George London: Between Gods and Demons

COMPOSERS: A film by Marita Stocker
LABELS: Arthaus
ALBUM TITLE: George London: Between Gods and Demons
WORKS: A film by Marita Stocker
PERFORMER: George London (bass-baritone)
CATALOGUE NO: Arthaus 101 473 (NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 picture format)

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Almost every major baritone or bass I’ve ever interviewed has mentioned George London. His recordings inspired Bryn Terfel as a student; René Pape recreated London’s legendary Gods & Demons album. Soaringly powerful but smoothly supported throughout his range, thrillingly dark, virile and energetic but deeply, if not always subtly, felt, this Canadian’s huge voice resonated through the repertoire from the late 1940s until the early 1960s, a career cut tragically short by paralysis of the vocal cords.

Jewish-Russian by parentage, he triumphed at Bayreuth and became the first non-Russian to sing Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi. His recordings are famous, particularly Wotan in Georg Solti’s Rheingold and Leinsdorf’s Die Walküre; overshadowed in his day by Hans Hotter, he can now be heard as almost equally powerful.

This documentary includes various filmed excerpts of his roles, capturing his old-fashioned but electrifying characterisations – arguably more realistically than disc, which often exposed a grainy quality in his voice, less apparent in the theatre. Spirituals, genial musical numbers and lieder also feature, notably Musorsgky’s Songs & Dances of Death. In fact, it practically consists of excerpts, since otherwise it offers only a pleasant but very brief account of his career. Various ‘talking heads’ including singers Hilde Zadek and Waldemar Kmentt contribute comments, but the performances are the main point, and they’re thrilling.

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Michael Scott Rohan