Thursday, December 15, 2005


Opera critic Conrad L. Osborne is someone whose praises I have previously sung (opera, sung, get it?). Having found some of the old High Fidelity "Records in Review" volumes, I thought I'd offer a few more quotes that demonstrate his understanding of voices. Here are quotes from Osborne's reviews of recital discs by young singers -- singers who went on to achieve major stardom. Osborne's description of their debut recitals, and their strengths and weaknesses, is as good and detailed and accurate as if he'd been familiar with their work for twenty years, and his analysis of the problem spots in the singers' voices and techniques is always prescient.

(Placido Domingo)
The voice is extremely attractive and quite individual in timbre, having considerable liquidity but a good ring, too. It has some of the nasality so often found in Spanish tenors -- a product, one assumes, of linguistic influences, though perhaps of pedagogic tradition, as well. The bottom sometimes has a trace of huskiness, which he often turns to coloristic effect.
His singing is always smooth and tasteful, and from time to time strikingly beautiful. There are limitations on it: the very top seems inconsistent, with B flat the highest absolutely secure note; and it does not seem fully open-throated, with the result that the volume, though certainly satisfactory, remains on the moderate side; and there is always a certain amount of driving as the voice moves through the break.

(Luciano Pavarotti)
Pavarotti shows a meaty, wide-ranged lyric tenor, and a technique that is sufficiently complete to make him the most accomplished tenor to come out of Italy in a number of years... intonation is excellent, the top is secure at least through the C, and the tone even takes on, from time to time, the kind of spin and movement that bespeaks real freedom -- the true vocal vibrato... further, Pavarotti sings with a clean, well-knit line and with a relish for the words -- not so much as dramatic meaning but as pure sound; the beauty of the Italian language is restored.
Apart from a very occasional bleatiness when he drives the voice at the top, he shows a limitation only when it comes to grading down the dynamics; in this respect, he merely joins the group... to be sure, Pavarotti can execute decrescendos and observe markings of p or pp. But the results are apt to be strained or downright ugly.

(Montserrat Caballé)
In addition to its individual and beautiful quality, the voice clearly has size, flexibility and a wide range, with authentic chest strength -- sparingly used, I am happy to say -- at the bottom and clear, focused, steady Bs and Cs at the top (though it does not seem to be the sort of voice that opens out effulgently at the top; rather, it points, on peaks, to a very compact tone). The temperament seems genuine and large-scale; one might be reminded of the young Victoria De Los Angeles had the latter had about her something more of the diva....
Complaints? Yes, of a provisional nature, since one never knows what will turn out to be an unforgettable part of a major artist's make-up and what will harden into mannerism. Since I do not enjoy any distortion, however small, that smacks of vocal compromise, I would just as soon not hear consonants transformed for the sake of comfort -- this is not a "Casta diva," for example, but a "Gasta" diva. I aslo do not care for low phrases in which every other note is attacked with a sort of yodel, or gulp, or flip. It is certainly unnecessary and certainly disturbing to the continuity of the line; and if it has any emotional or interpretative significance (what would it be?), it is banished through indiscriminate and repeated use.

The great thing about Osborne's criticism is that you can listen to any singer after reading his reviews and hear exactly what he describes -- the good and the bad, the trade-mark devices and the mannerisms. Writing about music is difficult because you're trying the almost counter-intuitive task of describing sounds using words. I can't think of anyone who has done it better than C.L.O.

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