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Sopranos in Bach’s Vocal Works

Redeemers

Robert Sherman wrote (July 31, 2003):
Mitsuo Fukuda wrote [To Robert Sherman]:
< I agree with you. Please recommend one artist in your list. Because I don't have time to compare all, and I don't have much money either. >
Mitsuo -- I could take any of the five to the proverbial desert island. If I were allowed to take just one, it would be Harper with Jackson. But I think it best that I give you a bit of description of each, so that you can decide which seems to be closest to your taste. Here are excerpts from a Redeemer comparo I'm working on.

Three sopranos soar above the rest. If there is a heaven, this is what it sounds like. Lynne Dawson (Christophers 1987, low pitch), Heather Harper (Jackson 1961, modern pitch), and Judith Blegen (Westenberg 1983, modernpitch).

Each radiates love for this aria, and has obviously spent a lifetime refining her concept of it. Each brings out subtle meaning from every meticulously crafted word and phrase. Each has solid, consistent vocal quality and flawless technique. Each uses a small vibrato that lives within the note rather than being superimposed on it. Each maintains pleasing and uniform vocal color throughout the range. Each forms every vowel and consonant with laser clarity. Hearing each is a definitive experience in anybody's lifetime.

But more importantly than any of that, each radiates sincerity. Each fully subordinates her ego to the music and text. What we hear is not Dawson or Harper or Blegen singing Redeemer. It is Dawson or Harper or Blegen acting as a window through which Handel's Redeemer shines directly and intimately into the mind of the listener. These are Redeemers for the ages.

If you were to categorize by school of thought, you would pick Dawson for historical approach, Harper for traditional, Blegen for very traditional. But it would be a mistake to make too much of those labels. There are more significant differences between them.

Dawson's sound is pure white; Harper's and Blegen's are middleweight-soprano. Dawson ornament modestly but with profound meaning; Blegen ornaments richly and originally; Harper ornaments not at all.

Recorded sound is a bit below par with Harper as would be expected in light of its 1961 vintage. On the other hand, despite the lesser fidelity imposed on her, Harper is the most intimate of all, and also the most meticulous. Even among this hyper-elevated group, Harper's sincerity is breathtaking.

Blegen is unusually slow and reflective, deep, and strong. Her breath capacity is stunning, particularly in light of the fact that she is physically petite. Her dynamic contrasts are unexpectedly large for this piece, but she uses them effectively and intelligently; this is unusual Handel, but in no sense is it Verdi in drag. On first hearing, I felt that Blegen, by a small margin, missed the depth and integration of Harper and Dawson. But I find that Blegen grows on me with each hearing.

Second group:

Emma Kirkby (Parrott 1989, low pitch) sings with fine voice and mental focus, and with much original and effective ornamentation. Her vocal quality is even whiter than Dawson's, although the result is somehow less pure and more self-conscious. She occasionally borders on affectation, as when her redeemer "leaveth" rather than liveth. As is everything she does, this is aggressively stamped as an Emma Kirkby Performance. This is not Redeemer as transmitted by Emma Kirkby. She wants you to know that this is The Great Emma Kirkby Sings I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. But although she lacks the selflessness of the three paragons, hers is a thoughtfully sincere and very different rendition, well worth repeated listening.

Heather Harper (Davis 1966, modern pitch) is in the same excellent voice -- albeit with a shade lighter quality -- and mental focus as in her 1961 recording. The string accompaniment is better played and better recorded, with a fine lyrical bass line, and Leslie Pearson's harpsichord ornaments are brilliant as always. Harper's ornaments are copious and appropriate and if they seem conventional, this may be because so many singers have since emulated her. Her many trills are the most musical I have heard sung anywhere. But all that being said, this does not quite reach the intimacy and musical transparency of her 1961 recording.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 31, 2003):
[To Robert Shewrman] Beautiful review, Bob. And in your descriptions, you're saying (may I sum it up?) that Dawson's and Harper's and Blegen's nonpareil performances here are all gestural. The clarity, sincerity, subordination of ego, meticulous craftsmanship, et al, allowing the music to speak with maximum richness and immediacy. And, as you point out, it cuts across "historical/traditional" categories of approach.

Robert Sherman wrote (July 31, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes, exactly. And thanks for the compliment, Brad.

 

Death of soprano Inga Nielsen

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (February 18, 2008):
I am sorry to inform that the soprano Inga Nielsen died recently. I really don't know her except that today, whilst listening once again to the Gillesberger Johannes-Passion (BWV 245), I had reason to check some libretti in other recordings I have and, when I saw her name in Aryeh's preferred recording of this work, that of Enoch zu Guttenberg, the name clicked with the numerous tributes that appeared on another list this last week. I have no further information. http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Nielsen-Inga.htm

I hope to be able to say something further on my own preferred Johannes-Passion, the Gillesberger, shortly, not that I really need to say more.

 

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Last update: ýMarch 28, 2008 ý09:43:04