Friday, March 14, 2008

20 Tenors

I feel obligated to comment on this list of the all time top 20 tenors from the BBC music mag:

20. Sergey Lemeshev
19. Wolfgang Windgassen
18. Alfredo Kraus
17. Anthony Rolfe Johnson
16. John McCormack
15. Franco Corelli
14. Peter Schreier
13. Juan Diego Florez
12. Carlo Bergonzi
11. Tito Schipa
10. Peter Pears
9. Nicolai Gedda
8. Jon Vickers
7. Beniamino Gigli
6. Lauritz Melchior
5. Jussi Bjoerling
4. Fritz Wunderlich
3. Luciano Pavarotti
2. Enrico Caruso
1. Placido Domingo

I am leaving out number 20 because I never heard of him. He's Russian. That's all I know. The remaining fall into a few well defined categories:

Italians
Enrico Caruso
Luciano Pavarotti
Beniamino Gigli
Carlo Bergonzi
Franco Corelli
Tito Schipa

Swedes pretending to be Italian
Nicolai Gedda
Jussi Bjoerling

These singers represent the Italian tradition, and it's a matter of taste whom you prefer. Tradition would emphasize Caruso. Many consider Franco Corelli the finest Italian tenor who ever lived, and I would definitely move him higher in the list, certainly above Bergonzi. Pavarotti is a brilliant example of the tradition. I have always had a weakness for Bjoerling.

An equally well defined tradition is:

Germans
Fritz Wunderlich
Peter Schreier
Wolfgang Windgassen (I'm counting him as German)

Miscellaneous tenors pretending to be German
Lauritz Melchior (Danish)
Jon Vickers (Canadian)

I think I personally prefer Vickers, but would not wish to slight Melchior. A proper list must include these.

The magazine is British so there are singers in that category that we might otherwise ignore, not being ourselves British:

British
Anthony Rolfe Johnson
Peter Pears
John McCormack (Irish)

I had a teacher who loved John McCormack and made me listen to him. It's not a style that particularly grabs me. I would leave all of these out of my top 20.

That leaves a few Spaniards:

Juan Diego Florez
Placido Domingo
Alfredo Kraus

We should all pause briefly to note that not a single Frenchman appears in the list, unless you count Windgassen. No one pops into memory for preferring French style and repertoire. Or perhaps Alfredo Kraus falls into this category. The Spaniard with the German last name emphasized French repertoire.

Juan Diego Florez, actually from Peru, at 35 is by far the youngest in this list. He is the only representative of his generation and is more or less a one off. The repertoire of the long ago Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794-1854) slips onto his voice like a hand made glove. There are others in his Fach, but no one is so spectacular a coloratura tenor in all of recorded history. Where you place him in the list will depend on how highly you regard the bel canto repertoire.

That leaves Placido Domingo. I see from the comments on La Cieca that many would leave him off entirely. How can this be? I propose that it is the purity of his musicianship and the extreme difficulty of placing him in any of the stylistic categories that creates this problem. He sings a lot of Italian repertoire, but isn't exactly Italian. He has always sung a lot of French opera, but isn't exactly French. Now suddenly in his old age he is a Heldentenor without ever sounding exactly German. He must be in any top 20 list, and even any top 10 list, but where? He is not the best Italian, not the best German, so what is he? I've always said he was the sexiest man ever to walk onto an opera stage. Perhaps he is the best Placido Domingo that ever was.

Here are a few tenors not in the list:

Italian style if not nationality:
Giuseppe di Stefano
Mario del Monaco
Robert Alagna
Francisco Araiza
José Carreras
José Cura
Salvatore Licitra
Chris Merritt
Rolando Villazon

German style if not nationality:
Ben Heppner
James King
Jess Thomas

In his period Mario del Monaco dominated the Italian scene. James King was also excellent. Of the modern guys you can make up your own mind.

18 comments:

Paul said...

Had any French tenor appeared on this list, it should have been the late Alain Vanzo -- pure French sound for all those Massenet and Gounod operas no one ever performs anymore (shame!) like "Le Cid" and "Sappho," plus he made a great Robert alongside June Anderson and Sam Ramey in Meyerbeer's first grand opera, "...le Diable," back in '79.

Anonymous said...

Juan Diego Florez is not Spaniard. He is Peruvian.

Anonymous said...

I feel really bad that Jose Carreras, my most favorite tenor is not on the list. To me, he is the most expressive singer who always sing from his heart. Sometime, even not considering the ability of the voice. I thoroughly admire his dedication. Yet, I'm glad that the great Fritz Wunderlich is in the 4th place. Wunderlich's rendition of 'Song of the Earth' is simply THE recording. No other recordings are any close to its refinement and charm.

Jimmy
an expired tenor!

Anonymous said...

Franco Corelli is listed at only 15? That is absolutely outrageous. I would definitely move Domingo and Pavarotti lower down in the list, Corelli should have made it in the top 3, if not 1. The rest of the rankings are fair, excluding the English singers. Di Stefano and del Monaco should have made the list.

Anonymous said...

Del Monaco is not on the list
something is wrong with the voters

Anonymous said...

I also believe that you should consider Paul Byrom. While you do not prefer the Irish tenors, his talent is tremendous.

Anonymous said...

my ranking:
1) caruso - wunderlich
3) pavarotti

Anonymous said...

What about Leopold Simoneau? A fantastic Mozartian tenor. Ich glaud es kaum, es ist kein Traum.

OperationCounterstrike said...

OK, here are some egregious omissions who definitely belong on all lists of great tenors:

Richard Tucker (!!!)
Jess Thomas
Jan Peerce
Walther Ludwig (just as smart as Wunderlich but more human-sounding)
Gerhard Stolze (the character-actors are the greatest and their job is much harder)
Gerhard Unger (always so beautiful)
Irwin Wohlfahrt (check him out as the Maler in Lulu, and as Mime he adds sweetness, too bad he died young)
Heinz Zednik (one of the smartest musicians alive)
Peter Anders
Torsten Ralf
Pavarotti (not smart, but his technique was SOOO good)

UNDERRATED tenors, who should be more famous than they are, include

Murray Dickie
Walther Geisler
Josef Traxel
Edgar Jaramillo

OVERRATED tenors in my book include:

Domingo (sure he's good, but number one??? Better than Caruso, Tucker, Bjorling, Wunderlich??? Nonsense. Besides, his German sucks.)

Jon Vickers (big but overblown, unappealing, arrogant on stage)
Rudolf Schock (always oversang)
Peter Schreier (affected fake-brainiac like Fischer-Dieskau, yuk)
Anton Dermota (whines)

My LEAST favorite tenors are Helge Roswange, Manfred Jung, and Siegfried Jerusalem. I also dislike Gunther Treptow.

OperationCounterstrike said...

By the way, my candidate for single best thing Fritz Wunderlich ever recorded is the Christmas Oratorio (Bach) under Richter, with Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, and Franz Crass.

Seriously, there's more beautiful artistry here on display than in any of FW's Mozart or Schubert. I know that's an extreme thing to say but I bet you'll agree after you hear it....

Dr.B said...

Apologies for leaving out Richard Tucker. You're quite right.

Dr.B said...

However, I do like Jon Vickers.

Anonymous said...

Can't believe that Giacomo Aragall was left off this list, and to place the great Alfredo Kraus near the bottom somewhere is nothing short of insulting.

Matt said...

Richard Tucker? Joseph Schmidt? Del Monaco? Di Stefano(Who was Pavarotti's favorite tenor, mind you.) Where are they on this list? Also, of all the opera singers that I know the consensus is that Corelli is the greatest Italian tenor. This list was a joke.

Anonymous said...

Del Monaco isn't included as is right, he was extremely popular and had a stupendous voice but unfortunately wouldn't use it as it should be used. When he sang in a slightly more subtle way, he was wonderful, truly awsome, but that happened too seldom. It was very much the fashion then, sad as it is. He didn't exactly 'dominate the Italian scene' though, he - and Corelli - dominated the Italian scene at the Met in the 60's. One must remember that US isn't the entire opera world. But Tucker and Peerce were also very popular in the US. And Tucker toured the world.

Corelli had a glorious, fantastic voice, but his lisping and mannerisms isn't well tolerated today. Interpretation is important, not only voice. However as Calaf and - sometimes - Otello, he is unmatched. Along with DelMonaco he is always better loved by the audience than by the critics, although he made it here on this list. This is a critics list, not a list of the most booming voices. Melchior and Gedda - and above all Wunderlich and Bjoerling - will always be better placed on critics lists.

I missed Simoneau, and Luigi Alva, two divine Mozart singers. As for DiegoFlorez being the only one younger than Domingo, that says something of the decline of the art of singing. Frenchmen - what about Thill! He is the first one that comes to my mind. I would definitely have him on my list. Btw Windgassen is entirely German, born of two German parents, living and working in Germany, just as they were. He just happened to be born outside Geneva, Switzerland. A few hundred yards into France!

Tucker and Di Stefano missing! ??? They suffered as being of the same generation as so many great singers. Look at the list - how many were singing in the 50s? Caruso, and McCormack were dead. Pavarotti, Diego Florez and Rolfe Johnson hadn't started, but the rest = 15 singers were singing! Even Domingo and Schreier had made their official debut onstage.

Tucker and Di Stefano (and Peerce) suffered naturally, since they had to sing in this swell period, and at the same time as Bjoerling who was their greatest rival at the Met and in US. Di Stefano is a big favorite of mine, but "a Pavarotti favorite", as someone says here? Pavarotti repeatedly hailed Caruso, Corelli, Bjoerling, Di Stefano and so on, as "the greatest". And Gigli and even Lanza, if I recall correctly. They all do that, singers hailing of other singers publicly is worth nothing.

Domingo has toured the globe, he sings very good always, has great taste and seldom disappoints anyone. But the world's greatest singer, gimme a break! Kraus and Caruso sang much better and Gedda and Tucker as least as good. And if you rather go for beauty of voice, listen to Bergonzi, Di Stefano and Bjoerling, and then to the voice of Domingo. Still, he should perhaps be on the list, but as no 15 or so. That he was placed above Wunderlich is perhaps due to the latters extremely short carreer, but above Caruso!

He and Pavarotti is placed above Bjoerling, Melchior and Kraus. Kraus is only no 18! Domingo is no 1, and Tucker (and Di Stefano and James King) isn't even on the list...

Well we can't all be satisfied. The biggest poll in UK was made in 1999 when at least 25 of the leading classical music's critics voted in a poll of the centurys 100greatest singers, as did the readers of the then leading classical CD Magazine, "Classical CD". Domingo was no 6 on the critics 100 all singer list, and no 2 on the tenors list...We don't get away from him.

Anonymous said...

I've seen a few "20 best tenors" listed here and there, and I have been wondering why none of them include Antonio Paoli.By 1922, Paoli was considered the greatest living tenor. I keep a Poster announcing Paoli's firsta appearance in America, that, among other things, says:
"Booklyn Academy of Music, Grand Autumn Season of Brooklyn Opera Co. ...Tuesday Evening, September 26, 1922 at 8:30, First Appearance in America of Antonio Paoli, The Greatset living Tenor, in the Opera OTELLO, Tickets on Sale at Box Office and 115 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn..." As well as Caruso's and other tenors' recordings, Paoli's were performed by means of the rudimentary acoustic method available then. Through some type of a horn, or megaphone, the vibrations of the singer's voice were concentrated and carried down to a point where a needle came in contact with a round plate of wax, etching the voice thereat. This, and other technical inconveniences should be considered when listenig to Paoli's recording, some of which are found in youtube. Apart from this considerations, and keeping in mind the subjectivity that is present in these kind of judgements, I would respectfully propose that Antonio Paoli should figure among the first 5 best tenors of all times.

Anonymous said...

Paul Byrom is certainly under rated and should be included on any list.

Anonymous said...

I see several inappropiate address in the list and in the comment too!
For the list: obviously is not possible makea correct listing , but we can, anyway, define the role in which a certain tenor was among the best and among those number whom scored more consense in more than one role.
According to that we can match: Corelli with over than 10 leading roles (Manrico,Cavaradossi,Calaf,Poliuto;Chenier and over...)
Tucker (impressive)
Bjoerling (unbelivable even less known currently)
Pavarotti (for lyric role)
Domingo (at least for presence in over 100 roles)
Di stefano: the most beautiful voice ever , unfortunately spoiled soon for inappropriated choices
Gigli: a great from the past
Caruso: mithology
Schipa: belcanto role
Bergonzi: dramatic voice with beautiful baritonal tune

Possible several others, and yet unfortunately no one at the moment, but for balcantista role (florez)
Thanks for attention
Max