Reviewing this album is sort of a sad task. It is sad because we are talking about performances of a much loved artist, in fact one of last century's greatest American sopranos, of whom we have but few recordings and even less in decent sound - and these performances are largely a failure.
Eleanor Steber is well-known for her impeccable interpretations of American repertoire, especially of works by Samuel Barber. (She is the dedicatee of his wonderful song-fantasy "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" and created the title role of his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera "Vanessa". Barber had originally written the role for Maria Callas who was replaced by Sena Jurinac. Steber took the role days before the premiere, when Jurinac fell ill. The glorious result can be heard on an amazingly well-sounding double CD set featuring the complete original cast of the premiere under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos.) Steber was also an accomplished interpreter of the European operatic tradition, leaving us what is probably the most moving and uniquely satisfying account of Puccini's heroine Minnie, the "Fanciulla del West", and an equally impressive Elsa in Wagner's "Lohengrin" from a 50's Bayreuth production. Her abilities as a Puccinian are also evident in her impersonation of Cio-Cio-san, a role in which I find her more gripping than Callas and on the whole as satisfying as Victoria de los Angeles under Gavazzeni. I haven't heard her "Tosca", a Met production from 1959 featuring Carlo Bergonzi as Cavaradossi and George London as Scarpia, but some critics range her achievement second to Callas's.
During the 1950's, Steber faced strong competition at the Met, with Callas, Tebaldi and Nilsson being preferred by the company's new manager, Rudolf Bing. She retired from the stage in 1961 to pursue an impressive second career as a recitalist, excelling in an enourmously broad repertoire that ranged from Baroque to modernity and from German Lieder to American folksongs and Broadway musicals.
Steber had a big, beautiful voice with a blooming upper register. In her interpretations she compared great intelligence and musicianship with a natural and sensual, sometimes slightly girlish appeal. One reviewer once perceptively called her voice "blonde" and compared her musical and personal impact to that of Grace Kelly. I think the comparison suits both ladies well.
Yet, much as I would like to recommend this particular album, I have never been able to warm up to it. Caveats are varied and many, but one word comes to my mind as summing up much of my uneasyness: theatricality. Berlioz's "Nuits d'été" are an early milestone in the evolution of the French "mélodie". What these songs need to reveal there seductive powers is a sense of elegance and a certain lightness. Steber's and Mitropoulos's approach is a much too operatic and heavy-handed one. The extremely broad tempi don't serve the musical narrative well, and for once Steber's magnificent voice seems ill-suited to the task - it is simply too weighty. The whole enterprise seems disappointingly "unFrench", thus especially damaging the appeal of the lighter songs like "Villanelle". It doesn't help that Steber's French diction is far from idiomatic: She spits out the "P"s and "T"s as native speakers of English or German are wont, and from time to time there is even a trace of a chewed American "R". On the whole there is too much grandeur and too little idiom in these otherwise charming songs, and the dragging tempi border on becoming boring.
The other items on this disc are arias from cantatas by Bach and oratorios by Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn (all sung in English). The results are variable, but I feel that I only warm up to the ubiquitous "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth": It at last offers an opportunity for the dimensions of Steber's instrument to be shown to good advantage. The radiant purity of her voice is in fact heavenly, and her phrasing is as tasteful and intelligent as you could ask for.
In sum, this set can be recommended only to aficionados of Steber's artistry (such as myself). If you want a good account of the "Nuits d'été", look elsewhere. After listening to about a dozen sets, I would most gladly recommend the recording made by French soprano Régine Crespin or, as a close second, Victoria de los Angeles who is impressively accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Charles Munch.
If you're looking for recordings of Steber, I'd recommend her operatic performances, but there have also been issued Strauss and Mozart albums which I find very rewarding. Let's hope they will help this wonderful singer who is still underrated in the US and almost forgotten in Europe to get the admiration she deserves.
One last word on the edition: This set has been out of print for quite some time and it seems that it has become a kind of a collector's item, as copies are now sold at hair-raising prices on EBAY and elsewhere. So, if you're thinking about your record collection mainly from the point of view of capital investment, maybe this is your thing...