During a career spanning almost forty years, Rosalind Plowright has never recorded a recital disc. She has sung in all the world’s greatest opera houses, with the most lauded of colleagues – singers, conductors, directors, designers – and made some important opera recordings and videos, yet the recital disc has never quite happened, even though recitals are a part of her career that Plowright takes very seriously. Well now that oversight has been put right with the release of La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
Plowright has sung both Aida and Amneris, vocal punishers such as Maddalena de Coigny in Andrea Chénier and Norma, and she’s sung in the open air at the vast Verona Arena, yet her voice is surprisingly youthful. It is a wise voice, she knows exactly what she is doing with it, maybe something she didn’t quite in the 1980s when her career took off. In 1999 she bravely and intelligently made the move from soprano to mezzo, and her courage paid off rewarding her with a second career. It is that lower, rich voice that can be heard on this disc.
An eclectic group of songs reflects her taste and illustrates some of the music that has been important in her life, passing from Stradella in the 17th Century through to English composers of the 20th, and using six different languages along the way.
Stradella’s Pietà Signore immediately puts Plowright to the test: there’s no orchestra to coddle the voice and disguise imperfections, and it demands highly controlled, legato singing. It’s a test she passes with apparent ease, and her perfect Italian pronunciation and crisp diction grab the ear from the start.
Four lieder by Brahms reveal an intense interiority, and de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas have an authentic colour, but it is the central part of the programme that impresses the most, though the composers have nothing at all to do with each other: Tchaikovsky and Weill.
The four pieces by Tchaikovsky suit Plowright perfectly, the language seems to sit well with her, and her rich palette of vocal colours underlines their innate melancholy. The declaration of love, Can it be the day?, recalls parts of Onegin‘s letter scene, when even its most exuberant outbursts – “All that is good, sacred in my soul, is all from you!” – are undercut by questioning in the music.
So maybe Tchaikovsky and Weill are not so far apart in Plowright’s selection, with three of the German’s songs revealing the same dispiritedness as his Russian colleague. Plowright has exactly the right approach to these songs, it is a style she obviously understands, and she explains in the booklet notes that she grew up with this music, a passion that came from her father: “I was encouraged to ‘swing it’ like Ella Fitzgerald.” Unlike so many operatic singers who attempt musicals or operetta she isn’t afraid to streamline the timbre, declaim some of the text, play with rubato, and yes… swing it!
The album takes Plowright home for the last songs: Britten, Quilter, Stanford, Bridge, and a charming song by her father-in-law, Ernest Kaye. Britten’s arrangements of English Folk Songs are hardly upbeat, but they are not broody or tortured like the Tchaikovsky and Weill songs. Here the stiff-upper lip is at the fore: sadness is communicated in a matter-of-fact straightforwardness which, ironically, can make them even more effective in conveying the tragic nature of their subject.
Stanford’s setting of Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci is given a thoughtful and dramatic rendering. But it is certainly not the ‘title track’ because Plowright herself is a femme fatale; a Belle Dame with a striking presence certainly, but as YouTube clips of her masterclasses illustrate, she is sympathetic and kind… avec merci.
The disc comes to a glorious climax as Frank Bridge puts on his Rachmaninov hat for Love went a’riding, a fine challenge for both singer and pianist, and Philip Mountford, who is a sensitive yet incisive accompanist throughout, and Rosalind Plowright, rise to the challenge triumphantly.