Schubert Song Cycles, Recycled In Lyric Glory Of Marginalized Mezzo

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Inez Matthews played Irina in the original 1949 Broadway production of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s ‘Lost in the Stars.’ (Photo by George Karger, Shields Collection ex-Culver Service)

Inez Matthews Sings Schubert: ‘Die schöne Müllerin,’ ‘Winterreise.’ Inez Matthews, mezzo-soprano; Lowell Farr, piano. Parnassus Records PACD96085/6.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Both of Franz Schubert’s magnificently genre-defining song cyclesDie schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827) — have garnered many outstanding recorded performances. It’s rare that newly available ones merit much comment. A new release from Parnassus Records reaches back seven decades and unearths worthy traversals of both, which are remarkable in that they exist at all.

A native of Ossining, N.Y., mezzo-soprano Inez Matthews (1917-2004) belonged to that generation of Black singers blocked from much classical work, but she pursued a singing career where she could: largely on Broadway and in concert. In addition, other than Lotte Lehmann — whose 1940 78 RPM set of Winterreise with Paul Ulanowsky was, according to Alan Blyth in Song on Record, Volume 1, pieced together from sessions spanning a few years — women hadn’t much performed or recorded these cycles back then, especially not lyric mezzos like Matthews. Her 1954 tapings with solidly musical pianist Lowell Farr (1925-2002), reissued in bright and generally acceptable period sound, are well worth a listen.

The highly influential German concert and recital mezzo-soprano Elena Gerhardt (1883-1961) was, with Lehmann, one of the few women who regularly programmed the somber Winterreise; recent decades have produced notable recorded versions featuring Lois Marshall/Anton Kuerti; Christa Ludwig/James Levine; Brigitte Fassbaender/Aribert Reimann; Mitsuko Shirai/Hartmut Höll; and — after staged performances in which the singer intriguingly recontextualized the cycle’s narrative impulse from the lover to the beloved — Joyce DiDonato/Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

With its more vernal and romantically triangulated titular hero, Die schöne Müllerin 70 years ago had even less of a tradition of female interpreters. Two recordings preceded the one under review: a 1935 effort in French translation by soprano Germaine Martinelli and Jean Doyen, and again the impassioned if indubitably operatic Lehmann with Ulanowsky. Marshall/Kuerti and Fassbaender/Reimann have weighed in; also Barbara Hendricks with Roland Pöntinen.

Matthews made several Broadway appearances between 1942 and 1953, not only in musical material but in plays, including The Pirate with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. After performing as an ensemble member in the original 1943 Carmen Jones, she alternated the title role with Muriel Smith in 1945’s City Center revival. Four years later, she created Irina in Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars. Several of her classically trained fellow cast members in that production had blighted or marginal careers in the American classical arena due to the prevalence of segregated casting, including baritone Warren Coleman (the original Crown in Porgy and Bess) and contralto Lucretia West, who eventually made a concert career in Europe. Baritones Todd Duncan (the first Porgy) and Robert McFerrin had already sung at New York City Opera, and in 1955 McFerrin became the Met’s first Black male leading singer; but neither enjoyed the opportunities their vocal and musical merits warranted. (Matthews herself only once sang at Carnegie Hall, in a 1957 potpourri gala of opera excerpts also featuring NYCO baritone Lawrence Winters, who attained operatic success in San Francisco and Hamburg.)

In her last Broadway venture — as St Theresa I in 1952’s revival of Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, led by the composer himself — Matthews rubbed shoulders not only with her older brother Edward Matthews, who had created St. Ignatius in the work’s 1934 world premiere (as well as Gershwin’s Jake the next year) but also with Black artists of a younger generation who would establish themselves on the international scene: singers Leontyne Price, Betty Allen, Vera Little, Martha Flowers, and Gloria Davy and dancers Louis Johnson and Arthur Mitchell. Later in the decade, Matthews provided the voice for Serena in 1959’s Porgy and Bess film and recorded various excerpts from that opera. For decades, she has been known mainly for her participation on Thomson’s 1947 excerpts recording of Four Saints.

Matthews displays an individual timbre, with a bright finish and a slight, expressive vibrato. She sings with a fine command of dynamics, as in the diminuendo ending “Wohin?” She shows clear, informed though not native-quality diction. She is never unduly operatic in her treatment of line or text and is, blessedly, not an over-interpreter. While alert to the quite different progressions of the disappointed romantic trajectories in the two cycles, and observant of the modulations of mood and key in such important songs as “Ungeduld” and “Auf dem Flusse,” she never indulges in the existential showboating some popular current interpreters exhibit — often to audience and critical acclaim. And few manage Winterreise as she does, with nary an ugly sound. That said, at age 37 she had less experience in weighting every detail into developing narratives than some of her more mature recorded competition.

Idaho-born pianist Lowell Farr studied with Nadia Boulanger and was an active participant in chamber groups and as a collaborative pianist; he made several Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Recital Hall) appearances in the 1950s and ’60s and accompanied Licia Albanese in a late-career mainstage recital there in 1968. His activities extended to Tanglewood, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition, and the Johnson White House, plus decades of teaching. His work in the sometimes stormy preludes here bespeaks complete control, and the artists are clearly in sync as to their intentions. Both command the cleanly executed triplets that are — or should be — a sine qua non of Schubert style. The one slight demerit of the set as engineered is that the voice is given primacy, relegating the piano somewhat to the background.

These fine readings are neither linguistically nor in terms of modern recording quality the very first CD versions I would recommend to those new to these works — everyone familiar with them doubtless has a different first choice, or even group of choices. (My current tastes gravitate to Fassbaender or Peter Mattei for Winterreise and Christoph Prégardien or Ian Partridge for Die schöne Müllerin, though I have a number of other favorites.) But they are well worth hearing. Plus, their quality poses poignant questions as to what an artist like Matthews might have achieved with no barriers placed on her career due to her race — and also, as to what traces of other marginalized careers might still be accessible.

The two-CD set forms part of Parnassus Records’ “Black Swans” series (PACD96085/6), which also features compilations of remastered rare early recordings by pioneering Black artists such as the Dvořák associate baritone-composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) and the splendid concert tenor-arranger Roland Hayes (1887-1977), as well as a collection of widely sourced tapings by classical artists more of Matthews’ generation, including her colleagues Allen, Davy, Duncan, and McFerrin as well as Camilla Williams and Mattiwilda Dobbs — the first Black artist really to make a significant international career in staged opera at the highest level.

It seems that Matthews and Farr’s 1954 sessions also included the posthumously assembled but powerful pseudo-cycle Schwanengesang; one hopes that tape will also see the light of day. Perhaps Parnassus Records can turn its efforts to restoring that recording as well.