Ravel's "Sheherazade" and Berlioz's "Nuits d'ete," music little-known beyond a narrow circle of connoisseurs of French song before the long-playing era, have become, along with the "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss, the most widely performed--and recorded--prima donna concert vehicles of our time. As witness no less than three new recordings of the Ravel work and two of Berlioz's.
"Sheherazade" is given the barest minimum of dramatic projection by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, a singer with a ready grasp on the notes but one lacking the emotional wherewithal and stylistic flair for such elusive, sensuous music. It amounts to a good deal of blandly pretty chirping, routinely accompanied by John Pritchard and the Belgian National Opera Orchestra.
The five exquisitely refined songs of Henri Duparc on the over side are better able to withstand the soft-core Te Kanawa-Pritchard approach, but they too are deserving of more incisive treatment (Angel DS-398061).
Soprano Hildegard Behrens combines--as have in the past, Regine Crespin, Jessye Norman, and Janet Baker--"Sheherazade" and "Nuits d'ete" (London 411 895).
Behrens, a conscientious and usually communicative artist, is out of her element in this material, both vocally and temperamentally. The voice lacks steadiness and French pronunciation is insufficiently pointed. But the principal problem with the program is the singer's seeming lack of comfort with works as subtly suggestive as these, wherein operatic acting and projection work against the composer's dictates.
Behrens is clearly aware of the need for an approach different from that employed in her stage portrayals, but she has chosen to react by underplaying to the point of becoming a cipher. Workmanlike orchestral accompaniment is provided by the Vienna Symphony under conductor Francis Travis.
Although mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza finds some of its high-lying passages trying, it is she alone among the three present "Sheherazade" interpreters who shows us the heart and soul of this music. The suppressed excitement, the wistfulness, the fragrant air of decadence inherent in Tristan Klingsor's lyrics so magically captured by Ravel--all are vividly present in Berganza's singing and in the sympathetic conducting by Michel Plasson of the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra.
The Berganza-Plasson "Sheherazade" is part of a magnificent four-disc set (Angel DSCX-3965) devoted to all the songs of Ravel, both piano and ensemble-accompanied.
In addition to Berganza's contributions, which also include mesmerizing performances of the "Vocalise en forme de Habanera" and "Chanson espagnole," Jose van Dam is heard in penetratingly dramatic, superbly vocalized interpretations of the Three "Hebrew" songs (his Yiddish pronunciation could, however, have done with some coaching) and "Don Quichotte a Dulcinee"; baritone Gabriel Bacquier, a good deal less potent than Van Dam vocally but ever the consummate vocal actor, in the wickedly witty "Histoires Naturelles"; soprano Felicity Lott, sultry and self-confident in the Mallarme settings, and soprano Mady Mesple bringing to life an almost-vanished sense of French soubrette piquancy in the delicious set of Greek Folk Songs.
Dalton Baldwin is the ever supportive and colorful partner in the piano-accompanied songs.
Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade brings her refined--one is tempted to say precious--artistry to Berlioz's "Nuits d'ete" (CBS IM 39098) in an interpretation that altogether misses the passionate intensity of Berlioz's settings of Theophile Gautier's disarmingly swoony lyrics.
Stade would have us believe that this is little more than graceful, Romantic salon music, a view seconded in Seiji Ozawa's gently faceless conducting of the Boston Symphony.
The companion piece is "La damoiselle elue," a setting by the youthful Debussy of D.G. Rossetti's sweetly sentimental "The Blessed Damozel," music more responsive to the Stade-Ozawa miniaturization but betraying, as does "Nuits d'ete," the considerable flutter that has entered the voice of late.
It should be noted that one of the finest modern performances of "Nuits d'ete," that made four years ago by Kiri Te Kanawa, is now available on an immaculately clear compact disc (Deutsche Grammophon 410966-2). The coupling, as on vinyl, is the thunderously dramatic realization by Jessye Norman of the same composer's "La Mort de Cleopatre." Both are conducted by Daniel Barenboim, who leads L'Orchestre de Paris with the appropriate idiomatic flair.