Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Classics goes on hiatus (continued)

Tenor Michel Sénéchal (born 1927 and apparently still with us), whom
we're going to hear sing, of all things, Mahler -- and something else

by Ken

As I wrote Friday night in connection with this hiatus Sunday Classics has chosen to go on, a happy surprise for me in beginning to tinker with the heap of hundreds and hundreds of posts that have by now accumulated was the discovery that by golly there really and truly is a heap of wonderful music buried in that heap. This at least slightly undercuts the feeling I generally have when one of these posts is sent out into the ether (beyond the feeling "Thank goodness that's done, or done-ish"), which is "What the [expletive deleted] was the point of that?"

Sharing a lot of music that I love was the basic point of the enterprise -- that and helping people approach it, especially (ideally) people who for whatever reason have been shy about listening. I try like the dickens not to try to tell people how they should listen, because my feeling is that the whole deal with listening is precisely each individual working out his/herself how to listen, and hear. The best I thought I could do was to provide some clues based on my own habits of listening -- that and perhaps providing a nudge and a maybe little courage, and a glimmering of some of the rewards that lie in store.

For the time being, as I also mentioned Friday night, I want to focus on getting that heap of stuff accessible in the form of a stand-alone blog (at, which I've only just begun doing. (At some point I reckon we'll add a button or some kind of link thingie here on DWT.) I won't bore you with the heap of difficulties involved in this project -- or the even more fierce, and tedious, difficulties involved in the parallel project of updating the index that would provide some sort of overall access to the material, which sputtered and stalled as of July 11, 2010. I myself have spent more time than I care to admit yahoo-ing for links to old posts. What's worse is that I keep finding indications that over these last four to five years there have been posts of which I have no ready recall at all.


As I mentioned Friday night, this week I thought I would just share a couple of tidbits that turned up in that large Berkshire Record Outlet order that arrived last month. As I sifted through the mass of material, I have to admit that there was a frequent impulse with happy discoveries to share them via this forum.

Friday night I shared a bit of music we'd already listened to, a specimen of the kind that I'm prone to listening to repeatedly, on and on and on: the "Moonlight Interlude" that sets the stage for the Countess's final monologue in Richard Strauss's last opera, Capriccio. The order had included a 1953 broadcast performance of the opera conducted by the composer's friend Clemens Krauss, who had in fact written the libretto for the opera (which I also pointed out that I've toiled mightily over for a lot of years now, without much yield -- except for this astounding four minutes' worth of music).

It's again something we've heard before, in an August 2010 post ("In the opening vision of Mahler's Song of the Earth: 'Dark is life, is death'") that focused on the opening song of Mahler's Song of the Earth, "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth," which we broke down into bits sung by a starry constellation of tenors. Before we were done, though, we heard all three tenor songs from this great song-symphony sung incomparably by Fritz Wunderlich.

Included in my big Berkshire order was a 1959 Rome Radio performance of Das Lied conducted by Lorin Maazel. I didn't really need another Maazel Das Lied, but what intrigued me was the pair of soloists: the charming French character tenor Michel Sénéchal and the contralto Marga Höffgen, the year before her Erda in Bayreuth's Ring cycle put her on the international map (two years later she would sing Erda in the first commercial recording of Siegfried, the second leg of the legendary Solti-Decca Ring) -- certainly an interesting credential for this music, which tends to be cast higher and lighter.

Höffgen has her moments but turns out not to have really absorbed the music into her voice. Sénéchal, however, is, well, more charming and intimate than one might imagine in this music. It's not such unusual casting, because while the first singer of these songs, at the premiere conducted by Bruno Walter following the composer's death, was the full-fledged heroic tenor Jacques Urlus (who sadly didn't record any of this music), and there's no doubt in my mind that this is the sort of voice Mahler had in his head. But one easy dodge, given the scarcity of such voices (and their possessors' likely disinclination to tackle this music), is to go almost the opposite tenorly route, with not just a lightish lyric tenor, which would describe an able advocate like Ernst Hafliger, but even to a character tenor, like Murray Dickie in the EMI recording conducted by Paul Kletzki.

I thought today we'd hear Sénéchal's performances of all three songs. In the two "drunk" songs, he's not so much the blustering angry bar drunk we usually encounter so much as some sweetly addled gentle soul sitting mostly quietly and unprepossessingly off at the end of the bar. And as long as we were at it, I decided to pair each song with one of the vast number of other performances worth hearing which I don't think we have, though even here I can't be sure. I found that I had already made an audio file of the Häfliger-Walter "Der Trunkene im Frühling," which probably means we have heard it. Damned if I can recall when, though. (Probably I mentioned that I used to hear it all the time, as it began Side 2 of the two-sided LP reissue of Walter's magnificent (and originally three-sided) 1960 recording, a side that was otherwise filled out with the otherworldly final song, "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell").

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)

i. "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde"
("The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth")

Now beckons the wine in the golden goblet,
but drink not yet, first I'll sing you a song!
The song of sorrow
shall in gusts of laughter through your souls resound.
When sorrow draws near,
wasted lie the gardens of the soul.
Withered and dying are joy and song.
Dark is life, is death.

Master of this house!
Your cellar holds its fill of golden wine!
Here, this lute I name my own!
To strike the lute and to drain the glasses,
these are the things that go together.
A full goblet of wine at the right time
is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth!
Dark is life, is death.

The firmament is blue eternally, and the earth
will long stand fast and blossom in spring.
But thou, O man, how long then livest thou?
Not a hundred years canst thou delight
in all the rotten trash of this earth!

Look there, down there! In the moonlight, on the graves
squats a mad spectral figure!
It is an ape! Hear how his howling
screams its way through the sweet fragrance of life!

Now take the wine! Now it is time, companions!
Drain your golden goblets to the dregs!
Dark is life, is death!

Michel Sénéchal, tenor; RAI (Rome) Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. Broadcast performance, Mar. 7, 1959

René Kollo, tenor; Israel Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded live, May 18-23, 1972

iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")
In the middle of the little pool
stands a pavilion of green
and of white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the bridge of jade
over to the pavilion.

In the little house friends are sitting,
beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting;
several are writing verses.

Their silken sleeves slip
backwards, their silken caps
perch gaily on the back of their necks.

On the little pool's still
surface everything appears
fantastically in a mirror image.

Everything is standing on its head
in the pavilion of green
and of white porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge,
upside-down its arch. Friends,
beautifully dressed, are drinking, chatting.

Michel Sénéchal, tenor; RAI (Rome) Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. Broadcast performance, Mar. 7, 1959

Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Live performance, Feb. 27, 1970

v. "Der Trunkene im Frühling"
("The Drunk in Spring")

If life is but a dream,
why then toil and fret?
I drink till I can drink no longer,
the whole livelong day!

And when I can drink no longer,
since gullet and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep stupendously!

What do I hear on awakening? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if the spring is here;
I feel as if it were a dream.

The bird twitters, "Yes!
Spring is here -- came overnight!"
In deepest wonder I listen.
The bird sings and laughs.

I feel my glass again,
and drain it to the dregs,
and sing, until the moon shines bright
in the black firmament.

And when I can sing no longer,
then I go back to sleep;
for what does spring matter to me?
Let me be drunk!

Michel Sénéchal, tenor; RAI (Rome) Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. Broadcast performance, Mar. 7, 1959

Ernst Häfliger, tenor; New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Apr. 18-25, 1960


As long as we were going to spotlight Sénéchal's somewhat unusual vocal presence, we should naturally hear him in more usual repertory. Naturally I thought of the first recording where he'd really grabbed my attention: an LP's worth of excerpts from Le Pré aux clercs," by Louis Joseph Hérold, whom we usually know at the composer of the Overture to Zampa. (And maybe we should hear that!) I got it off the shelf.

And surely it would be interesting to hear MS in some of his more "standard" rep. I thought of the opening Pinkerton-Goro scene (with Luciano Pavarotti) from Herbert von Karajan's Decca stereo Madama Butterfly (or more improbably the basso buffo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in Karajan's Decca stereo Bohème), or a snatch of his Cassio in Karajan's EMI Otello, or his Incredibilie in the Levine-RCA Andrea Chénier, or maybe a chunk of his Spalanzani from the Erato Tales of Hoffmann, or his Triquet in the Levine-DG Yevgeny Onegian, or his Gonzalve from the Maazel-DG L'Heure espagnole?

And then there would be the nuisance of texts for the vocal selections. . . . No, I decided, we're just not going to go there.

But I did get the Karajan-Decca Butterfly LPs off the shelf, and even started dubbing the opening scene. It's not that great really. Karajan seems to have had the idea of just hammering at the fast portions and letting the rest ride by languidly, without much energy or purpose. It's certainly not an approach that was helpful to the young Pavarotti, who (on the good side) is still singing in a strictly lyrical mode, in which the voice only occasionally catches hold of this terrific music.

Out of curiosity, I went back to Karajan's earlier Butterfly, usually thought of as "the Callas Butterfly, and discovered that already back then he was taking a similar approach, though the Scala orchestra fills it in a little more persuasively. Just to remind myself of how wonderful this opening scene is, I had to resort to the recoding conducted by Tullio Serafin, with Carlo Bergonzi et al. Ah, that's better. And better still is the recording of which we'd already heard this music, in the post devoted to the openings of nearly all the openings of Puccini's mature operas, with the beyond-complaint team of Jussi Bjoerling, Piero de Palma, and Mario Sereni.

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly: Act I, Opening scene
A hill just outside Nagasaki. A Japanese house, with terrace and garden, stands looking out over the bay, port, and town of Nagasaki. As the curtain rises, we see GORO, with much bowing, leading PINKERTON from the room at the far side of the house. With much pomposity and deference he shows all the details of the little house. He slides back one of the walls and explains the object of this convenience to PINKERTON, who is rather surprised.

PINKERTON: And ceilings and walls . . .
GORO [rather pleased by his surprise]:
They will come and will go,
just as it may suit your fancy
to exchange and to vary
new and old in the same surroundings.
PINKERTON [looking around him]: The nuptial nest is where?
GORO [pointing at two rooms]: Here, or there . . . depending . . .
PINKERTON: This too with false ends? The bedroom?
GORO [indicating the terrace]: Here it is!
PINKERTON [astounded]: In the open?
GORO [sliding a wall onto the terrace]: One slides out . . .
PINKERTON [whlie GORO slides the walls out]: I get it! I get it! Another . . .
GORO: Slides out!
PINKERTON: And this makeshift dwelling . . .
GORO [protesting]: Strong as a tower, from floor to ceiling.
PINKERTON: It's a house to be blown away.
[GORO ushers PINKERTON into the garden and claps his hands. Two men and a woman come in and slowly and humbly kneel in front of PINKERTON.]
GORO: This is the chambermaid who was already your wife's beloved servant. The cook, the manservant. They are bewildered by this great honor.
PINKERTON: Their names?
GORO [pointing to SUZUKI]: Miss Light Cloud. [Pointing to one male servant] Rising Sun's Ray. [Pointing to the other male servant] Scented Aromas.
SUZUKI [remaining on her knees but raising her head]: Your Honor smiles? The smile is a fruit and flower. Said the sage Ocunuma: The smile breaks through the web of trouble.
[PINKERTON moves away smiling. SUZUKI follows him down into the garden.]
It opens the shell for the pearl; it opens the gates of Heaven for the man. Perfume of the gods. Fountain of life. Said the sage Ocunuma: The smile breaks through the web of trouble.
[GORO, realizing that PINKERTON is beginning to be bored by SUZUKI's loquacity, claps his hands and the three servants disappear hurriedly into the house.]
PINKERTON: From her chatter that girl appears quite cosmopolitan. [To GORO, who is looking upstage] What are you looking for?
GORO: If the bride isn't coming yet.
PINKERTON: Everything is ready?
GORO: Every single thing. [He bows deeply.]
PINKERTON: Great pearl of an agent!
GORO: Here will be coming the official registrar, the relatives, your consul, the betrothed. Here the act will be signed and the marriage is done!
PINKERTON: And are there many, the relatives?
GORO: The future mother-in-law, the grandmother, her uncle the Bonze who won't dignify this with his presence, and male cousins, and female cousins! Let's put it, between forebears and contemporaries, two dozen. As for descendants, those will be provided by Your Grace and the beautiful Butterfly.
PINKERTON: Great pearl of an agent!
[GORO bows deeply.]
SHARPLESS (the U.S. consul) [offstage]: One sweats and climbs, puffs and stumbles.
GORO: The consul arrives. [He bows to the ground in front of the consul, who comes in stumbling.]
SHARPLESS: Ah, those stones have worn me out.
PINKERTON [hurries to greet the consul; the two shake hands: Welcome!
GORO: Welcome!
PINKERTON: Quickly, Goro, some refreshment.
SHARPLESS [puffing and looking around him]: High!
PINKERTON: But beautiful!
GORO [gazing at the town and sea below]: Nagasaki, the sea, the harbor . . .
PINKERTON [pointing to the house]: And a little house that obeys my commands.
[GORO comes hurrying out followed by the two servants carrying glasses and bottles, which they leave on the terrace. They go into the house while GORO prepares the drinks.]
PINKERTON: I bought it for 999 years with the ability every month to rescind the agreement. In this country houses and contracts are equally elastic.
SHARPLESS: And the clever man profits by it.
[They sit on the terrace, where GORO has prepared the drinks.]
PINKERTON: All over the world the vagabond Yankee enjoys himself and takes profit scorning risks. He drops anchor where he wishes . . . [He breaks off to offer SHARPLESS a drink] Milk punch or whiskey?
[Resuming] He drops anchor where he wishes until a storm wrecks the shop -- moorings, rigging, and all. . . . He is not content with life unless he makes the flowers on every shore his treasure.
SHARPLESS: It's an easy creed that makes life enchanting but saddens the heart . . .
PINKERTON: If he's beaten, he's up and away, seizing what life may offer elsewhere. His wits will carry him anywhere. So I am marrying Japenese-style, for 999 years, with the right to break it off every month.
SHARPLESS: It's an easy creed.
PINKERTON [standing up and touching glasses with SHARPLESS]: "America forever."
SHARPLESS: "America forever."
[They sit down again.] Is the bride beautiful?
GORO [who has been listening, steps onto the terrace eagerly]: A garland of fresh flowers. A star with a golden gleam. And for nothing: only a hundred yen. [To SHARPLESS] If Your Grace commands me, I can offer an assortment of them.
[PINKERTON stands up impatiently. SHARPLESS, laughing, follows suit.]
PINKERTON: Go, bring her, Goro!
[GORO runs off down the hill.]

Luciano Pavarotti (t), Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton; Michel Sénéchal (t), Goro; Christa Ludwig (ms), Suzuki; Robert Kerns (b), Sharpless; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Decca, recorded 1974

Nicolai Gedda (t), Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton; Renato Ercolani (t), Goro; Lucia Danieli (ms), Suzuki; Mario Borriello (b), Sharpless; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded Aug. 1-6, 1955

Carlo Bergonzi (t), Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton; Angelo Mercuriali (t), Goro; Fiorenza Cossotto (ms), Suzuki; Enzo Sordello (b), Sharpless; Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Rome), Tullio Serafin, cond. Decca, recorded July 1958

Jussi Bjoerling (t), Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton; Piero de Palma (t), Goro; Miriam Pirazzini (ms), Suzuki; Mario Sereni (b), Sharpless; Rome Opera Orchestra, Gabriele Santini, cond. EMI, recorded Sept.-Oct. 1959


So I thought we needed to continue on and let Pinkerton to explain to Sharpless, in the often-excerpted solo "Amore o grillo," that he goes where "love or fancy" takes him. And at that point, the point in fact when finally the so-much-talked-about young Butterfly finally makes her appearance, I thought we still couldn't stop.

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly: Act I, continuation of scene

Mario Sereni (b), Sharpless; Jussi Bjoerling (t), Lieut. B. F. Pinkerton; Piero de Palma (t), Goro; Victoria de los Angeles (s), Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly); Rome Opera Orchestra, Gabriele Santini, cond. EMI, recorded Sept.-Oct. 1959

[P.S.: I know there are a lot of links missing from this post. I'll try to fill them in later. Or not. What do you think this is, a Sunday Classics post?]

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