TAUBER (pic.) (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION
had a discussion with one aficionado, a Gunter Kossodo who moderated an all-day
Ring des Nibelungen marathon on FM radio once a year and who was a regular lecturer
at the New School and Bayreuth, who had seen both Jussi Bjoerling and Richard
Tauber in person in Vienna during the '30s. He told me that, in person, the lower
two thirds of the Tauber instrument were more resonant, heavier and more spinto-ish
than Bjoerling, but that Bjoerling had greater strength and penetration when it
came to the upper third. Personally, I happen to feel -- and Gunter Kossodo happened
to agree -- that Tauber's top, while efficient enough, does not come off as much
more than efficient on recordings. Certainly, his top is not on a par with Bjoerling's,
Pavarotti's or that of many other lirico spintos regularly discussed.
so far as I know, Tauber never really had a high C. We hear one glancing high
C in the "Che gelida manina" (1924), but it's definitely not sustained.
Tauber also narrows his vowels higher up in a very Viennese way, which is disconcerting
to a listener used to the golden outpouring of other tenors. With all this, it's
remarkable what a vibrant core Tauber's upper tones still have. However weird
his upper vowels up front, one has the feeling that his actual throat is always
squared open in the fine Caruso manner! That said, his top is still not quite
of the quality of some of the others even so. Yes, once in a while, as in the
climax of his 1927 "La donna e mobile", he'll give one a ringing and
open high B that's perfectly fine. But such notes are not his stock in trade.
all this, though, he is my favorite all the same.
more than heart, actually, but that's where it all starts. Yes, one must at least
have a genuinely musical and resilient voice capable of maintaining a vibrant,
fully resonated vocal line. But all the greatest tenors already have that. Once
that necessity is established as a given, heart then starts to bulk hugely in
this connection, Tauber's apparent spontaneity in expression is nothing less than
astounding. It is particularly so since it's always in the context of a wealth
of detail and tonal shading. How come the variety of his dynamics and of his vocal
coloring is so staggering while the impression of spontaneity of expression is
still maintained so consistently at the same time? That such an abundance of the
most insightful nuance should also come off as the ultimate in spontaneity is
the greatest paradox of the sheer heart that Tauber brings to his singing. He
can fool the listener into imagining that all that abundance of nuance is merely
the inspiration of the moment -- when it clearly can't be. Hours and hours must
go into it. But it doesn't sound that way. That is genius. That a singer should
be able to combine the most scrupulous musicianship with the most extroverted
and heartfelt style seems almost an impossibility. Tauber shows that it isn't.
or not his voice is sumptuous in the Caruso/Bjoerling way, his command of musical
communication is such that nothing he does sounds unmusical. Rather, I find his
very tones intrinsically engaging in any case, and he certainly has a voice that
is essentially attractive in absolute terms, even if relatively plain by certain
standards. At any rate, I never feel that one has to make allowances for any unattractive
sounds, the way one does for certain other perfectly fine artists. Instead, Tauber's
voice usually has a truly magnetic and genuinely simpatico quality. It's just
that it's not downright stunning like some others.
to his credit is the way he maintains consistent technical security throughout
an arduous career. In fact, at around the age of 48 or so, circa 1939, even the
narrowed vowels start to open up somewhat! Arguably, his finest years technically
(we can argue about when the voice itself sounds its best) were from around
1939 to 1942, from age 47 to 51. That shows tremendous discipline, particularly
when one considers that his operatic career began in 1913, when he turned 22.
Imagine: thirty years of solid arduous performing where the technical prowess
and vocal resiliency continually get better! That is an astonishing track record.
Decline does not first appear until the initial onslaught in 1943 (he was 52)
of the first signs of the nasty cough that heralded the lung cancer that eventually
killed him in 1948 at age 56. Even so, he painstakingly manages to learn how to
"sing around it", and there is, in fact, an astonishing vocal recovery
that is readily audible, starting around the second half of 1946 at age 55, less
than two years before his death! This after he had been sounding like a singer
on his last legs! Again, sheer technical discipline that seems unfathomable! His
most amazing feat (and we have recorded excerpts) was probably his final appearance
on stage: a Don Ottavio in 1947 where he sounds perfectly fine again! Yet he was
back in the hospital again within days, never to come out, fading inexorably until
his death in early 1948.
many a tenor, he was a genuinely charismatic showman in terms of his physical
deportment across the footlights. Even though afflicted with a slight limp and
a slight squint(!), and hardly a man known for conventional matinee-idol looks,
his control as an actor of the space around him was still exceptional for an opera
singer. There are even certain films -- his early film of Land des Laechelns
and his later Blossom Time and English-language Pagliacci spring
to mind -- that happen to be pretty expertly acted. No, he is no Lawrence Olivier,
but the camera does not "catch him out" as a liar, a rare gift among
singers. Instead, he is able to wear his heart on his sleeve in all these movies
and to do so with a modicum of real "Presence". Even when he sang Ottavio
at Covent Garden (1939), it was felt that he dominated the hall by sheer presence
even when matinee-idol Pinza was on stage alongside him! That's real charisma.
(Of course, Pinza still had the more sumptuous voice, even if Tauber may have
been the more unusual musical persona.)
Lieder especially, we hear yet another gift: a true romance with words. No matter
how eccentric his diction, he always manages to get the words across like a true
story-teller, but without compromising legato and tone. So many singers seem to
believe one must compromise either one or the other to a degree. Tauber shows
this isn't so. Instead, with a gift for infinite vocal shading, nuance is applied
to each and every line of poetry reminiscent of some expert Shak[e]spearean actor.
All this while the blandishments of true bel canto line are never compromised.
Other equally fine Lieder singers sometimes sacrifice certain bel canto attributes
for the sake of the kind of nuance Tauber is so expert in. But Tauber never does.
He always sings an unbroken legato through all the range of nuance. An unusual
combination as rare as it is welcome.
course, his highest operatic achievement was in Mozart. This meant that his vocal
agility had to be of a high order. And when we hear his cuts of certain arias
and duets from Auber, Rossini, Mozart and the like, we are aware of deftly articulated
passagework (even in Verdi, try his cadenza at the conclusion of the "La
donna e mobile" from '27) throughout. He didn't just sing a bel canto line,
he had the adeptness to surmount all the intricate vocal agility entailed in true
bel canto singing. We even have an easy trill at the conclusion of his "Am
stillen Herd" (1927), a Wagner aria that requires this but that is rarely
undertaken by a true bel canto tenor! In many ways, this 1927 record may be one
of his most startling of all.
though reared in the traditions of Central European houses of the prewar period,
with everything sung in German, he acquired later in his career a gift for languages
that was striking. This is testimony to a sharp ear, among other things. In his
annus mirabilis, 1939, we have him performing Ottavio in that famed Don
Giovanni at Covent Garden with Ezio Pinza in the original Italian (even though
he had first learned it in German). From that same year, Tauber's recorded "Dalla
sua pace" in the original Italian may be the finest souvenir of his mastery
in Mozart and of this role. In fact, Ottavio was often cited as his greatest role,
an assessment that is hard to dispute after hearing this record. Also from 1939,
"live" in concert, we hear him performing Don Jose's "Fleur"
aria in the original French (and in fairly good French in the bargain). His growing
fluency in English, once he became a naturalized British subject following the
1938 Anschluss in Vienna, was perhaps partly responsible for his having opened
up his vowels generally in the years following. We hear this especially in his
popular-song recordings during the late '30s/early '40s, where the English becomes
notably more natural and relaxed. Sure, it still has a recognizable accent, but
it flows more euphoniously than earlier. Linguistically, the icing on the cake
during this phase (alas, no recording exists) was his once singing the one song
most indelibly associated with him, "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz", in
Arabic during a concert tour in the Middle East!
there we have heart, impeccable vocal control and longevity, artistic imagination,
strict musicianship, charisma, a romance with words, vocal agility and linguistic
facility of a high order rolled into one. Few other singers, let alone tenors,
have excelled at such a high level in all eight aspects. This is why Tauber, to
this day, remains my favorite singer, let alone my favorite tenor.
fine sampler of his work in opera can be acquired here.
CALLAS (1923 - 1977) -- HER BEST RECORDINGS IN GOOD SOUND
-- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY
CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION
CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS
CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS
TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES
ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)
ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES
OF OPERA IN MINIATURE
IN LA TRAVIATA
OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD
TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES