In terms of strict chronology of performance, Vyvyan’s recordings start with a transfer to disc of her cameo role as Jenny in Britten’s English Opera Group version of The Beggar’s Opera, broadcast in 1948 and years later made available on the Pearl label – thanks to a private recording taken direct from the radio by Lord Harewood and later remastered for CD. The cast included Peter Pears and Nancy Evans. And as the critic Alan Blyth wrote, it documents Vyvyan ‘at the start of her career, making much of little as Jenny Diver’.
But her commercial recordings began in earnest in 1953 with a Decca disc, Songs of England, that proved an enduring success – ‘a model to all’ said Records & Recording when it was reissued in 1971 – and included the kind of baroque repertory to which her bright, transparently agile singing was a gift.
Covering four centuries of song from Purcell and Arne to Vaughan Williams, Quilter and Britten, it issued around the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and one version of the sleeve design carried a crown to mark the event. The pianist was Ernest Lush (1908-1988), a well-known broadcasting accompanist who played for leading musicians – including Jacqueline du Pre in her debut recital. Reissued on Decca Eloquence, it was packaged with more songs sung by the contralto Norma Proctor.
Gramophone magazine (Feb 1954) compared Vyvyan’s approach to singing here with that of Kathleen Ferrier, noting her ‘flawless’ technique, ‘exquisite artistry’, and ‘ability to describe situation and character by subtle inflections of her voice’. Musical Events was impressed by her ‘intelligence’ and ‘technical prowess’. And Shell Magazine’s recorded music column called her ‘one of the most exciting and satisfying of contemporary singers’, commending the disc as a ‘must’.
More Purcell came in 1957 with his semi-opera Fairy Queen, conducted by Anthony Lewis and using Lewis’s own performing version.
Done with vibrato and slow tempi that latterday period bands would avoid, it’s a recording (now available on Decca Eloquence) still notable for Peter Pears in the assorted roles of Phoebus, Autumn and 1st Chinese Man. Vyvyan sings 1st Fairy, Mystery and 2nd Woman. And Gramophone praised her ‘pealing runs in Hark! The Echoing Air‘ as ‘impeccable. Purcellian by any yardstick’.
Years later, in 1970, she took part in a recording of Britten’s reduced and reordered concert version of the same piece, with the English Chamber Orchestra and Britten conducting, now on Decca Eloquence.
Other Purcell recordings now on Eloquence include his incidental music for stagings of Diocletian and (attributed to the composer) The Tempest.
First issued on L’Oiseau Lyre in 1954 and also now on Eloquence, Francois Couperin’s Motet de Sainte Suzanne was another Anthony Lewis project, shared with the soprano Elsie Morison and notable for instrumental support that included Neville Marriner (violin) and Boris Ord (harpsichord).
Central to her stage and concert work, Handel featured on disc with a 1955 release of Semele which was pioneering to the extent that it came near-complete: uncommon at the time, and driven by the conductor Anthony Lewis who was at the forefront of the revival of interest in Handel’s operatic scores. On reissue in 1971, it sounded stiff and dated to a reviewer for the FT, Gillian Widdicombe. But most other critics disagreed. ‘Of all Handel’s dramatic works on record…I doubt whether any could give me more pleasure than Semele in this recording’, wrote Arthur Jacobs in Hi Fi News & Record Review (Oct 1971), adding ‘I know this is astonishing praise for an issue of 1955, but there it is’.
In its own time it was welcomed with astonishment. And the title role – a desperate, sensual, anxious character who nonetheless provides a moving death scene – was a perfect fit for Vyvyan’s voice, which combined clarity and brilliance with the humanity of what critic Richard Wigmore called ‘luminous’ sound. The Guardian noted Vyvyan’s ‘breathtaking fioritura’ and the Gramophone observed that she ‘negotiates the florid passages of the mirror aria with almost uncanny lack of labour…Her tone is limpid, the line as steady as a ‘wonderboy’ cathedral treble and all in all her performance grows in stature as it proceeds’.
There were two recordings of Messiah that towered above all others in their day and remain key documents of an era when period performance issues were filtering through from the world of academia to the world of home-listening. First came Decca’s 1954 version under Boult that proudly advertised itself as ‘based on the autograph manuscripts’ as interpreted by the musicologist Julian Herbage.
When Andrew Porter made a survey for the Gramophone of the four available Messiahs on disc in 1954 – the others being Beecham on HMV from 1947, Scherchen on Nixa, Sargent on Columbia – it was the Boult/Decca version that he opted for, commending its smaller forces in the choir and singling out Vyvyan’s solo singing of If God be for us.
As Gramophone declared two decades later when the set reissued, it ‘blazed a trail that others have followed’, standing out because ‘the rival versions did not come anywhere near what Handel intended and this one did’. And though the Gramophone’s critic Alan Blyth thought it now (in 1971) sounded ‘elderly’, he made an exception for ‘Jennifer Vyvyan’s firm, clear singing of the soprano solos: her I know that my Redeemer is still among the most accomplished on disc’.
Also looking back in 1971, Records & Recordings agreed that it showed its age, but thought nevertheless that ‘of its kind this performance was a classic ‘ , observing that ‘Isobel Baillie’s mantle had obviously fallen on Jennifer Vyvyan and she couples beautiful tone and vocal agility with a sensitive response to the words’.
But five years after the Boult version, Vyvyan was asked by Beecham to be in his new, all-luxury Messiah, issued by RCA in 1960. And luxury here meant not only handsome packaging, in the format of a bound book with colour illustrations unusual for the time, but an edition of the score that was controversially enriched with modern brass and percussion.
The broad critical response was that what Beecham did here was ‘outrageous’ but justified (up to a point) by the dimension, power and electricity in the reading.
Paradoxically for such an interventionist approach, he anticipated the direction of latterday historically-informed performance by using a relatively small professional choir that, as the Gramophone remarked, carried no passengers. And though the same review thought Vyvyan’s singing more secure in the earlier Boult recording, it praised the beauty of her solo Rejoice greatly.
‘Her easy projection of florid run lends a lightness and joyfulness to the aria which few other sopranos could hope to match’, continued the review. ‘At her best Miss Vyvyan sings like a highly intelligent and exceptionally gifted choirboy, her tone containing a generous proportion of white and a consequent clarity in fioritura’.
Beecham certainly liked what she did: her diary for 26 June 1959 notes ‘Sir Thomas said Rejoice Greatly was a tour de force & gave me a cigar’. Around the time of the recording he asked her to be involved in several Delius projects he was planning, including Songs of Sunset and Koanga – though as things turned out, she didn’t get involved.
Another Handel disc was Saul, issued by Vanguard Classics, where she sings Michal the tender-hearted girl who marries David and fights to defend him. Recorded in Vienna in 1962 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, it was conducted by Mogens Woldike (1897-1988) the Danish baroque/early classical specialist.
Among her most striking releases were discs of Haydn and Mozart that only make you wish there were more of them – with recordings of two of Mozart’s four not-often heard Litanies, K195 (Litany of Loreto) & K243 (Litany of the Sacrament), that are outstanding for what the Telegraph called her ‘serene artistry and soaring clarity of line’ . Other singers on the disc included Nancy Evans and William Herbert; but ‘vocal honours’, said Hi Fi News & Record Review, ‘unquestionably go to Jennifer Vyvyan who in any case has the lion’s share of the solo work with long and typically melting arias’.
Her account of Haydn’s Scena di Berenice was originally issued in 1958, then repackaged with a Mozart recital (concert arias Ah, lo previdi and Ch’io scordi di te) in 1960, and finally reissued with the Mozart in 1971. The American Saturday Review magazine thought Vyvyan sang with ‘gratifying artistry and control’. Records & Recording worried about a tendency to coldness in her ‘brilliant vocal timbre’ but still found a ‘genuine warmth and commitment in her enactment of the miniature dramas’ involved. And Music & Musicians praised her ‘taste, discernment and skill’.
Directing the orchestra on this disc was Harry Newstone (1921-2006), a conductor largely forgotten now but well-regarded in his day. A teenage harmonica virtuoso who played variety shows, he shifted direction (dramatically), studied with Herbert Howells, and founded his own Haydn Orchestra in 1946 to explore period technique. By contrast, he was also a champion of Havergal Brian’s symphonies, and became music director of the Sacramento Symphony in America.
Now available on Decca Eloquence, the disc comes packaged with a 1956 recording of the Alleluia from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate with the London Philharmonic under Peter Maag. Gramophone thought it ‘without sufficient spiritual exaltation, though well done in other respects’.
An important 1950s project was HMV’s History of Music in Sound, which began life as a radio series before transferring to a multi-disc set intended as an accompaniment to the printed Oxford History of Music. Vyvyan appears in Vol VII, singing in the quartet Ach Belmonte from Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung.
Also in the 1950s came recordings, shared with the soprano Elsie Morison, of duets by JCBach and Alessandro Scarlatti. Repackaged as ‘Mr Bach at Vauxhall Gardens‘, Hi Fi News considered it ‘exquisitely sung’, with ‘fine accompaniment’ by Thurston Dart.
A 1965 HMV recording of the Magnificat in D by CPE Bach has Vyvyan alongside the contralto Helen Watts, tenor Wilfred Brown and bass Thomas Hemsley with a now largely forgotten post-war pioneer of period style, conductor/keyboard-player Geraint Jones.
Thomas Beecham’s 1959 disc of Beethoven’s Mass in C – a work always overshadowed by the later Missa Solemnis in D – was for many years the benchmark version. Made for HMV with the RPO and Vyvyan as the soprano soloist, it was primly described by London Musical Events as ‘very serviceable’, though the review goes on to call Vyvyan’s ‘ethereal legato is beautifully reproduced, though she does seem to enjoy the benefit of a slightly better-placed microphone than the other soloists’. A mark perhaps of Beecham’s fondness for her.
Peter Maag’s 1957 recording of the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn was another classic of its time, included as such in Gramophone’s then influential Classical 100. Vyvyan was one of the two sopranos on the disc, alongside Marion Lowe.
The 1973 Britten recording of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust was the first ever, and helped establish the viability of an otherwise neglected score, winning a rosette from the Penguin Guide. It used largely English voices from Britten’s Aldeburgh circle but with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a sort of guest star. Vyvan sings the small roles of Care and Angel in something that doesn’t rank among her most distinguished appearances on disc. Gramophone noted ‘initial uncertainty’ but went on to say that she contributes ‘distinctive shades of colour so important in this score’.
Jumping several centuries, when it came to Britten she was in her element; and as Andrew Porter wrote in the FT, reviewing Decca’s release of Owen Wingrave in 1971, her Britten roles collectively ‘form a portrait of Jennifer Vyvyan’s high-strung artistic personality and voice; to some extent she is their ‘creator’ in a fuller sense that just that of being their first performer’.
Chief of these roles on disc is the Governess in Turn of the Screw where the intensity of her neurotic stage persona is brilliantly captured in a recording made in 1955, soon after the first stage production and using the original cast.
Gramophone wrote that her ‘portrayal of the Governess is a classic characterisation, her vocal subtleties illuminating every facet of the role’.
Another recording from this period, made later in 1955, was Britten’s The Little Sweep. Vyvyan appears once again with the boy treble David Hemmings – in roles that almost mirror the ones they assumed for Turn of the Screw (of older, caring woman attempting to rescue a vulnerable child) though presented here in simpler, less equivocal, more feel-good terms. Written in 1949, Little Sweep may be an earlier work than Screw but the chronology of the respective recordings, with Vyvyan and Hemmings on board, lends the piece a sense of healing and catharsis for a previously damaging encounter.
It’s perhaps worth adding that a certain tweeness came as standard in the 1950s world of records and recording – evidenced by this excruciating page from Gramophone in April 1954 which reads like a comedy sketch.
Vyvyan doesn’t appear on the original commercial recording of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite her involvement in the stage premiere at Aldeburgh. But there is now available, on the Testament label, a transfer to CD of the radio broadcast made from that premiere in June 1960. With digitally remastered sound, it picks up the chamber-scale circumstances of the first performance, in the seafront Jubilee Hall which seated at that time no more than 300, and with an orchestra of just 27.
It explains a great deal about Britten’s compositional decisions, which rely on clarity of textures that enable the small voices of boy-soloists to come through (as they rarely do in larger spaces and with bigger orchestras).
We know that Vyvyan wasn’t in good respiratory health at the time, but her fierce, neurotic, sharply focused characterisation is still striking – Gramophone magazine called her ‘a Tytania of pinpoint subtlety’, and the pearly brightness of moments like ‘Come thou a roundel’ with its piercing top notes is a model of its kind.
Alfred Deller as her husband is in good if quiet voice. And comparison with the ‘official’ Decca recording reveals small but interesting differences to the text as we now know it. What’s more, Peter Pears sings Flute the bellows-mender with more conviction than he sings Lysander the lover on the Decca discs.
The pity is that Vyvyan never recorded Britten’s War Requiem, which became a frequent feature in her concert repertoire. But she appears on two 1960s versions of his Spring Symphony – one, a live recording from 1963 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and another (cleaner and better) by Britten himself. Music & Musicians admired the ‘infectious spirit of joy and delight’ in her singing on the Britten disc.
She also features in the first recording of Cantata Academica although that doesn’t seem to have been a happy experience.
Her diary for 17 Mar 1961 reads: ‘record Ben’s new cantata for Oiseau Lyre for 25gns. No one seemed particularly grateful. Owen [Brannigan], Helen [Watts] and I went and drank gin to cheer ourselves up’.
Her last stage role for Britten – another case of high anxiety as the neurotic Miss Julian in Owen Wingrave – survives on audio disc as well as DVD taken from the original TV film. Whether consciously or not, Britten provides here with a role here that’s not entirely unrelated to her actual experience as the poor relation/hanger-on in a grand family with an ancestral house.
Little else of the new music that made up a significant proportion of her work made it onto disc. But one rare example is Gordon Crosse’s now forgotten but once esteemed orchestral song cycle Changes that issued on Argo in 1969, accompanied by the LSO under Norman del Mar. As the composer now recalls of the recording sessions, ‘I was a young composer, she was an established star, and I was bowled over by her sheer competence and intensity. A lot of Changes is singable, but I was perhaps foolish enough to include some extremely difficult passages which are the reason it isn’t performed much. One of them is a Blake setting, the Dance of Death, which sits very high in the voice and stays there. It’s cruel. But for her, no problem. Her only failing was the diction: otherwise, everything was there and in place, and I’ve always been grateful to her for that’.
Two other recently issued CDs taken from radio broadcasts are both works by Arthur Bliss. One, from Dutton, is his large-scale cantata The Beatitudes which originally aired on the BBC Home Service in a direct transmission from the premiere performance in Coventry, 25 April 1962.
The other, on Lyrita, is of his chamber pieces for voice and instrumental ensemble Madam Noy and Rout, broadcast from Wigmore Hall on 31 March 1958.