Pure Diva

Henry Fogel

Australian soprano Cheryl Barker has put together a wonderful tribute to her teacher, the undervalued Joan Hammond, and come up with a disc that is a true pleasure to experience. Part of that pleasure is the program itself, a varied and engaging mixture of repertoire that is hardly typical of most recital discs. And the other part is Barker’s intelligent, musical, sensitive singing.

Barker, whom I would guess is now in her early-50s, has retained her vocal luster through more than a quarter century of singing. There are a few flashes of a tremolo that was not there five or 10 years ago, but they are fleeting and do not distract from the overall beauty of her accomplishment here. She is a true lirico-spinto soprano (much like her teacher)...imagine a Sills with more vocal heft. The lower register is more than strong enough when called upon, she can float lovely pianissimi, and the voice takes on a plangent ring at climactic moments without turning hard. She has a wide range of colors at her disposal, which she applies intelligently. Above all, she sings with stylistic mastery, whether of the long floating lines of Desdemona’s scene from Otello or the passion and power of Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin.

Vocal collectors can probably point to a favorite classic version of many of these arias (Milanov’s Rusalka aria, Tebaldi’s “Willow Song,” and Ave Maria, Lehmann’s version of “Marietta’s Lied” sung with Tauber as a duet, as it is in the opera, or Vishnevskaya’s Tatiana). But we who love voices can never live with one recording of anything, knowing that no single performance can say everything there is to be said about an aria or song. The point of a recital disc of this nature is to provide genuine and lasting satisfaction through the range of material. Barker does that. Her singing is sensitive to text and mood, and to the shape and style of the music. The Hammond classics like Home Sweet Home and The Last Rose of Summer are sung with a simple beauty that holds the listener. The Tote Stadt scene is a highlight, with some gorgeous floated soft notes. Kudos to Melba, by the way, for not gopping up the songs with a saccharine orchestration, but allowing Barker to be accompanied by a single piano, lovingly played by Timothy Young.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra plays well throughout...and Guillaume Tourniaire accompanies sensitively without over-indulging the singer. He brings both lyricism and rhythmic spine to the music. Melba’s sound (heard in two-channel stereo) is superb, suffering from none of the artificial “ambience” that one finds on too many vocal recordings these days. It is well balanced with the voice a bit forward without slighting the orchestra. Superb notes about Hammond by the late, lamented John Steane round out the package. I expect to return to this disc many times.