Sunday, February 12, 2017

Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)


10pm ET UPDATE: We have Yevgeny Onegin audio files!

Anneliese Rothenberger and Nicolai Gedda as Constanze
and Belmonte in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio,
from the cover of their 1966 EMI recording

MOZART: The Abduction from the Seraglio: Overture and Belmonte's entrance aria, "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen?"
BELMONTE: Here am I then to see you,
Constanze -- you, my happiness?
Let Heaven make it happen!
Give me my peace back!
I suffered sorrows,
o Love, all too many of them.
Grant me now in their place joys
and bring me toward the goal.

[aria at 4:35] Nicolai Gedda (t), Belmonte; Vienna Philharmonic, Josef Krips, cond. EMI, recorded February 1966

Now here it is sung by a younger, fresher-voiced Nicolai --

[aria at 4:20] Nicolai Gedda (t), Belmonte; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Hans Rosbaud, cond. Recorded live at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, July 11, 1954

Finally, here it is sung in English (from a complete Abduction
recording based on a Phoenix Opera Group production) --

[in English; aria at 4:10] Nicolai Gedda (t), Belmonte; Bath Festival Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin, cond. EMI, recorded Oct.-Dec. 1967 (now available in Chandos's opera-in-English series)

by Ken

Although Nicolai Gedda continued singing publicly well into his 70s, he had, not surprisingly, slipped out of the international circuit well before then, and since he was 91 when he died on February 8, in Switzerland, it may be that to younger music lovers the Swedish tenor is just a name, if that. But there was a time, and a fairly long one at that, when he seemed to be everywhere, singing more or less everything -- at least everything assumable by a generous-voiced lyric tenor, in the wide range of languages in which he sang with both technical and expressive assurance.


In the opera house, in the concert hall, and of course on records, singing (as noted above) just about anything you could think of -- always reliably, always sensibly. So I was surprised, dipping into the "Sunday Classics" archives, to find out how often he has been pressed into service here, singing all sorts of stuff.

A nice remembrance could have been fashioned from that accidental assortment, and we'll probably do something along those lines eventually, but it needs some sorting and filling in, so for now I thought we'd just recall a few things with a couple of additions. So it wasn't all that surprising that he was represented, among several tenor numbers we've had relatively recent occasion to listen to which have special power for me, in a French one, one that in fact places a premium on an understanding projection of the text: the opening narration of Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ). I was surprised to find that I appreciated Gedda's earnest recording more than I remembered.

BERLIOZ: L'Enfance du Christ: Opening narration
In the manger at this time Jesus had just been born,
but no wonder had yet made him known.
And already the powerful were trembling;
already the weak were hoping.
Everyone was waiting.

Now learn, Christians, what a monstrous crime
was suggested to the King of the Jews by terror.
And the celestial warning that in their humble stable
was sent to the parents of Jesus by the Lord.

Nicolai Gedda (t), Narrator; Paris Conservatory Orchestra, André Cluytens, cond. EMI, recorded c1966

This is a reminder that especially in New York Gedda was best appreciated in French repertory, during decades in which France had stopped producing tenors of international caliber, leaving an important chunk of the repertory to the mercies of a corps of international tenors whose virtues didn't include singing persuasively in French. And I expect we'll be hearing him in a number of other French selections.

It was a lot less expected to find Gedda represented when we focused on the opening recitative of Handel's Messiah, with its singular power to bring a measure of peace to a soul in turmoil. Gedda had been the surprising choice for the tenor part when Otto Klemperer recorded the timeless oratorio.

HANDEL: Messiah: Part I, "Comfort ye, my people" . . . "Every valley shall be united"
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
-- Isaiah XL:1-3
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
-- Isaiah XL:4

Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1965

As much as Gedda was valued for his sturdy competence in so much repertory that was underserved by tenors of international caliber, he could hold his own in the big test pieces of the tenor repertory, like this, one of the most cherished effusions produced for lyric-tenor effusion. (We poked at "Una furtiva lagrima" a bit back in December 2011.)
[UPDATE: Okay, now we've got the complete audio file, with both the recitative and aria tracks. In Internet Archive's shiny new format, I've figured out how to reverse-engineer embed codes, but only for files that contain a single track. In this case, though, I should have dug out the embed code I've used previously. That's what I've done now. Snarl, hiss.]

DONIZETTI: L'Elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love): Act II, "Una furtiva lagrima"
A furtive tear
welled up in her eye.
Those carefree girls
she seemed to envy.
Why should I look any further?
She loves me, yes, she loves me.
I can see it, I can see it.

To feel for just one moment
the beating of her dear heart!
To blend my sighs
for a little with hers!
Heavens, I could die;
I ask for nothing more.
I could die of love.
-- English translation by Kenneth Chalmers

Nicolai Gedda (t), Nemorino; Rome Opera Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded August 1966

[Sorry, this section is screwed up by missingness of the audio files. I took the first hundred or so technical hurdles to this post with a minimum of kicking and screaming, but at this point I confess I lost it.] (Let's pretend it never happened!)

For those of us not familiar with the singer's bio, the most unexpected of "his" languages has always been his Russian. However, as Margalit Fox notes in the NYT obit: "Russian, along with Swedish, was his native language." Fox devotes a surprising amount of space to Gedda's doubly half-Russian heritage ("He was abandoned as a child by one Russian father and reared by another") and the curious circumstances surrounding and growing out of it, but then, why not? It's an interesting story.
The permutations of Mr. Gedda’s name over time attest to the volatile nature of his childhood:

According to his memoir, “Nicolai Gedda: My Life & Art,” published in English in 1999, he was born in Stockholm on July 11, 1925. The son of an unwed teenage waitress, Clary Linnea Lindstrom, and an unemployed father of Russian-Swedish parentage, Nikolai Gädda, he was christened Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda.

His parents abandoned him at birth and planned to consign him to an orphanage. But when he was six days old, his father’s sister, Olga Gädda, intervened, determining to rear him as her own.

A few years later, Olga married Michail Ustinoff, a Russian-born singer, and the child became known as Nikolai Ustinoff.

As the British newspaper The Telegraph reported in its obituary of Mr. Gedda on Friday, Swedish authorities deemed the couple too poor to adopt him.

“Nevertheless,” Mr. Gedda wrote in his memoir, “they had the courage to keep me illegally.”

But the situation was far from idyllic. At the slightest infraction, Mr. Gedda wrote, his foster father would beat him with “a narrow Cossack belt that had once belonged to his uniform.”

Mr. Gedda, who grew up speaking Russian and Swedish, believed for years that the Ustinoffs were his biological parents. It was not until he was an older teenager that he was told the circumstances of his birth.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin: Act I, Scene 1: "I love you, Olga"
LENSKI: I love you,
I love you, Olga,
as only the crazy soul of a poet
can still love.
Always, everywhere, I have but one dream,
one constant longing,
one ever-present sadness.
You captivated me while I was yet a youth,
still ignorant of the torrents of love.
I was the tender witness
of your youthful escapades.
And hidden by the leafy glades
I shared your fun with you. Ah!
I love you, I love uyou,
as only the sould of a poet can love.
You alone appear in my dreams,
you are my only desire,
you are my happiness and my sorrow.
I love you, I love you,
no chilling distance,
nor the passing hour, nor the sounds of rejoicing,
will ever cool a heart
so inflamed by love's pure fire!
OLGA: We grew up together
in the peaceful shelter of the countryside . . .
LENSKI: I love you!
OLGA: Do you remember how our fathers, when we were children,
had set their minds on our marriage!
LENSKI: I love you, I love you!

Nicolai Gedda (t), Lenski; Elena Zilio (ms), Olga; Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale, Florence, Mstislav Rostrpovich, cond. Live performance, 1977

Nicolai Gedda (t), Lenski; Rossitza Troeva-Mircheva (ms), Olga; Sofia Festival Orchestra, Emil Tchakarov, cond. Sony, recorded Jan. 15-21, 1988


In the spirit of celebrating, I thought we'd reprise the Champagne Trio from the party at Prince Orlofsky's home that is the setting of Act II of Die Fledermaus. (This is also an opportunity to savor once again the blazing vocalism of Brigitte Fassbaender as the prince.)

J. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Act II, Champagne Trio
PRINCE ORLOFSKY [rising, with his glass in hand]:
And now let us drink to Champagne,
king of all wines. Champagne!
ALL. Champagne!
PRINCE ORLOFSKY: In the fiery sap of the vine,
tra la la,
there sparkles a life divine,
tra la la!
Kings and emperors all
love the sprig of the laurel.
They also love besides
the sweet juice of the grape!
A toast! A toast!
And pay homage all together
to the king of all wines!
ALL: A toast! A toast! A toast!
PRINCE ORLOFSKY: Its majesty is acknowledged
and acclaimed throughout the land!
Jubilantly it is named
Champagne the First!
ALL: Its majesty is acknowledged!
Long live Champagne the First!
ADELE: The nations all pay homage,
tra la la,
right down to the remotest regions,
tra la la,
and sometimes champagne drowns
all manner of cares --
wise princes, therefore, never let
their peoples go thirsty!
A toast!
ALL: A toast!
ADELE: Its majesty is acknowledged!
ALL: Its majesty is acknowledged!
EISENSTEIN: The monk in his quiet cell,
tra la la,
partakes of refreshment at this spring,
tra la la!
To moisten his lips,
he has to sip often and much,
and from lifting the glass
he acquires a ruby nose!
A toast!
ALL: A toast!
EISENSTEIN: Its majesty is acknowledged!
ALL: Its majesty is acknowledged!

Brigitte Fassbaender (ms), Prince Orlofsky; Renate Holm (s), Adele; Nicolai Gedda (t), Gabriel von Eisenstein; Vienna Volksoper Chorus, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Willi Boskovsky, cond. EMI, recorded 1971

Then there's one of the supreme musical farewells, from Act I of The Magic Flute, as Prince Tamino and his bird-catching sidekick are sent off by the Three Ladies of the Queen of the Night to rescue the queen's daughter, Pamina. We've heard this magical number a bunch of times, but I don't think we've ever heard this performance.

MOZART: The Magic Flute: Act I, Farewell Quintet
THE THREE LADIES: Three little boys, young, beautiful, gracious, and wise,
will accompany you on your journey.
They will be your guides,
follow nothing but their advice.
TAMINO and PAPAGENO: Three little boys, young, beautiful, gracious, and wise,
will accompany us on our journey.
THE THREE LADIES: They will be your guides,
follow nothing but their advice.
ALL: So farewell, we are going;
farewell, farewell, until we see you again!

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (s), Christa Ludwig (ms), and Marga Höffgen (c), Three Ladies of the Queen of the Night; Nicolai Gedda (t), Tamino; Walter Berry (b), Papageno; Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Mar.-Apr. 1964


As much as I might have liked to end on this upbeat note, I want to revert to the very different piece of tenorizing with which I once paired the Messiah "Comfort ye" recitative: the soul-shattering "Ingemisco" from the Dies Irae of the Verdi Requiem. And it was a kind of weird bunch of tenors I presented in both; as I recall, it was Jon Vickers, Fritz Wunderlich, and Gedda. The "Ingemisco," while not in Italian, is a classic test piece for what we would think of as a classic Italianate tenor, and again I'm surprised to hear how well Gedda's commercial recording stands up to all but the best of the competition. I can't think of a better way to leave off this remembrance.

VERDI: Requiem: Dies Irae: "Ingemisco tamquam reus"
I groan as one who is accused;
guilt reddens my cheek;
Thy supplicant, Thy supplicant spare, O God.
Thou who absolved Mary,
and harkened to the thief,
and who hast given me hope,
and who hast given me hope.
My prayers are worthless,
but Thou who art good and kind,
rescue me from everlasting fire.
With Thy sheep give me a place,
and from the goats keep me separate,
placing me at Thy right hand.

Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Philharmonia Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded 1963-64

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At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. The music, his life story, and the multi-culturalism are food for thought.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Why, thanks, E! I just assumed this was a post nobody would read -- and I drove myself crazy doing it anyway. I really appreciate the response.



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