Maureen Forrester – Berlin, 1955-1963 = Vocal music of MAHLER, LOEWE, BRAHMS, SCHUMANN, SCHUBERT, FRANCK, HAYDN, BRITTEN & others – Audite (3 CDs)

by | Sep 26, 2016 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Audite gathers integral Maureen Forrester performances from RIAS that testify to her colossal range.

Maureen Forrester – Berlin, 1955-1963 = MAHLER: Five Songs by Friedrich Rueckert; LOEWE: Four Songs, Op. 9; WAGNER: Gretchen am Spinnrade; Wesendonck Lieder; BRAHMS: 8 Gypsy Songs from Op. 103; SCHUBERT: 11 Songs; SCHUMANN: Five Songs; Gedichte der Koenigin Maria Stuart, Op. 135; C.P.E. BACH: Two Songs; J.W. FRANCK: Two Songs; HAYDN: Arianna a Naxos; BRITTEN: A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41; BARBER: Melodies Passageres, Op. 27; POULENC: La Fraichaeur et le Feu; Le Travail du Peintre – Maureen Forrester, alto/ Hertha Klust, Felix Schroeder & Michael Raucheisen, piano – Audite 21.437 (3 CDs) 62:26, 60:11, 67:27 (8/12/16) [Distr. by Naxos]  *****:

When we read the biography of Canadian alto Maureen Forrester (1930-2010), we note how many points of commonality she shared with her great British counterpart Kathleen Ferrier in musical associations. Forrester, who found her original impetus into the classical repertory via baritone Bernard Diamant (1912-1999), made her debut in 1951 in Elgar’s The Music Makers. She then found pianist John Newmark, who had gained a reputation after WW II for accompanying Kathleen Ferrier. Forrester’s European debut came in 1955 at the Salle Gaveau; then she came to New York’s Town Hall in November 1956. That previous November she had auditioned for Ferrier’s great supporter, Bruno Walter, for a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony that took place in 1957 in Carnegie Hall, followed by the CBS recording that remains a classic.  Noted for her exquisite diction and natural contralto, low and dusky voice, Forrester eschewed roles that demanded sustained chest tone, though when required she could produce what Edward Downes called “a superb voice of generous compass and volume.” Though not drawn naturally to opera, Forrester did work with the New York City Opera in 1966 – singing in Handel’s Giulio Cesare the role of Cornelia to that of the Cleopatra of Beverly Sills. In 1975, Forrester gave fourteen performances of diverse roles at the MET.  Forrester’s list of recordings proves impressive, and includes early music; Bach solo cantatas under Scherchen, Janigro, and Heiller; and Mahler under the direction of Walter, Haitink, Prohaska, Ormandy, Fricsay, Munch, and Reiner.

From the present cornucopia of Forrester treasures, I started with the late (1852) Schumann cycle (rec. December 7 1955), his Gedichte der Koenigin Maria Stuart, his last major work for voice.  The unrelieved pathos of these five songs comes in the form of their minor-key settings – e minor and a minor for the first three settings – and the fact that the lachrymose texts derive from Mary herself, versified by Gisbert Vincke. Even the second song, celebrating the birth of a son, seems fatalistic. The bleak, spare writing certainly contrasts to our expectations of the Schumann style, especially given the inclusion of five of his earlier songs from a recital a week prior, the 7th of December 1955, also accompanied by the subtle tones of veteran Michael Raucheisen. The Prayer echoes the late Brahms, especially in the Four Serious Songs; here, the passion in Mary Stuart  – both as persecutor and victim – bears a poignancy that shakes us.

From the same 7 December 1955 session Forrester delivers eleven Schubert songs in a style thoroughly congruent to what we expect from Lotte Lehmann or Kirsten Thorborg. Ardent faith shines in “Die Allmacht.” “Die junge Nonne,” a modified strophic song, confronts a novitiate with the storms of nature, so that the young nun recalls the trials that influenced her to alter her life’s mission. Forrester softens the volume of her voice to accommodate the change of heart implicit in the nun’s passionate character. Attend to the even quality of Raucheisen’s right hand throughout. Of the remainder of the songs, most affecting is Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s “An den Mond,” an introspective and bucolic meditation born of tragic events. Love and tragedy – the poem had its inspiration from a suicide that occurred near the poet’s home – fuse the images of the river waters that offer transcendence with smothering death, at once. A more negative emotion lets loose in “Aufloesung,” (“Dissolution”), in which the narrator embraces an oblivion in death that neutralizes the seductions of nature. The last of the set, “Schwestergruss,” has a funereal opening, with the piano’s tolling bells that progress into a visitation from a dead sister who leaves a cautionary message of the afterlife. Forrester performs it with the same eerie character – messe di voce – we might associate with “Der Erlkoenig.”

Forrester recalled that the first Mahler she ever performed was for Bruno Walter for the short but demanding fourth movement of the Resurrection Symphony. With pianist Hertha Klust (31 March 1960) Forrester intones a diaphanous “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” to open the Rueckert group. Even in some difficult high tessitura, Forrester’s diction proves flawless. We can intuit her work in the “Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde and in any cantata or passion of Bach. “Liebst du um Schoenheit” well expresses hers and Mahler’s aesthetic ethos. The shades of mortality run deep in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” much as they had for Kathleen Ferrier, especially in their mutual command of breathed phrases. The varied emotions of “Um Mitternacht” in the face of loss culminate in the line, “Into Thy Hand, Lord of Life and Death,” a concession to an often grudging faith, here rendered with a cruel resignation.

From the same session with Klust, Forrester performs an extended scena (in German) by Haydn (1790), Arianna auf Naxos, rife with startling harmonic modulations, set as two recitatives and two arias. The music offers a stark sense of ornament and a limited tessitura, so Forrester relies on her natural affinity for spoken drama.

On this same program, Forrester and Klust collaborate in Poulenc’s La Travail du Peintre, a series of seven “portraits” of selected artists based on Paul Eluard’s book of poetic sketches, Voir: Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miro, and Villon. The compressed cycle as a whole revels in Poulenc’s “dynamic sensitivity” in regard to vocal and keyboard nuance, especially in his approximating color rhythms in music. Picasso is set in C Major, but its angular violence suggests the Spaniard’s willful defiance of tradition. Chagall receives an ambling scherzo. Braque has a tender and lyrical song, a tribute to the painter’s bird motifs. The central song, to Juan Gris, delivers the masterpiece, a paean of affection in modal colors. Paul Klee comes and goes, presto. Joan Miro receives perhaps the most intricate – and affectionate – of metric designs, especially in tempo adjustments. Jacques Villon opens as a declamation, but the patina softens as Forrester proceeds, “an affecting moment of humanity.” Poulenc had wanted to conclude with a tribute to Matisse, but the artist’s death in 1952 precluded that entry.

The historical value of the set may well lie in Forrester’s work with the “integral” pianist Michael Raucheisen (1889-1984), who had been rehabilitated from his work for National Socialist Germany. The Carl Loewe (4 December 1955) set avoids the typical ballads, and Forrester opts for ardent expression and simplicity of delivery, especially in “Ach neige, du Schmerzenreiche.” Forrester’s dramatic range emerges strongly in “Die Lotosblume.” How closely Loewe can approach the Mahler expression shines in the last of the set, “Das Staendchen.” The same December session gives us Wagner’s Wesensonck Lieder (1857-1858), from which we garner adumbrations of Tristan und Isolde. “Im Treibhaus” resonates with Act III of Tristan, and we easily hear a dusky-voiced Forrester as Isolde. After some histrionics in “Schmerzen,” the final “Traeume” seals the love-death motif with a sighed kiss.

Of the “modern” cycles by Britten (18 September 1958) and Barber (9 September 1963), Forrester has accompaniment, respectively, with Felix Schoeder and Hertha Klust, performing the Barber cycle (1952) in a slightly askew order that the alto followed in her live performances. Barber chose poems by Rilke, those written in imitation of Paul Valery. Felix Schoeder plays liquid figures while Forrester intones in suave French. Funereal fourths and fifths announce the Tombeau dans un parc, a bell-effect consonant with Ravel until arpeggios signal a passing white dove. Un cygne has Schoeder play fourths in the left hand for the dark waters over which the swan glides. Forrester opts to sing the last song, Depart, prior to Le clocher chante. The former serves as a gentler form of Ravel’s Le Gibet, with constant Gs in somber ostinato. With Le clocher chante, the carillon tones celebrate the Valais, and Forrester’s high floating tone could be mistaken for the voice of Leontyne Price. Britten’s 1947 set of lullabies (18 September 1958) for Nancy Evans offer comfort, except for the disturbing “A Charm” by Thomas Randolph, which threatens various afflictions – including fire and brimstone –  if the child does not go to sleep. From that 18 September 1958 session we have four selections – two by C.P.E. Bach and two by Johann Wolfgang Franck – that display Forrester’s chastity and directness of style in early music of devotional character.

—Gary Lemco


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