Susan Chilcott at La Monnaie: Britten, Verdi, Strauss, Boesmans

Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie/Antonio Pappano (Cypres CYP8601)

18 December 2008 4 stars

ChilcottHere is a reminder, if one is needed, of the musical loss we all suffered with Susan Chilcott's untimely death in 2003.

Aged just 40, she had blossomed relatively late into a magnificent singing actress, a soprano of world class and fine stature who was surely on the verge of great things on the opera stage. I last saw her at the Royal Opera House in 2002 singing a wonderful Liza in The Queen of Spades – she had in that part, as some of the excerpts on this CD attest, a wonderful combination of serenity and intensity. That must be what made her Desdemona so special, a role that would surely have suited her to perfection for many years to come.

Tribute CDs, such as this one is, have no real programming logic. The tracks here are simply taken from recordings of live performances and illustrate various facets of Chilcott's art. It was in the role of Ellen Orford that she first came to international notice, in the 1994 Willy Decker production of Peter Grimes at La Monnaie, and it is good to have Ellen's 'embroidery' aria and the Act One fragmentary duet with Grimes, 'The Truth, the Pity and the Truth', preserved here for posterity. There is wonderful resonance in the lower register, but Chilcott never sounds plummy: she sings well forward in the mouth, to the huge benefit of diction and freshness of sound in the aria, and in the doubled octaves of the duet as they sing 'here is a friend' you get that superb moment of stasis just before the high strings enter for the first Sea Interlude.

But I enjoyed the Governess' aria from The Turn of the Screw even more. I heard it recently sung to piano as an audition piece and marvelled at its effectiveness even then: here, with Antonio Pappano drawing on all the expressive powers of his small orchestra, chirruping woodwind to the fore, Chilcott sounds simply glorious. Her phrasing of 'his bidding…his bidding' is an object lesson in how to turn and mould a musical line while retaining pure legato in the sound. Wonderful.

The Richard Strauss excerpts are both from Ariadne auf Naxos, allowing us a glimpse of Chilcott's Composer. Once again she sounds in radiant voice, although the (fixed?) microphones indicate quite a lot of bustle and movement on stage – it all sounds quite physical – and her breath control is not perfect. Those long, never-ending Strauss lines really do have to seem to come from nowhere and vanish into infinity, and Chilcott is maybe too effortful at times. I would have to listen to the whole Prologue to form a better judgement – in these pair of three minute excerpts, all one can say is that there are some exciting moments.

And so to Verdi's Otello, the three extracts from which have to be the real treasure on this CD and reason alone to acquire it, if one wants a document of a modern, all-round soprano of immense expressive power touched with vulnerability and exquisite tone. The Willow Song is of course a benchmark aria for any soprano – I went straight for purposes of comparison to the 1996 recording by Galina Gorchakova at the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev – and here, in this fourteen minute extract, Chilcott shows that she had extraordinary dramatic intensity but always contained within a voice of truly beautiful tone. Desdemona at this point in the opera should have the audience in the palm of her hand and Chilcott clearly does: there is a truly melting ebb and flow in her extended dialogue with the orchestra, and Pappano here is at his most pliable, moulding the orchestral phrases to mirror exactly the touching utterances of Verdi's heroine. Power is there in abundance for the impassioned outbursts, but it is the soft singing that is breathtaking, culminating in a floated pianissimo A flat at the end of the Ave Maria. At La Monnaie, this must have been an absolute highlight of the evening.

The second extended excerpt from Otello is the love duet that ends Act One, 'Gia nella notte densa'. Once again, Chilcott is in fine voice, shaping her twelve bar phrase ('Mio superbo guerrier!') in just the naïve, childlike manner that Verdi must have intended. Her Otello in this excerpt, Vladimir Galouzine, is in acceptable rather than outstanding voice here, but they combine well in this extraordinary passage of musical development that is often said to defy analysis. Finally we have Chilcott and full cast in the ensemble passage 'A terra!', which is a tuneful and spirited passage of Verdi that allows Desdemona to show off her high notes, but does not really allow her to express much musical character.

The last excerpt on this CD is a brief passage from Phillipe Boesmans' Wintermaerchen, which was based (as the name implies) on The Winter's Tale by Shakespeare and premiered at La Monnaie. I confess to not knowing the piece: this three minute sampler makes me want to hear more of it. Once again, the expressive tonal quality that Chilcott imparts to the role of Hermione is exemplary.

This is a lovely CD and a moving tribute to a vital artist. There is audience and stage noise throughout the recordings, but it hardly seems to matter. It is the voice and the personality that count, and both are preserved here in fine fashion.

By Mike Reynolds