5 minutes that will make you love the tenors

In the past, we’ve chosen the roughly five minutes we play for our friends to fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st century composers, the violin, Baroque music, soprano, Beethoven, the flute and string quartets.

Now we want to convince these curious friends to love the passionate and vibrant tenor voice. We hope that you will find a lot here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

My father, Loudon, never liked opera very much. But when I was 13 the opera bug hit me hard, and I’m pretty sure in an effort to better understand what I was going through he bought a Luciano Pavarotti CD. One of the tracks was a thrilling version of “Di rigori armato seno” from “Der Rosenkavalier” by Strauss, and I was fascinated by the aria. Pavarotti’s performance also connects me to a later magnificent experience when, during a performance of ‘Rosenkavalier’ I attended at the Metropolitan Opera, Luciano magically appeared – without billing – to sing the cameo role of the Italian tenor and that aria. The audience has gone completely crazy. It was the first and only time I saw him live.

It only takes a moment to hear the command and fervor in the voice of the great Mario Del Monaco. You don’t need to speak Italian to understand who Otello is: he is authoritative; he is a commander; he returned to Cyprus in triumph. This brief aria is notoriously treacherous, but Del Monaco attacks it with fearless abandon. When he sang this role he often received crazy applause for those few seconds of music, which I think says a lot about the impact that even a small amount of powerful music can have with the right performer.

Many years ago, on tour, I found myself in the picturesque town of Borlange, Sweden. While exploring, I came across a museum dedicated to the man known as the “Swedish Caruso”: the Jussi Bjorling de Borlange. Hearing the purity, range and emotion of her voice for the first time, on that rare day off in a beautiful place far from home, was special and really touched my soul. Maybe my own Scandinavian roots were waking up! Since then, I have loved Bjorling’s recordings – one of my favorites is “O Helga Natt”, “O Holy Night” in Swedish – and I have often wondered why this tenor gem is not better known in America. .

When I was about 13, it took me about three and a half minutes – the duration of Puccini’s “Tosca” aria “E lucevan le stelle” – to fall in love with tenors. Especially Jussi Bjorling, the singer of a classic 1957 recording of the opera. Bjorling’s voice combined melting richness and haunting intensity. His sound was so innately expressive that everything he sang, even a playful aria, had a melancholy tinge. And in this aria, when Cavaradossi, threatened with execution, writes a last letter to his beloved Tosca, Bjorling’s plaintive and painful song is incomparably beautiful.

I easily remember the first tenor aria I ever heard. I had just decided to study singing, after having completed musical training and majoring in clarinet. This last element is important, because although I came to this tune for the superb clarinet writing of the introduction, I stayed for the singer. I can’t imagine a more delicious introduction to tenors than “E lucevan le stelle”. Upon first listening, I was totally captivated by its drama and beauty. The tenor turned out to be the incomparable Franco Corelli, and I have always heard a great humanity in his sound: richness, joy, sadness, excitement, emotion.

I was a young boy when someone gave me this record as a gift. The orchestra presented the broad and vibrant voice of Franco Corelli, which was steeped in sentiment and went straight to the heart. Her singing was spontaneous: gentle at times, roaring towards others, but still bossy. Despite my young age, I was able to grasp how music can convey the most overwhelming emotions, far more than words, bringing the listener to a heightened state of well-being. I also felt, in the tone of his voice, the strength of an encounter that would mark my life: many years later, Corelli would become my teacher.

Words and melody come together in this Jacobean lute song designed to banish insomnia. I say song, but it’s really an incantation: invoking sleep to ease the pain of a friend, the singer himself falls under his soothing spell, until it is no longer known who does what. Composer and lutenist Robert Johnson (1583-1633) must have taken on John Fletcher’s poem because his tongue already traces melodic contours – “easy, soft, and like a streak of song.” For the singer, the text is an invitation to lighten and smooth the voice until it floats, rolls up and caresses itself like the “hollow and whispering wind”.

The strings sparkle in a heavenly register as the main character of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” begins to tell his story. In a distant land, he sings softly, there is a castle called Montsalvat, where the purest of men watches over a sacred relic: “It’s called the Grail. At these words, the music swells like a flash of light – the heavens open in revelation, Lohengrin’s voice a bugle for the power of the Holy Grail. With the right tenor, like Jonas Kaufmann here, this transition from quiet sobriety to heroic radiance can be just as impressive as the treasure it describes.

A young woman knocks on her neighbor’s door, looking for a light for her candle; the neighbor presents himself as a poet and flirts a little. Nothing could be simpler, but in Puccini’s music and Pavarotti’s golden voice, rising with constant ease, it is sublime.

After just months of leaving my house, I was drawn to a song from Emmerich Kalman’s operetta “Countess Mariza” in which the impoverished Count Tassilo sits somewhere in Hungary, remembering his days of glory in Viennese society. It’s a slow waltz – a memory of faster waltzes and a nostalgic sound image of pre-WWI Austria. (The operetta premiered in 1924.) As Tassilo is briefly transported to “my Vienna”, the minor verse changes to a brighter major refrain and a succession of high notes. I like the richness and the simplicity of this recording by Fritz Wunderlich; her tragically short life makes her even more bittersweet.

The recording of “Granada” by Fritz Wunderlich is one of my records on the deserted islands. Her singing is incredible, absolutely overflowing with energy. He sang it all with such love and hope, such passion and fire, that it made you think it was the last performance he was going to give. Whenever he sang he was not only a 100% artist, but also a 100% human being; there was always a direct connection between his feelings and those of his listeners. With it, even the shallow music and slush lyrics sounded like the most beautiful thing in the world.

There is no more purely thrilling moment in all of Wagner than the end of the first act of “Die Walküre”, as Siegmund draws the Nothung sword from a tree and with it wins a bride, Sieglinde – who, being Wagner, just happens to be his twin sister. And there has never been a more purely exciting tenor in Wagner’s music than Lauritz Melchior, the Danish-born darling of the Met Opera in the 1930s and 1940s. Sounded by the Vienna microphone in 1935, Melchior’s Siegmund is ardent, intelligent, lively – complete in all respects.

Peter Pears is, strangely, probably the most important tenor in the history of music. Strangely, because he was by no means a typical tenor. Caruso, Pavarotti, Domingo: These are the models, and Pears’ weird tone doesn’t quite match theirs. But he inspired more great music from his partner, composer Benjamin Britten, than any other singer of the 20th century: operas like “Peter Grimes” and a whole bunch of amazing songs. Pears also sings Schubert very well.

In difficult times, I often look to Schubert’s “Der Leiermann” for comfort. The final movement of his famous song cycle “Winterreise” makes him feel vulnerable and strange, intimate and alien. This is especially true in more recent recordings, like this 2009 release in which Paul Lewis teases the evocative dissonance of the piano and tenor Mark Padmore floats above, sliding. They play with a muted quality that you might expect to hear in a emotionally exposed pop song, giving Schubert a feeling of warmth and melancholy freshness, both modern and timeless.

When I hear someone say that the 20th century avant-garde was a graveyard for melody, I always think of Hans Werner Henze as a first counterexample, in particular the end of his opera “Les Bassarides”. By adapting “Les Bacchantes” by Euripides, Henze took up the challenge of writing music with a Dionysian reach: terrifying in its power, but also credibly capable of misleading souls in search of pleasure. Its singers must nail the modernist complexity of the score while drawing on its alluring threads. When I heard tenor Sean Panikkar sing Dionysus at the Komische Oper in Berlin in 2019 I was ready to enroll in the army of the god of wine.

When he sang “The Flower You Threw Me” from “Carmen,” Jon Vickers was the first tenor to fully immerse me in the moment and what seemed to be his heart. Her performance is filled with moving tenderness and honest power, shaped by a myriad of colors and vocal dynamics. As he ascends smoothly to the top of his register, he reaches from the full depth of his soul to the heights of pure honesty. He takes us on an emotional journey where, without having to look at a translation of the text, we fully understand his passion.

This “Aida” aria is one of the most loved and feared (at least by singers) in opera. It has a heroic introduction, then rapid changes of emotion; great lyrical phrases convince us of the sincerity of the devotion of soldier Radames to his love, Aida. Just listen to the final note here: a high B flat, sung pianissimo. Most tenors shout it out, but doing it softly, as Verdi wanted, is very difficult. The great Johan Botha, who died in 2016, was one of the few tenors who could lead it with such beauty and conviction.

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