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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Franz Völker: A Great And Most Versatile Tenor

Franz Völker was born in Neu-Isenburg in 1899, and began his vocal studies fairly early in life, in Frankfurt. He was only 27 when he made his debut in that city as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio. His vocal stamina, along with the particular quality of his voice, made him a natural, in the eyes of most, for dramatic work and most especially as a Wagnerian. It is perhaps not entirely certain that he would have made that immediate impression today, because Völker's voice, from the beginning, was a singularly adaptive instrument, usable and convincing over a very wide range of musical genres. It may well have been the color of his voice, more than anything else, that suggested the heroic tenor label. In any case, that was the initial impression he made, as a young man, and his rise was rapid. He was a superb singer, and engagements followed in quick succession, as is so often the case when a truly remarkable talent appears on the scene. He went on to Salzburg, Bayreuth (particularly) and Covent Garden. His most outstanding roles, for which he was instantly applauded, were Lohengrin, Freischutz, and Walküre.

He made many recordings, which is most fortunate, because his career was exclusively European, and seldom outside Germany. Having made his career during Germany's darkest hour was necessarily limiting, as far as travel was concerned. He did, however, have a major career in Germany, and his many recordings testify to his remarkable versatility; in grand opera, operetta, and Lieder. He excelled in all three fields.

His first great impression was made as a Wagnerian, and so it seems appropriate to begin with his superb rendition of "Walter's Prize Song," from Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, an opera so difficult for the tenor that Melchior, to take but one example, would not sing it. The "Prize Song" is hard enough in itself, but it is repeated in choral fashion, always featuring Walter, in seemingly endless iterations toward the end of the opera:

This is a markedly common-sense presentation, and it is a joy to hear the studio orchestra minimalized. Would that most conductors would do the same in the opera house! The smoothness of Völker's voice, all the way up and down the scale, is a beautiful thing to hear. His top was good, and the high A, which climaxes a series of progressively ascending phrases— and has been the downfall of many heldentenors who make the fatal mistake of starting the aria too intensely and too loud—is not a problem at all for Völker, who manages it smoothly and in line. All in all, a magisterial rendition of a difficult aria.

Many famous German opera singers have historically crossed back and forth across the line separating opera from operetta, and Völker was no exception. Here is the famous and ever-popular "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz," from Lehár's "Land of Smiles":

Isn't that just perfect! It is hard to imagine it sung better. A wonderful voice, excellently trained, with great dramatic operatic range and intensity, harnessed into submission for a classic show tune! I have always found Völker's extreme flexibility as a singer to be nothing short of astonishing. And admirable! For one thing, it is a sure sign of superbly trained voice. People often complain that German singing teachers just don't know how to train a tenor voice, but when the tenor is an intelligent man with strong artistic instincts, wonders can be done, especially if the tenor sings exclusively in German.

Finally, here is a beautiful example of yet a third category in which Völker excelled—German Lieder. This is much less common; many good German opera and operetta singers also try to sing Lieder or even popular music (which Völker also did) but the results are less predictable. Völker, however, like Leo Slezak, managed it very nicely indeed. Here is Schubert's lovely "Du bist die Ruh":

What can I say. Absolutely beautiful! Opera, operetta, Lieder; all beautifully done. What on Broadway would be called a triple-threat performer. This was not only a great German tenor, but a German tenor for the ages!