The 18,000-or-so fortunate souls who sat at Ella Fitzgerald’s feet (in a manner
of speaking) at the Bowl last Wednesday night were treated a display of pure
style, a rare and precious commodity becoming more rare, more precious, in our
lifetime. Homage was due this smiling, crippled old lady not as a relic but as
a continuing presence, not merely for what she has done but for what she still
can do.
Style; the word gets kicked around a lot, but it takes on many shapes for many
pairs of ears. What it means above all, to this pair of ears, is the power
some musicians have to absorb the music — not merely the notes but the
lingering echoes of the energy that created those notes — and then to become
transformed into the essence of that music. Ella, now 72, may have needed a
little help on and offstage at her concert (and it was wonderful to see her
coming out on the supporting arm of her 83-year-old jazz buddy Benny Carter),
but once she was in place, it was the music that kept her aloft.
That’s what happens with those few great stylists among today’s performers;
for the listener it simply means being glued to your seat by the power and the
purity of the experience. Last week, on some cable station, there was another
of these stylistic revelations. It came in an unlikely place, a dreary and
pretentious TV special on Great Moments from the Metropolitan Opera, snippets
from Met telecasts over the years with the singers themselves mouthing the
usual music-appreciationese platitudes before each performance.
But in the middle of all this pseudo-cultural bathwater Teresa Stratas came
on and sang Mimi’s Farewell from “La Boheme,” and for those four minutes the
tiny body, the burnished-bronze thread of tone and the harrowing dark eyes of
Stratas literally transformed themselves into the fragile tragedy of Puccini’s
haunting music. That, too, was style: not a singer here, a composer there, a
TV camera somewhere else, but a single musical essence which, when it ended,
required an act of will on the viewer’s part to return to Earth.
Then, also last week, there came in the mail a most wondrous three-record set:
the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who at 65 is still most people’s favorite
singer of artsongs, in some of the Schubert songs he recorded in 1951 and ’52.
This was the start of his career, and what these disks capture above all is
the rich glow of revelation, as an ardent young singer with a voice of pure
velvet makes his first discoveries of what it feels like to sing this glorious
music. That glow illuminates this Angel-EMI release, again a venture in pure
And that’s what Ella kept doing in front of that capacity crowd last
Wednesday. At one point she got Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” into her
clutches, and what she didn’t do with that evergreen if much-mistreated
venerable ballad! What she did — after singing it through straight and
gloriously — was to take both words and music and turn them into toys,
tossing little fragments (“Night, Night, Night, Day, Day, Day”) up into the
air until they seemed to reflect the starlight overhead like so many diamonds,
then catching each one of them in her warm and loving lap.
If you weren’t paying attention, you could write off that sort of thing as
pure trickery, and the Lord knows Ella’s own bag of tricks is as big as
anyone’s — as you’ll easily agree if you stayed around for that great scat
medley with Ella and all her jazz pals at the concert’s end. But that “Night
and Day” wasn’t just trick stuff; it was a woman clutching that song close to
her heart, and then just poking around inside it to help make it shine better
than ever. That’s not tricks; that’s art, as when Stratas sings Puccini’s
heroines and Fischer-Dieskau sings Schubert.
There are no pat definitions for this matter of style, which is to say that
there are many. Pure technical mastery — Pavarotti getting one of Donizetti’s
high B-flats lodged in his throat, and holding onto it for longer than human
strength should allow, Nureyev dashing up into the stratosphere and just
sitting there for a while — is for many cultural consumers reason enough to
shell out hard cash for tickets. Others demand artistry.
Kathleen Battle, who looks a million on the stage, owns a pure and pretty
voice which she used with superior marksmanship, and also drew large crowds
to her recent Bowl concerts, strikes these ears nevertheless as a singer not
often involved in what she sings; recent published words to that effect drew
some heavy mail. One man’s stale, apparently, is another’s style.
Here, for what it’s worth, is a personal little list of recordings, or of
moments on recordings, that glow particularly bright in the stylistic
firmament. Of Ella there is generous representations, best of all in the huge
“Song Book” series (Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, etc., two or three disks each,
all out now on CD) she recorded for Verve (and with Verve) in the 1950s:
vintage stuff, a treasury! Of the young Bing Crosby, much underestimated today as a fabulous master of
rhythm and the lyric line (and a scat artist right up there with Ella) there
is, alas, little currently available. One ASV single of Crosby with Bix
Beiderbecke is around, and it is essential.
On the other side of the fence: the best news, for all worshippers of
performing style at its most radiant, is the reissue on Angel-EMI of Pablo
Casals’ performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (with Georg Szell and the Czech
Philharmonic). Just that mighty swipe by the Casals bow at the start of his
first solo carries the assurance that this noble musician is deep inside the
music and knows exactly what to do.
The list also includes, for as an example of pure flair and stylistic bravado
in action, Glenn Gould’s first recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on
CBS, Carlo Maria Giulini’s Mahler Ninth Symphony (with the Chicago Symphony)
on DG, and…
There may be more, but these words are being written with the sound of Ella
still in the ears, and that’s hard to dislodge.