Richard Bonynge (conductor and accompanist)

ABC Australian Heritage series


ABC Classics 475 070-2 (4-CD pack)
TPT: 5:04:49

  reviewed by Neville Cohn 

In the minds of most people, it is probably fair to say that Richard Bonynge is associated inextricably and exclusively with the dazzling career of his wife, soprano Joan Sutherland. Certainly, the blindingly bright spotlight trained for decades on La Stupenda (now retired) ensured that for much of his own career, Bonynge toiled away in the shadow of his famous spouse.

Now, a 4-CD pack brought out by ABC Classics redresses the balance slightly, focussing, as it does, on a number of LPs that Bonynge recorded in his own right as far back as 1968. These have been retrieved from the obscurity into which they had fallen, most having been dropped from the catalogues years ago.

Bonynge’s father, an accountant, had fond hopes of his son joining the diplomatic corps. Little Richard’s eye, however, was on another star altogether – although as a little boy he didn’t always take kindly to the grind necessary to develop a sound command of the keyboard (he would read comic books while mechanically practising finger exercises at the piano).

There was good deal of music in the family home – and listening to ancient 78rpm records of sopranos Amelita Galli-Curci and Tetrazzini sparked an interest in opera that would prove invaluable years later when coaching his wife in an ever-expanding repertoire. Aged 14 years, he’d bought a full score of Bellini’s I Puritani and learned all the arias by heart. In the same year, he was soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, no mean achievement for a youngster. And it was Eugene Goossens, as then-head of the Sydney Conservatorium , who gave the young Richard an opportunity that was to yield golden dividends over the years, honing skills as an opera repetiteur for student productions which gave him the experience to confidently coach the young Sutherland.

This often-fascinating set of recordings includes a recital of arie antiche by soprano Renata Tebaldi which she made towards the end of her glittering career – and even if the once flawless voice is here lightly touched by time, the subtle interpretative nuances brought to these pieces are a more than adequate compensation. As well, there are a number of first rate offerings from French-Canadian mezzo Huguette Tourangeau. Certainly opera lovers seeking rarities are well served here with Tourangeau singing arias from, among others, Verdi’s first opera Oberto, Maillart’s Les Dragons de Villars and Bizet’s Djamileh. It’s worth having the set if only to hear these very seldom encountered works, recorded in Geneva in 1970. It’s a pity, though, that the words of these operatic excerpts – or, at the very least, a precis – weren’t included in the liner notes, especially as few listeners would be familiar with the plots of these largely forgotten works.

An entire CD is devoted to Massenet’s ballet Cigale, one of music’s more tedious scores, eminently forgettable music that takes a conscious effort of will to listen to. Bonynge clearly is devoted to the music of Massenet who is represented here by his Fantasy for cello and orchestra, the complete Cigale – and no fewer than 20 songs which Bonynge accompanies on the piano.

The last-mentioned are far and away the chief joy of this collection; they are sung with exquisitely understated artistry by Tourangeau with Bonynge a competent accompanist. These are interpretations to which I’ve returned time after time for the sheer pleasure of listening to exceptional chanson delivery. And Tourangeau is wondrous, not least for the warmth of her deep register mezzo notes, in ‘Sventura Ildegonda from Balfe’s Ildegonda nel Carcere. And in an aria from Vaccai’s Giuliette e Romeo, she brings a depth of expression that is moving. Bonynge conducts the Suisse Romande Orchestra in the operatic arias.

In the cello works – Massenet’s Fantasy and concertos by Popper and Auber – Jascha Silberstein brings a good deal of ardour and expressive phrase-shaping to his interpretations although occasionally intonation slips slightly.

As well, this set of CDs also includes Bonynge directing the English Chamber Orchestra in satisfactory accounts of four purely instrumental works by Salieri and J.C.Bach.

Of the 38 pages of the liner notes booklet, ten are taken up by photos of Bonynge.

Copyright 2003 Neville Cohn


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