This week we offer what I consider to be an important cultural document. One of our most internationally admired classical singers reveals her own private musical passions culled from a lifetime of performing, listening and collaborating. There aren’t many great performers of the last half century with whom Dame Felicity Palmer has not worked, and, of course, some of her choices take us back many decades, when expectations and intentions were a little different. So we are treated to quite an historical overview of musical styles and tastes.
I first sang with her in 1975 for a recording of Bach’s Magnificat in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge when I was a careless and carefree 20 year old. Her singing electrified us impressionable young choral scholars, also, it must be added, susceptible to the occasional bout of adolescent cynicism. Her clarity of both sound and thought immediately blew away any of that. Many years later, it was an obvious choice to ask her to be the Chair of our panel of judges for our International Singing Competition in 2017 and 2019.
I was privileged to perform with Dame Felicity many times after that, most notably I suppose on the day after the death of Princess Diana in the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms in a performance of Handel’s “Jephtha”, whose story proved unbearably relevant to the moment.
This is quite an epic playlist to which a single listen may prove challenging. But I am sure that there will be resonant performances here for many of you.
Easter approaches. Spring has sprung. And we start rehearsals for the Festival in a little over 2 weeks. Aaaaargh! That first day in a rehearsal studio in London will be alive with powerful feeling.
And Happy Listening.
Dietrich Fischer Dieskau: Schubert Wanderer’s Nachtlied 2 Über allen Gipfel ist Ruh
I remember a recital at the Festival Hall many years ago, when he was at the height of his powers and that he gave five encores.... probably more.... but I think his singing of the German language and the many other performances of Lieder like this one remain unsurpassed.
Janet Baker: (“Il Ritorno d’Ulisse” by Monteverdi from Glyndebourne in the1960’s)
Dido’s Lament: Purcell
Mahler: ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (and much else).
Something very special about Dame Janet’s singing.... a commitment, passion and total clarity of intention which I find riveting. The recently released DVD of the Monteverdi opera, with a cast of well-remembered and impressive singers, is a prime example of Janet Baker giving a superlative performance. Quite amazing...... making one wish she had done more on the operatic stage than she actually did.
Nikolai Gedda: ‘La gloire était ma seule idole’..... but an enormous output and quite amazing singing.... unmatched, in my opinion often. He seems fearless at the extreme top and it is absolutely ‘honest’ singing....
‘Nessun dorma’ is unsurpassable, sung by Luciano Pavarotti.... and the sheer sound and what he appears to do technically, has been an inspiration to me.... though relishing his unmistakeable quality and waiting for the top note at the end puts me with millions of other fans!
The Marriage of Figaro ... conducted by Erich Kleiber
Letter Duet with Hilda Güden and Lisa della Casa
This was a box set of 33 records I referred to for A level music in the dim distant past. It has remained my favourite recording of the opera, which I love.... wonderful recitative singing and arias and a Letter Duet to dream of....
Benjamin Luxon: (Loch Lomond)
(no recording available - here is Ye banks and braes instead. MC)
I have been feasting my ears on Ben Luxon’s singing during the lockdown. I was always an admirer of his and was lucky enough to work with him several times, which was always fun. I found recordings of crossover concerts he must have done much later than his UK singing career with Bill Crofut and an impressive group of instrumentalists and love this version of Loch Lomond. He is also part of the Monteverdi opera in which Janet Baker stars and his singing, with hers, is quite wonderful.
Kenneth McKellar: My love is like red, red rose
At one time, Kenneth McKellar had a BBC2 show ( those were the days!) and would appear in his kilt and sing his heart out. I love the song and the way he sang it and remember putting a cassette
of his singing ( always really good) on when touring Scotland on holiday and it adding to the experience of being in that amazing countryside.
Lorraine Hunt: ‘Schlummert ein ‘from ‘Ich habe genug’ Cantata 51 J S Bach
I vividly remember being at the Barbican and seeing and hearing Lorraine Hunt singing a staged version of the cantata ( by Peter Sellars). It was astonishing and very moving and my family decided to play the CD she made at my mother’s crematorium funeral, which was absolutely appropriate and comforting. I learnt of her premature death while working in the States I remember: a huge loss to the music world.... her singing and acting in ‘Theodora’ at Glyndebourne is something I will never forget.
Natalie Dessay: Lucia di Lammermoor ... Mad Scene (Donizetti)
La Fille du Régiment … C’en est donc fait…Salut a la France (Donizetti)
I was lucky enough to work with Natalie at Covent Garden when we first did ‘La Fille du Régiment’ and remember being absolutely astounded by her singing of the very difficult arias she had in early piano rehearsals and then, onstage, when she risked everything to get at the character of Marie. Since then, watching her as Lucia di Lammermoor and as Olivia in ‘Tales of Hoffman’ too has been a lesson in marrying amazing singing with a complete commitment to characterisation and pure theatre. Not without its risks but utterly engrossing.
Angela Gheorghiu: O mio babbino caro (Gianni Schicchi, Puccini)
I love her voice and anything she sings and remember being lucky enough to observe her and listen closely to her during a recording of ‘Gianni Schicchi’ years ago. She embodies such technical prowess and beauty of sound ..... and one sinks into it all and is envelopped.
Carlos Kleiber: Beethoven Symphony no 4 with Bayerisches Staatsorchester...live recording
4th movement - Allegro ma non troppo
Many years ago I remember the then head of music at La Scala suggesting that we should attend a dress rehearsal of ‘Otello’ with Kleiber conducting : a rare enough occurrence. Later, from the relatively little recording left after his early death, I played and watched what I could and saw what all the fuss was about. It is music-making and conducting of superlative quality and quite arresting..... what a shame there is not more to relish, but there is enough to watch and listen to for ever.
Seiji Ozawa: Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings.. Saito Kinen Orchestra and much with the Boston Symphony Orchestra...and much else.
I have sat in the audience and watched him almost literally ‘moulding’ the music with his baton-less hands and find his concentration and commitment... almost always from memory, completely riveting. You watch him gear himself both mentally and physically before he starts and he launches into whatever with an astonishing energy and intention. He is an amazing conductor, I find.
There is a live recording of his conducting of Rostropovich playing the Dvorák ‘cello concerto, which was mind-blowing. The playing was electrifying : total command of the instrument and music and with a conductor who went with every nuance as if the two were absolutely in tandem.
Such music-making comes only now and then, I think.
Stephen Isserlis: The Protecting Veil ...John Tavener
(Shostakovich Sonata for ‘cello and piano - no recording available MC!)
I love his sound, his playing and complete mastery of an instrument I love . The Shostakovich, which seemed fiendish to me, I recently heard from a Wigmore Hall concert.... I am a Shostakovich fan and this was an extraordinary performance. I would go to hear him play anything.
Simon Rattle: Debussy, Ravel, Brahms, whatever…..
Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
….too much to choose from, but a conductor who had an authority and instinct for what he does as a nineteen-year-old and is fascinating to watch, whatever he does
Stéphane Degout: ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ Debussy and French song
Aurore, Gabriel Fauré
His singing of French is quite beautiful and I have loved listening to him perform as Pelléas and on the recital platform.... beautiful voice and a technique that allows him to tackle almost anything with apparent ease.
‘Peter Grimes’ by Benjamin Britten.. sea interludes and Embroidery aria : Heather Harper with Colin Davis
5th Sea Interlude and ‘Embroidery’ Ari
Takacs Quartet: Beethoven String Quartet no.12, Finale
It has been a fairly recent experience to join the afficionados of chamber music and experience the music-making of the Takacs Quartet, among many others. I’get it’ - and found it a refreshing change from the busman’s holiday of listening to...and watching...singers! Their recording of the Beethoven Sonatas is an eye-opener for me.
Vadim Repin : Nicolò Paganini - Variations on the theme ‘ Nel cor più non mi sento’
I happened upon an evening with this wonderful violinist sharing the platform with Stephen Isserlis
at the Wigmore Hall and was transfixed. A great lady I knew at the time, who had been a professional ‘cellist, pointed out, when I told her about the concert, that I had ‘started at the top’, which was obvious in the hall.
Diana Krall : ‘Cry me a River’ among many other numbers
I have watched her with her fellow performers and have a collection of her CD’s and love
what she does.... smoky, smooth, accomplished vocal communicator at the piano and an artist I enjoy when I want to relax and have another slant on things!
Monteverdi Choir: Ave Maris Stella from the Monteverdi Vespers,
and J C Bach: ‘Welt, gute Nacht’
I was a member of the choir very many years ago and was powerfully introduced to Monteverdi I remember in my very early days in it. The Choir has gone on to be very well-known and recorded a huge amount of music. There is much I could choose, but I love the ‘Amen’ in particular at the end of Ave Maris Stella and heard members of it sing ‘Welt, Gute Nacht ‘ in Westminster Abbey at the memorial service for Peter Hall, the Director, a year or so ago - and time stood still. Wonderful words, setting and choral singing .
Maria Callas: ‘Vissi d’Arte’ ( Tosca)
‘Ed ora a voi’ from ‘Hamlet’ Thomas ( Mad Scene)
Legendary, of course, but she changed the direction of what could be produced and is mesmerising to watch as well as to listen to. I find the course of her life terribly sad, but she left such wonderful examples of operatic characters, risk-taking in performance and acting through singing, which is so exciting.
Gustavo Dudamel: (Shostakovich 10th symphony) ( Oh dear, again sadly not available. S American dance instead MC)
Simon Bolivar Orchestra - Danza (Final) Malambo
He and his Simon Bolivar Orchestra took London by storm at the Proms and the story of how all of them were given the opportunity in Venezuela to train as musicians and then to be selected for this orchestra is inspiring in itself. Dudamel is now much in demand all over the world, but I find a lot of his conducting very exciting to watch..... a man born to it .His Mahler 2 at the Proms was also memorable.
Anny Schlemm: ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer.... Leise, leise, fromme Weise (from Der Freischütz, CM von Weber)
I came to know of her after my first encounter with ‘Der Freischütz’ at an open-air performance in Germany while on an exchange as a teenager. The opera is hard to take, I find, in its entirety, but I loved the two soprano solos and heard Anny Schlemm singing them and have always loved listening to her
Pierre Boulez: The Rite of Spring with the Cleveland Orchestra
I owe him a great deal from my early days, and have watched him conducting this piece in concert : businesslike and without undue show, but surer than many, which is what the orchestra needs, and a relative ‘piece of cake’, I imagine, for an enormous musical brain like his! No less exciting, for all that.
Night and Day Cole Porter
Ella Fitzgerald: anything she sings….they don’t come any better....
Peter Pears (Benjamin Britten at the piano): Tom Bowling
Much else... I remember clearly his Evangelist in the Matthew Passion and the recitative before ‘Erbarme dich’, about Peter denying Jesus Christ three times, which Pears delivered like no-one else I ever heard. I remember one mezzo telling me it was hard to turn the page and get up to sing that very difficult and beautiful aria afterwards.
Agnes Baltsa singing ‘Songs my Country taught me’ (including Theodorakis and others),
To tréno févgi stis októ (The train leaves at eight)
….which I have often played, maybe incongruously, on my way back from performances at Glyndebourne, driving on Sussex roads to rented accommodation.... a very worn CD, conjuring up sun and balmy evenings in Greece.... and beautifully delivered by her.
Westminster Cathedral Choir conducted by James O’Donnell:
Ave verum corpus : Mozart, Allegri : Miserere, Palestrina Masses
Improperia Tomás Luis de Victoria
I love all this music and wallowed in what the choir sang at weekly Masses for many years. The building helps.... and I love it ...and the organ, which was played impressively too... booming round the building and sometimes splitting the rafters, to the enjoyment of all of us there. Baroque music, beautifully sung, is in my blood and always has a huge effect on me.... it is something I turn to often.
Finally, I love ‘The Queen of Spades’ by Tchaikovsky
Idyot yescho ? (Act 3 Last scene)
…. and could listen to the final unaccompanied male chorus over and over again.The last time I was part of it was, theatrically, bitterly disappointing, but the music never fails. As can quite often be the case in opera, especially more recently, it can frequently be best watched with one’s eyes closed, which is very sad.