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Remembering Jon Vickers (1926-2015) | reviews, news & interviews

Remembering Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Remembering Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Recollections of a unique tenor from soprano Linda Esther Gray and writer Jonathon Brown

Vickers preparing for a 1961 Chicago performance as Andrea ChénierThe Jon Vickers Exhibit

Canadian heroic tenor Jon Vickers, who died on Friday 10 July aged 88 and whose full life took him from work on a Saskatchewan farm to the great opera houses of the world, was inimitable, terrifying and titanic. Faced with the intense flavour of what follows, I can only write a sober short introduction to the magical words of our two contributors. 

I don’t know if I appreciated how ferocious his Peter Grimes was at Covent Garden when I saw it as a teenager, and I must have been missing the point not to find a lightness to his part in a memorable Proms performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Jessye Norman and Simon Rattle conducting (I should, of course, have been wondering at the intensity and fullness of the heroic tenor sound). I finally "got it", though, when I listened to Karajan’s recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

This was a hero who, in Act Three, took you further down into the depths of unquenchable agony and longing than anyone before or since (and I’m talking about the entire legacy of Tristan recordings as well as the performances I’ve seen). It came as a surprise to hear what this manliest of tenor voices could do with the Italian repertoire on an arias disc and as Radames to Leontyne Price’s Aida. No, not the sunshine and roses of the true Italianate style, but something absolutely compelling, and a peerless sense of the line so essential to Verdi and Puccini. The much underrated English tenor Charles Craig had it too.

Could Vickers be alarming as a man as he was as a singer? Try this, from a live performance of the third act of Tristan. The interjection is startling, yes, but also surprising from a tenor who could always delve deepest into character – and clearly snap out of it at the drop of one cough too many. Jonathon Brown muses on the implications further down.

But let’s turn to the voice and performances. I hand you over first to Linda Esther Gray, in the same league as Vickers among the greatest Wagnerians for her Isolde, thankfully recorded – though not with Vickers; they would have made the ultimate team in this most challenging of all operas – and whose unique, heartfelt writing style can appreciated in her extraordinarily candid autobiography of triumph, disaster and rebirth A Life Behind Curtains. Then comes a full appraisal by Jonathon Brown, a writer and artist living in the Alpes Maritimes above Nice, a total one-off in his spheres just as Vickers was in opera and Lieder. David Nice


I arrived in Israel last Friday at one in the morning and when I listened to the BBC later that same morning I was greatly saddened to hear the news of the great Jon Vickers’s death. But as I sat thinking about him it seemed appropriate that I should hear the news in this holy country.

I first saw him as Parsifal at the Royal Opera House. when I had just arrived in London to study singing. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the opera was about and, with no surtitles, had to do a lot of guessing. Despite this when he sang, especially in the Good Friday music, my tears would not be stemmed and the seeds to what interpretation was all about were in that moment sown for me.

My next encounter with this spiritual artist was when Dame Eva Turner [Linda's teacher, about whom she has written an authoritative biography] took me, again to the Royal Opera House, to hear his Tristan. This time I was in no doubt as to how wonderful his performance was and when she offered to take me to his dressing room to meet him, I was speechless with delight. By the time we had made the long walk back stage, he was out of character and to Dame Eva’s delight, "Jon dear," as she called him, lifted her off her feet and swung her round the room, such was his physical strength.

My third encounter, also at the Royal Opera and among my cherished memories as a singer, was when I sang Leonore to his renowned Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio (Vickers in the opening scene of Act 2, above). Standing at the top of a long staircase waiting to enter his dungeon and hearing his cries of anguish was completely overwhelming and the tears of pity started and then flowed faster as I handed him the meagre piece of bread Leonore brings to sustain Florestan in this dark hour. When he looked at me, however, I became his Leonore and was able to dig deep and find the resources to help me sing the role. We clung to each other with relief when the trumpets announced the joyous ending and with his voice resounding in my ear this opera had never seemed more real or true. 


Jon Vickers has died. What do we make of that? Of course, the old farts will always say that the art of singing has died; which was exactly what Wagner lamented when he toured Germany trying to find singers for the first Ring cycle...

Often at such news I reach for the shelves and play a fond recording, mulling thankfully the recordings and the performances that have decorated my life. When Hans Hotter died – the greatest Gurnemanz to Vickers’ greatest Parsifal, ditto Wotan to his Siegmund – I had no choice; I reached for Schubert’s “Am Bach in Frühling” and “Sei mir gegrüsst” and sat gaping before the sensual chasm of the universe. Yet this news made me turn inwards.

Vickers and Karajan in rehearsal for Wagner's RingI realised that of the great singers I have heard in an admittedly spasmodic attention to such things, Vickers came the closest to being a lover. His intimacy with the music became an intimacy with the listener. He was never over there on the stage, he was beside you. In Tristan, to hear “Oh König!” gave me the uncomprehending displaced guilt of King Marke. The quality of caress was never greater in any male singer since the likes of Fernando de Lucia or Tito Schipa or, in the German repertoire, Leo Slezak or Ludwig Suthaus, whose marvellous Tristan shows something of the plangent ardour that reaches its zenith with Vickers (pictured above rehearsing with Karajan taking the part of Sieglinde in Die Walküre, courtesy of DG/Lauterwasser). His delivery always made me tip my cap to that great critic Neville Cardus and seek metaphors from cricket: the sound came from Vickers the way a curling googly might mix the laws of gravity, turning in the air, scraping a hold upon the volume of the auditorium, shivering our spines, and penetrating our defences.

It was Caruso who said, “I am not a tenor to be imitated,” and, little by little as we live with singers and recordings and styles and tastes, we see how right he was. Vickers didn’t really even need to say that. I myself often imitated him, since, in the 1980s, with a fetish for his voice, I used to sing snatches of Tristan or Das Lied von der Erde while mowing the lawn, raising my voice above the rattlesome Atco. (On one occasion the neighbours complained, a great tribute.) But often I thought of Vickers the farmer, used to machinery and vastness, and wondered if it were the germ of his greatness.

Nobody would dare imitate Vickers. I don’t mean to mention the stamina – and, as Hotter always pointed out, the extra stamina of the quiet singer; I mean the timbre. We can’t escape the fact that no matter how wonderfully numerous, talented and well trained young singers are, if your timbre is ordinary, you’re less interesting; or less individual at any rate. Fine lungs and perfect pitch are all very well, but if the listeners don’t feel that velvet is being brushed by the cat’s comb, or that a sherry-wet barrel isn’t being wiped by a silk scarf – or even that the seam of the ball isn’t in a spiral towards the willow – the Lord hasn’t given you a full hand to play.

On that score, many might feel that Vickers had been given just too many cards. His timbre left me numb at the knees and prickled my down, but gave some listeners a groan, his vowels not always true to the language for instance; he may have been the only great tenor who truly suited a checked shirt, he was also the only Wagner singer who makes you wonder if the letter "i" takes the umlaut. (Try “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre Act I, included in the YouTube clip below, if you need to know what I mean…) Oh, for heavens’ sakes! But this question is the epitome of the question of his taste for an old-fashioned theatrical style, of the sort we hear when he approaches crucial notes from just below, or the sort we see in Les Enfants du Paradis but which, while it fits the music of most of the composers in the traditional repertoire, is deemed long gone, thank you...

Mentioning Les Enfants du Paradis is apt, I now realise, since when Vickers sang Tristan with Gwyneth Jones under Colin Davis at Covent Garden 30 years ago, as he downs the cup in Act I, he would lob it into the corner of the curtain (yes, a production that obeyed Wagner’s simple wishes!) so that it fell silently yet with the greatest dramatic gesture of abandon on his part. It was pure "theatre" in the sense of the ham actors of Les Enfants du Paradis and in the sense that Wagner wanted

What Vickers could do that frankly the other lot never really did was a sort of sensual silence, with a sustained soft voice, that had intensity, with time and power in reserve. Here he was supreme in the Italian repertoire – a point which may seem surprising (this is the only truly great Tristan and Parsifal we have had) and yet which emphasises his simple notion that music is music and that music that deals with love and death and betrayal and hope and despair deals with the most intense terrors and joys of our lives. And that music is line, and that line is intense. One of the joys of a strange recital he gave with orchestra as the opening concert of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow in September 1985 (on the eve of the opening of the inaugural Commercial Interiors & Shopfitting Exhibition…) was the selection of Italian arias in which grace and power were beguilingly interwoven (below, a clip of the younger Vickers as Manrico in Verdi's Il trovatore).

Here was another problem with listeners, however, since he was little disposed not to be intense. You may think it arch of me to use the word "listeners", yet I do so as a lapsed but nonetheless tainted member of that batch of listeners who are critics, with many free tickets and an income based on commenting on concerts, recitals, operas and all the rest. It seems that Vickers gave up singing Schubert’s Winterreise after reading a really vicious review. Well, “silly bugger” is actually the most nuanced reaction that one can have to his decision, but the episode is nonetheless interesting. I know that a review I once wrote about a new piece by Ronald Stevenson hurt the great man for ever after, and this helped me give the trade up. But at least he carried on composing and, I’m sure, it helped him keep up a healthy contempt of scribes.

Vickers, however, had a different mind, and was wounded. He did not have Stevenson’s resolve of being a creative artist – Vickers performed music, Stevenson wrote it as well – but his simple integrity was damaged. This integrity was what famously prevented him from performing Tannhäuser, since the rôle was at odds with his quiet deep Christian religious sensibility which, luckily for us, was protected from too intricate an exposure to the philosophical implications of Tristan, Parsifal or, for that matter, the drunkard in Das Lied von der Erde – let alone indeed Schubert’s winter wanderer or Beethoven’s hero in his Choral Symphony, all of whom have at best quite a ratty, resentful relationship with the Lord.

This intensity was also what distressed Britten when Vickers sang Grimes and those of us yet to be convinced by Britten have to note on the one hand that Britten was peevish and silly to complain, but also that – even if he didn’t know so – at least he had written music that could sustain such intensity.

But what on earth do we mean by intensity? At what cost? The sound-bite towards the top of this tribute reveals that Vickers himself wasn't exactly in a state of intense transport at a crucial moment of Tristan, however much the audience were off the planet. I seem to recall an interview in which he pointed out that, in such a thing as this third act, if you don't deal with it as B flat followed by C, you'd go mad too. Isn't there an anecdote about Dustin Hoffman starving himself and not shaving for three days for a scene in Marathon Man to be peered at by Laurence Olivier with the enquiry "But dear boy, haven't you tried acting?" The dizzying irony is that this old-fashioned style of dealing with performance simply fits the music, delivers – and shivers our timbers. Glance at some of the YouTube clips (below, the start of a Pasedena recital given when he was 62) and you see the efficacy of this efficiency, achieved, as he always avowed, simply by paying attention to the music.

The efficiency is technical: sing the line, B flat followed by C and so on. Hans Hotter once told me that he had only quite late in life discovered that he had a teacher's teacher in common with Gigli. Hence the powerful category-busting relationship that explains why Wagner (albeit tetchily) valued Italian singers and why singers mainly associated with the German repertoire, such as Hotter or Vickers, excel in the Italian repertoire. Sing the line, the words will take care of themselves – and the gestures too

As for Lieder, he recorded Winterreise for EMI, but we have unofficial recordings of Dichterliebe (a catalogue of chiaroscuri, from deft to damned), Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (searingly relentless in the manner of Karl Schmitt-Walter) as well as Winterreise live; this intensity can seem strained if you go for Souzay and green tea, but the music can take it and the strains involved make for a strenuous experience, drinking the barrel deep. I heard his Winterreise twice in three days in Florence in the late 1980s, and in the city of the Donatello pulpits, this was to hear the deepest gouged bronze face to face. There was no hiding place. This was not a tenor who simply stands and sings or promotes a Swiss watch, this is a man who knew the fierce power of a crop and knew how to harvest.

Standing at the top of a long staircase waiting to enter his dungeon and hearing his cries of anguish was completely overwhelming

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