and I was delighted to see, and particularly to hear, this new release.

Dausgaard, who has been principal guest conductor with the Seattle Symphony since the 2014-15 season and principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since 2016-17, is no stranger to Nielsen, having recorded several of his orchestral pieces for Dacapo and included the Nielsen Third Symphony on a Blu-Ray DVD in 2012, is apparently completing a Nielsen cycle for Seattle Symphony Media, having already recorded Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4. He combines the warmth and Mahler-like feelings of Jascha Horenstein’s Nielsen recordings with the brilliance and drive of Herbert Blomstedt and Gilbert in performances that are simple outstanding.

Making an A-B comparison between Blomstedt’s recording of the first symphony and that of Dausgaard is quite revealing. Blomstedt is considerably faster, and therefore generatwes more surface excitement, but there’s something a bit jittery in his account of the symphony whereas Dausgaard does not underplay the excitement but sounds much more connected to the overall flow of the music. Indeed, as the Blomstedt recording continued on towards the ending I got the impression that what he was generating was surface excitement only, sometimes skimming over the rustic lyricism of the music. And there is no question that, although both are digital recordings, the sonics of the Dausgaard performance are overwhelmingly better, not only clearer but fuller in sound, almost like a cinemascope presentation of the orchestra.

Mind you, in presenting such ultra-polished performances I do feel that Dausgaard has somewhat missed the earthiness of Nielsen, but in these two performances at least he makes a convincing case for his interpretations.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Korstick Plays Kabalevsky

KABALEVSKY: 24 Préludes, Op. 38. 6 Préludes & Fugues, Op. 61. 3 Préludes, Op. 1. 4 Préludes, Op. 5 / Michael Korstick, pno / CPO 555272-2

The great pianist Michael Korstick here turns his attentions to the piano preludes of Dmitri Kabalevsky. In previous decades, Kabalevsky’s music was given somewhat short shrift because he was a favorite of the Soviet regime, meaning that he generally wrote in a populist style endorsed by the hierarchy, but upon further inspection several of his works are quite good, and these preludes are among those.

CPO was wise to start the program with the Op. 38 Préludes, which date from 1943. Despite the fact that the composer wanted to show “patriotism and determination” in the face of the Soviets’ battles with the Nazis, the music is quite interesting. These pieces are, like most of Kabalevsky’s music, essentially tonal but play around with modes and harmonies borrowed from Russian folk tunes though the melodic construction is much more sophisticated. A perfect example is the fifth Prélude, marked “Andante sostenuto” yet played in almost an Allegretto tempo. Korstick’s penchant for stressing the structure of every work he plays, even in his Debussy recordings, pays dividends in these works, and he clearly does not avoid strong emotion yet does not overlook the more lyrical qualities of a piece such as the eighth prelude in this set. This is an excellent approach to these works, which are, after all, miniatures designed to be uplifting rather than particularly deep music. Prélude No. 13 seems to channel Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition a bit, with the ending using the tail end of the slow movement of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. The piano, a Steinway D, is miked in such a way that the instrument almost seems to be in your living room.

The preludes in the Op. 61 Préludes & Fugues are, surprisingly, much simpler constructions, the first of them almost sounding like a little bagatelle, and even some of the fugues, though certainly fugal, almost sound more like dance pieces. Not surprisingly, these were written to help young piano students grasp polyphony, thus the titles such as “Summer morning on the lawn,” “Becoming a young pioneer” and “Story of a Hero.” In typical rah-rah for the workers fashion, the last piece is titled “A feast of labor.” Korstick plays them all in an artless style that allows the music to speak for itself, almost without an “interpreter” to act as middleman.

The Op. 1 Préludes, written when he was still a freshman in the Moscow Conservatory, are nice pieces but clearly not important or profound pieces although they contain some nice elements here and there, such as the interesting descending chromatic 7th chords in No. 2 which sound surprisingly like something Scriabin might have written.  No. 3 also uses chromatics in an interesting manner in addition to being surprisingly virtuosic for such a young composer; Korstick plays them extremely well, bringing out as much nuance as one can find in them.

We end with the four Op. 5 Préludes, written in 1927. To my ears, these resemble Scriabin even more than the Op. 1 group, although even here Kabalevsky is working towards his own means of expression. Had he been permitted by the Soviet authorities to extend his harmonic language even further, he would surely have been an even more interesting composer, but even within the limits of his time and place these are excellent works.

This CD is surely a triumph for Korstick as well as for Kabalevsky.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Duczmal-Mróz Conducts Weinberg

WEINBERG: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 7 / Amadeus Chamber Orch. of Polish Radio; Anna Duczmal-Mróz, cond / Dux 1631

WEINBERG: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4*. Sinfonietta No. 2. Flute Concerto No. 2+ / *Kornel Wolak, cl; +Łukasz Długosz, fl; Amadeus Chamber Orch. of Polish Radio; Anna Duczmal-Mróz, cond / Dux 1632-33

These are two more installments in Anna Duczmal-Mróz’ growing discography, and two more of her conducting the music of now-famed Polish-Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg (spelled Wajnberg on the CD covers, but that is open to interpretation; his name is also spelled Vainberg in some parts of Russia).

The daughter of conductor Agnieszka Duczmal, Duczmal-Mróz’ conducting ability was discovered while she was a student at the Hannover Hochschule für Musik und Theater, where she was studying the violin. According to her website,

The conductor of the orchestra, Eiji Oue, suggested that orchestra members volunteer to take his place at the podium and conduct the orchestra. As a result of this experiment- “competition”, Anna was invited by Maestro Oue to study conducting with him (2001-2004). In June 2004 she graduated with honors and conducted NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover on her diploma concert.

In 2000 she founded a student orchestra-Benjamin Britten Kammerorchester in Hannover with which she was giving concerts in Germany. Her interpretation of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale was so successful that the organizers repeated this concert a few months later.

In 2003, since her Polish debut with the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio, she regularly records and gives concerts with this orchestra.

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Anna Duczmal-Mróz, from the artist’s website

I found it very interesting to compare her performance of the Second Symphony with the by-now-famous one made by Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla with the City of Birmingham Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. Although Gražinyte-Tyla conducts the work at a slightly faster pace than Duczmal-Mrőz, her pacing and shaping of the music make it sound slower, possibly because of her much more intimate interpretation of the music. In the opening “Allegro moderato,” for instance, Gražinyte-Tyla is as soft as a whisper whereas Duczmal-Mrőz is somewhat louder and, moreover, pushes the music forward with more propulsion. To my ears, this enhances the music’s structure—and it is considerably stronger in emotion, with the louder middle section having almost the driving force of a Beethoven symphony. When one considers the fact that Weinberg was indeed a Polish-born-and-raised composer, and that Polish folk music is both rhythmic and emotionally charged, this makes a lot more sense. It’s like the difference between those pianist who play Chopin, and particularly the waltzes and mazurkas, as if they were delicate china that should be handled with kid gloves, and those pianists who give the music the rhythmic impetus that real Polish waltzes and mazurkas have. Although I liked both performances, I found myself appreciating what Duczmal-Mróz does a bit more.

Towards the end of the first movement, where the music does become much quieter, slower and more intimate, Duczmal-Mróz makes more of the contrasts; in fact, the contrast is particularly striking because it seems to happen all of a sudden, whereas Gražinyte-Tyla, already tending towards a softer profile for this movement, blends it into the previous section. Whether or not this was the composer’s intention, I cannot say; Weinberg’s scores are not readily available for viewing unless one is willing (and able) to spend some kapusta on them. (You can find an extremely shrunken image of the score pages HERE, but even doing a screen shot and increasing the size you cannot really read it clearly.) Nor does Duczmal-Mróz skim over the deeply-felt “Adagio” movement; on the contrary, she is as penetrating as Gražinyte-Tyla, only with better clarity of texture.  In the third-movement “Allegretto,” Duczmal-Mróz’ deadly accuracy in note-values produces an eerie, and then a driving, sound, whereas Gražinyte-Tyla coasts along in the soft pizzicato passages, suddenly ramping up the drama in the louder section. Again, I like both approaches; they are different, but complement one another in much the same way that Artur Rodziński and Bruno Walter complemented each other in performing the same music, the first ultra-precise and the second precise at times but also warmer and more flexible.

Gražinyte-Tyla had famed violinist Gidon Kremer as her soloist n her recording of the symphony; Duczmal-Mróz’ violin soloist in the Second Symphony and harpsichord soloist in the Seventh are unidentified in the accompanying booklet, but both play well. My guess is that both are simply members of the orchestra, but it would have been nice to name them. Her performance of the Seventh provides an interesting comparison with the recording made by famed Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai, to whom the work was dedicated, with his Moscow Chamber Orchestra on Melodiya, and once again it is Duczmal-Mróz who brings out the greater clarity without damaging the emotional feeling of the work. By this time (1964) Weinberg had been living in the Soviet Union for nearly a quarter-century and was, practically speaking, more of a Russian composer than a Polish one. Both his themes and rhythms are more, you might say, cosmopolitan than rural. Both his traumatic wartime experiences, which scarred his emotionally for life, and his often harsh treatment at the hands of Stalin (who killed his father-in-law, one of his few surviving relatives, in 1949 because Weinberg wouldn’t fall in line with Stalin’s demands for simpler, more appealing music) had also made his music increasingly more introverted. Despite moments of strong rhythmic impetus, this symphony, like so many that he wrote, has an amorphous structure and conveys bittersweet sadness and resignation to fate more than any vital, life-affirming qualities. Weinberg’s music taps into our melancholy side, but does so without pathos or bathos. It’s just sad, in and of itself, without crying on your shoulder until he breaks your collarbone. In the fourth movement of the Seventh there is a bass solo near the end, very well played, but again the soloist is unidentified.

In the Chamber Symphonies, Duczmal-Mróz has less heavyweight competition. The only other recordings I could find of these works was the one by Rosistlav Krimer and the East-West Chamber Orchestra on Naxos of numbers 1 and 3 and the one of numbers 3 and 4 by Thord Svedlund and the Helsingsborgs Symphony on Chandos. I was so taken by Duczmal-Mrőz’ peeformances of Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 when they came out on Dux 1525 that I abandoned Krimer’s recording, which I had in my collection. Here she not only completes the series with Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4, but adds to them the Sinfonietta No. 2 and Flute Concerto No. 2, which makes this a 2-CD set. And here, the clarinet soloist in the second chamber symphony and the flute soloist in the concerto are identified by name, and they are really excellent musicians.

The Chamber Symphony No. 2, a late work (Op. 147), is one of Weinberg’s most powerful and direct works, opening with an almost frenzied figure in the first movement, and the music becomes even more dramatic and anguished as it continues. The second movement is a quirky, broken-rhythmed minuet, while the third is more in line with most Weinberg symphonies, a slow, moody piece with a touch of melancholy in it. The Chamber Symphony No. 4 is even later (Op. 153, written in 1992) and opening where the second left off, with a sad-sounding “Lento” using somewhat tonal but ambiguous harmony, a Weinberg trademark. Half way through the first movement there is a plaintive clarinet solo played by Kornel Wolak. Here, it is the second movement that is fast and dramatic, opening with swirling strings and an odd, biting melody in triplets played by the solo clarinet. The third movement features unidentified violin and cello solos, the second quite extensive and later intertwining with the clarinet (and then the violin as well). As the third movement blends into the slightly faster fourth, we hear the clarinet playing a sort of sad klezmer melody over the strings. Wolak has an incredibly rich tone, much like that of Artie Shaw, which mitigates a little against the klezmer references, but he plays so well that all is forgiven. The clarinet and strings then play off each other with varying themes and development for a time, followed by an extensive clarinet cadenza which leads to a slower tempo and even quieter music, on which it ends.

I hadn’t heard the Sinfonietta or the Flute Concerto No. 2 previously, only the Flute Concerto No. 1. The former again opens dramatically, with an ostinato rhythm and sharply-etched string figures. Later in the first movement, a few tympani whacks accent the rhythm further. The second movement opens with a string figure that almost but not quite mirrors some of the motifs in the first, but the tempo is slightly slower, the volume rather softer and the effect less dramatic. As the music develops, these ostinato figures morph and are shifted around in a most ingenious manner. The broad, expansive “Adagio” is less melancholy than usual for Weinberg and features a nice viola solo near the beginning of it. The last movement opens with a soft, continuous tympani roll over which violas and celli play a peculiar theme, which then moves into a slow waltz tempo as it is developed. The music fades away at the end.

The Flute Concerto No. 2 is typical of the way Weinberg handled such pieces, with the solo instrument almost being more of a soloist out of the orchestra than a show-off virtuoso. One is continually amazed by the way he could play with minor modes and “leaning” harmonies, tonal yet ambiguous—sort of a modernized, very personal Debussy-like approach. After the quite opening the music slowly crescendos to a peak of volume and emotion before ebbing again to allow a solo violin to interrupt the flute and play a bridge passage. Then the solo flute sets up a rhythmic melody which is picked up by the violins, which then continue for a while before the flute returns. The dialogue between the flute and the strings continues for some time. Aftr a slow section, we hear a quirky melody that is very Kabalevsky-like, only with its own peculiar twists, followed by another slow passage with sustained strings behind the flute.

In the second movement, Weinberg gives us a moody “Largo” which is not particularly melancholy but still a bit strange. He uses slow-moving basses and celli to create a “bed” of sound over which the flute plays, while in the third pizzicato strings underscore the semi-jolly flute theme, played as an “Allegretto” before the music moves into “Andante molto ritenuto.” Weinberg tosses in a bit of J.S. Bach’s flute music here as an inside joke.

These are really excellent performances, highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Zdenêk Fibich

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FIBICH: Symphony No. 3. Šarká: Overture. Bouře [The Tempest]: Overture. Nevĕsta messinská [The Bride of Messina]: Funeral march / Janáček Philharmonic Orch.; Marek Štilec, cond / Naxos 8.574120

The ill-fated Czech composer Zdenêk Fibich, who died at only age 49 in December of 1900, is not nearly as well known as his countrymen Smetana and Dvořák, largely because he consciously avoided writing “Czech nationalist” music as they did. Because of his multi-cultural background, he avoided politicizing his music, and so since the period in which he lived was very high on Nationalism, he was sort of given the cold shoulder.

I did not listen to or review the previous four releases in this series, but to judge from the liner notes his Third Symphony, presented here, is his most interesting and musically evolved composition. I liked it tremendously: the music has those bouncy Czech rhythms, but Fibich did not lay into his themes in the “popular” manner of Dvořák. They are definitely melodic, but do not have tunes that one can hum; rather, they are used as motifs for development, and I appreciated this very much. With that being said, the first movement is indeed a fairly cheerful piece; one could easily fool someone who has never heard this piece before (like me) by playing it without identifying the composer. You’d immediately think Eastern European but maybe not Czech, and if you were told it was by a Czech composer you just might think it was an unknown piece by Dvořák. It’s clearly that well written. There are no “holes” in the music, no moments when you say to yourself, “That’s pompous” or “That’s overwritten.” It all flows along with the themes tied very well into one another.

I did, however, have a complaint about Marek Štilec’s conducting, which struck me as perfunctory. With a bit more pep in his step, Štilec could really have delivered a better reading of this work and make it sound as if he cared about it, which would have been nice. After doing some checking, I discovered an excellent recording of this symphony, paired with Fibich’s Second Symphony, by Neeme Järvi with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Chandos, and thus recommend it over this recording.

As for the other pieces on this disc, I was very impressed by the overtures from Šarká and The Tempest, but once again the performances flowed too much and had too little bite.

Bottom line review: good music, but lackluster conducting.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Who was Nikola Nikolov?

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VERDI: Aida: Celeste Aida.1 Il trovatore: Di quella pira.1 Otello: Dio! Mi potevi scagliar. MEYERBEER: L’Africana: Mi batti il cor…O paradiso.1 PONCHIELLI: La Gioconda: Cielo e mar.6 ROSSINI: Guglielmo Tell: Il mio guiro, egli disse!3 GIORDANO: Andrea Chenier: Come un bel di di maggio.3 MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana: Mamma, quel vino e generoso (sung in Bulgarian).1 LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: Vesti la giubba.3 PUCCINI: La Bohème: Che gelida manina;1 Sono andati.*1 Tosca: E lucevan le stelle.1 Manon Lescaut: Donno non vidi mai.2 Madama Butterfly: Addio, fiorito asil.2 Turandot: Nessun dorma.1 PIPKOV: Momchil: Beautiful lady, my joy.*4 HRISTOV: Lukovitski momi 5 / Nikola Nikolov, ten; *Liliana Vassileva, sop; Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orch.; 1Vassil Stefanov, 2Ivan Marinov, 3Rouslan Raichev, 4Konstantin Iliev, 5Dragomir Nenov, cond; 6Sofia National Opera Orch., Asen Naydenov, cond / Gega GD414

This recital presents early-1960s live mono broadcast performances by the Bulgarian tenor Nikola Nikolai, who was born in 1925. Since no death date is available online, I would assume that he is still alive, but I can’t say for certain. He studied voice with Sabcho Sabev, made his debut at age 22 as Pinkerton, won an award for his singing in 1951 and joined the roster of the Sofia National Opera in 1955, specializing in the Italian repertoire. Judging from these performances, he had a huge, cutting tenor voice, was a musically “clean” singer (meaning that he followed the note values of the score and didn’t play around with tempi), but amazingly unsubtle. Everything was sung between a mezzo-forte and a fortissimo, even when the scores called for soft singing—i.e., the opening phrases of “O paradiso” and “E lucevan le stelle,” and most of “Come un bel di di maggio.”

The publicity blurb accompanying this release emphasizes his international career, boasting that he sang at the Metropolitan Opera among other places and made recordings, but his only known commercial recording were an Aida with soprano Julia Wiener and a Carmen with Alexandrina Milchova-Nonova and Nicola Ghiuselev.

Nikolov sang exactly two performances at the Met, as Don José in Carmen in November 1960. He was not appreciated by the critics. Jay S. Harrison, writing in the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribune, said:

Mr. Nikolov, I am sorry to say, was so paralyzed by debut jitters that he failed to make any notable impression at all. And, if the sounds he produced on this occasion were not a result of the strain attendant on a first New York appearance, then he really has no legitimate business at the Met. Throughout the evening he produced not a single tone below the forte level even when the score demanded otherwise, and there were frequent instances during which he bellowed rather than sang. Further, he and the proper pitch were not always in agreement, nor did he attempt, at more than odd moments, to shape a phrase so that it emerged with any clear shape or profile. In all, then, one must wait for Mr. Nikolov’s future opera assignments to discover whether his faults were traceable to first night nerves or are a consequence of imperfect training.

In short, Nikolov was a belter, but so too was Mario del Monaco in 99% of everything he ever sang, and del Monaco was a very welcome visitor at the Met. The difference seems to be that del Monaco was an Italian singing Italian (and French) opera whereas Nikolov was a Bulgarian, and not that well known in the West, thus it was much easier for the critics to pick on him and run him out of town.

On these performances he does not go flat once, and although he is not subtle he is clearly no less unsubtle than del Monaco. In “Celeste Aida,” for instance, he does modify his volume a little in certain phrases if not as much as one may like. And Nikolov’s voice seemed to have gone on forever; he celebrated his 70th birthday singing Don José and his 75th singing Manrico, both at the Sofia National Opera. And Lord almighty, did this guy have a “cut” to the voice! The high notes ring out like a huge church bell being hit with a bazooka, and his high range lacked the tightness that afflicted del Monaco from about 1957 onward. But yes, he wasn’t much of an interpreter. In “Dio! Mi potevi scagliar,” he sounds angry but not anguished. He comes across as someone who just wants to belt Desdemona in the choppers and then walk away satisfied.

Like del Monaco, Nikolov clearly had a big spinto voice, almost that of a dramatic tenor, and often such voices are hard to control…but it can be done. Even Giovanni Zenatello, who clearly had the biggest tenor voice of his day, had trouble singing softly yet managed to do it a bit more easily than Nikolov, and then you think of Helge Rosvaenge, Vladimir Atlantov and Jon Vickers (although Vickers’ unusual timbre was in a class by itself), all of whom were more imaginative singers than Nikolov. You also wonder, really, what business he had singing such really lyrical roles as Rodolfo, Des Grieux, Pinkerton and Andrea Chenier, where beltin’ out da high notes is only a small part of what that music is supposed to convey. Liliana Vassileva, who joins Nikolov in the duets from La Bohème and Lubomir Pipkov’s Momchil, had a very pretty voice for a Bulgarian soprano but, like Nikolov, wasn’t very subtle. In the opening of “Sono andati” from Bohème, she sounds pretty damn healthy for a woman who’s dying.

Moreover, Nikolov was scarcely the only, or even the first, tenor to make his debut at the Old Met, take a look at its size and think, “Holy cripes! I’ve really got to put out to fill this barn!” Jussi Björling, by his own admission, made the exact same error in 1937 at his debut (as Rodolfo), and the critics were not kind when describing his hard, harsh high notes. But Björling had a sweeter tone than Nikolov, and better phrasing, and so he lasted whereas Nikolov was kicked out after just a short spell—as was Aureliano Pertile, another pretty good belter, in 1922, although Pertile sang 13 performances in six operas.

So you see, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here. Subtle he wasn’t, but when you think of how crudely Franco Corelli sang at the Met for nearly two decades and how many performances he absolutely ruined with his sloppy phrasing and hanging onto notes, both high and low, much longer than the score allows, I think that Franco’s professional jealousy may have played a part in Nikolov’s being booted from the Met.

In short, even admitting his flaws as an artist, you’ve got to hear this voice for yourself. You simply won’t believe it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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