Sunday, August 21, 2016

Embarras de richesses: Frederica von Stade collection

It is both a privilege and a considerable challenge to review the recently-released collection of Frederica von Stade's complete Columbia recital recordings. Yes, all of them! This is truly an embarras de richesses, and a deeply impressive testimony to the breadth of von Stade's artistry. While only a fraction of her discography, it's a delightful cross-section of it.

Accompanying the CDs is a booklet with comprehensive track lists that also features specifications of which LPs the CDs were adapted from. Almost always, these are 1 to 1 transfers, which should make it particularly easy for the long-time aficionado to determine what's included. This also ensures a lack of lazy duplication. There are two compilation CDs, one of excerpts from full recordings of Massenet and Monteverdi--perhaps particularly valuable for those with great enthusiasm but limited shelf space--and one of collaborations, featuring, delightfully, some of the genre-blending work of contemporary composers. Another feature I really enjoyed was that the original LP jacket art (with commentary) is reproduced on the CD sleeves, offering a fascinating historical window on how these albums were first presented. They also offer a remarkable tour of the soft-focus photography popular across musical genres in the '70s and '80s. The most recent inclusion, a 2000 recording of Richard Danielpour's Elegies and Rilke settings, also featuring Thomas Hampson, was very welcome, and it seemed only appropriate to honor Von Stade's commitment to contemporary work.

If I had to pick favorites among these discs, I might choose the two discs where Seiji Ozawa leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One features Ravel's delightfully decadent work, including the Chansons Madécasses, the other Berlioz and Debussy. I firmly believe that one cannot surfeit on the Nuits d'été, and von Stade's is exquisite, using chiaroscuro coloring to bring out all the contrasts in the piece, its dreamy satisfactions, its yearning desires. Also much-played has been the Mahler disc (it's another axiom of mine that one cannot have enough of mezzos singing Mahler. I certainly can't, anyway.) There's also a complete disc of French art song in which von Stade is partnered by Martin Katz, a tour de force.

In addition to art song, recorded in the studio and in concert, there's a great deal of opera, as well. (Parenthetically, I was looking forward to the popular song disc, but while the Cole Porter is great, the early-'90s arrangement style, heavy on saxophone and synthesizer, reminded me of nothing so much as grainy TV romances, and rather put me off it.) There's a full disc of Offenbach, which is a frothy treat; it's impossible not to be won over by the exuberant, sometimes sly, and often flirtatious good humor with which von Stade renders the arias. A 1976 disc of French arias displays the agility and grace of von Stade's voice; a 1979 collection of Italian arias her theatricality. Not only her range did I find impressive, but the sheer longevity of that remarkable, remarkably expressive voice. I've always accepted von Stade's status as a beloved and venerated artist as a matter of course; this collection offered, for me, further insight into how, again and again, she has inspired such devotion.


  1. Thank you for the review. I have so many of these works on LP and CD so I really cannot justify buying this collection. Does it include the Frederica von Stade LIVE! recital album? I wish it would be released separately. It's the one with Hundley's "Astronomers" and "Come ready and see me". Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and apologies for the delayed reply. The collection DOES include the "Von Stade -- Live!" album in its entirety (disc 7.) Justification enough to indulge... or ask someone else to indulge you, perhaps? :)

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