In her lifetime of 96 years, American contralto Marian Anderson was celebrated perhaps more as a crusader for the victims of a colour prejudice in their home country than as a gifted and well-trained singer. The emphasis was probably misplaced. When interviewed in her old age she said, “I was never a fighter”. She was certainly a superb singer, as this not-to-be-missed Naxos bargain allows C21st listeners to hear.
It comprises a varied selection of items from her repertoire recorded between 1924 and 1944. The two earliest are Negro spirituals. Slow moving, they cruelly expose the presence of some ugly vowel and consonant sounds at this stage of her career. Thereafter, and into the electric recording era, diction and tone are exemplary. Only six of the items were recorded in the USA, mostly in poor sound quality.
Of course, the item that became this singer’s “signature tune” is here. Pruned of some of its music, and of the tenor counterpoint provided in its second half by Samson, the extract from “Samson et Dalila” is sung in English as “Softly awakes my heart”. No one should be without this glorious five minutes.