The cover is less than wonderful, I will give you that. But then, there are only so many ways to package an operetta album. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf pulled off stern and sophisticated for hers, but ABC Classics is less brave than that, and justifiably so. So, I bite my tongue and I accept the purple feathers — which are her own — and the swinging chandelier — which is not — and I thank heavens for small mercies, that she is not wielding a glass of artificial champagne. Inside, there is another photo, less glitzy, more natural and much more her. I poached it for the album art on my iPod. It comes closer to representing what this recital is. The too-purple cover represents what it is not.
What it is not is a "swirling, vibrantly-coloured" album. Nor is it "a blaze of gypsy fire". And it does not cause any "glittering ballrooms" to "come alive". Which is not to say it is not as evocative or appealing as these descriptions are trying to suggest: but these kitschy descriptions have little, if anything, to do with the warm, intimate and very grown up kind of operetta actually presented in this recital. It certainly is richly coloured, but if it's the nasty, garish colours of the frocks a schlock-merchant-who-shall-remain-nameless designs for his dancing girls that you're expecting, seek elsewhere. She isn't for you. (A redundant observation, I suspect, because the same is true of this blog.)
If wishes were changes, if timing were perfect, if I ruled ABC Classics with an iron, sopranocentric fist, this CD would have happened earlier. It would have happened in 2002, at the time she recorded Sylva Varescu in Die Csardasfürstin for Naxos, also under Richard Bonynge. It was one of the very best years for her voice. She had the high range sparkle of her youth, mingled devastatingly with the darkening, ever more interesting middle voice of maturity. She didn't sound a thing like a real showgirl, but who the hell cared? She sounded like beauty personified. It's one of my most treasured of her recordings.
But life is life, this CD didn't happen then. It happened now. Some of those advantages have begun to fade. Others remain as present as ever. So I say, but why would you believe me? On the face of it, I know, I am the least qualified critic of her singing in the world, since I am the person who went (and remains, in case you were wondering) crazier for her than anyone else — well, anyone else I know of — in the world. But there is another side to that coin. Listen to a voice every day for four years (yes, really — well, almost) and you start to know its ins and outs. Admire and adore a person and you learn to acknowledge faults without allowing those faults to shake your regard. Maybe we think of diva worship as a blind affection but this is something else, it is not about obliviousness to faults; it is about hearing every fault and caring not one little bit. I love the faults as much as the glories, sometimes even a little bit more. This doesn't, of course, make me any less biased in my final assessment, but at least it makes the path to that assessment a bit more realistic.
I don't have the vocabulary, or the detailed understanding of recording production, to explain exactly what it is, but it is clear from the first track that this disc has been recorded in what I can only describe as a very considerate manner. The voice seems very far forward. The orchestra seems to be over there somewhere. The conditions allow Yvonne to sing soft where, in live performance, she possibly would not. Arias which could easily stand grander, more soaring delivery are instead quieter, simpler affairs. Arias which are meant to be quiet, simple affairs — "Im chambre séparée" and "Einer wird kommen" for instance — are captivatingly intimate. Others will say, and have said, "the high notes are not what they once were" and so on. This is obvious. And true.
But here's the deeper truth — as lovely, as thrilling, as exquisite as those high notes were, and occasionally still are, they were never, ever, the most important, or most gorgeous, or most interesting part of her voice. And maybe that is especially true now, but it was always so. The sensual middle, which brought a certain frisson to even the rest-home hits of Simple Gifts; the commitment to text; the knock-out phrasing; the joy-filled agility; the smile in the voice; the rigorous technique concealed within singing which sounds as natural as breathing — that's where the money has always been. So it is no surprise, and no particular disappointment, to find that beauty in this recording has been sought and cultivated away from the high lying passages. These are dashed off with as much shine as can be mustered, impeccable style, the odd harsh edge but never downright ugliness. The heart of the disc, its moments of real delight: these are elsewhere.
So listen to the scrupulously observed acciaccature (I think?) of "Grüss dich Gott", or the perfectly measured rhythm of "Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein". Be drawn into the beguiling whisper of "Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume" or the cabaret purr of "Toujours l'amour" or the exotic lilt of the opening of "Hör ich Zymbalklänge". Appreciate the affection with which a favourite like "Vilja" is sung, even if, like me, you never need to hear it ever again.
And then, yes, there are more problematic tracks. With the orchestra kept so firmly in check, arias like the Nuns' Chorus, and "Heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland" and the raucous gypsy climax of the abovementioned "Hör ich Zymbalklänge" have their purpose defeated. What these arias really need is BIG singing and BIG orchestra, and in this recording, that's not what they get. They charm (me, at least) in other ways: in phrasing, in spirit, in sense of humour. But "Oh Marie, wie entflieh'" is ultimately too strained to fly through the cloister as it ought, and "Hör ich" comes to pieces as it speeds up — not a patch on Pilar Lorengar's magnificent rendition.
In this very Viennese recital, I could take or leave the English selections. Still, the Novello pieces are sweetly sung. There's real feeling in "My Dearest Dear", despite its cloying title. In "Some day my heart will awake" (her second recording of this song) she wisely opts out of the high note, choosing instead to hold the note she does hit for a long, long time, letting it fade softly into nothing. She also sings the wrong word in the preceding phrase, which I love. There is only one song which should have been just plain omitted, and that's Kreisler's dreary "Stars in my Eyes", a song which does nobody any favours — not Yvonne, not Kreisler and not whichever cousin of McGonagall wrote the disastrous lyrics, which run, in part:
No longer but a dream.
My cheeks aglow,
Like sunlight on a stream.
You get the picture. If only my telepathic suggestion had been detected, and this had been replaced with the sublime "Warum hast du mich wachgeküsst" (from Lehar's Friederike) but alas, 'twas not to be.
Having begun with a cheery hello, the Countess' "Grüss dich Gott" from Wiener Blut, the recital ends with a dreamy goodbye. Paul Abraham's Viktoria und ihr Husar might have a ridiculous title and a laughable plot, but there's nothing very silly about "Good Night". Schmaltzy in the best sense, sincere and tender. All the best qualities of her singing as captured on this recording culminate here, in this exquisite farewell. The blessings of this recital may be mixed, it's true, but it ends exactly as it should — with Yvonne working magic.
This, quite clearly, is not a review in any rational sense. It's not a recommendation. I have no idea what anyone else will make of this disc. I just know that, to nobody's surprise and in spite of any blemishes, I like it. Voices change from year to year, day to day even, but Yvonne is a treasure however she sounds.