Grace Bumbry & Alexander Schmalcz

Semele – Where’er you walk
Giulio Cesare – V’adora, pupille
Abendempfindung, K523; Als Luise die Briefe, K520
Schwanengesang – Liebesbotschaft; Die Taubenpost
Der arme Peter
Les nuits d’été – Le spectre de la rose; L’île inconnue
Wesendonk Lieder – Im Treibhaus; Träume
Oh do not sing again, Op.4/4; How fair this spot, Op.21/7
Siete canciones populares españolas – Asturiana; Jota

Grace Bumbry (mezzo-soprano) & Alexander Schmalcz (piano)

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 9 May, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

One can name one’s own examples of septuagenarian singers, but most, I suggest, will be men. Nevertheless, there have been ladies who have continued their career beyond the biblical three score years and ten, perhaps predominantly on the recital platform rather than in the opera house. Grace Bumbry, who was 70 in January, is a recent addition to this group. Can singers of that age offer anything apart from longevity? Well, Magda Olivero and Victoria de los Angeles could, even if erstwhile consistency was fading. On the strength of this recital, Grace Bumbry could too. During her operatic career, Bumbry moved from mezzo to soprano, claiming that a mezzo was restricted to witches and bitches.

Now back as a mezzo, she showed that the vibrancy of the lower register was still strong and firm, the middle of the voice still full. Just occasionally when she reached for an upper note the voice did not ‘lift’ as smoothly as it used to do, and at times the breathing of long phrases came less easily than of yore, but only ‘occasionally’ and only ‘at times’. She adapted the long breath on “shade” in “Where’er you walk” to three phrases of “into a shade”. I have no complaints on that score. Let me say, indeed, that this was a satisfying evening all round, from both the singer and her accompanist. Indeed, Alexander Schmalcz seemed at home in all the pieces, with a pleasingly lilting touch in “Die Taubenpost” to the more emphatic keyboard writing in the Rachmaninov songs. Gently sympathetic in “Im Treibhaus”, he was insouciantly lively in “El vito”.

The programme was virtually a series of pairs: two items by Handel, two by Mozart and so on, the only exception being the three songs that form Schumann’s “Der arme Peter”, which Bumbry sang convincingly, really imparting the grief of the lovelorn Peter in the third song, her voice drained of much of its colour. In contrast, she caught the cheerfulness of “Die Taubenpost”, lightening her tone. She was at home in what David Cairns has called “the salty gaiety” of Berlioz’s “L’île inconnue”, and I was lulled by her singing and Schmalcz’s playing in the Wagner pieces.

That Bumbry is still able to command a big and colourful tone was shown in Rachmaninov’s “Oh do not sing again”, though a certain intractability made floating that tone rather difficult, as heard at the end of “How fair this spot”. After a few words of this song she stopped, apologising to the audience, from one of whom came “you’re forgiven”. The final composer was Falla. Bumbry caressed the lovely “Asturiana”, the best of Falla’s set, singing with hushed voice. (It was in the middle of this quiet song that a silly woman in front of me decided that this was the most appropriate place to make a comment to her friend.) The liveliness of “Jota” was repeated in the first encore, Obradors’s “El vito”, which was delivered with exuberance. The same composer’s “Del cabello más sutil” proved a sweet and gentle way in which to bid farewell. The lady does not, at this time, intend to return.

There was certainly enough in this recital to remind us what a fine artist Grace Bumbry has been.

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