Admired as much for her stunning stage presence as for her uncommon musicality, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has followed a career path wholly her own. She has successfully combined an international [...]
They spoke about it
This recording is devoted entirely to the songs of Pauline Viardot, nee Garcia, an extraordinary woman who was not only one of the great singers of the 19th century but also quite clearly a gifted composer. As evidenced by this recording, her oeuvre includes Italian, German, Spanish, and French songs, often in the popular vein. Some of her French songs were based on the mazurkas of Chopin and contributed to the renown of the pianist, who was himself delighted with them.
“She is truly the daughter of kings, descended from the gods… No other woman could have come so directly from the gods,” wrote a critic in Berlin in 1847 after attending one of her triumphant performances in the title role of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. He was referring not only to the character, but also to the performer. Viardot had been born into a family of famous French singers of Spanish origin, several of whom already enjoyed god-like status: her father, Manuel Garcia, who, among other things, had premiered the role of Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; her mother, Maria Joaquina Sitches; her elder brother, Manuel Jr.; and, of course, her elder sister Maria, a living legend by her early twenties known as “La Malibran,” the surname of her first husband.
Manuel Garcia Sr. was also a well-known voice teacher whose method, taken up and developed by his children, was for many years a reference. It was thus only natural that he take charge of training his youngest daughter, born in 1821. When he died in 1832, his wife took over young Pauline’s education, ensuring that she also study piano (with, among others, Franz Liszt) and composition (with Antoine Reicha).
Then in 1836, La Malibran died accidentally at the age of 28, and the devastated family encouraged Pauline to fill her shoes. The next year, in Brussels, she made her debut in a recital organized by her late sister’s second husband, the Belgian violinist Charles-Auguste Bériot. She was only 16, but the purity and richness of her voice and her uncommonly wide range (said at the time to be three and a half octaves) made her an overnight sensation. Barely three seasons later—thus, before the age of 20—she had become one of the great lyric performers of her time.
In 1838, her brother took her on a German tour where, already, she had begun to sing her own songs, accompanying herself on the piano. In 1839, she made her debuts in London and Paris, singing the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. “Never has anyone sung the “Willow Song” (Desdemona’s last aria) like she did,” extolled one critic, “not even La Malibran, who had neither the sonorous fullness nor that large and powerful vibration in her lower range.” According to Hector Berlioz, “Miss Garcia’s voice has a virginal purity and is equal in all registers, in tune, vibrant, and agile.” He added that “her range extends only from low F to high C (two octaves and a fifth), but this is already huge, combining three types of voice that are rarely united: contralto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano.” Georges Sand was also in the audience, and the two women became close friends, the author even modeling the heroine of her novel Consuelo (1842) after the singer.
In 1840, Pauline Garcia married the writer and director of the Théâtre Italien in Paris, Louis Viardot, who was 21 years her elder. Shortly after their wedding, he resigned his position to manage his wife’s career, accompanying her to cities such as Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, London, St. Petersburg—wherever fame took her. While they were in Russia, the writer Ivan Turgenev fell so deeply in love with her that he hovered near the Viardot family for the rest of his life.
In 1863, at the age of 42, Pauline Viardot retired to Baden-Baden, where she began to teach—students flocking from all over the world—using her father’s method. She also composed a few operettas, including three on librettos by Turgenev, for private soirées that she would regularly organize. In 1870, the fall of Napoleon III and the creation of the Third Republic allowed the Viardots, confirmed republicans, to return to Paris, where Pauline would live until her death in 1910 at the age of nearly 90.
Even before her singing career, Pauline Viardot had been a versatile polyglot, fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian. Extended stays in England, Germany, and Russia gave her the languages of those countries too. Moreover, she became fluent in the many different national styles, composing over 200 songs during her lifetime. This recording thus bears witness to a prediction made by Georges Sand as early as 1840: “The appearance of Miss Garcia will be a shining moment in the history of women’s art. The genius of this musician, both accomplished and inspired, demonstrates a progress of intelligence that has never before been so conclusively manifested in the feminine sex.”
Translation: Peter Christensen