Classical rep didn’t feature so prominently in Vyvyan’s schedules, although in the first half of her career it looked as though it might, and she certainly had the sense of style required for the more bravura aspects of this kind of singing.
From the early-classical period she recorded – in 1956, with soprano Elsie Morison – six duo canzonets by Johann Christian Bach, the so-called ‘English’ Bach who lived in London from 1762 until his death in 1782.
Later, in 1965, came a recording of the extended Magnificat in D by another Bach, Johann Christian’s elder brother Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Along with a good number of Haydn Creations on the oratorio circuit, she sang some of the composer’s less familiar repertoire – including the somewhat delayed UK premiere of his comic opera Infedelta Delusa at the Festival Hall in 1960, for which she sang the shape-shifting role of Vespina and, according to the Times, ‘scored a triumph’.
The conductor for that performance was Harry Newstone (1921-2006), a Canadian-born pioneer of historically-informed classical style who founded in 1949 his own Haydn Orchestra. And with that orchestra he was responsible for recordings Vyvyan made in 1957 of Haydn’s Scena di Berenice and arias from his Missa Sancta Caeciliae.
The Missa is an early Haydn setting from 1766, associated with the famous pilgrimage church of Mariazell in Austria. The Scena is an extended concert piece that sets, on boldly dramatic terms, two linked arias from an opera text by Metastasio (used complete by several composers before Haydn) about a princess betrothed to a king but actually in love with his son. Written in 1795, it was one of Haydn’s London works, originally sung in a benefit concert at the Kings Theatre, Haymarket.
Vyvyan’s Mozart repertory explored some of the more obscure corners of his output, including a fancifully allegorical oratorio, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots or The Obligation of the First Commandment, written when Mozart was 11 (albeit with contributions from Michael Haydn which have not survived) and the composer’s first extended dramatic score. For a rare performance at the Festival Hall in 1952, Vyvyan joined a cast that included Adele Leigh and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf under Harry Blech (1910-99), the violinist-turned-conductor who in 1949 had founded the London Mozart Players as a specialist classical-era ensemble.
More Mozart rarities from that time include 1954 Decca recordings under Anthony Lewis of two devotional works from the composer’s early life in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg: his Litaniae Laurentanae or Litany of Loreto KV195, and the grander Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento or Litany of the Most Venerable Sacrament of the Altar KV243.
The soprano parts in both pieces would originally have been sung by a castrato, and the musical language can sound more operatic than ecclesiastical – although the Daily Telegraph review of the release noted Vyvyan’s ‘sereen artistry and soaring clarity of line’, while the Gramophone praised her ‘pure tone, sensitivity and admirable phrasing’. The recordings are now reissued on the Eloquence label.
Vyvyan recorded various stand-alone Mozart arias in the 1950s, either with Harry Newstone and his Haydn Orchestra or with the Swiss Mozartian Peter Maag (1919-2001) and the LPO, and all now available on Decca Eloquence.
They include the importunate coloratura showpiece Ah sei in ciel, a truly virtuosic number written for the composer’s first love Aloysia Weber, and the substantial concert aria Ch’io mi scordi written for Mozart’s English friend and colleague Nancy Storace.
There’s also the better-known Alleluia which closes the solo-voice motet Exsultate Jubilate, originally written for a castrato but mostly sung now by sopranos.
And no less striking is the powerful longing for death in Ah lo previdi, a thirteen-minute scena in which the Princess Andromeda grieves demonstrably for her lover Perseus whom she believes dead.
Vyvyan’s formidable coloratura capabilities made her an obvious choice for Charles Mackerras when he made a 1957 BBC radio programme that broadcast under the stiffly formal (even for the 1950s) designation ‘Vocal Embellishments in Mozart’. It featured her singing Voi che sapete and other Figaro arias with the decorative ornamentation Mackerras had unearthed in previously neglected sources like the manuscript score of the opera kept at the Furstliches Museum, Donaueschingen. The programme was significant in documenting Mozart scholarship of that time – although it’s now, regrettably, untraceable.
No recordings survive of Vyvyan’s performances in full Mozart operas, but that Ah lo previdi gives some sense of how she must have sounded as Electra in the Idomeneo she sang for Glyndebourne in the 1953 Edinburgh Festival. Reviews mentioned her ‘fine coloratura quality’ and ‘impassioned’ performance. But it was an altogether classic Glyndebourne cast, with Sena Jurinac as Ilia, Richard Lewis in the title role, directed by Carl Ebert and conducted by John Pritchard (though the radio broadcast a few days later lists Alfred Wallenstein, the American who was conducting Rake’s Progress in Edinburgh during that Glyndebourne run). And it helped to establish Idomeneo in the standard Mozart canon at a time when the piece was still relatively new to British audiences.
Vyvyan’s full-length Mozart roles actually began at Sadlers Wells in 1952 when she sang what these days we would call Konstanze in Die Entfuhrung – although then it was Constanza in The Seraglio – because the performances were in the English translation of Edward Dent.
It was an obvious role for the florid brilliance of her voice, and she repeated it several times at the Wells, in 1954 and 55.
Less obviously, she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, also at Sadlers Wells, in 1952, 1954 and 55. Donna Elvira might have been a better casting choice, given the account we have of her singing, in English, Elvira’s Mi Tradi.
And in 1955 at the Wells she sang Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte.
Vyvyan’s recitals standardly included Schubert songs, and they featured in her broadcasts. But she sometimes ventured into longer Schubert scores like the one-act singspiel Die Verschworenen, or The Conspirators, in which she sang the Countess for a 1956 radio production with the BBC Northern Symphony. Written in 1823 but unperformed until after the composer’s death, the plot is loosely based on the classical narrative of Lysistrata in which a group of women conspire to withhold sex from their husbands until they abandon warfare.
Years later came another radio journey into unknown Schubert: his biblical drama Lazarus, planned in 1820 as a three-act oratorio but incomplete beyond the first act. Made in 1973 it featured Vyvyan in the role of Mary, with Robert Tear as Lazarus and Philip Langridge as Nathaniel. Robert Simpson produced.
More rarities from this era of music included a completely unknown 1799 setting by SSWesley of the psalm Confetibor which Vyvyan brought briefly to light with the London Mozart Players at the Southbank in 1973 (it has scarcely been heard since, despite favourable reviews).
With more significant consequences she also joined Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Heather Harper and other soloists for Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust – an operatic oratorio that had fallen into neglect until Britten rescued it at the 1972 Aldeburgh Festival, with a subsequent Decca recording.
As an oratorio singer, Vyvyan often found herself booked to sing in Beethoven’s large-scale works for chorus and orchestra. An obvious candidate was the Missa Solemnis, which she sang internationally.
But there was also the less frequently heard Mass in C, which she recorded with the RPO under Beecham in 1959.
And inevitably there was the 9th Symphony – for which she was the soprano soloist on a 1960 recording made for the Everest label by Joseph Krips with the LSO. Part of a set of all nine symphonies that remains a much-loved classic of its time, the mezzo soloist alongside her was listed as Shirley Carter – better known a few years later as a mezzo-turned-soprano with the different name of Shirley Verrett. The entire recording is accessible on YouTube.
As for the rest of the core 19th Century repertoire, it wasn’t prominent in Vyvyan’s workload. But there were exceptions. Mendelssohn’s Elijah was an inevitable fixture on her choral circuit schedules.
And she appears on a 1957 recording by the LSO under Peter Maag of the composer’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – singing the soprano role of 1st Fairy in what subsequently seemed like preparation for the upgrade to Tytania given her by Britten in his later opera.
Mahler surfaced from time to time, not least in performances of the 4th Symphony which she sang in 1969 with the Gothenburg Symphony and Jascha Horenstein, remembered now as one of the supreme masters of Mahler repertoire.
There were also Mahler songs that featured in her broadcast recitals.
French song was a quiet passion, and one of her last radio projects was a Faure series that included magical accounts of Apres un Reve, Chant d’Automne and above all the Op.43 Nocturne, delivered with glistening clarity. Accessible in the British Library sound archive, C1398/0142 C12-13.
Other radio broadcasts featured Debussy and Ravel.
She also, in November 1957, made a radio recording with the BBC Midland Orchestra of Bizet’s exotic but obscure one-acter Djamileh, singing the title role of a slave-girl who wins the heart of an Egyptian caliph. Designated a mezzo role, it was unusual thing for her to be doing at this point in her career but looked back to her beginnings singing at a lower register. And it has charm. The entire recording is accessible on YouTube.
More randomly, she did sing the occasional mainstream 19th Century opera aria – a notable example being the Verdi Ah fors’e lui from Traviata with which she won the 1951 Geneva Concours. There was even the (very) occasional foray into lighter Wagner.
The surviving results are far from definitive of Vyvyan’s capabilities, but they suggest what might have been had she pursued a more standard career path.