I enjoyed the report in last month's Newsletter on Paul Judd's address to the Society, and I wish I had been there. But when he describes me as having "an encyclopedic knowledge" I must protest (though I know he meant it kindly) that I have no such thing. What I do have is a good idea of where to look things up in the books I have, and some practice in finding things I need to know on the Internet. Paul also credits me with knowing every aria from Mozart's operas. He must have been thinking of someone else. I went to see an opera once. I didn't like it. I will happily watch opera on TV, but that's different. Sometimes, when I'm in the mood, I will listen to opera on CD, or bits of operas. Let me tell you about a bits-of-operas CD that I really like.

Purcell: Songs and Interludes; Handel: Arias from Xerxes. Maureen Forrester (contralto), Alexander Young (tenor), Martin Isepp (harpsichord), Vienna Radio Orchestra, conducted by Brian Priestman. Recorded Vienna, 1966. MCA Millennium MCD 80102 (A$9.95)

I fell in love with Maureen Forrester at first hearing, in 1959. I was a bookseller's assistant then, spending most of my pay on books and secondhand classical records, and leading a life of high culture and low hygiene in a shed in St Kilda. (It was called a "bungalow", but this one I swear began life as a garden shed. As well as books, Nippergram, bed, table and chairs, I remember I had a piano there, so it was a fair-sized shed.) One night I was listening to the radio and was at once transfixed and transported by the second symphony of Gustav Mahler, whose name I knew but whose music I had never heard. This was Bruno Walter's 1958 recording with the New York Philharmonic, the Westminster Choir, Emilia Cundari and Maureen Forrester. A finer noise, I decided (to quote or misquote someone), had never penetrated the ear of man; and so began two of my longest and happiest musical love affairs, with Mahler and Forrester.
I couldn't afford this recording: it was imported, so the two-LP set cost £5 15s. -- pretty close to a week's pay. (My hefty secondhand portable radiogram had only cost about £8. Recorded music has become almost ridiculously cheap over the years.) I started saving for it, something I have never been good at, and a few months later, when my grandmother Holyoak (then almost 80 and living frugally on the age pension) asked me what I would like for my twenty-first birthday, I said that what I really wanted more than anything was this set of two records but that it was awfully expensive. She insisted that I have it. I have had many records of Mahler's 2nd since then, including three or four upgrades of the Bruno Walter (the latest one on CD), but I have never enjoyed the symphony more than I did on my twenty-first birthday.
By the time Maureen Forrester came to sing in Melbourne (I can't place it closer than some time in 1961-64) I had as good a collection of her records as I could afford: Mahler's Song of the Earth and The Youth's Magic Horn, Delius's Songs of Sunset, some Bach cantatas, a set of Shakespeare songs (or did that come later?), and a collection of arias by Handel, Gluck, Mozart and Purcell. When Forrester appeared on the platform at the Melbourne Town Hall I felt faint. She was a mountain of a woman, and she was draped in a saffron tent. I couldn't believe that this was the woman I had so fervently loved from afar. The moment she opened her mouth I forgot about all that and just basked in the unique glory of her voice. Oh yes, this was the Maureen Forrester I loved all right, and she sounded better in person than I had ever heard her on records.
Some time after that I found a Purcell selection (probably the one resurrected on this CD), the Cherubini Missa Solemnis in D minor, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and possibly others that have not survived the great book-and-record purges of the 1980s. (These purges, I hasten to add, were in a good cause, like paying the rent; everything went for a short aria and recitative, and it's all too heart-breaking to bear thinking about, so I don't.) Then, where should Maureen Forrester pop up next but in a film of Beauty and the Beast on SBS TV? That can't be right! Some other fairy tale, surely? Yes, I know she played the Witch in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, but I haven't seen that.
Now, about this CD. There's a bit of a wobble in track 2, a bit of wow-and-flutter as we used to say, that not even 1996 technology could correct from the 1966 tapes. Or perhaps someone slept through the transfer. That aside, the sound is pretty close to magnificent, and a lump lurked in my throat as I heard for the first time in years the Maureen Forrester of my youth. The first aria on my 1964 record was Handel's "Ombra ma fui", which used to just about reduce me to a whimpering heap, and it still has an effect of this sort when I hear Forrester sing it. When anyone else sings it, I tend to think of the scene in the opera and lose concentration.
Handel's opera Xerxes is, of course, about the mighty Persian king, considered by some biblical scholars to be the Ahasuerus mentioned in the books of Ezra and Esther. If you ever go to see it (which I wouldn't: I bought a videotape of a very fine performance, and after I watched a bit of it traded it, as I recall, on a good copy of The Blues Brothers), you must leave your Bible and history in the cloakroom, because Handel's business was entertainment, not scholarship. That he was a musical genius merely sets him apart from lesser entertainers who are perhaps justly forgotten, like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Handel's Xerxes, his lead character in this opera, has problems. For a start, he is a woman. That's OK if he's a magisterial sort of woman, a commanding presence, like Maureen Forrester, but it's still a bit of a worry. Next, Xerxes is in love with a tree. You heard right: a tree. Not a big one, nothing too obtrusively Freudian, in fact not much more than a sapling in the videotape I had, but none the less a tree. Well, what can you add to that? I mean, this is a really severe psychosis we're talking about here. I didn't wait to discover how it all worked out in the end (its ramifications, if you like), so I can't tell you; it just seemed too hilariously sad for words.
When I listen to Forrester singing "Ombra ma fui" I am listening to music, sublime music, that catches the throat, stings the tear ducts, and sets off excited little synapses all through my system. My toes tingle. A friend of mine once described this as "making love to the music", which is fair, but it's a cathartic thing, and probably good for you, done in moderation. When I think too much about the words -- "Ombra ma fui / Di vegetabile / Cara ed amabile / Soave piu" -- all I can see is this pathetic, clinically infatuated, idiot king proclaiming his endearment to a bloody tree. But that's opera for you.
I can't recommend this CD highly enough: 70 minutes of rare delight (plus one minute of dismay early on when you think you've made a terrible mistake), and dirt cheap.

Wordplay-L, December 1996
The Society of Editors Newsletter, June 1997




John Bangsund
Melbourne, Australia



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