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The Independent Culture

Nikolaus Harnoncourt once called it "the cult of the Great Voice", this air-headed preoccupation with who can sing the highest, the loudest or with the most compelling sobs. But the genuine singer-musician is a comparative rarity in any generation. Angela Gheorghiu, for example, has all the components of stardom: beauty, physical charisma and, yes, the Great Voice. But she also has the facility to vary her tone, vibrato and volume according to the specific dictates of a musical phrase. She sings from the heart, but before we hear what she feels, she has already transformed her responses into genuine vocal art. Only an intelligent singer can do that, and Gheorghiu's "latest", Angela Gheorghiu Live from Covent Garden from the 2000-1 season, offers unassailable proof of her musicianship.

The programme is much as you'd expect from a superstar event, including a rapt "Depuis le jour" (Louise), an eloquently declaimed "Un bel di vedremo" (Madama Butterfly) and a noble, warmly sustained "Casta Diva" (Norma). As to the rest (Massenet, Mozart, Cilea and a very Eastern-flavoured aria by her fellow Romanian, Tiberiu Brediceanu), it all works wonderfully well, though Gheorghiu is no Fair Lady, in the Lerner and Loewe sense. "I coot haif baygged for more," she sings. I certainly couldn't, and it's not a route I'd advise her to pursue.

It seemed as if that admirable recital was destined to be my Great Voice quota for the month. That was until I put on Juan Diego Flórez's Rossini Arias CD for Decca and was once again blown away. Indeed, I haven't heard a Rossini tenor of his quality since I last heard my old records of Tito Schipa. It's a truly astonishing voice, this: light, agile, texturally pleasing and with effortless high notes that you won't think possible until you actually hear them. This particular recital includes a number of rarities, not least an 11-minute chunk of Zelmira and a replacement cavatina ("Concedi, amor pietoso") for l'Italiana in Algeri, where a superb accompaniment by the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan under Riccardo Chailly adds considerably to the effect. But if you feel prompted to sample just one track, then let it be the last, "Si, ritrovarla io giuro" from La Cenerentola, a sort of Rossini overture for voice, chorus and orchestra, complete with swelling crescendos. There's some especially infectious interplay at the point where Flórez, the chorus and the orchestra "hurry to... find sweet hope". It could almost be a live performance.

Beautiful, but I have a third vocal ace this week in Wolfgang Holzmair's Schumann Lieder, with the pianist Imogen Cooper. It may seem like overkill to claim two unrivalled new recordings for a single column, but this version of "Stirb, Lieb' und Freud!" is the most beautiful that I have heard. Holzmair employs different vocal registers to accommodate the wide range needed for this ethereal tale of a "pious maid". And the way in which he alternates calm narrative with the inward disclosures that end each verse is nothing short of miraculous. It's a most winning programme, starting with all 12 Kerner-lieder and including such perennials as "Widmung" and "Der Nussbaum". But that's not all. Interspersed among Robert's songs are some of Clara's. And if you have any doubts about their quality, try track 19, "Sie liebten sich beide". It's an absolute gem. As ever, the rapport between the singer and pianist is a consistent delight.

'Angela Gheorghiu Live from Covent Garden' – with the ROH Orchestra, Ion Marin (EMI CDC5 57264 2 – also DVD)

'Rossini Arias' – Juan Diego Flórez, Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan, Riccardo Chailly (Decca 470 024-2)

Schumann: Lieder – Wolfgang Holzmair, Imogen Cooper Philips 462 610-2

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