Liner Notes

Conchita Supervia, Volume II

“There were no bored men at
last night’s concert…”

Kansas City Star, 15 February 1932.


Though coming from different cultural backgrounds and different schools of singing, Mary Garden, Conchita Supervia, and Feodor Chaliapin have something in common: their records (lamentably few, in Garden’s case) speak to us today with extraordinary eloquence. These great singers were all gifted with good voices, perhaps somewhat rough in quality by the standards of their day, but all three had been trained in some sound old-fashioned method (in Chaliapin’s case traceable back to Garcia) that enabled them to dominate the opera orchestra; they were all extremely good to look at; they were all gifted actors; they all paid great attention to the clearness of their diction; and they were all able to color their voices to suit the words and the music. Of the three, Supervia was the only one interested in the florid music of the old school, making a special study of it (she claimed to have spent eight years trying to master the Rondò finale from La Cenerentola), though Mary Garden’s record of “Quel est donc ce trouble charmant” from the French version of La traviata demonstrates that florid passages held no terrors for her, and Chaliapin’s complete mastery of his voice in a wide range of dynamic modulations proves him an authentic “virtuoso” who was simply not interested in practicing scales and trills. They all had heavy accents when they sang in foreign languages: Mary Garden’s French pronunciation is quite as un-idiomatic as Melba’s, and Chaliapin’s borders on the grotesque (though both of them could converse fluently in French). Although Supervia’s French is delectable her English is idiosyncratic: but then, who has ever sung our language so enchantingly–“so sweet is shee”, indeed!

In the records of Garden, Supervia, and Chaliapin, the most recent of them now 70 years old, their singing is so eloquently alive that we can imagine that they have cheated mortality: death may have claimed their bodies, but so long as record players exist their art can still deeply move us.

Conchita Supervia was the first great singer to become the figurehead of an international revival of the works of a composer long fallen out of fashion. Fany Anitua, indeed, preceded her in the Rossini revival but she dropped out of the picture early on and recorded nothing by Rossini. Supervia’s repertoire was limited to only three operas of Rossini’s: perhaps if she had lived longer Vittorio Gui would have revived La pietra del paragone for her, but since he considered her voice too small for Isabella’s patriotic outburst “Pensa alla patria” which, he claimed, she only got through on the strength of her technique and her personality, she could never have sung the great serious roles like Tancredi or Arsace.

All critics must despair of finding anything new to say about Supervia–anything that Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who was responsible for “launching” her at Covent Garden, had not written about her in the ‘30s. (Of all the myriad singers he heard in his long life, she was his favorite.) By great good fortune I have been able to consult a collection of press cuttings once belonging to the singer herself and recently in the possession of the late Richard Bebb. These cuttings begin more or less with her London concert debut in 1929 and include French, Italian, Spanish, and American interviews and reviews: some earlier material is included in the book Conchita Supervia et la presse (Paris, Editions Hispano-françaises, Librairie Cervantes, 26 Rue de Richelieu). Many singers have had printed a brochure or leaflet including photos and heavily censored snippets of favorable reviews, but Supervia published an entire book of them, 116 pages long! (A book so rare as to exist today in only three or four known copies.)

It will be no surprise to record collectors that the best, the most revealing Supervia reviews that I have found are the American ones: such critics as Oscar Thompson, Pitts Sanborn, Olin Downes, and the dean himself, W. J. Henderson, describe her singing accurately and suggest to the reader what actually happened at the concert. It will equally be no surprise that, of the English critics, Ernest Newman and Neville Cardus were the worst, their reviews giving no idea at all of what Supervia’s singing was like.

The News Chronicle for 30 November 1931 offers a delightful review signed J.H.E. of a concert in Manchester (my native town, but alas! this was all long before my time): “I learned that a foreign artist may not only learn to pronounce English correctly, but may also absorb the spirit of our own old English songs. Madame Supervia sang ‘So sweet is she’ exquisitely ... But her Spanish songs... One needed no Spanish to know what she sang about. Her facial expression was eloquence itself... She can tear the heartstrings or make one laugh aloud; and then, in a flash, embrace the whole audience in a smile so roguish and infectious that one forgets the solemn restraints of the English concert room and smiles back to her as a matter of course. Madame Supervia had a great reception. Manchester will welcome her back with open arms.”

Another good critic, Richard Capell, reviewed a concert at the Albert Hall in 1930 in the Daily Telegraph: “This Spanish mezzo-soprano had once before been heard in London. It is a beautiful and unusual voice. The singer’s breathing is unorthodox and looks clumsy, but such lovely tone and out-and-out virtuosity as hers would justify any method.

“She sang some Mozart with an excess of portamento, and then the big song, ‘Non più mesta’, from Rossini’s ‘Cinderella’. This was extraordinary. We hardly ever hear ornate vocal music given with such spontaneity and warmth. The decorations proper to Rossini’s brilliant music are usually made to sound like exercises: this singer made them perfectly musical. Afterwards came some Spanish songs, in which Mme. Supervia employed with effect that curious, hoarse lower register peculiar to Spanish women singers.”

A critic signing himself E.B. wrote in the Birmingham Post of 6 December 1934, reviewing a Supervia concert at the Birmingham Town Hall: “There are other naughtinesses one forgives her in the same way. She heaves her shoulders outrageously in taking breath, she carries chest notes to perilous heights and she will sometimes utter an opening consonant with a coup de glotte (usually justified only in front of vowels, and not always there) that is more like a blow on an anvil. Yet there is no getting away from it, she is a great artist, who can make even such trespasses into disarming delights by the exercise of brains and vocal beauty and personality.”

And what about the vibrato? People who heard her live often claimed that Supervia’s vibrato, such a characteristic feature of her singing on records, was by no means so evident in the theater (rather as was the case with Pavarotti) and never, at any rate, disturbing. The first reference to it I can find in print is from the Irish Independent of the 7 November 1931, a review of her concert at the Theatre Royal, Dublin: “Despite the slight nervous tremolo in her opening songs....”

In America, critics did not fail to notice and comment on this feature. The Boston Globe for 15 February 1932 has this to say after a performance of Carmen: “Her voice is an expressive, darkly-colored mezzo-soprano, used very adroitly, but occasionally marred by vibrato. Madame Supervia is an excellent musician, and her singing reflected a sound knowledge of expressive phrasing, rhythmic vitality, and of the value of infinite degrees of vocal color.”

Supervia made her New York debut with a concert at Town Hall on Sunday, 7 February 1932, reviewed by Oscar Thompson the following day: “Madame Supervia’s delivery (of ‘Non più mesta’) … was such as to challenge comparison with any soprano bravura singing of the day although it was done with a voice of rather secondary character and one that, in some of her other numbers, was tremulous in a manner suggesting lack of support more than an inherent vibrato.” He goes on to refer doubtingly to the “...generous use of an often brassy chest quality at the bottom of the voice...” but concludes: “For one thing, the singer’s production, even when it was unsteady, was always beautifully forward. The tone was on the lips, as were the words, and her singing was as effortless as her diction was cameo-cut and clear.”

In the New York World-Telegram the great critic Pitts Sanborn dedicated two articles to what he obviously considered a debut of some importance. In his second article, dated 13 February 1932, he berates those who devote the adjective “coloratura” exclusively to a particular type of soprano, and quotes two masters of the florid song: “Clara Butt, in spite of an unequalized scale, sang the long divisions in Handel’s ‘Lusinghe più care’ in astonishing fashion, with splendid fullness of tone and illimitable breath... And if any singer of our century ever deserved to be known as a ‘coloratura’, he was the basso, Pol Plançon. If you need to be shown, get hold of his record of the drum major’s solo from the Caid of Ambroise Thomas. That illustrates the possibilities for coloratura that inhere in the deepest and heaviest of the male voices.” He goes on to describe Supervia’s singing at Town Hall: “It is an uncommonly well-equalized voice from top to bottom, and the singer on Sunday never forced it for an instant. All her tones had a fine resonance, from the brightness and pungency of the high notes down through the light, securely poised medium to the unexaggerated purity of the chest register. Unmistakably she is a singer who understands the function of the diaphragm.

“Doubtless she could dispense if she would with a slight edge and a touch of vibrato, which seem native to her voice. But they are exactly what makes the voice Spanish. If more marked they would be a detriment. As it is, they impart individuality and tang.”

In the New York Sun for 8 February 1932 the old curmudgeon Henderson, in kindly, avuncular mood, shows that he, too, succumbed to the temptress’s charms: “The opening group was Italian and it sufficed to make known that the lovely mezzo-soprano voice of Mme. Supervia was distinctly Spanish, that her tone production was Spanish and that her style refused to be anything but Spanish. The voice proved to be one of individual character and charm, light in the medium, sensuous in the low register, aerial in the high, well forward generally, and full of colour and cultivated to swiftness and brilliancy in colorature. Purists must have taken exception to the frequent “whiteness” of quality and the occasional bursts of blatancy, but these were Spanish, the irrepressible utterance of the Flamenco spirit.”

No one we have quoted so far has cast any aspersions on the slight musical value of some of her Spanish songs, but Olin Downes mentions this in his review of her reappearance at Town Hall in 1933–in the New York Times for 16 January we read: “Sometimes the style was simple and affecting in its dignity and emotion. At other times Mme. Supervia was the bold and provocative exponent of only slightly sublimated cabaret music–but with what finish and point and virility!”

The voice on these records

Conchita Supervia is extremely disarming: so archly feminine is she, so winningly alive in all her interpretations, that to subject her art to close critical scrutiny almost seems coarse and ungentlemanly. However!

It would seem that she learned to sing Spanish music first, and when she made her debut at the age of 15 she must have sung Lola in Cavalleria rusticana in the same style as her zarzuela roles. As Henderson noted, she remained essentially Spanish even in Italian music, which is part of her unique fascination whether she be singing Rossini, Mozart, Strauss, or Humperdinck. In 1929 she was only 34 years old, but we hear a voice past its first freshness. Her tone is warm and brilliant, slightly edgy,

or even shrill if she wants it to be so, caressing and even honeyed if she feels in the mood. For all its obvious defects, it is never throaty and only occasionally hoarse. As was noted with approval by the critics quoted above, her singing is always “forward”, her tone bright–even brassy–and she is a great instrumentalist among singers, playing the legato line with infinite modulations of accent, color, and volume. She is a gypsy Patti.

One of the main flaws in her technique is that she never equalized her vowels, so that the I and E give her trouble on the upper medium notes, especially on E, fourth space, where her timbre sometimes becomes needling and gritty. Her diction, whether in Spanish, Italian, French, or English, is marvellously clear, and she rarely makes compromises to favor the timbre at the expense of clear enunciation. This model clarity of diction enables us to hear that in quite a lot of her records she makes mistakes in the words (even when singing in Spanish). We learn from English and American reviews that her method of breathing was clavicular–unorthodox in Italian singing–and though one wishes she could have learned the “inter-costal” method of breathing described by Garcia and used by the best Rossini singers from Pasta to Callas, in her singing she generally creates the impression that the voice is floating on the breath. The effortful breathing noticed by some critics undoubtedly led to the insistent nature of her vibrato, caused by an excess of breath pressure. This very vibrato, which she seems to be able to control to a certain extent, adds a personal touch to her phrasing and expression, making even familiar arias sound newly minted and hauntingly sensual. Like other commentators on these records, I have met several concert and opera goers who heard her in the flesh (how I envy them!) and they never failed to insist that, whilst the records “bring her back” very vividly, they also bring into prominence a vibrato that was not so evident in her singing “live”. We learn from Henry Fothergill Chorley (Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections, Hurst & Blackett, London, 1862, Vol. II page 9) that Rossini’s only real pupil, Marietta Alboni, the greatest of 19th century contraltos, had “a rich, deep, real contralto, of two octaves from G to G–as sweet as honey–but not intensely expressive; and with that tremulous quality, which reminds fanciful speculators of the quiver in the air of the calm, blazing, summer’s noon.” Alboni, then, had a vibrato–but clearly a shimmer on the tone, more gentle and even than Supervia’s often aggressive juddering. Supervia’s voice recalls what Lord Mount-Edgcumbe writes (in Musical Reminiscences of an Old Amateur, London, W: Clarke, 1827, page 33) about Sestini, an opera buffa prima donna of the 18th century: “…. Her voice was gritty and sharp (something like singing through a comb)….”

The range of Supervia’s voice seems to be exactly that required for Rossini’s Rosina and Cenerentola, sitting easily in the lower medium range but reaching up to the high B when required. Following Garcia’s table describing the various female voices, Supervia is to be classified as a mezzo-soprano rather than a contralto. It is clear from the score of La Cenerentola and from numerous variations that Rossini subsequently composed that he expected the high B to be sung in head register, but Supervia, child of her time, uses head register in the longs runs up to B, but at the end of “Non più mesta” belts out an interpolated high B in full voice. Her technique is in many ways quite polished: especially noteworthy is the consistent, one might say almost ruthless, placing of the voice “in the mask”. This reliance on head resonance in all the registers of the voice is typical of the finest singing of bygone days. One of Supervia’s most unorthodox but thrilling effects, the loud and vibrant “snarling” on lower notes in some of her Spanish numbers, was created by increasing the breath pressure whilst she kept the throat open, leaning ever more heavily into the mask resonance. Although she will occasionally sing too high in chest register, she seems to have had an unusual command of this lower “passaggio”, enabling her to sing lower medium notes with various mixtures of registers. In “Signore, una parola” from La Cenerentola, her scale might be judged uneven by severe critics, but it is often impossible even for the trained ear to be sure in exactly what register she is singing: she appears to have her own personal method of blending the chest and medium registers in scale passages by resorting to a curiously nasal tone. She is more orthodox in her approach to the upper passaggio: well aware that C sharp and D (third space, fourth line) are indeed the “passage” to the high notes, she has worked on them so as to be able to mix her registers in different ways at this point in the scale, opening up to her a wide range of dynamic effects. Her voice, often rather fierce in its Catalan stridency, is capable of ravishing softness on these (to others) difficult notes. Like her fellow Catalan Montserrat Caballé, Supervia knew that the way to her listeners’ hearts in the concert repertoire was through soft, delicately varied and refined singing. One of her greatest records (and my personal favourite), “O aprile foriero” from Saint-Säens’s Samson et Dalila (recorded in 1927 and included in Marston volume one), explains why she was able to have a reasonably successful career in Italy with a small (but brilliant) voice even before her triumphs in the Rossini repertoire: although one cannot describe her as a “Bel canto” singer, she commands enough of the accomplishments of refined singing to be able to create a fascinating sound picture of an unusually young Delilah, a “sex kitten” of beguiling charm. What matter that she lacks the vocal opulence we are accustomed to hearing in this low-lying, voluptuous music? She so uses erotic vocal coloring and a masterly, teasing crescendo and diminuendo that her record is a perfect complement to the ravishingly lovely photographs of her in this role taken when she was less than 20 years old. It is idle to complain that in this, as in many other records of hers, she uses an idiosyncratic portamento, sometimes even between notes only a tone apart, more reminiscent of Edith Piaf and Eartha Kitt than of Patti or Melba. If you like to be wheedled by a voluptuous kitten, then you will succumb with a sigh, but it will be a sigh of pleasure.

On 3 June 1975 the critic Max De Schauensee gave a lecture at the British Institute of Recorded Sound entitled “Emma Eames and other singers I have known”, reprinted in Recorded Sound, N° 59, July 1975. “…she and Gogorza and I went to hear Supervia in Carmen and they both thought that she was the best Carmen since Calvé. In fact we were so enchanted by her Carmen that two days later we went to hear her sing some Rossini arias at the Salle Delacroix. Her Rossini they liked far less, and Eames said “That is not the way Madame Alboni used to sing Rossini”... Of course Supervia, fascinating as she was, had a sort of flamenco style: and she also aspirated the runs. But Supervia had such charm, such verve, such fascination that you would have forgiven her anything.”

About her florid technique, one can only say that she negotiates Rossini’s coloratura with decent fluency and with a joyous and impertinent insouciance that reconciles one to the occasional bumpy or aspirated passage. Rodolfo Celletti declared that her Rossini recordings were too much in the flamenco style, and there is no doubt that her Catalan heritage speaks clearly through her attempts at brilliant vocalization; despite their roughness, however, her performances are electrifying in their passion and charm. She had to re-invent coloratura singing for her own mezzo-soprano voice, for in her day there was no good model to study, no great mezzo-soprano possessed of a correct technique and Rossinian style (she never heard Eugenia Mantelli). Even the New York critics were more intrigued by her originality and charm than indignant at her roughnesses. Her only mezzo-soprano rival in bravura singing on the international scene was Sigrid Onegin, who only became interested in Rossini when Supervia was already dead, and whom no record company could be persuaded to record in this repertoire. The times were not yet propitious. However, though considerably more accurate than Supervia, she is cautious and placid in florid pieces. As is clear from the remarks of Pitts Sanborn quoted above, in 1929 people had come to think that “coloratura” was a feat limited to light sopranos, but this lazy way of thinking is already apparent in critical writing of the 19th century, leading to the formation of bogus categories of voices such as soprano drammatico d’agilità or coloratura mezzo contralto. This forcing of voices into an artificial typology led Giacomo Lauri-Volpi to describe Supervia as a lyric soprano who took to the florid mezzo-soprano repertory because she had no high notes! Now that we are more familiar with the scores of Handel and Rossini (to name but two composers deeply knowledgeable about singing) we realize that brilliant and accurate florid singing was expected from all singers in their day. Whilst Supervia seemed a rara avis 80 years ago, the success of such singers as Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey in modern performances of Rossini’s operas has produced a host of imitators; in 1929 it was thought that a Rossini singer needed to be born with a special and rare type of voice, whereas all that was ever needed was gruelling hard work.

The present collection of recordings, all from 1929 and 1930, begins enchantingly with the eight children’s songs, canzoncine, by the Florentine composer Leopoldo Emanuele Gennai (born 1886) who conducts the orchestra. How exciting to hear Supervia speaking: she introduces each song talking in exactly the same way that she sings–of course, she is “on stage” here, too, and may not have placed the voice so theatrically in the mask when chatting intimately to her “little Giorgio”, who, she claims, is in the studio with her. During these sessions she made her famous record of “Signore, una parola”, a Quartet from La Cenerentola turned into a duet by simply omitting the parts for Ramiro and Dandini–a pity, because Vincenzo Bettoni, with a once great voice now in sad decline, makes nothing of his opportunities as Don Magnifico, merely blustering and actually singing his opening line “Ih! Ih! Ih! Ih!” literally, as written, instead of exploding with laughter (imagine what Antonio Pini-Corsi might have made of it!). Stylistically, both she and he are all at sea: she sings no appoggiaturas and is sometimes scratchy and sometimes explosive in her coloratura passages, but never mind! Even when she practically talks some of her lines (“Ma una mezz’ora…un quarto...”) she is bringing everything vividly to life with her penetrating tone and her invigorating sense of rhythm. How beautifully she matches her timbre to the minor mode of “Ah! Sempre fra la cenere…”! The “Swallow duet” from Mignon is another of my favorites, although she never manages to articulate precisely the triplet figure in the melody (on the second syllable of “Leggiadre rondinelle”) and when the elephantine Bettoni repeats the line after her he actually sings the triplet more accurately than she! In this delightful duet she is indeed swallow-like in her dartings about (though overloading Odeon-Fonotipia’s primitive microphone in the dashing cadenza) and for once I am prepared to overlook her following Bettoni’s example in introducing a flock of intrusive H’s. In “Non conosci il bel suol” (in which she “modernizes” the Italian text), the haunting aria to which the “Swallow duet” is a kind of carefree cabaletta, she pulls out the vox humana stop in an all-out assault on the listener’s emotions, pedalling away at the nostalgia; Patti’s delicate shadings are rather more authentic stylistically, and her vocalization is flawless, but it is impossible not to be gripped and moved by Supervia’s verismo approach, with a Santuzza sob at the end.

The records made in Barcelona in February and March 1930, including some of her best loved as well as some of her rarest song titles, are particularly well recorded, close-miked without distortion, bringing this vivid personality into our homes today. The Serenata “Granada” from the “Suite Española” of Albéniz is an example of her close observation of the composer’s markings in the score–something that we might not have expected from so individual and imaginative an artist–but although she sometimes changes a detail to facilitate an awkward vocal passage, she meticulously follows Albéniz’s portamento markings, for example. She is in very good voice, better than in her previous Milan session, and is able to make a diminuendo, passing from chest to medium register, on F first space. Her upper F is not lovely on the I vowel, for example at “Junto al Genil”, but she manages a lovely soft F in the last phrase. She is not quite so elegant, though evocative, in Delibes’s “Eglogue”, in which however she displays some floating soft high G flats. In a group of “Arie Antiche” from Parisotti’s edition, which she sang frequently in concerts (as did all great Italian singers of her day) and which we still use for teaching–what a marvelous collection it is!–her style would be thought too redolent of verismo today, but she is utterly irresistible none the less. One irritating mannerism obtrudes: before attacking a consonant she will occasionally utter a spurious vowel, as at the beginning of the second stanza of “Occhietti amati”, where we clearly hear her sing “a-bocca vermiglia”. She turns this simple love song into a heavily dramatic number. She is light and witty in “Chi vuol la zingarella” (which exposes her reluctance to trill) and “Oh, che umore stravagante”, both indispensable Supervia records. Any attempt to write down the myriad inflections she introduces into “Se tu m’ami” would indeed be a complex document. This lovely song, so beautifully written for the voice, is now known not to be by Pergolesi after all, but perhaps it is by Guillaume De Fesch rather than by poor Parisotti himself–modern editors have accused him of taking a leaf out of Kreisler’s book and attributing his own pastiche compositions to famous names of the 17th and 18th centuries.

However much we think we know and love her records, Supervia has surprises in store. Who would have thought that she could make such a haunting thing out of the vocalise in Grieg’s “Solveig’s song”, in which she again offers a beautiful soft G flat? Her florid articulation may not be flawless, but the richness and warmth of her tone compensate for the occasional bump. On the other hand, I am disappointed by her version of “Plegaria” by Firmin Alvarez, a favorite of Spanish tenors even today: her authentic religious fervor does not compensate for the lack of a sustained nobility of tone. (Her well-known record of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” suffers from the same fault.) “Les filles de Cadix” she turns, unforgettably, into a high-class music-hall song, scorning mere accuracy in the florid passages–though her high A is pretty–and relying instead on the most diverting impersonations of the haughty maiden and the insinuating hidalgo. She is at her most beguiling in “Bonjour, Suzon”. She treats Bizet’s great song “Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe” (to a text by Victor Hugo), written for Miolan-Carvalho, much more seriously. It is easy to understand why her husband, Mr Rubinstein, would play this particular record every night after her death: she is very close to the microphone, which picks up every kaleidoscopic inflection in her voice, particularly beautiful here, and such phrases as “Un éventail de feuilles vertes” and “Adieu! Bel étranger!” linger in the memory, as does her evocative, strangely disturbing murmuring of the final vocalise passage (in which she is much more precise than usual). Like much of Bizet’s music, the song is awkwardly written for the voice–but not for Conchita’s.

Although Supervia told Ivor Newton that “…in Spanish music a rallentando is the greatest luxury you can ever allow yourself, and you can allow it to yourself only very rarely” (Ivor Newton, At the Piano–Ivor Newton, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1966, p.141), in her records of Spanish music she “plays about with the time” quite as much as in Italian music. In her excerpts from zarzuelas, of which the most spectacular example included here is the famous Carceleras from Las hijas del Zebedeo, she illustrates “traditions” very similar to the unwritten performers’ licenses appropriate to early 19th century Italian operas. In her duets with the excellent baritone Marcos Redondo both singers employ considerable rubato, exchange parts, and, in the case of La reina mora, transpose the duet a tone down (traditionally acceptable in zarzuela: Alfredo Kraus would often transpose pieces up). (Marcos Redondo is still much more famous in Spain than Supervia; his career as the leading zarzuela star was very long, and he made a great many records, including some well-sung operatic arias. His voice complements hers perfectly in their duets: although slightly gritty and without much bloom on the tone, it is properly trained and well-placed, and he can effect the diminuendi and neatly execute the ornamental figures.)

By now we have observed that Supervia often carries her chest voice up to G sharp and even A, but this abuse of registers pays off in the effectiveness of some of her Spanish and Catalan songs, in which again and again she finds powerful accents so vivid and so true that certain buzzing, rattling phrases remain lodged forever in our memories. The extraordinary sound that she produces in the last page of de Falla’s “Polo” is a famous example–chest voice up to B, trapped in the nose! Assisted by the famous Spanish pianist Frank Marshall (teacher of Alicia de Larrocha) Supervia has left us the classic recording of the Siete Canciones populares Españolas: on hearing this great performance once more and following the songs with the score, it seems touchingly appropriate to me that a famous Rossini singer should give herself up so completely to music that follows Rossini’s own preoccupation, in his Péchés de vieillesse, with the interweaving of voice and piano in fluctuating harmonic progressions. After the extraordinary power generated by these varied miniatures, sound pictures indelibly etched by two very great artists, this recital concludes with some of the numbers that Olin Downes must have been referring to as “only slightly sublimated cabaret music”–but how could we manage without “La farigola”, one of her most delightful Catalan songs?

The tenor Edmund Goffran, who heard Supervia sing many times, told me that whenever she sang the “Dance N° 5” by Granados she always shed a few tears; it is certainly one of her most striking records. The piece is actually entitled “Andaluza”, words by Luis Munoz Lorente, Number Five of a set of “Danzas Espanolas” by Granados, originally composed for piano solo and transcribed for voice and piano by an anonymous arranger (Supervia seems to have recorded the song before it was actually published 1931). Like the similar arrangement of Rubinstein’s “Night”, it is doubly effective in its vocal version. Supported by the brilliantly tense playing of Señor Marshall, Supervia brings all her persuasive powers of evocative expression to this lovely song, which she transposes down from G to E, where it lies most beautifully in the warmest part of her voice.

To end these notes on a beloved singer whose every utterance throbs with the life-blood of Spain, and each and all of whose records we shall want to listen to at least once, afraid of perhaps missing one of her so many unforgettable phrases, I should like to return to the Canzoncine, quoting from a letter that the singer’s son, Mr. George Supervia, wrote to Desmond Shawe-Taylor, dated Miraflores, Lima, 6 August 1958:

“I used to be so jealous of my mother’s stage ‘lovers’ that I often could not go to sleep at night, and it wasn’t until she came to the house, tired out after dealing with press and admirers after a representation, when she dispelled my worries, yes, sometimes even with a ‘canzoncina’, that I closed my eyes!

“Yes, I realize it now more than ever, her personal appeal was so human, so sincere, so full of ‘joie de vivre’ that people just loved her!–I only wish that it were possible to turn the clock back!”

©Michael Aspinall, 2006


Among the many people who have shared with me their memories of Conchita Supervia, I must specially thank Margot Bottrall, Harold Burros, and Desmond Shawe-Taylor. This article could not have been written without the ever-generous collaboration of our dear friend, the late Richard Bebb.