Tuesday, December 19, 2006

comparative voices

I always get somewhat depressed with kunst vs. stimm debates, particularly since it tends to also boil down to kunst vs. technique. Why does it have to be an either/or question? Also, I would think that for the vast majority of people, a certain level of technique is necessary for any kind of kunst.

Anyway, let's leave that aside for now, because I could talk until I were blue in the face trying to deconstruct (Derridean) the opposite pair of kunst vs. stimm/technique. Instead let's do some comparative listening. First up is Elizabeth Parcells, a coloratura soprano who died not too long ago and whom I just discovered fairly recently via youtube. From my vantage point, the vocal production is really quite stellar - the tone clean, unforced, and without any efforts at artificially manufacturing a sound or darkening the voice. It's just there. The florid technique is also quite solid, though perhaps not terribly flashy. Unfortunately, it seems that the dramatic instinct is rather dowdy. It seems that while there is earnestness in abundance, an actual flair is quite absent, although these qualities are less apparent in the performance of Ah se in ciel as compared to Vorrei spiegarvi o dio, which shows off an outrageously deployed technique, including high pianissimi, decorations, and lovely singing on a micro-phrase level. However, to my ear, it still lacks an overarching architecture, and while that may not fall squarely on the shoulders of the soloist, one is left with a feeling of the singer's skill rather than of the concert aria's resounding beauty and delicacy of feeling. The maddening desync between dramatic imagination and schooling of voice is better illustrated in a youtube here.

Elizabeth Parcells - Vorrei spiegarvi o dio!

Elizabeth Parcells - Mozart's Ah se in ciel

Contrast EP singing Ah se in ciel by Mozart with the lovely-voiced Sandrine Piau, first up on the youtube playlist. The gusto is evident and it doesn't all have to do with speed. Always with the decorations, there is a sure sense of where Piau is going, where the phrase lies, the music feels inevitable, whereas with EP, the more difficult passages bog down in themselves and it feels much slower than it actually is. The life is gone.

However, Piau's production already sounds problematic. There is a harsh edge in many of her notes on high, and the whole thing sounds a little dry-voiced. Not in the usual sense of missing legato, but there is an element of compression that transfers a certain crackling to the voice. A decade later, in the concert of Sacred Mozart arias from this year at the Basilica de Saint-Denis with Les Talens Lyrique (the videographer seems to have a thing for the (cute) oboist, Patrick Beauregard (people are actually named that?)), Piau again sings "Ah se in ciel" and the voice shows much wear and tear. The speed is faster, but instead of excitement, it sounds ragged and rushed, which is a shame :( The troublesome vocal production sounds even more strained, and watching the tendons and strain in her neck is definitely an act of morbid curiosity. One of the most useful bits of erstwhile technical observation I've read was in a throwaway line in Renée Fleming's The Inner Voice (which, however I feel about Fleming as a singer, I have utmost respect, appreciation, and affection for her persona as put forward in this book -- if only 1/5th of it were close to RF the woman, I'm sold) in which RF describes her mother and her colleagues speaking with wonder about Leontyne Price (e.g., "look how soft her neck looks when she's getting that volume!"). The neck and jaw, at least on me, show strain very easily, so watching those two parts, combined with listening, tell me alot about my singing.

The next two youtubes compare high singing and registration. The second of the 3 youtubes in the playlist features this crazy 83-year-old woman singing Ah dirai-je maman (in Italian, I think). While there are certain pitch issues and all that (and it's not recorded complete) there is something to be said about the wonderfully free, coruscating vocal production in a woman of 83. It's certainly an education to watch her. In combination with some articles in that one website I posted about, the author, Cathy Pope (about whom I know virtually nothing), describes the jaw-dropping that is involved in singing. She describes:
To achieve a resonance that filters through the cheek bones the jaw really must release back and down. This will eventually result in the total avoidance of responsibility for phonation by ‘muscling up’ of the jaw, neck and tongue. I have an acquaintance who is elderly and of course perfectly entitled to a relaxed afternoon nap in his chair. When he snoozes his jaw drops in a beautifully relaxed way. Try literally chewing your jaw back keeping the mouth gently oval.

That image definitely helps me visualize the kind of looseness to the jaw that's desired.

Contrast Maria Malatesta Cabro's singing with that of Natalie Dessay, who's battles with vocal nodes are widely known. I wouldn't say that I "called it" when it comes to Dessay's vocal troubles, but having learned about it, I can't say that it came out of left field, listening to her in 20/20 retrospect. A lot of the voice is produced smoothly and beautifully (and nowhere have I heard her more beautiful than in the youtube of Mozart's Et incarnatus est), but when it gets right up there into the highest registers, it starts to feel pressured and clenched and that power is applied in the throat. The mystifying thing is that none of this is seen in the neck (though in this particular youtube, you can't see her neck at all because of a drapey, yummy-looking scarf), but you sure can see it on Dessay's expression, even in this youtube.

Lots of food for thought. The main one being that while I won't sacrifice kunst for technique, I really won't sacrifice technique for kunst either, if for the simple fact that sacrificing technique doesn't serve kunst anyway. Ugh. Sounds like I want a big wedding cake and to eat it too (despite the fact that this is somewhat of a dead metaphor). *sigh* now I'm hungry.

Edited to add:

I dream of being the baritone Teresa Stratas. How amazing is this?


charlie said...

Music score animations


alex said...

Oh hey, those are very interesting -- I'll have to check some of those out (since I can't actually find my [mother's] volumes of Mozart's concert arias at the moment to follow along like so. Thoughts forthcoming.