Wednesday, 22 November 2017
Eight from the Gedda collection
I had an amazing, impression-packed three days in Stockholm: three stupendous concerts in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic's HK Gruber festival (including the great man's definitive, legendary performance - conducting, singing, shouting, kazoo- and recorder-playing - of his ever-startling Frankenstein!!), a brilliantly staged production of the new, hit-and-miss Dracula opera by Victoria Borisova-Ollas and a vulgar, fun one of Turandot at the still-cultish Folkoperan, costumes from Bergman films brilliantly curated in the oppressive but fascinating Hallwylska (House-)Museum. But the biggest surprise was on a freezing Sunday morning when the square between the Scandic Haymarket Hotel where I was staying, formerly the Art Deco department store where Greta Garbo was discovered while working as a shop assistant,
and the Konserthuset, proudly proclaiming its star composer,
was transfigured from a fruit, flower and vegetable market - chanterelles very much the prominent items -
into a fleamarket.
Better than any I've encountered in the UK, its antiques were interesting, a print-stall led me to buy two illustrations from Lindman's 1920 Nordens Flora for less than £6 each - and then I discovered the records. First - on my way to a cash machine to pay for the prints - mixed boxes of LPs at about £1 each, where I snapped up Decca Phase 4 Ketelbey, Drottningholm Court music, an old Melodiya choral disc featuring Rimsky-Korsakov's Tatar Captivity, and this,
the great Gedda singing Swedish patriotic music including gems by Stenhammar and Alfven. Would that I'd discovered the real treasure house earlier. The boxes in question started with what must be the complete discography of the Serge Jaroff Don Cossacks Choir, progressed to a variety of tenors from Russian vintage via Caruso through to more recent contenders, hit a strand of HMV's old Viennese operetta recordings and ended with classic Swedish artists like Elisabeth Söderström. I asked the guy on the stall how much? He replied '30 kronor each'. I pointed out that what I'd already bought were only 10, he reduced it to 20. When, having made a selection, I asked again, he explained why these were more, launching his thunderbolt. This was the private collection of Nicolai Gedda, from his Stockholm apartment on Valhallavägen (his main home was in Switzerland, where he died on 8 January aged 91. A clip from the tribute programme to which I contributed on Radio 3 can still be heard here).
What, break up a treasury, fail to establish an archive? That seemed sad to me. But better that someone should make a selection who really loved the tenor and his wide-ranging artistry. And it turned out that the choice I'd made was actually quite representative. The DG Serge Jaroff LP I chose signalled the involvement of Gedda's adoptive father, Michail Ustinov (distantly related to Peter), who sang bass in the choir.
To be honest, listening was quite a shock - such comically terrible intonation, especially from basses trying for the low notes. But also such esprit and some fine solos. The back of the sleeve was annotated - Gretchaninoff's Credo has 'fakral' (farewell?) beside it, and 'God save thy people' 'Tchaiokvsky OBS'. This is the hymn arranged at the beginning of the 1812 Overture (and sung, in Karajan's recording, by the Serge Jaroff Choir).
There were so many volumes of tenors from Melodiya's 'The World's Leading Interpreters of Music' series, including Yershov and Sobinov. I chose the one dedicated to Nikolay Figner, since his history went back furthest: he created the role of Hermann in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, opposite his wife Medea as Lisa. The recordings date from 1901-2 and 1909, yet sound amazingly present - enough to tell that this was not a beautiful voice, at least when the tenor was in his early forties, but certainly one full of character, and one hears the heroics not in the Hermann aria but in Davidov's 'Away, away'.
Had to take a token of Gedda's great Swedish predecessor, Jussi Björling, especially as two weeks ago, searching 'Che gelida manina's for the Opera in Depth classes on La bohème, I found the ideal - not his later recording for Beecham (which overall is still THE classic), but one made with Nils Grevellius conducting in 1938. That's not on this LP, but other Grevellius-era recordings are, weirdly remastered with echo-chamber around them in 1961, the year after the troubled tenor's death at the age of 42 (a tear shed here, incidentally, for the news today of Dmitri Hvorostovsky's death from a brain tumour at 55).
I didn't realise Gedda's own debut recital came out as early as 1952. When I went into the BBC studios to record a Radio 3 tribute in January, the aria they played was Lensky's from this LP, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia. So delicate, so feminine. The gutsiness came later, but Gedda never pushed like Björling, which is why we heard him singing so well at the age of 72 in the Golders Green Hippodrome (I reproduce the signed ticket on the blog here). The French arias are ravishing, too. This was my most treasurable find: on the inner sleeve is inscribed 'Dorogoi Mamochke, na (can't read the word), ot Koli, Chicago 26/4/1952'). Presumably dedicated to his adoptive mother Olga, his aunt. His real parents were Swedish and half-Russian. To know more about Gedda's humble and clearly not easy beginnings - after which he was swept from being a Stockholm bank clerk to overnight stardom in Adam's Le postillon de Longjumeau at the Royal Stockholm Opera - I've ordered up a second-hand copy of his autobiography, mercifully translated into English.
I could have chosen from the two LPS each of The Gypsy Baron, A Night in Venice and Wiener Blut as the operetta representative, but since it's closer to my heart I went for the excerpts - all that were recorded - from Richard Strauss's Arabella. Gedda features only very briefly in a scene from Act 2, and Schwarzkopf even in her younger days was predictably mannered and faux-girly as the heroine, soubrettish-sounding too. But the prizes here are the Philharmonia horns, presumably led by Dennis Brain, the Mandryka of Josef Metternich, a baritone I'd never paid much attention to before, and the pacy conducting of Lovro von Matačić - would that he had left us complete R Strauss rather than Lehár.
Had to have a specimen of Gedda singing Russian folk music with balalaikas. This is all good, but the two bell numbers at the end with a cappella support are especially magical. As for this,
which I selected before I know whose records these were, it's the original of a CD which has long been such a favourite at home. The CD only has four overlapping songs, including the consummate original version of Soloviev-Sedoy's 'Midnight in Moscow' seductively sung by Vladimir Troshin, and the extras on here include more surprises as to how jazz-oriented Soviet Russia could be in the late 1950s, not least with three guitarists playing the St Louis Blues. When I stayed in St Petersburg with the Romashovs, the grandmother, Elizavata, was fond of a radio station which played nothing but songs by Soloviev-Sedoy and his colleagues. I bet that no longer exists. Anyway, what superb arrangements and fine vocalists on this LP.
Well, you're spared further chronicles of further purchases because first, I had no Swedish notes left before I had to dash in to the afternoon concert, and second, I had reached the limit of what I could pack into my hand luggage. I had to look in two batches - about an hour into my first market browsing, I was heading towards hypothermia and was splendidly revived by fish soup with celery in the wonderfully old-fashioned (and extremely popular) Café Avenyn just down the hill. Which I returned to after the concert to take a breather before catching the Arlanda Express back to the airport, and indulged myself with the rich chocolate of a 'Sarah Bernhardt' (you can get these in the wonderful Bagariet in Covent Garden's Rose Street, too). It had been packed at lunchtime, by the way, a very lively scene, but this was 5pm on the same Sunday, so much quieter.
To scoop up more Geddaiana was so tempting - I now realise from reading how Gedda collected books on art, Russian art especially, that beautiful old volumes on another stall would have been his, too. Someone else was going through a box of letters, but didn't move on in time so I didn't get to see whether those were his as well. I repeat, how sad when the collection of a great person gets broken up and no archive is established. Heck, there ought to be a Gedda Museum in Stockholm. I hope a Swedish musician reads this and heads to the marketplace next Sunday - these mementos need an appreciative home. Anyway, I've done my bit. Watch this space for more on the Bergman exhibition, and The Arts Desk for both an overall Stockholm/Gruber piece as well as a transcription of a very emotional 65-minute interview generously granted by HKG.