The name Kim Borg will be familiar to many opera lovers, given that he was something of a stalwart in European opera houses following his debut in 1951. However, he has seldom been the centre of attention on disc, so it is particularly pleasing that this recital has been issued. Although Borg sang a mixture of baritone, bass and bass-baritone roles during his career, it is as a bass that he appears to have particularly distinguished himself, his Met debut as Mozart's Count Almaviva notwithstanding. This collection of his recordings concentrates solely on his bass roles and displays the artist to great effect.
The first track on the disc, 'O Isis und Osiris' from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, instantly reveals Borg's key strengths, namely a beautiful warm timbre, resonant low notes, a sense of generosity, and an innate musicality. The voice was not as glossy or expansive as, for example, that of his illustrious contemporary, Boris Christoff, but this is more than made up for with class, finesse and quality.
Although the majority of Borg's repertoire was of a serious bent, his rendition of 'La calumnia' from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia shows that he was also a gifted comedian. His interpretation is excellently judged and sustains interest throughout what can sometimes be a rather tedious piece. There are touches which are uniquely his own, such as some fun, exaggerated pronunciation, but they are all within the realms of good taste and bear repeated listening.
The disc includes four great Verdi bass arias from I Vespri siciliani, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo and Nabucco. Of these, the first three are really first class, with excellent, detailed phrasing and a real depth of feeling. The Don Carlo aria ('Ella giammai m'amò!') in particular is as fine account of this wonderful scene as I have ever heard, aided by some marvellous playing from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Artur Rother. Borg is an immensely sympathetic Phillip II and explores a wide emotional palette in his interpretation: he is clearly deeply saddened that Elizabeth doesn't love him, as well as embittered and suffering from a blow to his pride. From a vocal point of view, there is great richness of colour and a beautifully nuanced line, with excellent legato in the 'Dormirò sol' section.
Unfortunately, the aria from Nabucco, Zaccaria's great rousing scene, is less successful. This is partly because it is performed in German. Although, in principal, I have no objection to pieces being presented in translation, early Verdi appears not to work at all in German. The spirited, rhythmic accompaniments and strong melodies are so inherently linked to the sound of the Italian language. But in German, the melodic line gets broken up by far stronger articulation and as such this performance is bereft of legato; it feels somewhat trivialised, almost jaunty. I am sure Borg could convince in this piece in the original language, but even then I don't think it would have been the ideal vehicle for him: he is taxed by the unsympathetic top notes in the cabaletta and there is nothing stentorian about his vocal colour, such an asset in this role. It was in the later, more sensitively written Verdi bass roles where Borg really excelled.
The most distinguished performance on the disc, though, is that of King Mark's great scene from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde ('Tatest du's wirklich?'). This is quite simply ideal: Borg is perfectly suited to what is essentially a lyrical role, in Wagnerian terms. He has the ability to communicate feeling very intensely and achieves the same effect in the excerpt 'Smirjeny inok v delakh' from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable recital disc and one which I will return to again and again, grateful for having had the opportunity to better acquaint myself with the art of a famous name from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
By John Woods