Stephanie Blythe: As Long as There Are Songs (CD review)

Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Craig Terry, piano. Meyer Sound/Innova 875.

Most readers probably know that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is an opera star who has favored audiences worldwide with her voice on stage and in recordings for the past several decades. What some readers may not know is that she also sings popular music, with a voice that combines the best qualities of Ethel Merman and Kate Smith. Indeed, her fondness for Kate Smith led Ms. Blythe to perform in 2013 works made famous by Ms. Smith on the PBS television show Live from Lincoln Center - Celebration: Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate.

On the present album, As Long as There Are Songs, Ms. Blythe sings fourteen popular tunes from The Great American Songbook, with one exception mostly songs from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. She demonstrates throughout the program that she is more than just a good opera singer but a good pop singer as well. She doesn’t sound like a typical opera singer trying to do pop material but a serious pop entertainer who could easily carry a Broadway show. She is, in fact, quite versatile and appears able to handle any tune from any genre, new or old, with ease.

One of my favorites on the program is "White Cliffs of Dover" (1941), the famous World War II song by Nat Burton and Walter Kent. Ms. Blythe sings it with heartfelt sentiment and waves of rhapsodic notes. It's quite moving.

And so it goes, through "Look for the Silver Lining," "Always," "Love," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "The Man That Got Away," “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." Show tunes, jazz, torch songs, Ms. Blythe does it all with equal success. And I would be remiss not to applaud Craig Terry on his sensitive and agreeable piano accompaniment.

Then there's also the bluesy and poignant medley of "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "One for My Baby" by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Sinatra's got nothing on Ms. Blythe.

The program ends with the most-recent number, Gordon Jenkens's "This Is All I Ask" (1965), a wonderful throwback to those earlier songs, and one with which Ms. Blythe practically knocks down the house. She puts most of today’s pop divas to shame. 

Probably the only thing I didn't like about the product was the booklet insert. Not the content of the booklet, which is quite informative, but the shape. It's a single piece of paper folded in thirds; but it's not folded to stretch horizontally but up and down. For the life of me, I couldn't find my way around, further complicated by having the back printed in the opposite direction from the front. I dunno. It’s certainly a minor quibble.

Producer Evans Mirageas and engineers John Pellowe and Miles Rogers recorded the album for Meyer Sound Laboratories in 2013 at Meyer Sound Lab’s Pearson Theatre, Berkeley, California. The location greatly impressed Ms. Blythe when earlier she sang there live; it’s a relatively small hall that provides an ideal acoustic for both intimate and grand vocal gestures. Moreover, Meyer Sound Laboratories captured the sonics using no filtering, spatial enhancements, or compression, providing a most lifelike presentation. Perhaps what many readers may not realize is that most recordings these days use a good deal of compression in order to minimize the dynamic range--the differences between softest and loudest notes--making musical recordings easier for some listeners to enjoy on car radios and iPods. However, such recordings are not always the most natural-sounding affairs. Meyer Sound’s recordings are, therefore, more realistic than most.

How does all this translate to what we actually hear on the disc? Obviously, it translates pretty well. We do hear the venue, and it does affect what we hear of Ms. Blythe’s voice. The hall appears slightly dry, meaning it doesn’t have the billowy resonance of some venues. This means we hear Ms. Blythe’s voice more nearly as it probably sounds rather than embellished by the ambient acoustic of the concert hall. What we get instead is an ultraclean, ultra-clear voice, with a truly astonishing dynamic range. I’m not sure everyone recognizes how much of a range the human voice can produce, from the gentlest whisper to the most earsplitting crescendo, and here we find it all.

Whether everyone will appreciate the sound is another story, though; it is different from what one usually hears on a vocal album, less smooth, less warm, and more real. The sound may not complement all loudspeakers, either, especially not brighter speakers that could aggravate the delicate balance of the high end. In any case, if you have a good playback system, you should appreciate the sound. The voice glistens with clarity, and the piano accompaniment remains natural and unobtrusive. Both benefit from a quick transient response, too, although, as I say, it could be a bit jarring if you’ve been listening to more compressed sound all these years.

To listen to an excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa