Jacques Urlus: Heroic Tenor
In December I reviewed a Preiser issue devoted to the great Dutch heroic tenor Jacques Urlus (1867-1935). That single CD featured eighteen recordings made by Urlus for the Gramophone company between 1907 and 1912, as well as two Odeon discs from 1924. Now Marston has issued a two-CD set, featuring all of Jacques Urlus's recordings made for the Edison Company during a period that spanned 1913-1917. Both of these releases certainly deserve a prominent place in any vocal collection.
Without question Jacques Urlus was one of the finest tenors ever to make records. He was an artist without technical or interpretive shortcomings. The voice was uncommonly beautiful and secure throughout its registers. Urlus employed this glorious instrument with a patrician elegance and a keen imagination that never shortchanged the dramatic situation at hand.
Virtually any Jacques Urlus recording provides a masterclass in the art of the heroic tenor. But if pressed to choose just one selection from this new Marston set that encapsulates his unique qualities, I would opt for his 1913 rendition of Florestan's prison aria from Beethoven's Fidelio. Urlus launches the recitative "“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!" ("God! What darkness here!") with a breathtaking piano attack and crescendo on the initial "G" Throughout the recitative sequence, Urlus handles Beethoven's punishing tessitura with ease. All the while, he maintains dramatic tension through a nobility of declamation and an observance of Beethoven's dotted rhythms, too often ignored by other tenors. The ensuing aria reflects Urlus's keen dramatic insight and responsiveness. For example, in the phrase "Wahrheit wagt' ich kühn zu sagen, und die Ketten sind mein Lohn" ("I boldly dared to speak the truth, and fetters are my reward") Urlus's pungent attack on the word "Ketten" ("“fetters") brings Florestan's despair into vivid relief.
Unfortunately, this remarkable performance concludes before the agitated final sequence in which Florestan encounters a vision of his beloved Leonore. Still, what remains is, for me, the touchstone recording of this glorious and extremely challenging music.
Jacques Urlus was one of the finest exponents of the heroic tenor roles of Richard Wagner. And indeed, Urlus made numerous recordings of Wagnerian repertoire, many of which are included on the new Marston issue. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Urlus's Wagnerbesides the incredible beauty of his voiceis the elegance and refinement he brings to music that is too often bludgeoned to death by lesser artists. Typical of Urlus's approach to Wagner is his 1915 recording of Siegfried's "Forging Song," perhaps unique in its synthesis of heroic power with a flowing legato and beauty of tone one normally associates with Bel Canto repertoire.
Although Urlus was best known in the United States as a Wagnerian tenor, he was, in truth, an extraordinarily versatile artist who explored a wide variety of operatic, oratorio, and lieder repertoire. Fortunately, Urlus's Edison recordings reflected the tenor's eclectic tastes. By way of example,his renditions of Tamino's arias from Mozart Die Zauberfl–te stand comparison with the finest ever committed to disc. The fact that these sensitive and poised interpretations were made by the greatest Siegfried and Tristan of his day is a testament to extraordinary artistry and technique.
Urlus's suave accounts (in German) of arias from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, MÈhul's Joseph, and Auber's Le Muette de Portici reveal his affinity for French repertoire. In addition, the Marston set features several glorious recordings of song repertoire, including a justly famous account of Franz Schubert's Die Allmacht, as well as the glorious performance of Richard Strauss's Traum durch die D”mmerung that serves to conclude the Marston set. American soprano Marie Rappold, who joins Urlus on five of the Edison recordings, proves to be a worthy partner.
While Thomas Edison's taste in music was, to put it mildly, questionable (see my review of Marston's issue of "The Edison Trials"), he provided his recording artists with the finest technology available at the time. Edison's recording techniques, coupled with Ward Marston's wizardry in remastering historic discs, allow us to enjoy Jacques Urlus with extraordinary presence and vividness.
The accompanying booklet contains full track listings, attractive photos, and a first-rate essay by Harold Bruder. There is also an informative (and sometimes humorous) note by Ward Marston, who concludes: "It is my hope that this issue will help to establish (Jacques Urlus) solidly in the pantheon of great "Helden tenors." There is no doubt Marston has provided a marvelous service for the legacy of one of the 20th century's greatest singers. And I am certain that this magnificent set will remain among my prized vocal issues of 2001.