The Artistry of Eileen Farrell: Five Essential Recordings

Thursday marks the centennial of the birth of the legendary American soprano, Eileen Farrell (1920-2002).

Hailed as possessing “one of the largest and most radiant operatic voices of the 20th century,” Farrell was a remarkably versatile artist. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, she was equally at home in the world of opera, jazz, and popular music. She hated categories, and in an interview during the final years of her life, she laughed at the contemporary label of “crossover artist.”

Her career began in 1940 with a weekly half-hour CBS radio program called Eileen Farrell Sings. In this rehearsal clip from a December 22, 1947 broadcast, we hear the 27-year-old Farrell. In the late 1940s, she toured the United States performing recitals. Debuts with major opera houses followed. One American critic wrote, “Note for note her voice is perhaps the most flawless instrument as exists in the world today. Her glowing trumpet tone was a like a fiery angel claiming the millennium.” She sang a duet with Frank Sinatra on his “Trilogy” album, and stood in for an ailing Louis Armstrong, singing the blues.

Here are five of Eileen Farrell’s extraordinary recordings:

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Liebestod

Here are the final moments from Wagner’s 1859 opera, Tristan and Isolde. In this 1951 performance, Farrell is joined by the New York Philharmonic and conductor Victor de Sabata.    Throughout her career, she appeared with the orchestra 61 times.

Gershwin: But Not for Me

Eileen Farrell stressed that the drama of a song arises from the delivery of the lyrics. In this melancholy ballad from George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 musical, Girl Crazy, this magical sense of timing is on display:

Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915

Here is the original version of Samuel Barber’s dreamy and nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a work we explored in a previous post. Bernard Herrmann is conducting the CBS Symphony Orchestra in this performance, recorded on June 19, 1949:

Rodgers: My Funny Valentine

Here is an excerpt from the 1961 jazz album, I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues:

Puccini: Turandot, In questa Reggia

In this aria from the opera’s second act, Turandot explains that any prince who wants to marry her must solve three riddles. A sense of anxiety lurks amid the quiet exoticism of the opening, foreshadowing the gruesome story ahead. The aria soars to a climax with a mix of triumph and vengeance, giving us a sense of this powerful character. Max Rudolf conducts the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in this excerpt:

Recordings

  • Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (Liebestod), Eileen Farrell,  Victor de Sabata, New York Philharmonic Amazon
  • Gershwin: But Not for Me, Eileen Farrell- An American Prima donna vaimusic.com
  • Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Eileen Farrell, Bernard Herrmann, CBS Symphony Orchestra Amazon
  • Rodgers: My Funny Valentine (from I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues) Amazon
  • Puccini: Turandot, In questa Reggia, Eileen Farrell, Max Rudolf, Columbia Symphony Orchestra Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

7 thoughts on “The Artistry of Eileen Farrell: Five Essential Recordings”

  1. thanks for posting this – I had not heard Farrell’s performance of Knoxville which is one of my favorite pieces. It’s wonderful!! I always loved Dawn Upshaw’s performance – Farrell’s is fabulous too.

    May I tell you a short Barber related story? Many years ago I saw Vanessa at Washington Opera. I’m sure I went chiefly to hear “Must the Winter Come so Soon.” Pretty dark stuff.

    Anyway at intermission, I overheard an older gentleman say to his wife – “well – it’s not Romberg.”
    Maybe you had to be there.

    Thanks so much for the blog – it’s wonderful and I read it often!!! And it always brightens my day!!!

    All the best

    Doug Schoppert

    Reply
  2. Anyone who remembers and appreciates Farrell gets a big gold star. My only quibble is that you didn’t mention her recital disc with Thomas Schippers. I’ve always thought it has a special intensity, and that aria from “The Consul” will rip your heart out. What a gal!

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s the one !

      Imaginary conversation:

      Listener; “Ernani, involami” is really difficult to sing !

      Farrell: Hold my beer!

      Reply
  3. I’m embarrassed to admit that I only recently learned of the late, great Eileen Farrell’s artistry. Her performance in Handel’s _Messiah_ (recorded 1958-9) is exquisite!

    Reply
  4. What a great piece on Eileen Farrell, it will be an eye and ear opener for some. Thank you.

    One opera group recently had a long thread about largest soprano voices, not a word about Farrell. It was as if she never existed. I think she was not exotic or diva-esque enough to provoke fawning adulation. But, wow, did she deliver!

    One of my earliest record purchases was an aria disc on Angel (1960-ish). The show stoppers on it are “Ozean, du Ungeheuer” and Magda Sorel’s aria from The Consul .

    Reply
  5. I remember when Eileen Farrell lived on Emerson Hill on Staten Island and was profiled on This is Your Life. Also when my uncle and aunt attended a performance she starred in with the Staten Island Opera at the St. George Theater. It was much later when my interest in opera matured and I was given a vinyl disc of Farrell by a record dealer in Atlanta, GA. She was clearly a great dramatic soprano, not to mention someone who could easily “cross over” and sing American pop music and jazz idiomatically, something that is very difficult to do. Now Leonard Bernstein always preferred Rosa Ponselle above all the other dramatic sopranos with whom he worked, but Ponsells recordings are unfortunately from an earlier era without benefit of modern sonics. To my ears, Farrell is the premier dramatic soprano of the 20th century. It’s a pity she, like a lot of others, ran afoul of Rudolf Bing and had a prematurely truncated career at the Met. While she refused to sing full performances of most of the Wagnerian rep, one wonders what she would have made of it under favorable conditions. We are fortunate to have all the wonderful recordings we do have of her work.

    Reply

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