About this Recording
8.111145 - STRAUSS, R.: Four Last Songs / Arabella (highlights) (Schwarzkopf, Ackermann, Matacic) (1953, 1954)
English 

Great Singers • Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Richard Strauss:
Four Last Songs / Arabella (Highlights)

 

"Schwarzkopf sings Strauss". The description is apt as invariably her singing and interpretation did complete justice to the composer's many demands. She had all the requisite vocal qualities for a first-rate singer of the music of Richard Strauss: radiance, tenderness, vocal colour, always alive to the nuances of the text, and very observant of what the composer demanded. It also helped that she had a lively and engaging stage manner. She always possessed an enquiring mind, working long and hard to master all these requirements. In addition, she was a very hard taskmaster of herself, never resting on her laurels. Little wonder that she was recognised rightly as one of the finest singers of her time.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was born in Jarocin, near Poznan on 9 December 1915. She studied initially in Berlin with the contralto Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, who was of the view that her student had a similar vocal range. Schwarzkopf made her stage début as one of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal with the Berlin Städtische Oper in 1938. It was, however, in September 1940 that she was given her first major Strauss assignment: Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. She was 24 years of age at the time. Unhappy with her voice, afterwards Schwarzkopf went to study at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin with the soprano Maria Ivogün, herself a famous previous exponent of the part. She portrayed and sang the rôle of Carmen in sequences from the 1939 German film Drei Unteroffiziere, followed in 1943 by Nacht ohne Abschied, in which she appeared in a stage production of Verdi's La traviata opposite tenor Peter Anders. (Both films were subsequently banned by the Allies after 1945 as being too propagandist.) The following year Schwarzkopf appeared in a small rôle in Der Verteigiger hat das Wort, singing the song 'Mona' in elegant surroundings.

During the years 1940 and 1943 Schwarzkopf sang a number of Lieder by Strauss, recordings she made with the accompanist Michael Raucheisen for German radio being preserved. These illustrated the lightish quality of her voice at this time. In November 1942 she was invited by the conductor Karl Böhm to join the Vienna State Opera. Illness delayed her début, however, until the spring of 1944. At this stage of her career she was a coloratura, later lyric soprano, singing such rôles as Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Musetta in La Bohème, and Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia. It was following a performance in the latter rôle in the Theater an der Wien in September 1946 that her life would change for ever when she was auditioned by EMI's recording impresario Walter Legge. Not only did she survive a very demanding experience but was able to accompany other singers who were later auditioned.

Schwarzkopf's repertoire continued to grow when she took on the rôle of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, the only surviving example being the recording of the Presentation of the Silver Rose with Irmgard Seefried, made in December 1947. Her first overseas appearance was with the Vienna State Opera on their visit to London in 1947, when she sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Marzelline in Fidelio. She then joined the fledgling permanent Covent Garden Company, where for five seasons she sang a variety of rôles in English. These included Sophie, Violetta, Pamina, Mimì, Eva, Gilda, Butterfly and Manon. She also appeared at the Salzburg Festival (1946-1964), La Scala, Milan (1948-1963), San Francisco (1955-1964), Chicago (1959), Paris (1962) as the Marschallin, and, finally, the Metropolitan in New York in 1964, again in the same rôle. Her interpretation of the Marschallin is preserved on film in the 1960 Salzburg Festival production. Her other parts for which she is remembered were Fiordiligi, Donna Elvira, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, the Countess in Capriccio and Anne Ford in Falstaff. She created the rôle of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Venice in 1951. Sir William Walton originally wrote the part of Cressida in his Troilus and Cressida with her voice in mind, although he later rewrote it for mezzo-soprano. Schwarzkopf, however, made a distinguished disc of highlights from the opera under the composer's direction. She made her final stage appearance as the Marschallin in Brussels in 1972. She was awarded the Lilli Lehmann medal by the Mozart Society of Vienna. Her final concert was in March 1979, just days before the death of her husband the impresario and recording producer Walter Legge, whom she had married in 1953. She also had a distinguished parallel career as a Lieder singer in the concert hall, especially Schubert, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf. Since then she has conducted master-classes in both Europe and America. The one criticism that has been levelled at her is a lack of spontaneity and a certain over-studied approach to her singing and interpretation, but her intelligence and rare insight into both music and text ultimately outweigh such criticism. She celebrated her ninetieth birthday in December 2005.

The composition of Vier letzte Lieder took place between May and September 1948, a year before the death of the composer. The setting of Joseph von Eichendorff's 'Im Abendrot' was composed in May, while the remainder were written between July and September, settings of Hermann Hesse who had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. 'September' was for many years thought to be Strauss's last music but the manuscript of 'Malven' came to light after the death of the soprano Maria Jeritza-Seery in July 1982. The posthumous première of these songs, to which the publisher gave the overall title, took place in London's Royal Albert Hall on 22 May 1950 with the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. It is to be regretted that no attempt was made to preserve this interpretation in the studio at the time, although an attempt was undertaken privately during the final rehearsal.

The pervading mood throughout the four songs is one of death and transience: a withering garden ('September'), the departure of summer ('Im Abendrot'), a soaring of a liberated spirit ('Beim Schlafengehn'), contrasted with concerns of blissful love in the present ('Frühling'). Strauss lavishes all his knowledge and skill in this final outpouring for the female voice, giving the singer a long autumnal cantilena throughout. 'Frühling' is an emotive desire for the return of spring but opens gloomily, although later there are light warming patches of C and A major in the third stanza. September is concerned with the splendour of the autumn garden to the words of 'Der Sommer schauert still seinem End entgegen' contrasted with the images of withering and decay 'Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum'. Note the magical horn passage after the vocal part has finished (here hauntingly played by Dennis Brain: Strauss's father had been a celebrated horn-player in his day). 'Beim Schlafengehn' is the image of a man tired and weary, preparing himself for death. Strauss introduced a fourteen-bar intermezzo for solo violin (played here by Manoug Parikian), before leading into the final stanza 'Und die Seele, unbewacht, will in freien Flügen schweben'. Although marked Andante, the tempo in 'Im Abendrot' becomes continually slower, first by the numerous tempo changes between 4/4 and 3/2, then by Strauss's own explicit markings of 'still calmer', 'even slower' to the final cessation of all movement by the end.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made two studio recordings of Vier letzte Lieder, in 1954 with Otto Ackermann and in 1965 with George Szell. In addition two live performances conducted by Herbert von Karajan also survive from 1956 and 1964. In 1968 she gave two performances in which she was magically accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. Of the 1954 recording the critics were divided. The Record Guide (Collins, 1955) thought "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf does many lovely things, such as the long final phrase of 'September'" but felt "emotion must be held within a calm and steady vocal line". The authors did concede, however, that some listeners might well prefer the "more explicit emotion of Schwarzkopf's version".

Described as 'Lyrische Komödie', Arabella was the last work on which Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal worked. It was in 1927 that the seeds of the opera were first mooted and the following year the librettist wrote to Strauss: "the important thing is to find the right tone for the whole work, a certain general tone in which the whole work exists". The tone of Arabella is very different from that of the earlier Der Rosenkavalier. It is Vienna in both cases, but there is a whole century in time between the two scenarios: one the era of Empress Maria Theresia, the other of the decadent 1860s at carnival time. Here there are three Counts (Matteo, Dominick and Lamoral) intent on having a good time, chasing after girls and women. Then there is the dubious background of the discharged and impoverished former cavalry officer Waldner, his wife, and their independently minded elder daughter Arabella, and the younger daughter Zdenka (who is forced to dress as a boy as a result of the family's financial position). Then there is the Croatian landowner Mandryka, virtuous and country-bred, with ideals and principles far removed from those of the pleasure-seekers of Vienna. The final scene in which the reconciliation takes place between Arabella and Mandryka is heart-warming. Strauss again displays his wonderful feeling and affinity for writing for the soprano voice. The première of Arabella took place in Dresden, after the death of von Hofmannsthal, on 1 July 1933 with conductor Clemens Krauss and his wife Viorica Ursuleac in the title rôle. It was the Dresden Company that gave the first British performance the following year when visiting London. Unfairly compared with Der Rosenkavalier, it was the original release of these 'Great scenes' which convinced many of the merits of this memorable score when first released half a century ago.

The radiant manner with which Schwarzkopf sings the closing scene, bearing in mind she never ever performed the rôle on stage, is superb. Little wonder that The Record Guide (Collins, 1956) rightly described the original LP release as "one of the most beautifully performed and recorded discs of German opera to appear for many years". Praise for Schwarzkopf was unbounded, describing her performance as "at the very top of her form, caressing her words with an art that recalls Lotte Lehmann". Of the supporting singers Felbermayer, Metternich and Schlott were picked out. Lovro von Matačić, in his first EMI recording, sounded "like a Strauss conductor in the true fashion, and in consequence Arabella seems twice as good as it is usually supposed to be".

The rôle of Matteo is taken by the extremely versatile Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda (b. 1925). Making his début in 1951, he soon aroused international interest with his performance of Chapelou in Adam's Le postillon de Longjumeau. He first appeared at La Scala in Milan in 1953, quickly followed by engagements in Paris, London and New York. He created and later recorded the rôle of Anatol in Samuel Barber's Vanessa in 1958. He re-appeared in London in 1966, 1969 and 1976 but did not make his solo début until the age of sixty. Gedda sang at the Metropolitan in New York over 22 seasons in almost three hundred performances. His longevity was remarkable in that he was still recording as recently as 2002. His discography covers every aspect of the repertory, including working with Schwarzkopf in the studio on numerous occasions.

For the part of Arabella's sister Zdeneka Walter Legge chose the Austrian lyric soprano Anny Felbermayer, who was born in Vienna in 1924. She had studied in her native city at the Akademie für Musik and later won the Cebotari prize and competitions in Geneva and Verviers. She joined the Vienna State Opera in 1951, continuing there for many years. In addition to appearances at La Scala, Milan and Brussels, she was a regular performer at the Salzburg Festival during the 1950s and 1960s. She possessed an attractive, well-trained voice and displayed an excellent stage presence.

The German baritone Josef Metternich (1906-2005), whom Legge had used as the Father in Hänsel und Gretel the previous year, sings Mandryka. Born in Cologne, he made his solo début in Berlin in 1941 in Lohengrin. His reputation grew throughout German-speaking countries in the immediate post-war years and he made his first British appearance in Der fliegende Holländer in 1951. He sang Don Carlo in La forza del destino for his 1953 début in New York, where he sang for three seasons. Later he based himself in Munich.

The Viennese bass-baritone Walter Berry (1929-2000) originally planned a career as an engineer before studying in his native city. He joined the Vienna State Opera in 1950 and the following year enjoyed considerable success as the Count in Le nozze di Figaro. He first appeared at the Salburg Festival as Masetto in Don Giovanni in 1952 and sang there for many subsequent years. His American début took place in 1957 and four years later he joined the Berlin Städtische Oper. His first New York appearance was as Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten, a rôle he repeated for his Covent Garden début in 1976. Ten years later he returned as Waldner in a revival of Arabella. He sang through the world, his repertoire ranging through all the Mozart baritone parts to other German rôles. He also enjoyed an enviable parallel career as a concert and Lieder singer.

The Scottish-born tenor Murray Dickie (1924-1995) made his début in London with the New London Opera Company in 1947. The following year he joined the Covent Garden company for five seasons. He sang Pedrillo with Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1950 but moved to Vienna in 1952, singing at both the Vienna State Opera and Volksoper for the remainder of his career. He also appeared in Milan, Paris, New York, Munich and Buenos Aires. Dickie also had a parallel career as an oratorio and Lieder singer. From 1975 until his death he worked as a stage producer. His son, the tenor John Dickie (b. 1953) has also enjoyed an operatic career in Europe.

The conductors Otto Ackermann (1909-1960) and Lovro von Matačić (1899-1985) were both used by Walter Legge for orchestral, opera and operetta recordings in addition to various accompanying assignments.

Malcolm Walker


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