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CD Review

Two Sopranos

Claude Debussy

Forgotten Songs

  • Vasnier Songbook
  • Forgotten Melodies
  • Five Poems of Charles Baudelaire
Dawn Upshaw, soprano
James Levine, piano
Sony SK67190 73:56
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  • Selections by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Wolf, Rossini, Mascagni, Fauré, and Gounod
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Anthony Newman, organ & harpsichord
Nancy Allen, harp
The American Boychoir/Robert Sadin
Sony SK62035 51:24
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A few questions for the opera and song lovers (and diva fans). Which of the two sopranos above is the better known? The more controversial? The more charismatic? Which one delivers a decidedly better recital here? If you answered Kathleen Battle to the first three, you score 100% on a trio of pretty easy questions. But now on to the one you're supposed to have missed – it's Upshaw who wins this battle (pun intended).

Calme dans le demi-jour, Claire de lune, and Paysage sentimental from the Vasnier Songbook are rendered especially beautifully, beguilingly really. Not that the remainder of this set of twelve songs isn't sung with the same level of artistry – I'm merely singling out a few favorites from among the many choice nuggets. Try, also, the opening song, C'est l'extase langoureuse, from Forgotten Melodies to hear exquisite beauty and subtlety, Upshaw's voice just seeming to float so gently and beautifully, your ears following mesmerically. And she is just as convincing in the more substantive, more interpretively demanding Baudelaire songs. James Levine's accompaniment is splendid throughout the disc. Perhaps he should consider recording some of Debussy's solo piano music. Sound and notes are excellent, and complete texts are given.

Having written above that Battle is outclassed by Upshaw, I hope I haven't given the impression that her effort here is to be dismissed altogether. Battle is one of that rare breed of artists of whom you always sit up and take notice. A comparison with her that comes to mind is the seemingly incongruous one of the late Vladimir Horowitz. Here was a pianist, who could be hot and cold but never boring. At his most wayward, he was always compelling in some way, always thought-provoking. And here, while Battle is never what I'd call wayward in her singing, she does seem ensconced in her own world. Put bluntly, she sounds somewhat self-possessed on this disc. Nothing, however, is less than beautifully sung, exquisitely phrased, and musically sensitive. Yet she seems more concerned about technique and the sounds she produces than with the meanings behind the texts. Still, the performances overall satisfy. Her Händel Rejoice Greatly and O Had I Jubal's Lyre sparkle, even if they are a tad stiff, and her Fauré Pie Jesu and the traditional hymn Were You There When They Crucified My Lord (sung A cappella) are certainly delivered with reverential commitment. But her Bach Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not and Schafe Können come across somewhat coldly, and her Wolf Schlafendes Jesuskind, while undeniably beautiful and sensitive, often makes you wish Battle's soft tones were projected a bit more, and that her dynamics in general were a tad less extreme. Sony provides good sound throughout this disc, and accompaniments are fine. Informative notes and full texts.

Copyright © 1998, Robert Cummings