The great Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda has died at the age of 91. There follows a tribute by Richard Fawkes from the Gramophone archive:
A bank clerk who studies singing part time is invited to sing the fiendishly difficult leading role in a new production at the national opera house. The evening is a triumph and the young tenor is signed up by the most powerful record producer in the world. Farewell bank, hello opera stages of the world.
No, not the plot of a Mario Lanza movie, but a real-life experience for Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. In 1952, aged 26, Gedda worked in a Stockholm bank while studying at the Royal Opera school. He earned extra money singing at weddings and funerals. One day his teacher, Kurt Bendix, asked him if he could sing a top D, a note he managed with ease. Nothing more was said until, some weeks later, Bendix told Gedda that the opera house was mounting a new production of Adolphe Adam's Le postilIon de Lonjumeau and wanted him for the lead. It was not a success, but Gedda himself enjoyed a great personal triumph.
A month later, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and her husband, the record producer Walter Legge, were in Stockholm. He had just signed the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff for the title-role in the first complete recording of Boris Godunov and was desperately looking for other singers with passable Russian. Gedda, a fluent Russian speaker, was suggested and so impressed Legge that he cabled Karajan and La Scala that he had just heard the greatest Mozart singer in his life. So Gedda was signed to sing Grigory in Boris (EMI, 12/94), a break that made his name and the first of more than 200 career recordings, making him the most recorded tenor in history.
Gedda was born in Stockholm. His mother was Swedish and his father, a cantor and choir conductor, was Russian; he gave young Gedda the early musical grounding that would stand him in such good stead. The family were poor, though, so followed work to Germany, first in Berlin then Leipzig where Nicolai was brought up speaking Swedish, Russian and German. But after six years, following the Nazis' rise to power, the family returned to Sweden.
A solitary, only child, and not particularly bright academically, Gedda never lost his sense of isolation and of being different - feelings that were reinforced when, as a teenager, he discovered that the couple he knew as his mother and father were not his natural parents. His subsequent meeting with his real mother is movingly recounted in his autobiography, My Life and Art (Amadeus Press, 1999). It is small wonder that the introverted Gedda never felt completely confident as a stage actor and could never entirely let himself go. He never forgave Karajan for belittling his acting ability in front of the cast when he made his La Scala debut in Don Giovanni, and later refused to work with the conductor.
Uncomfortable as a stage actor, Gedda made his characters come alive through the music and his vocal skills. He was fluent in eight languages and sought the inner meanings in the composer's settings, although this did not come naturally to him. On early recordings, there is an exciting freshness to the voice, but he could sound more concerned with the musical line than the sense of it. Only later did he learn to colour words in such a remarkable fashion.
When Gedda appeared at Covent Garden in Benvenuto Cellini, tenor Nigel Douglas recalls that he gave an exceptional performance. The applause at the end, though, if warm was only polite because, Douglas felt, the audience did not know the work and most were unaware of how great the singing had been. Afterwards he asked Gedda if he knew how well he had sung. Gedda replied, with typical modesty, that he thought the performance had gone quite well.
Unlike some singers to whom the word 'stylish' is frequently applied, Gedda was never afraid to let his voice go, even if sometimes he did need to be encouraged. In the 1970s, just before the composer Robert Stolz died, Gedda was recording Stolz's latest song. At the end of the first take, Stolz commented that while it was evident Gedda had a most beautiful voice, the song was not written by Bach. Gedda smiled and next time around, gave it everything.
One of the many remarkable aspects of Gedda's artistry was his enormous vocal and artistic range. He could manage the voice-killing top Cs in Rossini's William Tell as easily as a Spanish song. He sang more than 100 roles on stage, from Lully's Armide to Anatol in Samuel Barber's Vanessa, a role he created (RCA, 7/90). He was unsurpassed in the French repertoire, noted in the Italian and a master of the concert platform. He was adept at folk songs and church music. As a young man he sang in church choirs and his fascination with Russian church music is caught in several recordings. He recorded mainstream works, some several times, as well as obscure repertory.
At the outset of his career, Gedda was signed by Legge to an exclusive two-year contract with HMV, and after Legge's Boris began a series of operetta recordings with Schwarzkopf. They remain benchmark recordings of the genre, and their first together was Lehar's The Merry Widow conducted by Lovro von Matacic.
At the same time Gedda made his Paris Opera debut in Weber's Oberon, sang Ottavio in Don Giovanni at La Scala and, in 1957, began a 25-year association with the Met when he sang in Gounod's Faust. In 1997, aged 71, he appeared in the cameo role of Abdisu in Pfitzner's Palestrina, having already recorded the title-role in 1973 (DG, 6/89). About the only major composer to escape him on record was Wagner (although he did once sing Lohengrin in Stockholm).
His remarkable range is well represented on disc. Shortly after commencing his operetta recordings with Schwarzkopf, Gedda recorded Rossini's Il Turco in Italia (the first time he had sung Rossini) with Maria Callas. On the face of it there could not be two more contrasting artists: the fiery prima donna and the shy Swede. In fact, they got on well and were reunited for a recording of Madama Butterfly (EMI, 10/87) and Carmen, a role Callas brings vividly to life in the studio (EMI, 5/92). Gedda makes an ardent Don Jose.
He also brought his vocal excitement to that most English of works, Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (EMI, 1187). Recorded in 1975, it turned out to be the last of Boult's choral recordings. Boult had wanted an operatic tenor for Gerontius rather than the more usual English concert singer, and Gedda, without a trace of accent, gave an impassioned performance.
Those who have it can savour, too, his top notes and sense of style in I Puritani with Joan Sutherland, and hear how he involves himself in the character. Listen to his Lensky in Eugene Onegin, another role in which he excelled (Sony Classical, 3/91); and for good measure, try his Monsieur Triquet (in English) on the Te Kanawal/Hampson recording of the same opera (EMI, 4/94).
Ask many tenors which of their peers of recent decades they most admire and Gedda, rather than any more obvious star, invariably heads the list. This singers' singer, the most versatile tenor of his generation and most generous of colleagues, was an artist about whom no one seems to have had an unkind word.