Gérard Souzay

Superb interpreter of German and French song
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The French baritone Gérard Souzay was above all a superb interpreter of songs, German lieder as well as French mélodies.

Gérard Marcel Tisserand (Gérard Souzay), concert and operatic singer: born Angers, France 8 December 1920; died Antibes, France 17 August 2004.

The French baritone Gérard Souzay was above all a superb interpreter of songs, German lieder as well as French mélodies.

He took over much of the repertory of his teacher, Pierre Bernac, also a baritone and his senior by 21 years, while Bernac also influenced the style of the younger singer very considerably. After 15 years as a concert singer and recitalist, Souzay began to appear in opera. His most successful role was Golaud in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and he also sang the Count in Le nozze di Figaro and the title role of Don Giovanni.

Souzay was born in Angers in 1920, but spent most of his youth in Paris. He studied chiefly with Bernac, but also with Claire Croiza and Vanni Marcoux at the Conservatoire. He gave his first recital in Paris in 1945, and the same year took part in the celebrations in London for the centenary of the birth of Gabriel Fauré. He first gave a recital in New York in 1950, then toured the United States, South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan. He gave his first concert in Germany in 1954, when he won praise for the authenticity of his interpretations of lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Mahler.

In 1956 he sang at the Festival of Aix en Provence, accompanied by Dalton Baldwin, his regular pianist since 1954. Souzay also gave a recital at Salzburg that year, and took part in the world premiere of Stravinsky's Canticum sacrum in Venice. He was now one of the finest and best-known recitalists in Europe, noted in particular for his phrasing of the songs of Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Ravel and Poulenc, and for his superb enunciation of the French text. His voice, though never large, was perfectly produced, and warm in tone. He also sang in many orchestral concerts, specialising in the music of Bach, Gluck, Lully and Rameau.

In 1960 Souzay made his first operatic appearances. He sang the title role of Monteverdi's Orfeo for the New York City Opera, which was a fair success; and he sang Aeneas in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at Aix en Provence, which was definitely not a success. Souzay and his co-star, Teresa Berganza, were accused of poor English pronunciation and, worse, of having no idea of the genuine Purcellian style. Two years later Souzay sang Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande in Rome, receiving tremendous praise, and Golaud remained his best and favourite role for the remainder of his career.

Souzay repeated Golaud in Paris at the Opéra Comique in 1963, at Florence in 1966, in Rome again in 1974, and at Wiesbaden in 1976. He sang Don Giovanni at the Paris Opéra in 1963, and later in Munich and Lausanne. He made his début at the Metropolitan in New York during the 1964/65 season as the Count in Le nozze di Figaro and was booked to sing the Count at Glyndebourne in the summer of 1965, but only gave one performance before having to cancel owing to illness. These two Mozart roles were beautifully sung, but lacked something in dramatic force and tension. In 1969 he sang Alaouddin in the British premiere of Roussel's Padmavati (a concert performance) at the London Coliseum.

Souzay recorded several operatic roles which he never sang on stage, notably Pollux in Rameau's Castor et Pollux; Mephistophélès in Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust; Albert in Massenet's Werther and Lescaut in the same composer's Manon, as well as Golaud. But the numerous recordings he made of French mélodies and German lieder are the finest legacy of a superbly stylish singer.

Elizabeth Forbes