Marvelous Maureen Forrester

A belated link to Ken Winters’ obituary for Maureen Forrester, the Canadian contralto, who died Wednesday at the age of 79.

She was one of the greatest classical singers Canada ever produced. Though there were arguments about how to classify her voice, it often sounded like one of the last high-profile examples of the true contralto voice, a kind of deep, rich, “earth-mother” voice that was mostly supplanted in the 20th century by the higher, brighter mezzo-soprano. The grand style of her singing sometimes made her sound emotionally cool, which may be one of the reasons why she felt more suited to concerts and songs than to opera — though she had a number of successes in the latter field, including the part of Cornelia in the New York City Opera production that restored Handel’s Julius Caesar to the standard repertoire.

I never heard her live, but her recording of the female songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, made in Vienna in the early ’60s, is one of the best examples of Mahler vocalism on record. And my favourite critic, Conrad L. Osborne, was effusive about her singing of Verdi’s Requiem in a recording by Eugene Ormandy (which I believe was released on a Sony CD):

There is one outstanding soloist here: Maureen Forrester. What a pleasure it is to hear a round, firm contralto and a really adult musical approach in this music! The Liber scriptus is splendid, with a really gripping articulation of the repeated “nil,” and the same vocal and musical level is maintained through the Recordare, the Lacrimosa, the Agnus Dei. This is the best voicing of the mezzo music on records.

This is a somewhat scratchy-sounding CBC performance of her signature song, Mahler’s “Urlicht,” which is both part of his Wunderhorn cycle and his second symphony; Forrester recorded the song at least three times and performed it constantly, as a stand-alone song and part of the symphony. The conductor here is Glenn Gould, making one of his periodic attempts to go from keyboard to baton.