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<<  -- 2 --  Jennifer I Paull    HIGH JINX AND HAUTE COUTURE


César Cui was a member of 'The Mighty Handful' (and by that I am not referring to Cathy herself). They were also known with less imagination and mathematical accuracy as 'The Five' (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov: as propagandist, Stasov was the sixth member, as it were). But then, after an hilarious introduction to such a chanson, Cathy could deliver it to a hushed, spellbound hall without the tiniest nuance of irony. I well recall the contrast between the introduction to her 'Russian song group', and subsequent performance of Cui's Statue at Tsarskoye Selo -- one a send up, the other a delighting in the beauty of her beloved 19th century repertoire.

[Marcel Proust's {1871-1922}] monumental work, 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu', (usually translated to 'Remembrance of Things Past', but more literally 'In Search of Lost Time'), was influenced by the autobiographies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and François Chateaubriand and was not completed, but was published in 16 volumes between 1913 and 1927.

He began writing it when he was in his late 30s and was still engaged upon it at the time of his death. -- Books of The World

The title of this recital, A la recherché de la musique perdue, set in a Parisian salon ('Our hostess tonight is a friend of M Marcel Proust, a literary gentleman') was brilliant word play. From its French name to its décor, the discovery of 'lost' music and 'remembrance of things past', to much (although not all) of its lovingly researched content, this recital was a delighting in Kitsch.

Good taste is the worst vice ever invented. -- Edith Sitwell

The attempted English metamorphosis of the French title inevitably lost most of its charged nuances. From the Sublime to The Ridiculous was a valiant shot. RCA's European market LP carried both. In the USA, however, it was released as There are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden: subtle? -- a capital offence! Cathy launched the recital at the Berlin Festival in 1971, but (like Proust's on-going opus) continued searching and adding to its repertoire. She may well have reached his 16 volumes had she not been taken from us all so tragically early. Anna Claudia Russell-Brown, after having 'Anna Russell Way' named after her in a retirement home complex in Canada, is now thriving in Australia. Well into her nineties today, she is studying Cantonese!

Cathy Berberian could change personality and character at the speed of a frame of ciné film. That ability, after all, was the inspiration for Cage's (1912-1992) Aria (1958) and subsequent works by Berio (1925-2003), a pride of other composers, and her own Stripsody. I wish there were a collective noun for a grouping of composers: a 'cacophony of composers', perhaps? I read some very imaginative suggestions for sadly-missing, much-needed collective nouns recently (A Word A Day, at My favourites were a 'spider of webmasters' and a 'somephony of music critics': a 'Berberian of versatility' is much needed!

Talking about Cage's Fontana Mix and Cathy's Aria (1958) of many voices and lightening-speed mood swings, Berio commented that Cage gave her a 'friendly freedom' inside this work, which was also 'full of vocal stereotypes'. 'It was in her nature to approach this very different vocal world. She always did that [vocal clowning]' [Music is the Air I Breathe, Dutch TV Documentary, directed by Carrie de Swaan, 1994] Her invention of the new vocal techniques, la nuova vocalità (the new vocality) needed a brain that was as sharp as a Parmesan cheese grater -- to paraphrase her then husband [Music is the Air I Breathe], as he spoke of Cage's ability to cut up and edit all the works' ingredients.

In the Proust recital, Cathy, with downcast eyes, fear and trepidation at the 'wicked' word lust (and subsequent explanation that this was German lust [pronounced 'loost'] 'Which is not at all the same thing!'), hit the balance between innocence and outrageousness to perfection.

Cathy Berberian's 'Proust' recital: 'Les Filles de Cadix', Léo Delibes (1836-1891). Photo © Maria Austria. 'Les filles de Cadix aiment assez CELA!' ('The maids of Cadiz are rather partial to ALL THAT!' - coquette grin, energetic fanning)
Cathy Berberian's 'Proust' recital: 'Les Filles de Cadix', Léo Delibes (1836-1891). Photo © Maria Austria. 'Les filles de Cadix aiment assez CELA!' ('The maids of Cadiz are rather partial to ALL THAT!' - coquette grin, energetic fanning)

She would translate her foreign songs for the 'benefit' of her audiences; a brilliant idea à la Anna Russell (since continued by Julia Migenes), breaking far more language barriers than all the other musical singer-comediennes in this chapter's 'quartet' combined (what a mind-boggling image)! ['Foreign' was relative to where she was performing, Cathy put her linguistic multiplicity (and ability to improvise ad-libbed introductions) to the test every time she performed as a recitalist.]

A reversal of comedy technique -- straight introduction and humorous performance was equally a favourite of hers. Camille Saint-Saëns' (1935-1921) Dance Macabre (Proust and Second Hand Songs recitals) was originally composed as a chanson before being transformed by him into a symphonic poem. She added few clues about it in her brief introduction, but the performance, in which she acted the scenes crying out for satire, had the audience in stitches (with no four-minute warning). The text's message that all are equal in love sees noble ladies dancing with untitled, working class males. Quelle horreur! (back of gloved hand pressed to brow), and finishes with the immortal line, Vive l'amour, et l'égalité! Yet her timbre in the last word did not portray the equality of those in love's sweet embrace. Deliberately, with a deep chest voice, it evoked the cry, Liberté, égalité, fraternité! of the French Revolution. Cathy took the Bastille single-handed (or rather, double vocal-chorded) in the tone quality of that one word. With her arm raised, as though carrying an invisible sword aloft, victory was hers!

I think that intelligence, balance, and timing were amongst Cathy's greatest gifts. One cannot define their role in music, comedy, acting, design or dance. Instinctively, she could blend and mix the serious with the send up, the pious with the profane and play her audience with all the talent of the greatest of comediennes. Simultaneously, she changed the history of music in avant-garde circles in her very busy concert schedule.

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Copyright © 4 July 2006 Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland


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