, January 2008
This is the sixth and final disc in the Naxos series of Lotte Lehmann’s Lieder recordings from 1935 onwards. Volume 5 contained her last Columbia records, including the (almost) complete Die schöne Müllerin from 1942. After a gap of five years she returned to the studio, this time on RCA Victor, where she recorded the first two volumes in this series. Five years is a long time for a singer at the end of her career – she finally retired in 1951, aged 63 – and the first question that is aroused is: “Has the voice aged? Has it deteriorated?”
The answer to first question is unavoidably: “Of course one can hear that this is not a young singer, but not as much as could be expected. It was a mature voice also back in 1942 and having more and more reduced her appearances in opera and devoted much of her time to song she hadn’t exposed her marvellous instrument to too much tear and wear.” The answer to the second question is simply: “No!” I have to qualify this statement a little: Once or twice it seems that she has to labour the top notes but otherwise she is utterly secure, the voice seems to obey her every intention and that annoying vibrato that tends to creep in and widen with advancing years is practically non-existent. The tone is slightly darker and rounder, like a good red wine that has matured in oak-barrels.
Readers who have followed my Lieder Odyssey in Lotte Lehmann’s company will know how much I admire her; not only for the sheer quality of the singing but even more for her deep insights. The repertoire here is a mix of old favourites that had followed her through the years and some new material, at least as far as recordings are concerned. This also shows that she wasn’t content to rest on her laurels but wanted to explore new islands in the vast Lieder archipelago.
Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder were new to her discography and the only thing to regret is that she didn’t record the full cycle. But the eight songs she recorded are valuable and they show that her powers were undiminished. In fact there is an earthiness to her singing that is wholly appropriate. The other Brahms songs are also good and especially Feldeinsamkeit is moving in its nobility and majesty.
As in most of her earlier sessions she didn’t content herself with setting down just a few songs. On 26 June 1947 she recorded 14 songs, which says something about her stamina. Moreover they are all first takes, which shows how utterly secure she was: not a sour tone to be corrected, not a phrase that she or the producer wanted to improve. We should remember that in those days the recording technique didn’t allow splicing together pieces from several takes to a satisfying unit, so what we hear on these sides is exactly what was recorded in one take.
Schubert was always at the core of her repertoire and these are wonderful readings; also Nacht und Träume, which surprisingly was un-issued on 78rpm, the reason possibly that there was nothing to couple it with. Der Erlkönig is a gem, where she differentiates the characters well. This, by the way, is the only item on the whole disc where a second take was used.
During 1947 she also had two sessions with orchestra. The first one, in June, resulted in a Christmas record with a powerful Adeste fidelis and full-voiced but still restrained Stille Nacht, sung in German. The orchestral arrangements are discreet but efficient and these are two tracks that still hold their own in the flood of Christmas songs that are poured out every year.
In the second orchestral session, held two days before Christmas Eve, she recorded God Bless America as a tribute to her adopted homeland, powerfully sung but not pompously. For The Kerry Dance she lightens her voice and sounds a good deal younger than her age. The two well-known German pieces, Schumann’s Träumerei, vocalised, with a sweet solo violin introduction and beautifully sung, and Brahms’ Wiegenlied, sincere and hushed, were obviously also aimed at a popular market. Today we may frown at this sweet treatment of ‘light classics’ but they are certainly done with honesty and commitment.
For her very last recording session, in March 1949, she chose some French songs, which are stylish and intense. Reynaldo Hahn’s songs are, to my mind, too rarely heard. During all my years of concert going I can only remember one recital with some Hahn included and that was Victoria de los Angeles in the Wigmore Hall in 1990. The songs Ms Lehmann chose for this session are two of his best. Duparc’s La vie antérieure is a masterpiece, as are all his songs, and her reading is one of the best things on this disc. Paladilhe is known, if at all, almost exclusively for Psyché, which was quite popular a century ago and recorded by several great singers during the acoustic era. The song is simple but beautiful. The only other piece by this composer I could find in my collection was a Tito Schipa recording from 1924 of an aria from Suzanne, obviously an opera.
The last three songs in her recording career were, suitably enough, by Richard Strauss. Strauss admired her and she championed his works, not least during her operatic career, where she was the Feldmarschallin, the Arabella and the Ariadne. These songs were all new to her recorded repertoire and they seem to rejuvenate her. In Die Zeitlose she sounds almost girlish – “Timeless” indeed! The wonderful Du meines Herzens Krönelein worthily crowns her recorded output.
Those who have invested in the previous volumes should do so with this one too. The six volumes together constitute one of most important collections of Lieder recordings ever issued.