Playlist: Hall of Fame sopranos

James Jolly Mon 1st May 2017

Five of the loveliest soprano voices

Looking back over the six years of Gramophone’s Hall of Fame, five lyric sopranos stand out, one of them joining this august company with the 2017 intake: that wonderful Catalan singer, Victoria de los Angeles. Graham Johnson remembers her artistry on page 23, but prompted by a ‘Reputations’ article written by the late John Steane for our December 1998 issue, I’d commend her in a Spanish song. ‘When she sang Montsalvatge’s lullaby (Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito),’ JBS wrote, ‘the hall was quiet with that special hush that betokens an intense awareness of the moment, a shared sense of perfection, a “held” loveliness.’ Another singer also born in Barcelona (albeit 10 years later) is Montserrat Caballé, a performer who, during her long career, embraced a colossal repertoire from Mozart to Wagner via the Italians, let alone a host of crossover projects (‘Barcelona’ with Freddie Mercury being a thing of wonder!). An early Puccini album with Mackerras and the LSO finds her at her finest. Try her as Puccini’s Magda (La rondine). Purer in tone than even Caballé is Gundula Janowitz, for many years Karajan’s favourite soprano for the Austro-German repertoire. For me, her recording of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs is a classic – as is, for many people, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s second (studio) recording of the same work with George Szell – and I can certainly surrender to its range of colour and expression. But no, my choice for Schwarzkopf – and of all the great singers she’s one who divides opinion perhaps the most dramatically – is Mozart’s concert aria Ch’io mi scordi di te, with Brendel playing the piano part and George Szell conducting the LSO, in which Schwarzkopf inhabits the words as few others. A soprano who sang a similiar repertoire to Janowitz and Schwarzkopf is Kiri Te Kanawa, possessor of one of the loveliest voices of our time. Glorious in Mozart and Strauss, it’s to her Le nozze di Figaro with Solti that I’d turn for her wonderfully human Countess.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017