V2459. IRENE JORDAN, Vol. II, incl. Songs by Schubert, Brahms, Bax, Bowles & Ravel; w.Arnold Steinhardt (Violist of Guarneri Quartet): Geistliches Wiegenlied; Gestillte Sehnsucht (both Brahms), Live Performance, 14 August, 1999, Plainfield, MA [age 82]; w.Henry Sopkin Cond. Atlanta S.O.: THE MEDEAD (Giannini), World Premiere Performance, October, 1960; w.Paul Paray Cond. Detroit S.O.: THE MEDEAD (Giannini), Live Performance, 4 Jan., 1962. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-343, Live Performances, 1960-2004 [the later performances sung between ages of 63 – 85 are in excellent sound, offering remarkable singing; Never previously issued.] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“THE MEDEAD, by Vittorio Giannini, is one of the greatest works of the 20th-century never (until now) documented on a recording available to the public. It is remarkable that the piece has had to wait more than half a century for this to happen, and even now, it is a first release of live recordings dating from the 1960s....THE MEDEAD is a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra that tells the story of the ruthless Medea from her own perspective, through a text written by the composer; in a sense it is a hybrid of a symphony and a dramatic monologue. I might describe the style as derived from the language of Wagner and Strauss (in his SALOME and ELEKTRA vein), but with an Italianate passion and emotional immediacy, disciplined by a 20th-century concentration of focus and formal economy.
Its emotional intensity is maintained almost without interruption for some 35 minutes….if my description makes you wonder whether you have been missing out on a real masterpiece, and you are able to enjoy a work such as, say, Samuel Barber’s ANDROMACHE’S FAREWELL, I would suggest that you waste no time in getting hold of this recording….among those who are conversant with Giannini’s body of work, THE MEDEAD is usually mentioned as his greatest accomplishment.
THE MEDEAD was one of the fruits of a commissioning project launched in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, under the aegis of W. McNeil Lowry. What was unusual about this project was that, in order to avoid adding to the dustpile of anonymous, justly maligned ‘foundation style’ works, distinguished performing artists were invited to select composers of their own choice to write works for them, which they would then perform with a number of major American orchestras that had agreed to participate. Among the other works that resulted from this project were the Violin Concerto #2 by Paul Creston (chosen by Michael Rabin), ‘Song of Orpheus’ by William Schuman (chosen by Leonard Rose), the Piano Concerto of Elliot Carter (chosen by Jacob Lateiner) and the Piano Sonata of Peter Mennin (chosen by Claudette Sorel). Soprano Irene Jordan, then about forty and at the height of her rather unusual career, chose Giannini.
What qualities lead me to value THE MEDEAD so highly? One is its consistent and unerring accuracy of emotional tone, relative to the text; another is the concentration of focus I noted above, with no musically or dramatically irrelevant digressions; especially significant is its formal structure, based on the initial presentation of two or three motifs whose development weaves a texture that is as musically lucid as it is dramatically coherent. Equally important is the fact that while there are inevitable passages of non-melodic declamation, the dramatic highpoints draw the various musical elements into soaring, searing melodic apotheoses that direct and satisfy the listener’s attention. And, finally, the work embodies a whole tradition of bel canto operatic representation, exemplified most saliently by a ‘pastorale’ section in the third movement, and the solemn ground bass that undergirds the shattering finale.
While the initial appearance of THE MEDEAD—in two different performances - is for me the main point of interest in this recording, the primary concern of the purveyors of the disc...is soprano Irene Jordan. There is, quite strangely, very little information available about her in convenient sources. As far as I’ve been able to determine, she is still alive at this time, though in her late 90s. It is worth quoting from two reviews that appeared in Fanfare 23:3, commenting on what [is] the precursor of this release. James Miller wrote: ‘What becomes of singers who seem to possess the goods but whose careers never seem to ‘take-off’?' The name Irene Jordan is probably one unfamiliar even to most vocal buffs. She sang in the American premiere of PETER GRIMES, had a brief career as a Met comprimario, then, discovering that her mezzo-soprano voice was evolving into that of a dramatic soprano, she left the Met for further study and life as a dramatic coloratura. Although she ended up having a varied, interesting career, she got back to the Met for only one single performance, as the Queen of the Night. In his comprehensive history, THE METROPOLITAN OPERA, Irving Kolodin mentions ‘the breadth and weight of [her] dramatic sound,’… but says she was ‘erratic in pitch and insecure in skips’….
Listening to this CD of live performances spanning 44 years, beginning in 1953, one listens in vain for that erratic pitch and insecurity, and hears, instead, a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence….In addition to her technical finesse, she shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling hers until Joan Sutherland showed up.…’Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can't say’. John W. Lambert added, ‘Jordan's approaches to standard-repertoire items demonstrate that she was, in her day, far superior to a lot of people who now masquerade as vocalists. Today, a voice like this would make news even in papers that rarely cover the arts. One can only wonder’.
What is most striking about the soprano we hear in THE MEDEAD is her power and intensity, unblemished by ugly moments of loss of control or of imprecise pitch - and these are live recordings! One realizes that Giannini and Jordan fully understood the expectations each held of the other. This became abundantly clear to me after I had heard the attempts of several other sopranos to present this piece. The Atlanta premiere is of interest largely in demonstrating Jordan’s comprehensive mastery of the work from the start, while the orchestra - a far less imposing ensemble than it is today - scrambled to keep up under Sopkin’s tentative direction. But the 1962 performance, with the Detroit Symphony - also a far less supple and dexterous ensemble than it is today - enjoyed the leadership of Paul Paray, one of several French conductors whose distinguished artistry and musicality were slow to be recognized. Paray grasps precisely the tempo, the pacing, and powerful dramatic arc of THE MEDEAD, while Jordan is as acute in negotiating the work’s demands as she was in Atlanta, if not more so. But under Paray’s direction Giannini’s monodrama emerges as an indisputable masterpiece.
The second CD offers a series of songs recorded during several recitals much later on. Their main attraction lies in displaying the remarkable durability of Jordan’s voice, not to mention her musicianship. Of the eight items, the last four were taken from a 2004 recital, when she was 85! While they do require certain allowances from the listener, and in some of the eight - the Schubert in particular - her concern seemed directed more toward accuracy than toward expression of the text, these are not easy ditties. The Ravel, for example, is fairly demanding. Jordan’s renditions, even at this late age, are more remarkable for the virtues they offer than for those they lack.
In short, this is a release of interest to both vocal specialists and to those interested in uncovering the great American masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s that were buried during the stylistic skirmishes of that fractious period."
- Walter Simmons, FANFARE
"…a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence….In addition to her technical finesse, [Jordan] shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling her until Joan Sutherland showed up….Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can’t say….this CD is worth investigating….You will find her, I am sure, an interesting and puzzling discovery.”
- James Miller, FANFARE, Jan./Feb., 2000 [with reference to Vol. I]
"THE MEDEAD, a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra composed in 1960, is an impressive creation in an operatic mode that owes something to Verdi, most notably in its striding low-string descents, but far more to Wagner. The German composer's influence is apparent not only in isolated passages like the chromatic wind progressions virtually lifted from TRISTAN, but also in the entire cast of the piece, the way it sets the voice afloat on an orchestral sea and challenges it to surmount the surging waves. [Irene Jordan was named by the Ford Foundation as one of the top 10 performing artists of 1960 and commissioned Vittorio Giannini to write his MEDEAD for her.]”
- James R. Oestreich, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30 Sept., 1990
“Vittorio Giannini (1903-66) was one of the most distinguished of those American composers of the first half of the twentieth century whose work represented an evolution of aesthetic values and musical techniques inherited from the centuries-long European classical tradition. The romantic spirit of Giannini's own music, and the traditional approach he advocated as a teacher, place him in a similar position within American musical life to that occupied by his older contemporary, Howard Hanson. His compositional output includes some 14 operas, dozens of art songs, seven symphonies, and a wide array of choral and instrumental works. Most of his music was regarded as old-fashioned when it was written and received little attention in the United States, although his early operas enjoyed some success in Europe during the 1930s. Other works achieved currency by filling niches in the repertoire.
Giannini was born to a family of professional musicians. When he was nine, he won a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he remained for four years. After several years of private study, he entered the Juilliard School in 1925, where his chief composition teacher was Rubin Goldmark. During the 1920s and '30s, Giannini's compositional interests primarily centered on vocal music songs as well as operas. One of his earliest, ‘Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky', became a favorite on recital programs and was later recorded by both Leonard Warren and Mario Lanza; more recently it has been revived by Thomas Hampson. During the early '30s, Giannini spent several years in Europe on three consecutive Prixes de Rome. A number of major works, including two full-length operas (LUCEDIA and THE SCARLET LETTER), enjoyed auspicious European premieres at this time, winning the enthusiastic praise of Richard Strauss, among others. These works, which featured Giannini's celebrated sister Dusolina in the leading roles, were characterized by rich, warm-hearted melody in a manner that combined both Italian and German influences. Returning to the United States, Giannini composed two symphonies: the first in memory of Theodore Roosevelt, and the second commissioned by IBM for performance at the 1939 New York World's Fair. He joined the faculties of the Juilliard School in 1939, the Manhattan School of Music in 1941, and the Curtis Institute in 1956. Among his most prominent students were John Corigliano, Nicolas Flagello, David Amram, and Thomas Pasatieri. During the 1940s, Giannini turned his attention more fully toward instrumental music, showing a predilection for Baroque and Classical forms, which he imbued with a Romantic warmth, especially in the slow movements. He composed his most popular opera, a buffa adaptation of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, in 1950. The first opera to be telecast in color, it is still heard with some frequency. From the mid-'50s through the early '60s, Giannini composed five works for concert band. Though somewhat marginal to the aesthetic core of his output, they have become his most consistently and frequently performed pieces. Of these, the warmly affirmative Symphony for Band #3 is one of the most beloved works in the genre. During the early '60s, Giannini's compositional style took something of a turn. Although his formal and developmental procedures essentially remained the same, many of his late works reveal a darker character, a greater depth of expression, and a more dissonant harmonic language. Though rarely performed, these are among his finest achievements. Works like the monodramas THE MEDEAD and ANTIGONE, and the Symphony #5 (his seventh) are some of the most impressive examples of American neo-Romanticism. In 1965, the year before his death, Giannini was founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts.”
- Walter Simmons, allmusic.com