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Reviews for Jennie Trouel | IPCD 1048-3
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Reviews for IPCD 1048-3

Jennie Tourel 1937-1961

Jennie Tourel (mez); various artists and orchestras • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1048-3, mono (3 CDs: 217:23)

THOMAS Mignon: Elle est là! Près de lui! MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde (selected songs). BIZET Carmen: act II (excerpts). BELLINI Norma: act I, part 2; act II, Part 1. ROSSINI La Cenerentola: Nacqui all’affanno. Il barbiere di Siviglia: Una voca poco fa. SAINT-SAËNS Samson et Dalila: Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix. TCHAIKOVSKY Jeanne d’Arc: Adieu, forêts. BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été: Absence. La mort de Cléopâtre. LISZT Oh! Quand je dors. CHAUSSON Poème de l’amour et de la mer. HAYDN Arianna a Naxos.

Huntley Dent
FANFARE magazine
July August 2015

Is it possible to feel nostalgic over experiences you never had? Every track on this 3-CD tribute to Jennie Tourel makes me nostalgic to be at one of her fabled Town Hall recitals in the 1940s or her collaborations in the 1950s with the Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, who was her great friend and supporter. Tourel became well established in the illustrious musical culture that flourished in New York before and after World War II. She was a mezzo of bel canto quality with phenomenal technique, but more than that, she was a cultivated artist whose tastes ranged far beyond the standard repertoire. In November 1943, Virgil Thomson glowingly reviewed a Tourel recital that undulated through Rameau, Mozart, Debussy, Rossini, Mussorgsky, Alexander Gretchaninov, Bernstein, David Diamond, and Joachim Nin. Thomson said the concert gave “the impression of being present at the take-off of some new and powerful airplane for a round-the-world flight.” Danny Kaye had a famous patter song that rattled off the names of two dozen Russian composers. Tourel, who was of Russian extraction, probably would have sung them all.

If many readers will have only a vague acquaintance with her, that’s because Tourel’s timing was somewhat unlucky for recordings. Born in 1900, she was past 50 when the LP came into vogue, and it’s largely with Bernstein that she’s encountered today, in classic Columbia/Sony recordings of Mahler, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, and Bernstein’s own music, especially the “Jeremiah” Symphony, which Tourel premiered in 1944. Reissue labels have been at work, however, and this new collection from Immortal Performances, replete with a handsome illustrated booklet, earns pride of place. It encompasses many rarities, including private recordings and acetates made for Tourel’s personal use. Suffice it to say that only the most obsessive Tourel collector will know a fraction of this material.

CD 1 begins with one of the most brilliant items, in surprisingly good sound, the sparkling act II aria “Elle est là! Près de lui!” from Thomas’s Mignon, taken from a May 15, 1937 Met radio broadcast. It was Tourel’s debut, and she reveals a Golden Age agility, opulence, and ease that I never suspected, knowing only her postwar recordings. She was not well treated by the Met, given only four radio broadcasts and 21 performances over four seasons. A hint of her Carmen is included here through excerpts from act II in a muzzy 1944 broadcast by the New York City Center Opera. The announcer breaks in at one point for station identification, and the other singers are no prize, but Tourel sings memorably, despite rushed tempos from an inept conductor. Filling out CD 1 are the contralto’s songs from Das Lied von der Erde, broadcast from Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony in 1943. The reliable conductor is Richard Bergin, but due to wartime jitters the text was sung in English. This is our first hint of how fine a Mahler singer Tourel was, and how ahead of her time, since this Das Lied is one of the few US performances from the 1940s. The Mahler is amazing for its time in vocal clarity and orchestral timbres, even if it has some detriments.

Moving ahead chronologically, CD 2 brings better sound and the longest operatic selection (36 minutes), in two scenes from a Met broadcast of Norma with Zinka Milanov on December 30, 1944. Tourel’s Adalgisa is fully the equal of Milanov’s statuesque Norma, and “Mira o Norma” is so thoroughly accomplished that one resents the Met’s management for keeping her out of the limelight. Another high point is “Nacqui all’affanno,” the finale of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, from 1945. Tourel’s liquid coloratura shows us that there was once a lovely alternative to the rat-a-tat runs and trills in the age of Bartoli. (This private acetate lacked an ending, but Tourel’s commercial recording provided one that has been seamlessly spliced in.) CD 2 culminates in five superb selections from The Standard Hour, a radio program based in San Francisco that extended from the 1920s to the 1950s. The conducting jumps in quality thanks to the appearance of Pierre Monteux with the San Francisco Symphony, and there’s much improved sound, too. Finally we get an exquisite reading of Liszt’s melting song Oh! Quand je dors from 1959. The freshness of the voice, which is almost girlish in the Mignon excerpt, continued into middle age, but there’s a noticeable gain in weight and darkened color.

ACD 3 begins with another extended work, Chausson’s orchestral song cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer, which gives us 26 minutes of Tourel’s most passionate singing. Private acetates from this Town Hall concert in 1951 haven’t been available before, and although the sound is somewhat uneven, the singing rises to a very high level. Haydn’s solo cantata Arianna a Naxos has never won my heart, but this rare Haydn Society LP from 1952, with Ralph Kirkpatrick on harpsichord, rivals Janet Baker’s famous account (Decca) for dramatic intensity—Italian/English texts are provided. Lastly, in tribute to Tourel’s partnership with Bernstein, there’s a 1961 New York Philharmonic broadcast of Berlioz’s dramatic scene La mort de Cléopâtre. The work was all but unknown at the time, and when Tourel and Bernstein made a Columbia recording a few days later, it was a landmark. The live performance, although in mono and nowhere close to the studio account for sound, soars with vibrancy and emotion. It’s a triumph of singing even though Tourel was past 60.

After praising everything on these three CDs, I should warn that restoration engineer and proprietor Richard Caniell worked from sources he refers to at times as “gravely” damaged. Deep scratches, pits, and crackles have been meticulously dealt with, as we’ve come to expect from this label. The expert and highly enthusiastic notes are an education in themselves. They were written by Fanfare’s Henry Fogel, a fervent champion of historical vocal recordings. Tourel has gotten the best, and she deserves it.

Jennie Tourel (mez); various artists and orchestras • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1048-3, mono (3 CDs: 217:23)

THOMAS Mignon: Elle est là! Près de lui! MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde (selected songs). BIZET Carmen: act II (excerpts). BELLINI Norma: act I, part 2; act II, Part 1. ROSSINI La Cenerentola: Nacqui all’affanno. Il barbiere di Siviglia: Una voca poco fa. SAINT-SAËNS Samson et Dalila: Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix. TCHAIKOVSKY Jeanne d’Arc: Adieu, forêts. BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été: Absence. La mort de Cléopâtre. LISZT Oh! Quand je dors. CHAUSSON Poème de l’amour et de la mer. HAYDN Arianna a Naxos.

James Forrest
FANFARE magazine
July August 2015

When Jennie Tourel died in November 1973, shortly after her final stage appearances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as the non-singing Marquis in Fille du régiment, a major voice was stilled, but, more, a unique career ended. Tourel was an artist who accomplished much through her innate gifts (based on rock-solid technique and training) and also made or gained opportunities for herself through the bonds she forged with some of the most influential musicians and composers of her day.

Locations including Vitebsk, St. Petersburg, Montreal, and San Francisco have been given as her birthplace. She contributed to the last of those by referring to the City by the Bay as her “home town” during a visit in the late 1940s—there ensued a totally apocryphal story of her parents, her mother pregnant with Jennie, arriving by freighter from Vladivostok in time for the future singer’s birth—and later moving to Montreal. Others were convinced she was a native of Quebec Province. Those others included friends of mine, now deceased, who claimed to be related to her family. She was born, depending on your source of information, in 1899, 1900, or 1910.

It seems well established, as stated also in Fanfare contributor Henry Fogel’s splendid notes accompanying this Immortal Performances release, that she was born Jevgenja Davidovich, June 22, 1900 (New Style) in Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk) in the northeast section of what was then Beylorussia, now Belarus. The family left Vitebsk either after the Kerensky Revolution, or after the Bolshevik Revolution which ousted Kerensky’s government. They made their way to Danzig, but after a short stay proceeded to Berlin, where they lived for a few years. In the early 1920s, they settled in Paris where Jennie, who had planned to be a pianist, engaged in serious vocal training which, by decade’s end, left her a quite finished vocalist. It is said she may have made her Paris debut as early as 1929. By decade’s end, the family is thought to have reached Montreal, but I have been unable to confirm the year of their arrival in Canada. The move may have been in the 1930s.

What is certain is that Tourel, who had by now adopted that name, was in Chicago in 1930 (some say by late 1929), and that she appeared with the Chicago Opera. She did not tarry. By 1931, she was back in Paris appearing at the Opera Russe and by 1933 at the Opera Comique , singing Carmen. Paris remained her musical center until 1940, with Tourel singing all of the expectable French repertoire. 1937 found her in New York City, making two appearances in the then-new Spring Season at the Met. The remarkable collection at hand begins with Mignon’s great act II outburst from Tourel’s May 15 debut. I’ve owned this broadcast, in wretched sound, for years. It is, together with the 1948 Mignon with Simionato from Mexico City (in even worse sonics), one of my two favorite performances of the opera and, particularly, of the title role. Richard Caniell has achieved an amazing improvement, enabling us to hear the mezzo in full cry. I wish he would undertake to resuscitate the whole broadcast, because Tourel’s entire performance is cherishable, and there is much good singing by other cast members. Caniell chose instead to utilize extended excerpts from Tourel’s December 30, 1944 Norma , superbly partnering Zinka Milanov in what I consider the finest of the great Croatian soprano’s three broadcasts of a signature role. Many purchasers of this new (and indispensable) collection will approve the decision. Those of us who already have this Norma complete, particularly in the sonically good Grand Tier CD issue, will wish Immortal Performances had offered more of Tourel’s Mignon and less of her excellent Adalgisa. Those who do not know this broadcast of Bellini’s masterpiece will hear what I consider an ideal voice for the young priestess. A light lyric mezzo, perfectly placed, entirely capable of the fioritura , and with a characterization entirely apt to the dilemma in which she finds herself. She sang the role six times with Milanov: four in the house, twice on tour. The vocal blend approaches golden age standards. Tourel was half a dozen years Milanov’s senior.

After a single 1937 Carmen, one week after her debut, Tourel returned to Paris. By 1940 she realized that if she didn’t get out, she wouldn’t, and made her way back to Manhattan through Lisbon, as did so many escaping Europe at that time. In 1941 she was cast as Lisa in Pique Dame in NYC performances by the New Opera Company. Seemingly, she was entirely successful in this soprano role. But no invitation to return to the Met was immediately forthcoming. The career of American-born Risë Stevens was advancing rapidly. Stevens had succeeded another American, Gladys Swarthout, as Mignon, as the elder singer phased down her career to a few appearances as Carmen, leaving the Met in 1945. No pressing need for Tourel’s talents was evident to the Met management.

One wonders just what Tourel did in the early 1940s; she must have found some engagements. Immortal Performances located one—a Boston concert previously unknown to me, and I daresay, to most. Richard Burgin, associate conductor and concertmaster of the BSO, leads a performance of Das Lied von der Erde in English. In the interests of space, the tenor solos are not presented here, but Tourel, despite (after a relatively short time in this country) offering a less than clear presentation of the English text, evokes Mahler’s moods beautifully, and colors her voice throughout in a sensitive response to music and meaning. She sang the solo passages in Mahler’s Second Symphony often, and in addition to concert performances, recorded some his songs and the Kindertotenlieder cycle. But no Wayfarer songs have surfaced, and no Third Symphony. These beautifully sung sections of Das Lied are among the greatest of a number of great treasures presented here.

Her Met career resumed with a few appearances, in NYC and on tour in early 1944 and continued through the next full season. After that, but a single Carmen in 1947—twenty-one performances total, of which two were Sunday night concerts. Seven Mignons, six Adalgisas, five Carmens, and a single Rosina—in which she was praised for her singing but was felt insufficient in conveying humor. No matter, apparently, that for the next decade, the house did not have a Rosina capable of singing Rosina’s music adequately. Caniell offers two sterling examples of Tourel’s way with Rossini—Rosina’s aria in one of her broadcast concerts with Monteux, and the Cenerentola closing scene from a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast. Fortunately we have some of her Carmen. Just before returning to the Met, she appeared in the first season of the NYCO, and there was a broadcast of about half an hour of act II, commencing just after Escamillo’s aria. It is a rollicking performance, Tourel’s voice flashing (as one imagines her eyes doing as well), well supported by the young Regina Resnik and Rosalind Nadell as her two pals plus Sidor Belarsky, soon to sing Rocco for Toscanini, as Zuniga. The Italo-American tenor Mario Berini is listed by Irving Kolodin as Don Jose, but in this February 26 performance Joseph Rogatchewsky, born in the Ukraine (1891), long the leading tenor at the Monnaie in Brussels, sings a fervent Flower Song. He had no real New York career and became Intendant at the Monnaie in 1953. My “pirate” disc copy of this broadcast lists Berini in error, and is all but unlistenable. Caniell has worked another sonic miracle in these Bizet excerpts.

I don’t know what Rorem meant by “nasal diction” but perhaps I lack a sufficiently fine ear. The distinguished vocal writer John Steane refers to “the fullness of an opulent voice,” and Peter G. Davis, American critic, described her early Mignon broadcast as “a thrilling piece of singing. The vibrant voice, with its familiar intriguing tang and pungency already securely in place, ranges seamlessly and easily over more than two octaves….” It is strange that some found her voice small in the house. One never heard that in her concert appearances, including those with orchestra. Plenty of voice, too, in 1949 for the world premiere of Hindemith’s major revision of Das Marienleben, and, in Venice, another world premiere: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, in which Tourel created the role of Baba the Turk, the bearded lady.

None of those is here, but instead there is a hitherto generally unknown Chausson Poem of Love and the Sea, beautifully sung, and in some ways the most amazing of all: a concert performance with Bernstein, from 1961, of Berlioz’s Cleopatre’s Death. A studio recording followed and the studio microphones picked up signs of vocal strain understandable in a singer in her 61st year; but not here, not to my ear. This is a thrilling performance. Placed at the end of this three CD set, it leaves us with the feeling that this was a singer who, as a friend of mine observed when I mentioned Tourel, was “a marvelous artist, a singer who touched greatness!” I think that friend, himself a baritone, vocal coach, and expert in female vocalists, hit it right on. Jennie Tourel touched greatness far more often than most. The same friend’s favorite Tourel selection is Liszt’s Oh! quand je dors. That too is here, concluding the second CD—a stunning example of tonal emission and vocal liberation; the singer was at least 58. All who hear this fabulous collection will understand why I have said, since first I heard her 60 years ago—I Dream of Jennie!

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