Marian Anderson: "Let Freedom Ring"
Live recitals in Washington, D.C., and Copenhagen. Vehanen, Krupp, piano. No texts. JSP Records JSP683
WHEN THE Daughters of the American Revolution refused in 1939 to rent out Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., for a recital by Marian Anderson, the event was famously moved to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The backstory of this historic occasion is detailed beautifully in the booklet accompanying this CD, reprinting excerpts of Harlow Robinson’s biography of Sol Hurok, Anderson’s manager, who made the most of the attendant publicity. The DAR’s thinly veiled racism, causing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the organization, gave the event a life of its own, and even though it was announced only nine days before the Easter Sunday on which it occurred, more than 75,000 people gathered to hear the great contralto.
NBC Radio broadcast the recital, and for decades, recordings of the brief transmission (about half an hour) have circulated, in poor sound, riddled with distortion. This release of the first-ever restoration is miraculous, owing to the skill of John H. Haley, who removed distortion, echo and audience noise while presenting Anderson’s magnificent voice as well as possible.
The CD begins with the NBC announcer soft-pedaling the choice of venue by saying there was no hall big enough to accommodate the crowd. But Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes then delivers a pre-recital speech aimed at the DAR, with an undiluted call for racial equality—strong words for 1939, sad almost eighty years later, in such divisive times.
Accompanied by Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen, her regular accompanist during those years, Anderson opens with “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” which is particularly potent under the circumstances. She then launches into one of her showpieces, Donizetti’s “O mio Fernando,” from La Favorita, commanding full attention by virtue of the innate dignity in her voice and her attention to text. The cavatina pours out on a stream of firm legato, her legendary low notes remarkable for their unforced richness. The cabaletta is energetic rather than blazing, but Anderson compensates with a striking cadenza to a high G-sharp and an impressive trill. You could quibble with some of the Italian diction, but why bother? It’s a majestic reading. Going from strength to strength, Anderson displays prodigious breath control in an intensely moving performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” A pioneer in bringing spirituals to the concert stage, she closes with three of them—“Gospel Train,” “Trampin’” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord” (the third omitted from the broadcast because of time constraints). On “Gospel Train,” Anderson leans on words to emphasize that all are welcome aboard; “Trampin’” plumbs the depths of her formidable chest voice to convey oppression, yearning and determination.
The balance of the CD is an excellent 1961 Copenhagen recital, unearthed and restored by Haley. Twenty-two years later, you would expect to hear her resources diminished. But Anderson, at sixty-four and in mature voice, remains on the breath, capable of all manner of expressive devices through the sound. Textual coloration replaces some of the former vocal plushness; it’s a trade-off that costs nothing in ultimate effect.
The opening Handel aria never made it to tape, so the recorded program begins with two Brahms songs—a haunting “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” and a “Von ewiger Liebe” filled with driving intensity. Schubert’s “Die Forelle” features direct storytelling, and the “Ave Maria,” compared with the 1939 rendition, is only slightly less effective. I hesitate to toss about the word “definitive,” especially with a song as widely recorded as “Erlkönig,” but, caution to the winds, Anderson’s reading—or, rather, living—of Schubert’s song seems to me unparalleled. Dalila’s “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” from the Saint-Saëns opera, finds the contralto vocally shaky, but “Comin’ Through the Rye” brims with charm.
Two songs by Finnish composer Yrjö Kilpinen (sung in German) were likely introduced to Anderson by Vehanen; Sibelius’s “Den Judiska flickans sång” is in an arrangement the composer created for Anderson (Sibelius was a fan and friend), and his famous “Svarta rosor” is taken at a clip and sung in English. Half a dozen spirituals complete the program. Inevitably, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” excites the crowd, and it’s reprised. I was taken to an Anderson recital at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1959; the image of the diva, eyes closed, hands clasped at her waist, her cavernous voice delivering this song, is embedded in my memory.
Franz Rupp, Anderson’s accompanist from about 1940 until her retirement in 1965, supplies sensitive support and a great deal of stunning playing on this remarkable document. —Ira Siff