Jose Carreras – a life in music

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May, 2016

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In the middle of the last century any ideas of silver travelling we had involved outer space. It was the time of Eagle comic and Dare Dare. Doctor Who simply meant a question with no punch line. It was also the time of juvenile inspiration, and for a boy growing up in Barcelona it wasn’t football but singing.

Like me – and there comparison ends – Jose Carreras was inspired by Mario Lanza in “The Great Caruso.” I had a crush on a girl who idolized Lanza, so I went to all his films. A few years later, with someone else, I went to hear him at the Albert Hall. It wasn’t “Royal” in those days; nor was Mario Lanza any more. Years of self-indulgence had ruined his voice and brought his body to the point where he was soon to die, still in his thirties.

For other reasons, the career of Jose Carreras, the most lyrical of the “Three Tenors,” could also have been cut short by death, or the effects of leukemia that struck him in the 1980s. We were in Madrid at the time, not yet silver but enjoying travelling, and his health was headline news. Fortunately he recovered, and by the time of the Rome World Cup was well enough to take part in that first memorable concert – his idea, I believe.

We had seen him in television relays of opera after that, as well as other “Three Tenors” concerts, but until an email from the Royal Albert Hall arrived had not thought we’d see him on stage. Like that Lanza concert it could be a once-and-only event, because tickets are not longer five shillings. We spent a minute or two thinking whether it would be just a love-in then decided so what? Carreras has always had the good taste to keep within his limits, perhaps realising at that Rome concert no one could compete with the other two for power, or with Pavarotti for that trill in “O Sole Mio.”

Were we disappointed? Not at all. A silver tenor no longer has the ringing top notes perhaps but the middle register is magnificent. He was joined by two very talented young singers, Celine Byrne and Margarita Gritskova, who contributed solo arias and songs as well as duet parts as generously to him as he was to them. “Ave Maria” with the mezzo Gritsova was exquisite, and in what was billed as the final medley Bernstein’s “Tonight” with the Irish soprano brought back other wonderful memories of the Fifties and Sixties, not to mention the 1970s recording sessions with Kiri Te Kanawa and the composer, captured explicity undeleted on TV as well as making a splendid CD.

We have been in the RAH for memorable concerts: an early Simon Rattle with the CBSO, the late Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and even “Flash”, Sir Malcolm Sargent, beneath whose window we presented our tickets, but have never known a reception like that. The programme officially ended at about 9.30, but the applause clearly demanded and received an encore – one each from the three performers. And more: again and again one or all returned until finally we had “Cor N’grato” from Jose Carreras: tumultuous applause again but we’d have been ungrateful to expect more.


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