In our series of unsung concertos, here comes a composition that is actually sung but the words are not articulated! As we all know, the human voice has long been considered the quintessential musical instrument. Capable of producing an intricate array of sounds over an extended vocal range, the tone of the voice may be modulated to suggest a wide variety of emotions. Beginning in the 17th century, the French composers Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote vocal exercises without words, which could be sung on one or more vowel sounds. And if you ever walked through a vocal studio or listened to an opera singer warming up, you know exactly what I mean! Primarily a pedagogical tool to improve vocal technique, these short wordless songs gradually became known as “Vocalise.”
Following in the footsteps of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Nikolai Medtner and Igor Stravinsky, the Soviet composer Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) wrote his “Vocalise” in 1943. However, Glière’s composition is crucially different from those of his predecessors. Rather than relying on a simple piano accompaniment, Glière utilizes a symphony orchestra and ultimately turns his Vocalise into a full-scale concerto. Dedicated to the Russian cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, the Concerto in F Minor for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra is cast in two movements. Surprisingly, Glière gives no instruction about the type of vocal sounds required, and there are no provisions in the score for actually taking a breath. In the absence of text, musical expression is left entirely up to the soprano. In fact, the whole composition is conceived as though the voice was an instrument of almost limitless possibilities. From the highly melancholy and lyrical “Andante” to the good-natured and humorous vocal brilliance of the “Allegro,” Glière fashioned a highly unusual composition full of ornamented arabesques and delicate vocal gymnastics. The work is reasonably popular, with every aspiring high-school soprano around the world taking a vocal stab! I hope, I will be forgiven for including this sung concerto under the “unsung concerto” heading!
Reinhold Glière: Concerto in F Minor for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 82
In the season of celebration a critic may lead the revels or cast a shadow like the uninvited wedding-guest. In the present instance I can't quite wholeheartedly appear as the first and am unwilling to perform as the latter. Dessay is a singer of real merit, distinguished among her present-day colleagues and, as Michel Parouty's notes remind us, in line with some notables of the past. I don't find a personal timbre that might bring a thrill of recognition such as often arises out of a chance encounter with a great singer. Nor, in the flesh or to some extent on records, have I found a purity, warmth or (complete) steadiness of tone to draw me into its orbit and place it (let's say) among these I have loved.
But, make out a form where separate items in the high sporano's attainments are listed and I'd probably have to tick every box. Range, flexibility, intonation, precision, scale-work, trills, staccati: all of these. There is an imaginative care, too, which looks for poetry in the once-hackneyed songs of Dinorah and Lakmé. Juliette's waltz-song is animated with a youthful zest which knows that excitement may lie in the shade as well as in the light. Lucie's madness (for this is the French version) derives its effectiveness from keenly observed hints in the score interpreted with a full exercise of every technical and emotional faculty.
In the three Mozart arias she is particularly admirable. The Queen of Night imposes a glittering, fearsomely precise authority; her daughter (moved along at a quickish tempo) grows into womanhood and turns in dejection towards a kindly death; and in the concert aria Alceste addresses the people of Thessaly with passion, hitting squarely the G in alt, the highest note Mozart wrote for the voice. Rachmaninov's Vocalise muses luxuriously, and Bernstein's Cunegonde brings the unexpected revelation of comic grandeur.
The DVD shows her also to be a producer's dream, acting out his liveliest fancies, and singing just as well whether running about, lying down or copulating with a fly. She seems infinitely adaptable. For instance, in one production of Les contes d'Hoffmann, the doll is all jerky mechanics, in another (the song taken adagio) she appears to be comforting the inmates of an asylum, and in a third she is a diminutive Shirley Temple figure backed by six outsize replicas. There are two Zerbinettas, with only their notes and bare midriffs in common. The mad scenes of Lucie and Ophélie are undoubted triumphs but take an inordinately long time. “Glitter and be gay”, from the Glyndebourne celebration of 1997, is even better seen than merely heard, and so, according to taste (for this contains the copulatory matter) is the mouche duet from Orphée aux enfers, with the finale thrown in for good measure.