Daniel Jaffé wonders whether it's time to put away the recordings that he loved as a child
For me, and I suspect a lot of people, the first encounter with a piece of music is the one which moulds – often decisively – how one perceives that work. Orff’s Carmina burana will always, to me, be first of all the vibrato-rich sound of the ladies of the German Opera Chorus in Eugen Jochum’s recording. No, not quite true. The real star of that recording is soprano Gundula Janowitz – her singing of ‘In trutina’ is truly radiant, a rare case where a voice actually seems to smile (in the way certain choral directors vainly try to get their choir to do by encouraging an en masse grimacing).
Orff’s setting of these words – of a girl wondering whether to be chaste or give way to love’s embrace – is of course simple yet effective: gently pulsating medium to low strings, above which Janowitz’s voice simply floats, her tone blossoming in the most comfortable part of her range, with just a couple of gentle caesuras by flutes and horn. Alas the day came when some dispassionate critic (probably a friend rather than a professional colleague) pointed out that Janowitz was actually singing almost a quarter-tone flat throughout. So enamoured was I with the vernal sound of her voice and the warmth of her interpretation that I had simply failed to notice this. But now whenever I hear this once favourite recording I have to consciously ignore her tuning in that song – at least in relation to the orchestra.
And it doesn’t stop there. I have lately taken to listening to my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) operettas – usually when cooking or washing up and not in the mood for anything more demanding. I grew up with the D’Oyly Carte recordings on Decca from the 1960s and as a child had had a soft spot for the sweet tones of soprano Mary Sansom in the title role of Patience, or the splendidly quivering tones of the bass Donald Adams – whether as Colonel Calverley in the same work, or as the Earl of Mountararat in Iolanthe. My singing teaching wife tolerates this but cannot resist criticising the rather mimsy English vocal tradition that the D’Oyly Carte company exemplifies; and yes, poor Mary Sansom does not sing in tune, even with herself.
My pleasure eventually wilts under this drizzle of criticism and I replace what’s playing with some Schubert symphony played by Frans Brüggen and his band (no problems with tuning there!). But some small part of me rebels against this more adult and rather less tolerant sensibility (the same part of me which enjoys Amicus horror films from the 1960s and 1970s – splendidly acted but oh such awful production values). I suppose now I’ll have to consign G&S to one of my ‘guilty pleasures’. But then this is not really the fault of G&S, nor indeed the hypercritical standards of my wife. Rather, this reflects the appallingly complacent tradition which affected these G&S performances – the attitude that maintained a certain tradition of ‘how they are done’ (the spoken dialogues are almost unlistenable for their ‘elocution’ and affected delivery), yet ignored and allowed to atrophy any sense that the music itself matters.
Across the Channel Offenbach’s reputation has been greatly salvaged by the championship of conductor Marc Minkowski; might there be a chance that he will turn his attentions to those British operettas which – after all – were once relished by no less a figure than Stravinsky?
Daniel Jaffé is the reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine, and as a student did more than his fair share of scraping (on viola) and singing (not simultaneously!) through various G&S productions.