I am about to engage in a fairly bizarre analytical exercise in the service of what I hope is a slightly less bizarre one later.
There are things that you do not in the normal course of things expect to hear very often. Such as German sopranos singing de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas:
This is another bootleg recital CD, and when I saw what was on it my reaction was: Beethoven – fine; Schumann – obviously; Brahms – oh, yes; Wolf – duh; De Falla – what? But it works. And in the context of this particular recital, it’s completely straightforward as a program choice. (The songs cluster around the theme of love and getting fucked over or otherwise disappointed by love. And she ends with Wolf’s Wie schon war immer mein Verlangen which is pretty much a perfect choice. Then again, if you listen to the BBC intros to each set and to the recital itself, you may come to suspect, as the BBC evidently does, that the pianist, Graham Johnson, is not only entirely responsible for the success of the program but is in fact the main attraction.)
If you listen closely, you can tell that Roeschmann isn’t a practiced speaker of Spanish. Her use of ‘th’ for soft ‘c’ or ‘z’ isn’t consistent – sometimes it comes out as an ‘s’. But this is a minor point. There is a rhythmic sweep to the way she sings “El Paño Moruno” that is striking, and a chilliness to the third song, a kind of cool quality to the tone, that I like.
This is a singer who knows how to phrase things. She knows how to end a line or a song perfectly. Listen to the diminuendo at the end of “El Paño Moruno” or at ‘consolaba’ in “Asturiana,” for example. This is not the most idiomatic performance of these songs you will ever hear, but it’s a pretty good one.
I am saying this because I was thinking about Alcina again and I was trying to figure out how to articulate the difference between Joyce DiDonato’s performance of the title role with Il Complesso Barocco (which is my favorite recording) and Renée Fleming’s. I keep using this word ‘idiomatic’ in my head but I worry that it’s becoming a placeholder for ‘this sounds weird to me but I have not really articulated why’.
Hence the recording of Dorothea Roeschmann singing de Falla. Obviously there is a difference between ‘not idiomatic’ and ‘not good.’ Roeschmann’s performance of these songs is very good. (I would say that, of course, but it’s still true.)
So, here is Teresa Berganza singing the same thing. (Or, almost the same thing. I think Roeschmann’s version is transposed up.)
There are a few caveats here. First, Berganza recorded these in 1977, when Roeschmann was a little girl of 10. I know that performance practices for baroque opera have changed significantly since, say, the 1960s. I have no clue whether performance practices for early twentieth-century Spanish art songs have changed in the last thirty years, but something tells me that if they have, it’s not as much.
Second, this looks at first glance like a case of apples to oranges. Berganza and Roeschmann have different sorts of voices. (And Berganza is a mezzo and Roeschmann a soprano). However. I’m thinking more of style than sound here. Berganza is a lyric mezzo, Roeschmann a lyric soprano, and both have voices that are good for things like Mozart and Handel rather than things like Verdi or Puccini. It’s not as if I’m attempting to pair Roeschmann with, say, Fiorenza Cossotto. So again, I think we can ignore this.
Berganza’s performances of these songs have a lot of personality. E.g. in number 4, “Jota” — if Rosina from Il Barbiere somehow ended up in a de Falla song, it would sound sort of like this. Both the text and the character come through very clearly in Berganza’s version.
In number 6, “Canción” the phrasing is wonderful – each little phrase has a kind of internal tension that knits it together. And the last, “Polo,” has a very precisely considered roughness to it — e.g. the dry anguish of the first ‘ay’ and the way she uses her chest voice at 0.48 and 1.22.
So when I say ‘idiomatic’ what I think I am referring to is the fit between a singer’s own style and the material she’s singing. An odd fit does not mean a bad performance. An odd fit can be very interesting. As I say, ‘not idiomatic’ does not mean ‘not good’. Sometimes it’s good to have your expectations overturned. It just means that there is a little space there between what feels ‘normal’ for this material and what doesn’t.
Obviously, what ‘feels’ normal for a given piece of music can change (see: baroque opera). And in some ways, of course, it’s arbitrary. But music is a game of impressions and gut reactions, and when something feels normal or not normal, that means something, whether it does either of those things to your liking or not to your liking.
So. This is an exaggerated example of a point that I think is a little bit more subtle and a little bit different with the two Alcinas I mentioned.