Yvonne Minton Sings Mahler

Roger Neill


Yvonne Minton was lucky enough to have the right vocal equipment and musicality at exactly the right time for the singing of Gustav Mahler’s songs and symphonies. Aside from Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, no other Australian singer has achieved anything like the international career of mezzo-soprano Minton. While she became a star performer in operas ranging from Gluck to Tippett, with particular success in Mozart, Berlioz, Richard Strauss and Wagner, she was unique among Australian singers in becoming the leading mezzo of her generation in Mahler.


The catalyst for the irresistible rise in popularity of Mahler’s music came with the passionate advocacy of a younger generation of conductors who performed and recorded complete cycles of symphonies and songs in the 1960s ‒ including Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, Rafael KubelÍk and Pierre Boulez. They were followed in short order by the Hungarian-born Georg Solti, whose major contribution to the growth of Mahler-mania came in the 1970s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Solti’s chosen mezzo-soprano in both symphonies and song cycles was Yvonne Minton.


In 1907, before Mahler started work on his great symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), two major disasters befell him: on 5 July his beloved elder daughter Maria Anna died following bouts of scarlet fever and diphtheria. And, just days later, Mahler himself collapsed with a heart attack. ‘I found myself face to face with nothingness,’ Mahler wrote to his disciple Bruno Walter. It was at this time that he became aware of the poetry anthology Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), free translations of Chinese poems by the German poet Hans Bethge. These formed the basis of Mahler’s new work, now widely recognised as a masterpiece. It was scored for alto and tenor with orchestra, and its premiere took place in Munich, after Mahler’s death, on 20 November 1911, conducted by Bruno Walter.


While still a student in Sydney, Australia, Minton had become familiar with the classic recording from 1952 of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde by Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Walter. Minton recalled in particular ‘… [Ferrier’s] warmth of tone and clear, simple use of text,’ adding: ‘I used to listen to her singing Das Lied von der Erde long before I attempted it myself and I fell in love with it.’


Minton was to sing that great symphonic song cycle for the first time in 1966, five years after she arrived in London from Sydney, and one year after being taken on as a member of the company at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden ‒ but in rather unusual circumstances. After the great success of his Romeo and Juliet ballet at the Royal Opera House, the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan hoped to follow up with Mahler’s Das Lied as a ballet, but the Covent Garden board rejected his proposal as being ‘unsuitable’. As a consequence, MacMillan offered his project to the Stuttgart Ballet, where the idea was received warmly, and his new work was premiered there on 7 November 1965. Such was the enthusiasm that this new work aroused, both among audiences and critics in Germany, that the Royal Opera House board reversed its decision, and The Song of the Earth was finally given by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden on 19 May 1966 with the young Anthony Dowell as the Messenger of Death and Marcia Haydée as the principal ballerina. In the event, it divided the reviewers.


This writer had fundamentally the same conflicted experience as several of the critics, to the extent that he eventually closed his eyes in order to focus on the music alone. The singers were Yvonne Minton and Vilem Pribyl, both of them standing at the side of the stage, the conductor Hans Swarowsky. The Song of the Earth was to become a great modern classic of the Royal Ballet. Of course, although Minton was highly praised for her stage-side performances, it would have been difficult at that time to foresee the extent to which she would become such a sought-after singer of Das Lied and of Mahler’s music generally.


Her next step with Mahler took place with Georg Solti. Solti had auditioned Minton for a junior position in the Covent Garden opera company, which she took up in March 1965. Initially she was given minor roles, slowly graduating to larger ones, many of them conducted by Solti, and by 1970 Solti was also appointed musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At the heart of his work there were to be the symphonies and songs of Mahler – with Yvonne Minton a key component in his plan.


Minton’s first performance of Das Lied von der Erde in concert came, not in Chicago with Solti, but at the Proms in London in July 1971 with George Shirley the tenor and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. Her first performance of it in Chicago (with tenor René Kollo) came some ten months later in May 1972, hailed by the music critic of the Chicago Tribune, Thomas Willis: ‘It was wonderful in every sense of the word … marvellous, amazing and a trifle strange. This was a performance of a magnificence heard so seldom in the concert hall … Not only did [Minton] have an assurance beyond that of her previous appearances, she brought a variety and sweep of vocal color which mark her as unique among the mezzo-sopranos of our time.’


Of Das Lied, Yvonne Minton has written: ‘[Mahler] pours his heart into fusing words and music together. He writes with a simplicity in the last song which makes the telling powerful … The very end, however, is about hope, regeneration and the beautiful blue horizon everywhere. Mahler’s music could have been written with Sir Georg and the Chicago Symphony in mind, and the combination of both an enormous boost to the vocalist.’ Minton’s performance in the 1972 studio recording with Kollo, Solti and the Chicago Symphony was judged by the Penguin Guide to be ‘exactly matching Solti’s style, consistently at her most perceptive and sensitive.’ She went on to sing the cycle in many cities with many distinguished tenors, orchestras and conductors.


Mahler’s song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) was written in 1884, when the composer was in his mid-twenties. It was dedicated to one of his early loves, the soprano Johanna Richter, with whom he had recently parted company. The poems were written by Mahler himself, ‘driven forth by the blue eyes of his sweetheart’, and the songs were first composed to be accompanied by piano, finding their eventual form with orchestra ten years later.


Minton seems to have first sung the Songs of a Wayfarer in public in April 1970 with Solti and the Chicago Symphony. It was the debut of her concert performances with the orchestra in that city and was greeted with great enthusiasm. Finding a way to express the success of their first season together making music in the city, the Chicago Tribune’s critic, Thomas Willis wrote of Minton, Solti and the orchestra in April 1970: ‘The men sitting next to me had driven all the way from Schenectady to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler concert last night. They clapped their hands practically raw for Yvonne Minton’s Songs of a Wayfarer … She has the melting velvet quality which some of us remember as the private property of Kathleen Ferrier … Miss Minton has the freshness and warmth to enfold us in the experience.’


For Minton herself, ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is full of unrequited love, joy and cheer turning to sorrow … The Wayfarer walks in the woods when he is happy and then again with heart breaking. The sounds emanating from the orchestra fully describe this woodland scene … The rapport between Sir Georg and Orchestra was immediately apparent when you saw them working together and the delicacy of touch was a wonder to behold.’


In the earlier part of his composing career, around a half of all Mahler’s song settings use poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). This is an anthology of folk poetry that had been collected and published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in 1805. Mahler’s first set of nine songs was composed between 1887 and 1891, but it was from his second set of that Minton, Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed and recorded four of the songs. ‘Rather like mini-operas in themselves,’ is how Yvonne Minton has described these songs. The Penguin Guide commented that Minton ‘makes a splendid soloist in these colourful songs’.


Yvonne Minton was born in Earlwood, Sydney, on 4 December 1938. Her earliest teacher was Bernadette Quinn at the local school. Showing early promise, she started studying privately with the English-born Marjorie Walker, continuing with her until she left for England in 1961. She won many prizes in Australian competitions, her usual calling card at these being ‘Erda’s Warning’ from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. At eighteen she was awarded the Elsa Stralia Scholarship, which enabled her to study at the Sydney Conservatorium. A windfall came in 1960, when she won the Shell Aria competition in Canberra, which enabled her to try her luck in Europe.


In London Minton sang in a number of operas before being taken on as a junior by Covent Garden, her house debut as Lola in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Her early years with the Royal Opera were mainly occupied with minor roles, which built up her experience, but gradually she was given leading parts – her major breakthrough being Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. She was to become a regular performer in concert at the Royal Festival Hall and at the BBC Promenade Concerts in London.


In 1969 she embarked on a long relationship with Cologne Opera in Germany, the musical director in the early years being István Kertész. The following year, she made her brilliant debut in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor, Sir Georg Solti. She returned to Australia in 1972 as Octavian in the first staged performance of Der Rosenkavalier in that country. In 1974 she became only the third Australian to sing at the Bayreuth Festival, her debut there being with Carlos Kleiber as Brängane in Tristan und Isolde. From this time on, Minton sang regularly in Salzburg, Munich, Paris and elsewhere in Austria, Germany and France.


Around 1982 she experienced the beginning of a vocal crisis that persisted for several years. She worked steadily to rebuild her capabilities, and gradually returned to a performing career, including as Klytemnestra in Strauss’s Elektra in Adelaide in 1991. For Minton, there was to be one last production at Covent Garden – of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, taking the role of the Countess von Helfenstein, which opened on 16 November 1995. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1980.


Minton’s musical relationship with Sir George Solti stretched from the earliest days of her arrival at Covent Garden in the early 1960s through two decades, one of its finest legacies being these great recordings with him in Chicago in 1970–72. She paid him the greatest compliment, speaking of ‘the joy of working with Solti, a true “singer’s conductor”’. Their Mahler recordings for Decca included, other than the material on this album, the composer’s Eighth Symphony in 1971. Together, they also recorded Der Rosenkavalier in 1968–69, Die Zauberflöte in 1969 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1972) and his Missa Solemnis (1977).