Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 9 June 2010

Discovery CD: Maureen Forrester in Oratorio & Song

by Joseph So / June 1, 2010

Flash version here.

Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester will be turning 80 on July 25th. Her extraordinary career spanned some fifty years, from 1951 to the late 1990s, when her performing days came to a gradual end as a result of advancing dementia. Her last public appearance was a benefit concert for the Toronto Sinfonietta in June 2001. Today Forrester lives in a long-term care facility in Toronto.

Without a doubt, Forrester is the greatest contralto Canada has ever produced. She has left her mark as an important exponent of the song, symphonic, oratorio—and in the latter part of her career, operatic—repertoires from baroque to the contemporary. Born on July 25, 1930 to a working class family in Montreal, Forrester quit school at 13 to earn a living. Despite their limited means, Forrester, at her mother’s urging, studied piano and sang in church choirs. Her voice teacher was Dutch baritone Bernard Diamant, who was undoubtedly the most important one in her career. J. W. McConnell, publisher of the Montreal Star, recognized her talent and underwrote the expenses of her studies for over a decade.

Forrester made her debut in Montreal in 1951 in Elgar’s The Music Makers, and her opera debut as a sewing girl in Charpentier’s Louise in 1953. She made her New York Town Hall debut in 1956. Conductor Bruno Walter was so taken by her singing that he took the young Canadian under his wing. Through Walter, Forrester became a celebrated Mahler interpreter. If one were to ask what about Forrester’s voice was so compelling, it would be difficult to answer; yes, her tone is beautiful, to be sure, but also her musicality, her way with the text, and above all an indefinable, luminous, even spiritual quality to her singing never fails to move the listener. A self-professed happy person, Forrester would seem temperamentally unsuited to these gloomy song cycles and sad alto solos in many oratorios. In her autobiography, Out of Character, Forrester reveals that, to sing the sad songs, she drew her inspiration from a moment at the end of Mahler Second Symphony, a bar of music that unfailingly brought her to tears and put her in the right mood.

In its prime, the Forrester contralto was a force of nature, a voluminous and rich sound, smooth  through its entire range, and remarkable for its dark timbre. A voice such as hers comes only once in a generation. In the two discs, her opulent tone and innate musicality are very much in evidence. The Brahms-Schumann recital was recorded in 1958, when Forrester’s voice was in its youthful prime. It also captured for posterity the long and celebrated collaboration between the singer and pianist John Newmark, who accompanied Forrester in her Montreal recital debut in 1953. The centerpiece of the disc is Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben Op. 42, composed in 1840, known as Schumann’s “year of song.” In this short cycle of eight songs set to text by Chamisso, it follows a woman’s love for a man, from their first meeting to marriage, motherhood, and to his eventual death, told entirely from the woman’s perspective. In the current 21st century post-feminist critique, the idea that a woman’s self-worth is validated only through her husband, as Chamisso’s text implies, seems hopelessly old-fashioned. Musicologist Ruth Solie, in an essay published in Music and Text: Critical Inquiries, asserts that the cycle reflects the sexism and patriarchy of 19th century European society from which Schumann and Chamisso came. Solie dismisses the argument that this work merely reflects its time and can be viewed and understood within its historical context, and rejects the notion that both Schumann and Chamisso were actually sympathetic to women. Despite the controversy, this cycle remains popular on the recital stage and recordings, where the interpreters have been overwhelmingly female of course. However, the great German baritone Matthias Goerne audaciously programmed this work in his recitals a couple of years ago, with mixed reception! No matter what side of the philosophical fence you are on, I do believe that the glorious music can be enjoyed without having to ponder such weighty issues. Forrester sings the cycle beautifully, but some might argue that her contralto tones are not ideal to impersonate a young maiden breathlessly in love. I find the last song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” mourning the death of her beloved, especially moving. The other main work on the disc is Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder, originally a cycle of 11 songs for vocal quartet with text from Hungarian folk songs translated into German. Brahms later rearranged 8 songs for solo voice and piano. Each lasting only about a minute and a half, these delightful songs capture the Gypsy flavour but the melodic inspiration is entirely Brahmsian. Forrester sings these rather jaunty songs with buoyant spirit and vivid imagination, with meticulous support from Newmark.

The second disc, available as a bonus download, showcases Forrester in oratorio, a repertoire where she had some of her greatest triumphs. All the pieces are “chestnuts” for the alto, including the ever popular “He was despised” and “O thou that tellest good tidings” from Handel’s Messiah. To my ears, Forrester’s “Erbarme dich” for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is among the greatest ever, rivalling the great Kathleen Ferrier to whom she was often compared. Forrester owes it to the genius of Bach for writing such an incredibly beautiful violin solo. The overwhelming melancholia of the aria and Forrester’s mournful tones touch one’s soul. Incidentally, Forrester sang this at a public memorial for Glenn Gould after his passing and there was not a dry eye in the house. The orchestra on the oratorio disc is the highly regarded chamber group I Solisti di Zagreb, founded in 1953 by the late cellist Antonio Janigro. This 1964 recording still has him at the helm.

The recorded sound of the two discs is perfectly fine for its age. It is acutely poignant that an artist who has given so much pleasure to countless music lovers will now reach her 80th birthday without conscious awareness. But for those of us who loved Maureen’s voice, we can celebrate the occasion by listening to these discs and be once again reminded of her greatness. 

To mark her 80th birthday, XXI-21 Productions, in partnership with La Scena Musicale, is re-issuing two Maureen Forrester discs: one of her as a lieder singer, and the other in oratorio.

(c) La Scena Musicale