Friday, April 3, 2009

Adoring Ameling - Elly Ameling - 75 Jaar

I recently purchased and have been spending time with the 5 disc set published last year by Heartselling (with Weijman's Media Groep) in celebration of Elly Ameling's 75th birthday. The recordings are culled entirely from live performances and I can say in all honesty that for any fan of this great lady this set is a "must have" - a treasure trove spanning the years 1957 through 1991 and offering a remarkable glimpse into the career of one of the 20th century's most beloved artists.

There are some surprises not only in repertoire, but in the manner in which the music itself is laid out. Undoubtedly, some would have preferred a more chronological arc essaying the career from the beginning and working through, but this set takes a non-linear path jumping across years and achieving its order by devoting each disc to a specific theme or genre.

Disc 1 -Opera (1957-1988)
Disc 2 - German Lied (1973-1991)
Disc 3 - French Mélodies( 1979-1991)
Disc 4 - French, Dutch, Italian, English, Russian (1958-1989)
Disc 5 - 20th Century Dutch (1966 & 1977)

Each disc is a gem - a mini-retrospective of her career and while I loved luxuriating in each of them, two stood noticeably out in my early hearings. The first is the disc of German Lied. What we get here is not the wonderful Schubert or Brahms we know from this singer, but rather offerings from three wildly diverse giants: Berg, Mahler and Strauss.

The disc opens with Berg's mini masterpiece "Der Wein" - a unique hybrid combining elements of his 12 tone style with a "suggested diatonic tonality" (Perle). Ameling approaches this music no differently than Bach or Mozart - i.e., with discipline, musicianship, and artistry in equal measure, making for stimulating listening full of an almost preternatural beauty. Erich Leinsdorf and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, at every level, match the singer's intensity, making a most persuasive case for this piece.

We jump 20 years to two of the last recordings in the set: a pair of Mahler's Rückert Lieder. Here we have the first and most noticeable contrast of the early and late career Ameling: the vibrato is a bit slower, wider now, an unfamiliar strain appears in the top notes, the voice, still beautiful, has not quite that same youthful freshness we associate with it . . . and yet - there is magic here - real magic. As she finishes - "Ich bin der Welt abhänden gekommen":

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

(I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!)

I could not help but realize how inappropriate a young, fresher voice would be here. This music cannot really be "acted" in the manner of opera, and requires instead one who understands the contentment of resignation - an artist who possesses that mature joy inherent both in the text and its music. Such gracious insight cannot be acted and comes only from a life wealthy in experience and in that regard what Elly Ameling brings to this performance is extraordinary. I dare anyone not to be profoundly moved by her singing of this lied.

The following Strauss set is a delight and capped by an exquisite reading (from 1983) of the Vier letzte Lieder with Sawallisch and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. All are lovely, but "Beim Schlafengehen," (my favorite) is so beautifully captured that I had to stop and replay it before moving forward. It is as lovely a version of this song as I have experienced. Similarly, in "Im Abendrot," the innate warmth of Ameling's tone embraces and envelops the songs' breadth of range and expression and the top notes positively glow. With sympathetic playing from her fellow musicians these Four Last Songs make for a very special listening experience.

The other disc that I must write about introduces two new (to me) works: Bertus van Lier's 1949 oratorio "The Song of Songs" for soloists, orchestra and chorus and Robert Heppener's 1925 "Cantico delle Creature di San Francesco d'Assisi."

In the van Lier, Ameling puts across the English text idiomatically and exotically adding to the Eastern-influenced sound of the score. While decidedly modern van Lier has more a feel of the late romantic (think Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder") while remaining highly original. The work itself is often thrilling, offering great opportunities for a trio of singers, chorus and orchestra. Its being in English, makes it even more of a pity it is so infrequently given outside of Holland.

The piece closing the entire box set, Heppener's cantata "Cantico delle Creature di San Francesco d'Assisi," has something of the miracle about it. As I listened I could not help but feel part of some great benediction, so caught up was I in the sense of praise and mystery and glory of the music. A gifted composer, Heppener fell victim to the avant garde craze shortly after this critically acclaimed piece premiered. nearly disappearing until remerging at 60 to begin a second composition career. His work, based on the prayer of praise of St. Francis is nothing short of stunning. Written for soprano and strings (including harp) the solo line weaves throughout, incorporating an almost dance-like rhythm, before soaring off in praise and meditation. Ameling's singing here radiates that same joy Heppener seeks to invoke from the Saint in this marvelous piece. There is a sort of universal spirituality recalling both Messiaen and Villa Lobos (and not necessarily the works one might most obviously associate with these composers). Here, too, is an evocation of the world great cultures and religions: Russian Orthodox, Greek, and (most notably to my ear) Spain, providing a rhythmic theme to which the singer returns throughout. I've found this beautiful piece and Ameling's rendering of it, has the power to hypnotize and I've not been able to listen to it once, without beginning it again. I can think of no more joyous, way to end this project.

Time and space constrain my ability to describe, but not my enthusiasm for. the other three discs. The disc of opera arias allows us a glimpse into a part of Ameling's career most of her fans never had the opportunity to hear her in. In addition to some ravishingly sung Mozart (Figaro, Cosi, Idomeneo) we also get arias from Bizet, Gounod, and Maillert.

The French disc brings delightful and expressive offerings from Debussy, Duparc, Faure and Ravel. Few singers can put across Faure and Debussy as magically as Ms. Ameling showed us throughout her long career and her distinct qualities for this music are here captured brilliantly and will be for many, a beautiful walk down Memory Lane. The songs - all of them - are touching, elegant, beguiling - the singer never taking a false step or lapsing into misplaced sentimentality. Ameling is able too, to add that necessary soupcon of insouciance so few singers are able to pull off without sounding arch or artificial.

The fourth disc is a smorgasbord - as varied as the programming we could always count on in an Ameling recital: Mussorgsky, Andriessen, Stravinsky, Dallapicccola, Rossini, Tosti and more, all dispatched with that joy of singing we Ameling fans learned early on to always expect, but never took for granted.

The set is accompanied by a booklet with nearly a dozen lovely photographs of the singer throughout her career, prefaced by a facsimile of a handwritten note from Ms. Ameling, for the occasion as well as also a brief biography (in Dutch) and the texts of all material included in their original languages.

There is much to recommend here and all of it to treasure. The very uniqueness of such a set, covering such diversity of repertoire and spanning so many years make it invaluable. For fans of Ms. Ameling, this truly is a "must have" box set, but also, for younger audiences or anyone who might be unfamiliar, here is a big, wonderfully fascinating retrospective of an important artist at her work. I know of no finer recommendation than that.

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