11 October 2010

Dinner with Leo Slezak and Tito Schipa

Sunday night, I had dinner with Dick Mackey, a retired horn player from the Boston Symphony, and his wife Wendy. Dinner parties at the Mackeys always bring together the most fascinating and unexpected assortments of guests, never failing to spark wonderful, warm, wide-ranging, and cultured conversation, without the least hint of pretense, fueled by a seemingly unending supply of good wine and good music.

Sunday was no exception.  The guests included Viennese emigre, Harold Basser, a structural engineer with the most wide-ranging cultural knowledge of anyone I've met in years (and who can apparently sing all of Rosenkavalier from memory); Robert Sheena, principal English Horn in the BSO and his wife Jane; Fredrik and Jane Wanger; and the most extraordinary dog & cat duo of my acquaintance, Hal and Clark.  (Also in attendance was an unemployed musicologist from Roslindale whose name escapes me at the moment.)

As usual, Dick showed off his most recently acquired Mozart first editions (beautiful).  Harold, who escaped from Vienna near the end of 1938, had avoided returning until 2005, when his daughter talked him into showing her the city from his point of view; he made me feel homesick by lapsing into Wienerisch (the rest of the time, he sounds like a New Yorker).  As I told him, Vienna is the only place for which I've ever felt homesick, and I mentioned Edge's Theory of Homesickness (developed from my experience in Vienna): you have to love and hate a place in order to feel homesick for it.

The main course (prepared by Wendy) was swordfish.  Outstanding.

After dinner, we listened to recordings of the tenors Leo Slezak (1873-1946), whose singing I knew only slightly; and Tito Schipa (1888-1965), whom I didn't know at all.  Because Schubert was one of the running themes of the evening's conversation (I had the opportunity before dinner to bore everyone with my recent research into the "Unfinished" Symphony), we listened to some of Slezak's extraordinary recordings of Schubert (and other) Lieder.  His soft singing was extraordinary, perhaps the best I've ever heard by a tenor.

So far as I can see, none of the Slezak recordings we listened to last night are available online.  But here is a recording of him singing "An die Musik" which gives a good sense of his subtlety, control, and nuance.

Today, while looking for recordings of Slezak online, I ran across ten digitized cylinder recordings from 1910-1913 at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project based at University of California, Santa Barbara. So far as I can see, the site doesn't offer a way of embedding these recordings into blog posts. But for a sample, listen to Slezak's lovely rendition of the "Preislied" from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (The accompaniment, somewhat disconcertingly, sounds like an Italian municipal brass band.)

Schipa was a revelation. We listened to recordings of him singing Scarlatti, Handel, Tosti, and the like. His tone glows (he reminds me of an Italian Wunderlich), his diction and intonation are perfect, and he sings with a wonderful directness and lack of affectation. He's apparently become a great favorite among some high-level instrumental performers, and I can see why. I wouldn't hesitate to use Schipa to illustrate how to play the cantabile lines in a Mozart sonata or concerto.

Here's one of the tracks we listened to last night, "Che farò senza Euridice?" It nearly made me tear up (something that hardly ever happens anymore).

Every word is crystal clear.

And finally, here are three photos of Hal and Clark. These date from 2008 (Wendy sent them to me when I was taking Bruce Blumberg's "Cogntive Dog" at Harvard Extension), and Hal looks a bit more mature now. But their easy and playful interaction is the same.

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