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Frederica von Stade: "The Complete Columbia Recital Albums"

CD Button Opera, oratorio, lieder, songs, carols. No texts. Sony B019IR9EVQ (18)

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FREDERICA VON STADE is among the most beloved—by public and colleagues alike—American classical singers. Her wide-ranging activities on opera stages and in recording studios have opened ground for lyric mezzos; the careers of Susanne Mentzer, Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato would have been very different without von Stade’s graceful yet ambitious example. Still performing after forty-five years—now in projects specially designed for her persona and resources—von Stade also stands among the last classical vocal stars (Cecilia Bartoli and DiDonato are her only true successors) for whom major recording companies crafted annual albums to reflect newly expanded performing interests and experiences. 

Many of these discs are splendid. Von Stade’s unique timbre slightly matured over decades, remaining wedded to unobtrusive but sovereign musicality and artistry. There are some must-haves here—the elegant French Opera Arias with John Pritchard, from 1976 (even Gounod’s Stéphano sounds stellar), and the exquisitely voiced first song recital with Martin Katz, from 1977. Some of the works frequently recorded by others—e.g. the Mahler orchestral songs and Berlioz’s Nuits d’Été—are valuable for documenting von Stade’s always individual and classy takes on the material without necessarily being the best versions out there. 

On the other hand, the mezzo’s two luminous discs of orchestrated Joseph Canteloube songs (not just the “Songs of the Auvergne”), with her frequent collaborator Antonio de Almeida, would be on anyone’s list of essential traversals. Nuits d’Été gets a likeable performance of musical and linguistic sensitivity, best in the slow, contemplative stretches, such as “Absence.” Like Victoria de los Angeles, von Stade pairs the cycle with Debussy’s hypnotic Rossetti-derived Damoiselle Élue (here with Mentzer); both are backed by the Boston Symphony. Charles Munch’s conducting in 1956 beats Seiji Ozawa’s in the newer and better recorded disc. The capable all-Ravel recording, from 1979–80, generically led by Ozawa, offers a superb “Kaddisch.” The all-Offenbach collection, from 1994, also featuring de Almeida in strong, stylish support, shows anew von Stade’s mastery of Gallic texts, here in an ever-shifting emotional range. All-Offenbach programs can trap lesser artists; this collection is recommendable as an introduction to the composer.

Three discs feature accompaniment by Katz. The first—recorded just days before von Stade’s first daughter was born—finds her in rich, amazingly pure voice, poignantly expressive in several disparate idioms encompassing Dowland, Purcell and Debussy, plus three ravishing Liszt selections, including the all-time loveliest version of “O! quand je dors.” Their live Tully Hall recital, from 1981, offers Italian songs (A. Scarlatti’s “Se tu della mia morte” is particularly exquisite), “Tanti affetti,” Ravel’s Greek cycle, affectingly done, and American songs (Copland, Hundley, Thomson). Voyage à Paris, from 1993,finds von Stade with more autumnal tone, but the legato flows freely in the contemplative, handsomely turned mélodies by Satie, Poulenc, Honegger, Messiaen and others.

A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert, from 1992, is a live, cheesily overproduced spectacular with almost every number apportioned among von Stade, costar Kathleen Battle (in excellent voice, though given to cooing) and one of two exuberant choirs, child and adult. Costars abound—Wynton Marsalis and his septet, harpist Nancy Allen and others, with André Previn presiding. The “something for everyone” approach guarantees that no one will like all of it. The mezzo—a good sport—enjoys “My Favorite Things” and offers a typically affecting “I Wonder as I Wander.” Her stylings on Flicka, recorded in 1987, don’t suggest—as with Dorothy Kirsten or Eileen Farrell—someone who could have made important contributions to pop or musical theater. Yet, unlike many classical peers, she grasps the idiom: fans will appreciate her honest takes on these tunes. In Elegies, from 2000, Thomas Hampson and Ying Huang join her in two Richard Danielpour song cycles—a tribute to her WWII-flyer father, killed before her birth.

The magnificent Ritorno d’Ulisse, from 1978, is subjected to Raymond Leppard’s syrupy, swooning “realization,” which now sounds risible, but—however lavishly transposed and ornamented—it’s inspiring to hear von Stade’s bereft Penelope. Cendrillon would be definitive if CBS hadn’t radically miscast the great Nicolai Gedda as Prince Charming, a part Massenet assigned to a Falcon (or low soprano). Other gripes? It’s impossible to read the reprinted LP cover notes. 

Despite almost seventeen hours of music, this generous box is not “all of von Stade”—she recorded for other labels, notably Decca and Phillips; you’ll want the latter’s Mozart–Haydn–Rossini reissue. But this set makes a superb souvenir—and a fine tribute to this always-entrancing singer’s multifaceted legacy. —David Shengold 

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