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Nicolai Gedda - Lyric Poet of the Tenor Voice - EMI Icon 11CDs ape

Label : EMI
Format : Ape
Cover : Yes

Nicolai Gedda turned 85 on 11 July this year (2010) and this jumbo box is a well-timed and fitting tribute to the aristocrat among singers. He had a long and glorious career, making his debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in April 1952 – as Chapelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau – and as late as 2003 he took part in a recording of Mozart’s Idomeneo. By an act of providence EMI’s producer Walter Legge heard him in Stockholm and immediately signed him up for a recording of Boris Godunov, the first in an almost uncountable number of recordings. Some sources say that he is the most recorded tenor in history and without doubt one of the most versatile singers ever. Blessed not only with a marvellous voice, superb musicality and sense of style, but also with stunning linguistic capacity, he was able to perform a wide repertoire in the vernacular. The late lamented Sir Charles Mackerras, quoted in the booklet to this issue, recalls the rehearsals of Faust in Paris in 1975, where ’he spoke English to me, Italian to Mirella Freni (as Marguérite), Finnish to Tom Krause, who was singing Valentin, Russian to Nicolai Ghiaurov who was Mephisto and French to all the resident musicians’. I am a little hesitant as to his knowledge of Finnish and suspect that Krause and Gedda spoke Swedish, which for ages has been the second language to most educated Finns – but you never know. Having spent parts of his childhood in Germany he was fluent in German as well. On this issue we can hear him singing all those mentioned languages (except Finnish) and also in Latin, Norwegian and Danish (Grieg’s I love but thee is a setting of an H.C. Andersen poem) and even Spanish!

The bulk of his recorded output is in EMI’s archives but he occasionally recorded also for RCA, Philips, DG, Decca, CBS and a number of Swedish labels, notably a valuable series of Swedish songs (Sjögren, Peterson-Berger) for Bluebell. He was also lucky to preserve his voice in mint condition – not least through intelligent choice of repertoire. In the mid-1960s the Stockholm Opera persuaded him to take on the title role in Lohengrin. I heard the premiere on the radio, even taped it, and it was a magnificent achievement, far superior to any of the contemporaneous recorded efforts – bar that of Sandor Konya – but Gedda backed out after the premiere and said ’No more Wagner!’, well aware that a whole operatic world would demand him to sing Lohengrin. The two excerpts he, after all, recorded in 1967 (CD 2 trs. 16-17) amply demonstrate what Wagnerians missed but all lovers of great singing will be eternally grateful that he took this decision. When I heard in a retrospect programme at the Stockholm opera in 1992, celebrating 40 years of association with the house, there were few or no signs of ageing, singing with a beauty of tone and a steadiness that most star tenors half his age should be envious of – he was 67 at the time!

Most of the items here have been issued before in various compilations and I suspect that many readers may feel that a purchase involves too many duplicates but on the other hand there must be numerous gems here that are new and fascinating acquaintances. My advice is: give away your old discs to someone who is in the beginning of his/her collector’s career and buy this one. You won’t regret it!

All the items here are from the first half of Gedda’s career as a recording artist (1952 – 1977), and there are no weak numbers. Having been a great fan of Gedda since the early 1960s I have to admit that I have rarely heard an unsatisfactory recording with him. There was an RCA LP, set down in the mid-1960s with Swedish songs, that I played only a few times but that wasn’t Gedda’s fault, it was the conductor’s. He was Nils Grevillius, a well known name to all collectors of Jussi Björling’s recordings, but who by then had reached quite an advanced age and his tempos were impossibly slow. One can feel Gedda struggling through the songs with the unspoken comment ’Dear Nils, could you speed up just a mite!’ To my knowledge it has never been reissued.

If I have any objection at all it is the layout of the contents. I can see the point in grouping the material, by and large, according to composers. But this is not consistently done and it also means that material from several of his solo LPs is split up and sprinkled about, being juxtaposed with material from recording sessions decades apart. I would have liked, for instance, the tracks from the Mozart-LP with Cluytens from 1957 to be put together, those from the French recital with Prêtre to be released together and so on. In a corresponding box with Tito Gobbi that I reviewed recently the material was presented strictly chronologically and that was the ideal concept. To continue on a negative note it seems a waste of space to duplicate some items on the 11th disc, the interview with Gedda. Or rather: since that interview with music illustrations was already an entity, the producers could have chosen other versions of arias in the new compilation. Just one example: the famous aria from Le Postillon de Lonjumeau is heard on both CD 3 and CD 11 in the 1961 recording with Prêtre. It was seminal to Gedda’s career, but there do exist other versions. Shortly after the premiere in 1952 it was commercially recorded in Swedish and that version should have been available to EMI, since I have it on an old LP-compilation from the company. Let me also mention that the aria is (or at least was) available in an even earlier recording, live from the Stockholm Opera on 10 April 1952 on a Gala compilation entitled ’Famous Swedish Opera Singers’ (Gala GL333). Recorded, I believe, at the second performance of the work this is indeed an historical document!

Apart from the criticism above I only have praise for this issue. Gedda is a stylish Bach singer in the three cantatas – accompanied on period instruments by the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis – and the two arias that open CD 2, with the more monumental Otto Klemperer at the helm. The Gluck arias are delivered with fine sense for line and insight – his enunciation of the texts always a model of its kind. He was a great Mozart singer, challenging even Leopold Simoneau with suave, yet ardent readings. The German arias are also masterly and few singers have Hüon’s arias from Oberon with such brilliance and at the same time elegance. Max’s aria from Der Freischütz, is from a complete recording, conducted by veteran Robert Heger. That was also the only recording Gedda made with Birgit Nilsson. The well known Ach so fromm from Martha is beautifully sung in a recording from 1953.

The French arias are just as outstanding as the German ones and particularly impressive is Arnold’s aria from Guillaume Tell with its notorious high-lying tessitura. He was arguably the best Faust ever, challenged only, in my opinion, by Jussi Björling, and the Pearl Fisher duet and romance are classics with Ernest Blanc a superb partner in the duet. The Flower Song from Carmen is another highlight and here we get the opportunity to compare the one he recorded in 1964 under Prêtre (with Callas as Carmen) with the Beecham version (with Victoria de los Angeles as Carmen) on CD 11, where he also recalls the recording sessions in the interview. The Massenet arias are also true delights and it is especially valuable to have an excerpt from Werther – which was one of Gedda’s favourite roles.

He had a special feeling for Russian repertoire, having learnt Russian in parallel with Swedish during his infancy. The excerpt from Boris Godunov, his first international recording, had to be included. He took part in two later recordings of the opera but here, in his first professional year, he is fresh as paint. Lenski in Eugene Onegin, was another favourite role, which he didn’t record complete until late in his career, but in this 1969 recording of the aria, he was at the height of his powers.

In Italian repertoire he may not have been quite as idiomatic as he was in French, German and Russian and there have been more elegant readings of Ecco ridente from Il barbiere di Siviglia. On the other hand the arias from L’elisir d’amore (from the complete 1966 recording) are among the top contenders and it is thrilling to hear him in operas like Aida and Turandot, roles one thought would be beyond his capacity. He was a great Rodolfo and few other singers have sung Che gelida manina so lovingly.

He was without peer as operetta singer and the excerpts here demonstrate his superiority. Just as suave as Tauber and with a brilliance at the top that outshines anything else in the world of operetta. Fritz Wunderlich was his only serious contender among post-war tenors in this field, but not even he had that glorious ring. Just listen to Ich hab’ kein Geld from Der Bettelstudent (CD 6 tr. 10) to hear what I mean.

Nicolai Gedda was also a superb interpreter of French melodies. The 21 songs with Aldo Ciccolini at the piano (CD 7 tr. 1-21) are exquisite and I am very happy about the inclusion of four Hahn songs. L’Heure exquise is to me one of the finest French songs. The Beethoven songs, with his frequent accompanist Jan Eyron, are further evidence of his versatility also in the Lieder field and the five Strauss songs, which have been reissued on many occasions, are perfect examples of how to marry music and words, so essential in Lieder.

Arguably the very finest singing in this box is to be found on CD 8, where Gedda is so deeply involved in the Russian and Scandinavian repertoire. Few if any recordings or live performances I have heard of the Glinka, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky songs can compete with Gedda’s readings and the Scandinavian gems are even better. Flagstad in Grieg and Björling in the Swedish songs are outstanding but for true romans (the Swedish word for Lieder) interpretation Gedda is unbeatable. Let me point out that Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are so closely related that most Scandinavians with some coaching can be quite idiomatic in each other’s languages, at least when it comes to singing them. Just one correction: the booklet gives Svante Leonard Sjöberg (1873-1935) as composer of the well known Tonerna. I can’t understand where EMI got that name from. In the header I have given the correct facts: Carl Leopold Sjöberg (1861-1900). He was an amateur composer and his profession was doctor, for some years working in Hedemora, a town only 40 kilometres from Jussi Björling’s birthplace Borlänge.

I must also mention Gedda’s marvellous singing of the four Rachmaninov songs on this disc. His complete Die schöne Müllerin on CD 9 may not be quite in the same class as Schreier’s or my current favourite Jan Kobow’s recordings but Gedda’s intelligence and musicality reaps laurels even so.

He lets his hair down in a number of popular songs on the remainder of CD 9 and the first half of CD 10. Rossini’s La danza, Denza’s Funiculì-Funiculà or Lara’s Granada have been sung by most great tenors in the past and present and those who count Mario Lanza’s beefy bestseller recording of Granada as their ideal may lack something in Gedda’s more aristocratic renderings. There is room for both approaches. Really lovely are the four Robert Stolz songs, recorded in 1968 and 1969 with the almost 90-year-old composer conducting.

Heartfelt are also the Russian folksongs, recorded in New York in 1961 with a Russian male chorus and Gedda as soloist. Monotonously rings the little bell (CD 10 tr. 17), sung with that marvellous half-voice, which was Gedda’s distinguishing mark, is almost worth the price of the box.

Finally it is also with great pleasure that one listens to Nicolai Gedda reminiscing about his life and career on the bonus disc. It is, besides a lot of valuable information, a way of getting closer to the person behind the voice that everyone knows so well.

This box is a must for every lover of refined and ardent singing and will give endless pleasure for years to come.

Complete tracklist : Nicolai Gedda – Lyric Poet Of The Tenor Voice