Karin Branzell (1891-1974) - I
Of the Swedish-born contraltos outstanding in their time, Sigrid Onegin (b. 1889) was the connoisseurs' favourite (beautiful voice, fantastic technique, intriguing personality), Kerstin Thorborg (1896) was the critics' choice (fine musicianship, impressive acting) and Karin Branzell (1891) was something in between. She had a sumptuous, powerful voice but its opulence was maternal rather than seductive in timbre so that when, as Delilah, she inveigled Samson into her house it was said to be like a kindly female relative urging a small boy to come in from the rain. She was a capable actress, an impressive Ortrud in Lohengrin for instance, ''singing all her music artistically but without penetrating its heart''. Her career took her to the high places (Bayreuth, Vienna, Berlin, Covent Garden, the Colon in Buenos Aires) and gave her a prestigious base at the Metropolitan Opera (1924-51), yet it had no special moment of culmination, nothing out of which legends grow. Branzell herself would recall a Trovatore at the Met with Florence Easton and Martinelli: ''the performance of a lifetime... we all outdid ourselves that day''. That was in 1927, which with 1928 was the year of the recordings collected here.
The most satisfying are probably those from the German repertoire: the fine, authentic Erda-voice in Das Rheingold and the rich, true contralto, warm but avoiding sentimentality, in Der Evangelimann. In the French operas, she suits best, and indeed superlatively well, as Fides, the mother in Le prophete. To Siebel's Flower song in Faust she brings an unexpectedly light touch, but the tone is too mature for Mignon and too godly for Carmen and Delilah, well as the music of both of them is sung. The lack of Latin vibrancy and a sexually challenging chest register would limit the appeal of her Verdi and Donizetti to Italian listeners, but ''Stride la vampa'' has a real trill such as their own singers rarely offered, and her voice is ideal for the deep, baleful utterances of Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera (a role she never sang at the Met). In EMI's ''Record Of Singing'', Vol. 3 (10/85—nla) she was represented by her solo from La Gioconda and that too is a fine example of her art at its most sensitive. On the present record the transfer of this is a little surfacy at first, but the voice comes out beautifully. If we failed to remember Karin Branzell in her centenary year, now is the time to make amends.'