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New Bethany Beardslee Release Heralds The Golden Age Of German And Viennese Singers


This is FRESH AIR. The American soprano Bethany Beardslee is best-known for her performances of the most avant garde concert music. She worked with such composers as Milton Babbitt, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez. But she was also greatly admired for singing traditional classical music. Bridge Records has just released a CD of her singing Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.


BETHANY BEARDSLEE: (Singing) But toms will till...

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Last year, on the verge of her 92nd birthday, soprano Bethany Beardslee published her memoir, which she called "I Sang The Unsingable." Beardslee has probably sung more difficult contemporary music more beautifully than any other 20th-century singer. In her book, she's not shy about spelling out the challenges - the extreme and extremely slippery pitches, the complex rhythms, the difficulty of coordinating the voice with electronic sounds or trying to follow a new kind of notation.

Beardslee met these challenges fearlessly, even ferociously, which is one of the reasons she was especially admired by so many composers. Here, for example, is the haunting ending of Fred Lerdahl's "Wake," his setting of passages from James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," which he wrote for Beardslee in 1967 and which she recorded in 1970.


BEARDSLEE: (Singing) Beside the rivering waters of hithering and thithering waters of night.

SCHWARTZ: Beardslee admits to having some regrets about not performing more of the classical repertoire, which was her first love. Now Bridge Records, one of the labels most thoroughly devoted to contemporary music, has issued a CD of her singing 19th-century German lieder - Schubert, Schumann and Brahms - assembled from several long-out-of-print recordings Beardslee originally made as she was turning 60, which is, for most singers, an advanced age.

For me, the most striking aspect of Beardslee's singing is how attentive she is to the words. She's always telling us a story, reliving it through the nuances of her phrasing, the slightest stretching of a syllable or subtle shift of vocal color. You can hear that communicativeness even if you don't know German, as in this delicate Schumann song "The Walnut Tree," in which tender breezes caress the tree's blossoms like a lover. Especially in her quiet singing, Beardslee's light sound - critics often call it silvery - has the quality of someone half her age. Her sensitive accompanist in the Schumann songs is pianist Lois Shapiro.


BEARDSLEE: (Singing in German).

SCHWARTZ: Beardslee retains her youthful tone even in the darker mode of Schubert's famous lament of the increasingly demented young Gretchen in Goethe's "Faust" as she waits hopelessly at her spinning wheel for her lover's return. In the Schubert's selections, Shapiro plays a historic piano actually built during Schubert's lifetime.


BEARDSLEE: (Singing in German).

SCHWARTZ: As Beardslee aged, she extended the dramatic lower register of her voice - as in "Waldesnacht," Schubert's setting of a poem about a haunted forest at night. Without fear, it concludes, we hear the song of the spirits echoing in the breezes.


BEARDSLEE: (Singing in German).

SCHWARTZ: In the final sequence of songs by Brahms, Beardslee's accompanist is the celebrated idiosyncratic pianist Richard Goode. By the time she made these recordings, her climactic high notes were showing signs of strain. In her book, she tells the painful story of Goode calling off an important joint recital because she had begun to lose her once infallible sense of pitch. Sadly, she writes, she had to agree. And they never performed together again.

At 60, Bethany Beardslee was no longer the impeccable singer she had been for so many decades. But her best singing on this disc really takes us back to the Golden Age of German and Viennese singers before World War II, when voices were not only beautiful but had so much personality that nobody sounded like anyone else. I can only imagine that Schubert, Schumann and Brahms would have loved working with her or composing for her as much as Milton Babbitt, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez did in the next century.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz teaches poetry at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed the American soprano Bethany Beardslee singing Schubert, Schumann and Brahms songs on the Bridge label. On tomorrow's show, what you don't know about whales - like the fact that they're descended from four-legged creatures the size of dogs who walked on land. Marine mammal paleontologist Nick Pyenson says there's more.

NICK PYENSON: We hardly know all that there is to know about these enormous animals the size of dinosaurs that live in today's oceans.

DAVIES: Pyenson's new book is "Spying On Whales." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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