Pumeza Matshikiza Shines with Radiant Promise

Read an extract by acclaimed music producer, Dominic Fyfe on Pumeza Matshikiza and her latest album, Arias.

Among the many South African singers of quite exceptional talent who have risen to international prominence in recent years, none shines with more radiant promise than Pumeza Matshikiza.

Voice of Hope was, as this Opera review confirmed, an apt name for Pumeza Matshikiza’s first Decca album. Her new collection of songs might equally be called ‘Voice of Fulfilment’ as the name ‘Pumeza’ means ‘to fulfil’ in Xhosa. She debuted at La Scala in the world premiere of Giorgio Battistelli’s opera Co2 and a critically acclaimed performances of Dido. Hugh Cunning wrote, ‘She’s a killer queen’. The distinctive beauty of her voice is now in great demand, having toured Europe with Rolando Villazón. Once heard, rarely forgotten.

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would not immediately be struck by the sheer, irresistible beauty of her vocal instrument. Dusky, overtone-rich, abundantly sensuous, the timbre has much of the fullness, freshness and purity of a Sibongile Khumalo… alloyed to the darker tones of an almost Callas-like palette.

Writing in The Spectator, Michael Tanner, who has followed Pumeza Matshikiza since her Royal College of Music days, goes further: ‘What went on fascinating me was not only the beauty of her singing but also the commitment to the role she was performing.’

The characters on this album present roles already in Pumeza Matshikiza’s repertoire and many of those to come; ‘souvenirs and previews’, to use John Ardoin’s phrase. Puccini is preeminent among both: Mimì has become a signature role on stage and Liù another role with which she closely identifies. ‘Puccini wrote the words to “Tu che di gel” himself’, reflects Pumeza Matshikiza, ‘and as a singer you feel something especially personal in Liù’s music, at a level deeper than any other character in the opera.’ Art may have mirrored life in the Puccini household, as some have speculated, but the music of Liù’s sacrifice and suicide is so overwhelming it’s hardly any wonder that the composer couldn’t complete the opera.

The role of Rusalka became a passport to further success when it capped Pumeza Matshikiza’s winning performance at the 2010 Veronica Dunne competition and led in turn to her joining the ensemble at the Staatsoper Stuttgart. Mozart’s Susanna was one of her earliest roles there, one for which she feels particular affection. Hearing Edith Mathis as Susanna while aimlessly channel-surfing the radio as a teenager was a defining moment.

Her legato, the smoothness of the sound of the orchestra. It was a revelation to me, although I had no context in which to place it because our music education was so basic. I didn’t know it was opera.

Pumeza Matshikiza soon developed a deep love of the great voices of the past, and choosing the repertoire for this disc has taken some intriguing turns: ‘I have Renata Tebaldi to thank for the inclusion of the aria by Sarti,’ she says. ‘During our research for this album, Decca released a complete Tebaldi Edition to commemorate the tenth anniversary of her death. Her LP of 18th-century arias caught my eye, and the arrangement of “Lungi dal caro bene” enchanted my ear with its seamless legato and effortless beauty.’ The arrangement had been specially commissioned by Decca for Tebaldi when her album was recorded in London in 1973.

If this arrangement might now be thought of as pastiche Baroque, then Reynaldo Hahn’s ‘À Chloris’ is the genuine article. Hahn’s song may glance back nostalgically from 1916 and the embers of the belle époque, but Tosti’s ‘Si tu le voulais’ belongs very much to that era of salon music and joie de vivre. It’s a song that became a recital favourite for Rosa Ponselle, a singer beloved of Pumeza Matshikiza ever since the late John Steane, the much-respected author of The Grand Tradition, likened the timbre of their two voices, having heard Pumeza Matshikiza sing as a young artist at Covent Garden. To arrange the bittersweet charm of the song for orchestra, we turned to the Viennese composer and musicologist Michael Rot.

We chose Douglas Gamley’s arrangement and version of ‘La Paloma’ for Victoria de los Ángeles’ LP A World of Song. Coincidently, this version was first recorded in the same year (1965) and venue (Abbey Road) as the Beatles song. ‘La Paloma’ is a habanera, a fusion of Cuban song with flamenco rhythm. It seems apt to pair it with the ‘Punto de Habanera’, the second of Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras. The ‘Punto’ is an African-derived Cuban folk song in a tempo de guajiras, meaning ‘country music’ in Cuban Spanish. Pumeza Matshikiza chose the ‘Punto’ to inject some fun into the album. ‘It’s a song to tease with, light and playful. And at the end the Creole girl brushes the sailors aside, humming as she goes.

For more information on Pumeza Matshikiza and her musical journey, please visit her website.

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