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Monday 23 April 2012

Margaret Price memorial concert at the Wigmore Hall

Price in 1985 as Fiordiligi. Source: Telegraph

Margaret Price (1941-2011) is an oddly overlooked singer in the recent history of singing. Odd because she possessed one of the most ravishingly beautiful lyric voices of the last half century, and one of the finest techniques too. To my ears the sound is somewhere between Janowitz's purity and Te Kanawa's warmth; I often prefer her to either of her contemporaries, especially in song repertoire. Not that she didn't have a major career - she sang at all the opera houses that these two artists did, but just with less frequency, and her recordings aren't as ubiquitous or wide ranging.

The reasons are probably two fold. First because she was never a particularly physically glamorous singer, and nor was she disposed to showy vocalisms - it's an extraordinarily pure and even sound which borders almost on the bland if the repertoire doesn't suit. The repertoire that did suit was Mozart, lighter Verdi, and Strauss though she didn't sing any operas of the latter on stage, and with Verdi she often strayed larger than she could reasonably handle. So the second reason is because she limited her repertoire so much - she wouldn't sing anything that didn't have a long line, which meant 9 Mozart roles were essayed, a few bel canto ones, and as mentioned some Verdi too. Just before she retired she did record Ariadne in its original 1912 incarnation, and one realises quite what an opportunity missed it was that she didn't sing more of these roles. Famously she sung Isolde on recording only with Kleiber, and it remains the most radiantly beautiful account of the role on disc. She turned down Rosenkavalier after looking at the score for Kleiber because there was "nothing to sing" - too much parlando for her. Her favourite thing was always song, and there is quite a bit of recorded material in this category, some excellent, some not so good, all of it with an exquisitly beautiful sound allied to a superlative technique.

The Wigmore Hall produced an excellent tribute concert here with the expected career overview (lamenting her lack of Covent Garden appearances, but not mentioning why this was: Solti proclaimed after an audition that she "had no charm"), and lots of anecdotes from a very visibly moved William Lyn (ex Wigmore Hall director) and Sir John Tooley (ex ROH director) who both extolled her virtues at length concluding that she was one of the greatest singers and artists of the last fifty years.

We also heard from several youngish singers all singing repertoire that was closely associated with Price during her career. Sally Matthews sang Dove Sono (she'll be singing the Countess at Glyndebourne this summer) and Morgen and Cacilie by Strauss. She's a very impressive vocalist, with an excellent technique, but I found the voice far too dark in all of these (over covering? Or is it just the natural tone of the voice?), and the passagio was not completely ideally navigated in Dove Sono, the aria which is the ultimate test of this. Dare one say it, it's not a very feminine sound, but it is very full and rounded and shiny. The top is almost shockingly intense and powerful. It all just didn't seem quite limpid or delicate enough for Morgen. I love her as Fiordiligi here, which is the best I've seen her: I want so desperately to like her, due to these amazing youtube videos (though it was 5 years ago), but I haven't yet seen quite the same beauty in live performances. Still greatly looking forward to her Countess in the summer.

Mezzo Leigh Woolf sang a perfectly decent but slightly dull Voi, che sapete also from Figaro, but followed it up with 3 very beautifully sung songs from Schumann's Frauenliebe und leben. The voice is light, very sweet, with a slightly husky edge which gives it a nicely distinctive character. Very unshowy singing, but intelligent and completely secure.

Jonathan McGovern actually is "a young singer" unlike many who are described like this and already is a very interesting and individual talent. His technique sound strange to me, and up close with a mic as the clips on youtube show, the vibrato sounds like it's "added onto" the sound rather than being an integral part of it - very often there's almost no vibrato whatsoever and it seems like he's not singing "on the breath". But he is extremely communicative (despite some OTT facial expressions) and really draws you in, the hall completely silent during his four songs from Schumann's wonderful Eichendorf Liederkreis op.39. I can't see how he could sing opera the same way opera, but he was so full of surprises that I'm sure he will, and dazzle everyone.

Stephan Loges has a very appealingly masculine baritone voice that is beautiful and even, if not particularly distinctive, and he sung Schubert's Der Winterabend with more maturity than McGovern could muster, though less interestingly. Gerard Collett seemed very nervous as his lips trembled on every note and the voice sounded unvibrant and slightly unsettled in his two Britten folk songs. Nervewracking to do the largely unaccompanied I wonder as I wander though! The last rose of summer was better.

The diminuative Dennis O'Neill was the last singer on stage and basically stole the show with Ah fede negar potessi ...Quando le sere al pacido from Verdi's Luisa Miller. He's 64, but the voice is still huge, superbly produced, with a truly ringing, truly Italianate sound and great legato. There's a touch of wobble up high (only a touch), but it was such a treat to hear him, aged 64, basically outclassing everyone else and showing them how it is done - not that it felt mean or self aggrandising. Just pure class. The audience exploded into applause.

The concert opened and closed with two gorgeous pieces of singing from Price from two key recordings. To start, Gretchen am Spinnrade from her first ever Wigmore Hall recital, and to finish, Beim Schlafengehen from the Four Last Songs, which just soared out over us, particularly moving after William Lyn's emotional tribute. A truly superb singer, and a beautiful tribute concert.

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