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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

At His Exercise: The Greatest Jon Vickers Opera Recordings

We celebrate the memory of the great Canadian tenor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jon Vickers as Aeneas in a scene from Les Troyens.
Source: JonVickers.org
The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers passed away this weekend. One of the greatest heroic singers of the 20th century, Mr. Vickers was a tenor of exceptional power and vocal strength with a memorable stage presence. Over four decades, he made many memorable recordings including the first complete studio performance of Berlioz' Les Troyens with Sir Colin Davis. He sang many of the major heroic Wagner roles, although he eschewed the difficult part of Tannhäuser, famously citing his strong Christian beliefs. Here are five of his legendary complete opera performances from the Superconductor archives.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Otto Klemperer (EMI/Warners 1961)
Vickers recorded Fidelio twice, singing the role of the imprisoned Florestan who faces a death sentence in the massive prison where he is being held woithout trial. The character does not show up until the second act of Beethoven's only opera but his "Gott, wech dunkel hier" immediately changes the tone of the opera and underscores the absolute seriousness of this story. Vickers puts raw emotion into each line and bar and his final emergence into the light of day is glorious.

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Tullio Serafin (RCA/Sony 1961)
Vickers was a powerful Otello, bringing forceful singing to the opening scene and characterful shading to each aspect of the Moor's following four-act decline. This RCA set under Serafin is one of the great Verdi recordings an an absolute essential. His EMI recording (made with Karajan as the soundtrack for Franco Zeffirelli's film) is good too but the older recording has Tito Gobbi's snarling Iago and that puts it over the top. 

Watch Jon Vickers in a scene from Otello. 
Film © The Metropolitan Opera.
Die Walküre</b>
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 1966)
This performance is one of the greatest Siegmunds ever laid to disc. Vickers sings with energy and guts, a firm reminder that the hero of this first "evening" of the ring is at heart an anarchic and even destructive figure. His mounting passions in the first act are matched only by the strength of his performance in the Annunciation of Death scene in which each word is carefully attended to in scrupulous detail. The recording features unusual casting with Gundula Janowitz a light but radiant Sieglinde and Régine Crespin (normally a Sieglinde) in the role of Brunnhilde.

Tristan und Isolde
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI/Warners 1972)
Jon Vickers made a lot of recordings with Herbert von Karajan. One of the finest is this near letter-perfect Tristan opposite the weighty soprano of Karajan favorite Helga Dernesch. Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry (two years after their divorce) were Brangäne and Kurwenal. Karl Ridderbusch is an excellent King Marke. Vickers captures the doomed nature of his character and conveys the anguish of the wounded Tristan in the long Act III monologue.

Peter Grimes
London Symphony Orchestra cond. Sir Colin Davis (Decca/Philips 1981)
Benjamin Britten's most famous operatic creation, an irascible fisherman whose boy apprentices have a nasty habit of dying comes to vivid life in this muscular recording under Colin Davis. This was the second major recording of Grimes (the first was led by the composer himself) and the first to take this heavy, symphonic view of the Britten score. Vickers finds the steel in Grimes' personality and is supported by a strong secondary cast.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.