For me, all of the following artists have what constitutes great singing. Of course, there are sins of omission and personal taste is involved - and you must forgive me for that. But here we have all the elements. Firstly, an individual timbre and style which couldn't be confused with anyone else. Secondly, a perfect technique which enables them to be total masters of their instruments and capable of exacting every last nuance of the composer's intentions. And thirdly, a humble willingness to let their voices 'sound'. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the voice is its amplifier. With a genuine sensibility, totally free from ego or artifice, these incomparable artists simply become the resonating vessels of the composer's genius. Resulting in a soundworld of profound, recondite emotion clothed in vocal beauty.
FRITZ WUNDERLICH - Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön
Here is the peerless Fritz Wunderlich in what has become his signature aria. In this recital with piano from Salzburg in 1965, his consummate musicianship is allowed a free rein without the constraints of keeping an eye out for the conductor's baton. Every single note down to the last demisemiquaver rings out heroically with a sublime beauty and without any apparent effort. A prince amongst singers.
Within little more than a year he was dead. And looking at the smiling faces of his enthusiastically appreciative audience, there is a tragic irony that they could well have been looking forward to going to hear this divine young tenor for many years to come.
ROSA PONSELLE - Ave Maria (Bach-Gounod)
It is clear that this is a voice of great amplitude. And yet it is under such impeccable control, that it's almost as if Ponselle has a valve that she turns on and off to swell and diminish the tone. Such is its awesome steadiness. The timbre is also hauntingly beautiful. And although her use of rubato and yearning portamenti up to stressed syllables seems out of kilter with our modern approach with its emphasis upon accuracy above all else, it has a logical flow which makes it sound wholly natural and spontaneous, and a soulfulness which is deeply moving.
DIETRICH FISCHER-DIESKAU - Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
And inevitably the Great Man makes an appearance. Here he is in his prime and at the summit of his powers in an instance of singer, orchestra and conductor all in perfect harmony with this transcendental music. Fischer-Dieskau's ability to get to the very core of expression in an ideal symbiosis of words and music is unsurpassed in my experience. If Humanity needed a legacy in which to express its apogee of culture and spirituality, we could do a lot worse than offering this ineffable performance.
And because - as you've probably gathered - for me, he was the greatest of them all, here is a second recording. A live video of him singing Schumann's Meine Rose in 1988 at the age of 63. After 40 years of singing in public at the highest level, it's still all here and more. This incomparably great singer removes any hint of ego and simply becomes the servant of his muse. There's no jigging about on the platform, no screwing up the face with false emotion and no smiles and arch looks at the audience. His expression is serene, yet utterly rapt with the emotion of the moment. With a peerless legato, impeccable dynamic control and perfectly judged rubati, he plumbs the depths of this exquisite song like nobody else.
EDITA GRUBEROVÁ - Al dolce guidami
Edita Gruberová is one of those rare artists who has the ability to cast a spell over their audience. I never heard Callas live, but I suspect she had that same quality. But with her it was through the drama of her singing. With Gruberová, it's the very sound of her voice. Its other-worldly quality and its hyper-intensity, allied to a superhuman control and a willingness to liberate the melodic flow from the barlines, penetrate to our subconscious and churn up feelings we don't normally experience. She regularly sends her audiences into ecstasies of appreciation. There are many recordings and YouTube clips of her in her prime. However, I've chosen this one when incredibly, she was not far off her 67th birthday. She casts her usual spell with an amazing feat of sustained pianissimo singing on a thread of sound. The voice is fresh and youthful and the control is phenomenal. Indeed, she sings a phrase towards the end which lasts almost twenty seconds! Time stands still and the audience is stunned. If you want to hear her in her absolute prime, I suggest any YouTube clip of the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor from the 1980s and 1990s.
NICOLAI GEDDA - Magische Töne
Of all these great singers, Nicolai Gedda is undoubtedly the most versatile. From the heavier tenor rôles in Oberon, William Tell and Un Ballo in Maschera through to Mozart, bel canto and operetta, via the Bach passions and English oratorio, to the songs and folksongs of seemingly every country in the West, he is not only a master of all styles and genres, but is able to sound idiomatic in each. Here he is in an aria of such formidable technical difficulty, one look at the music would send many a tenor heading for the hills. And with his pianissimo high notes, he makes it sound both thrilling and effortless at the same time.
HELEN TRAUBEL - Autumn Leaves
Helen Traubel singing Suicidio has already been recommended in the Registers section. Here we see a different side to this remarkable dramatic soprano. She's in the crepuscular cello-like part of her voice - singing properly, but in a relaxed way in this popular song. A model of simple, genuine and unaffected expression. This is true crossover singing.
Of course great singers exist today and, not wanting forever to harken on to the old days, I've included two singers of the younger generation who can hold their own in any era.
JAVIER CAMARENA - Granada
If ever there was a singer who embodies the infectious joy of singing, it's this irresistible tenor. Every technical summit has been conquered which leaves him with a Rolls Royce vocal engine able to encompass great passion, exuberant virtuosity and heartfelt lyricism with great ease and effortless charm. And then there's the high notes......!!! Sometimes, just before he emits one of these climactic, stratospheric tones, there's a characteristic moment when a little smile of excited anticipation comes on his face - you'll see it in this clip. And, boy, is it justified!
JULIA LEZHNEVA - Lascia ch'io pianga
All the elements of great singing are in this prodigiously gifted young artist. An exquisitely beautiful voice, a genuinely heartfelt manner and an effortless technical mastery. An inadequate description - but how can you articulate perfection...?