Big Voice in a Small Room

Stephanie Blythe Records American Popular Songs at Meyer Sound

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Big Voice in a Small Room

The other practice that results in a superior recording, Blythe contends, is the use of single takes, with as little editing as feasible. “A third of this recording is one take; it’s not manipulated at all.” On the subject of combining multiple run-throughs at the editing stage, Meyer adds: “You can tell when they’re spliced no matter how well you do it. Because you’re taking two different events. The rooms change every ten minutes; humidity and temperature are never completely static. When we take a measurement of a room, store it in the computer, wait ten minutes, and store it again, it’s a different room. Not very much different, but enough to change how we hear reverb.”

In the ideally tuned environment of the Pearson Theater, Meyer’s engineers (John Pellowe and Miles Rogers) placed a pair of Neumann microphones in an M-S configuration about ten feet from Blythe, where the mezzo’s voice fully “develops.” There was also no near-field miking of the piano. “I don’t know how to mike a piano closeup,” declares Meyer. “I’ve sure tried and I’ve worked a long time on it. You’re sticking mikes inside and all over the place and it doesn’t sound like a piano does when you’re ten, twenty feet away.” Any tendency to compress dynamics was scrupulously resisted, as well. “It’s very tempting when you have someone with a 20dB dynamic range to compress the loud notes just a little bit. Just a dB or two. But we’d take the risk that Stephanie would hear it.”

The CD recorded in Berkeley for the Innova label, As Long As There Are Songs, includes no stage banter but, in addition to a generous helping of the Kate Smith material, holds other classics from The Great American Songbook, spanning the years 1919 to 1965. Among the 14 selections are standards by Irving Berlin (“Always” and “How Deep Is the Ocean?”), Ira Gershwin/Harold Arlen (“The Man That Got Away”), and Sammy Cahn/Saul Chaplin (“Please Be Kind”). Blythe definitely doesn’t perform the songs like an opera singer lamely attempting a crossover album. First of all, she uses her voice in a completely different manner than she would for Handel, Wagner, or Stravinsky, employing her “chest voice” pretty much 100% of the time, as opposed to the “head voice” the vocalist uses for her operatic and lieder repertoire. What is the same as Blythe’s classical work is the exceptional control she manifests over her tonal resources, intonation, phrasing, line, and her sensitivity to the words. As just one example, listen to the exquisite shaping of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” where the musical interaction between Blythe and Terry is as apparent as it would be if you could see the artists. It’s telling to listen to the CD after watching the PBS video: The same sense of occasion and risk-taking one gets from the performance in front of an audience comes through on the recording from Berkeley, thanks to the push for single takes, the far-field recording, and the clarifying acoustic of the Constellation venue. Blythe observes: “There’s this wonderful spontaneity in music-making. A live performance can’t be repeated—you can’t do it the same way twice. It’s something that is very, very special, a one-off thing. That’s why studio recordings are tough for me. There’s too much manipulation that goes on. I barely listened to the playbacks on this disc, I was so happy with what I heard.”

Blythe continues. “The recording industry is not the best for classical music today. It just isn’t what it was. I think it’s because we’re trained to listen in a different way. The recordings I listened to when I was a student are from the 60s and 70s and have a sense of immediacy and honesty that made me want to be a singer. There’s something about hearing a voice in all its glory that makes the experience wonderful. You realize that this is a real person. And when a real person can make sound like that, it’s awe-inspiring.”

Stephanie Blythe’s CD concludes with “This Is All I Ask,” a 1965 composition by Gordon Jenkins written for Frank Sinatra’s September of My Years album, a reflection on the theme of aging. It’s the song that provided the title for Blythe’s remarkable program, as rendered by John Meyer’s recording team in the Pearson Theater. That number ends with this couplet: “And let the music play as long as there’s a song to sing/Then I will stay younger than Spring.” Nice thought, that.