Helen Watts;  Ryan Edwards - Hunter College   (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1030)
Item# V2634
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Helen Watts;  Ryan Edwards - Hunter College   (St Laurent Studio YSL T-1030)
V2634. HELEN WATTS, w.Ryan Edwards (Pf.): Songs by Schumann (Der Arme Peter, Wilhelm Meister & Maria Stuart Lieder), Britten (A Charm of Lullabies) & Mussorgsky (The Nursery). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1030, Live Performance, 16 Feb., 1969, Hunter College Playhouse, New York. [Among my most treasured recital memories from my New York days! - J.R.P.] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“Helen Watts (1927–2009) was a great British contralto known for her probing intelligence as well as her lovely singing. I am not aware of any other recording of a live recital given by her, and the opportunity to hear her master this complex program in front of an audience is to be highly valued. Even though the recorded sound is a bit unfocused and distant (perhaps someone in the audience was taping), it is clear enough for Watts’s musical and vocal qualities to come through.

Nothing on the program would be successful if performed by a vocalist only concerned with beautiful tone production. Robert Schumann’s songs explore romantic longing and the despair of Mary, Queen of Scots, saying goodbye, first to France (she had been queen of France by marriage for a time) and then to life, before her execution. From Schumann Watts performs the Heine cycle DER ARME PETER and the Mary Stuart cycles complete, along with four songs from the Wilhelm Meister cycle. Watts hollows out the tone to convey the despair of the poet in ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ (‘Only those who know longing know how I suffer’) from the Wilhelm Meister group. She perfectly captures the emptiness at the core of Mary Stuart when she sings ‘What use is the time allotted to me? My heart is dead to earthly desires’. Just as movingly she finds the darkness that is at the center of many of the Schumann songs here.

Benjamin Britten’s cycle A CHARM OF LULLABIES is not what its title might imply. I have always presumed the ‘charm’ in the title was put there with tongue firmly in cheek. These five songs seem to have the purpose of warning a child of life’s less-than-wonderful realities awaiting her. The cycle contains some unexpected dissonances and irregular rhythms, neither of which we would associate with tender lullabies. In the fourth song, ‘A Charm’, we hear the nursemaid snapping ‘Quiet!’ to her obviously restless charge. Suddenly, in the last song, ‘The Nurse’s Song’, we hear the kind of gentle lyrical beauty we’ve expected all along. Watts masters the full breadth of the cycle, ending with the hushed beauty of that final song.

She sings Mussorgsky’s THE NURSERY in an English translation, again making the music come alive. These songs are angular and modernistic in style. As with Britten, if the title leads you to expect sweet children’s songs, think again. The cycle (Mussorgsky wrote seven songs of what was planned to be a set of ten) pictures the life of a small child with very specific and vivid characterizations. There is a lovely bedtime prayer, an excitable encounter with a beetle, and a dramatic retelling of a ride on a hobby horse, including a fall. These songs in particular are much more about characterizations than they are about vocalism, and Watts is colorful and sensitive to every changing nuance.

Pianist Ryan Edwards is a full partner in these performances, engaging with his soloist at all points. Even though, as I indicated up front, the mono sound is too distant, the piano-voice balance is fine. I found that as I listened that the sound quality became less of an issue because the singing was so captivating. It is a privilege to encounter a singer capable of conveying the wide variety of moods and emotions contained in this program, and a singer who sounds so completely at home in several musical styles.

As is usual with St. Laurent Studio recordings, there are no texts or program notes.”

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE

“Helen Watts was a singer of that best British school which, with the initial gift of a fine voice, learns the business and does the job, is hardly ever known to miss a beat or fluff an entry, and ends up being taken for granted. To the record-buying public she was a regular and reliable part of the LP scene, and when given a chance - as in the premier recording of Vaughan Williams’ RIDERS TO THE SEA - she rose to the occasion nobly.

She first became known as a soloist in association with Bach, first in broadcasts, then, in 1955 appearing at a Promenade concert conducted by Sargent. Regular appearances with the newly formed Handel Opera Society led to guest performances in Berlin and Halle. She also sang in the USSR in the title role of THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA in the English Opera Group’s tour of 1964, Britten himself conducting. She sang Mozart and Richard Strauss in Salzburg, and in New York Delius and Mahler. At Covent Garden her roles included Erda in the RING, Mrs Sedley in PETER GRIMES and Madame Sosostris in MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE. To these she added Mistress Quickly in FALSTAFF with the Welsh National Opera, singing with the Company till 1983. In all of this time she was a sought-after soloist in performances of oratorio throughout Britain and sustained a busy schedule of other concert work. Official recognition came with her award of a CBE in 1978. Of her recordings, GRAMOPHONE’s critics (like most others) invariably wrote with admiration and respect - and they had plenty to be respectful about. Nearly 20 volumes of Bach cantatas are enriched by her participation; she was a stalwart principal in the early Handel opera recordings on L’Oiseau-Lyre. She was the ‘dependable, sympathetic’ Ursula in both of the early versions in BÉATRICE ET BÉNÉDICT (David Cairns’ words in OPERA ON RECORD Vol 2) and sings ‘nobly’ (mine in Vol 3) as the bereaved mother in RIDERS TO THE SEA. There was much else, including a fine performance as the Angel in THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, which in the 1976 recording under Boult does find a worthy setting. One returns to that death-haunted old woman in what is surely Vaughan Williams’ operatic masterpiece. As long as the waves continue to wash against the desolate Arran coastline, listeners who come to know the opera in that still unequalled recording will hear in their minds the voice of Helen Watts.”

- John Steane, GRAMOPHONE, 23 October, 2009