, March 2008
The seizure of power in Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and their pursuit of dissidents during the rest of the decade and during the war is one of the blackest periods in Western Civilization. Nobody will ever know the exact number of victims but one of them was Joseph Schmidt. He was Jewish, born in 1904 in a village in Northern Bukovina, an area which now is in the Ukraine but then belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family had to flee during the First World War when the village was invaded by Rumania but returned a couple of years later and became Rumanian citizens. Joseph was engaged in the synagogue choirs and in his late teens he studied singing, first in Czernowitz, later in Berlin. He auditioned for Berlin radio, which broadcast operas with a permanent ensemble, and he was an immediate success.
He never had a stage career, due to his small stature and also a relatively small voice, but in the radio and gramophone studios this was no problem and obviously what could be regarded as a certain hoarseness in the flesh was transformed by the microphone, cutting the upper frequencies. He recorded for several companies: on this compilation Telefunken, Parlophon, HMV, Electrola and Odeon are represented. He also appeared in films, the most famous certainly Ein Lied geht um die Welt (A song goes around the world), through which he became internationally renowned. Tragically this year was also the year of Hitler’s becoming Chancellor of Germany, which heavily affected Schmidt’s career. He left Germany and settled in Vienna but after the Anschluss in 1938 he went to Brussels and later Lyon and finally Switzerland where he died of a heart attack on 16 November 1942. On his grave stone in Zurich one can read: Ein Stern fällt (A star falls). With hindsight he should have taken the opportunity to flee to the USA, but was discouraged by his uncle who was also his manager.
This was but one of innumerable tragedies as a direct result of the Nazi regime, but we are at least lucky to still be able to enjoy his recorded legacy and these two well-filled discs certainly show what a loss his demise was to the musical world. As was the norm in those days Italian and French opera was performed and recorded in German but Schmidt actually sings some of the arias here in the original language. The Rigoletto and Tosca arias as well as both arias from Turandot are in Italian and so are the Italian songs at the end of CD 2. But it should be said at once that so superb was his legato technique that it hardly matters that he sings other numbers in German. His voice may have been small but it was produced with a clarity and an evenness and with such poise that one believes it is much larger – and his top was truly brilliant, much more so than Tauber’s, with whom he has been compared. They have the same mellow middle register and the same honeyed pianissimo but Schmidt’s voice is the more pungent – and there is nothing pejorative in this choice of adjective: he has bite, which Tauber doesn’t.
In Una furtive lagrima (CD1 tr. 2), also sung in Italian, he also demonstrates his effortless trill. Maybe both this aria and the preceding Zauberflöte aria are marginally too sentimental, but one cannot avoid capitulating before such beauty. He makes the most of the wonderful melody in the hymn from Alessandro Stradella and though we are used to hearing the arias from La Juive and L’Africaine with heavier voices there is no lack of power here.
His Duke of Mantua is at the same time an aristocrat and a charmer. When did you last hear La donna e mobile sung so lightly and elegantly? Maybe from Alfredo Kraus and he is also the singer that comes to mind when I hear Schmidt as Rodolfo. Cavaradossi and Calaf should be too much for him but he knows his limitations and never goes over the top. The aria from Le Cid is another winner, as is Lensky’s passionate outpouring from Eugene Onegin.
On CD 2 he impresses in the aria from Le postillon de Lonjumeau with absolute freedom in the entire register and it is good to have the full scene from The Bartered Bride, where Michael Bohnen is less imposing than some blacker basses but also avoids to ham up his aria.
Schmidt has the required Schmaltz for the operetta excerpts and it is instructive to compare him with Tauber in the numbers from Das Land des Lächelns, recorded in October 1929, not long after Tauber set them down. His voice is slightly thinner and leaner than Tauber’s but has the same smoothness and ease and he can sing a true diminuendo on a high note without a trace of falsetto.
Some of the arias and songs on CD 2 are from long forgotten operettas and maybe Schmidt also knew they were no masterpieces but he is just as deeply involved in them, and it is of historical importance to have three songs from the film Ein Lied geht um die Welt.
The zarzuela aria by Serrano is lively and brilliant, Rossini’s La danza is a marvel of effortless articulation and L’ariatella is a lesson in soft singing without crooning. He challenges Gigli – without becoming lachrymose – even Schipa, the highest praise I can give. The song may not be a masterpiece – the singing is!
And so is the singing in the remaining songs, where the superb final pianissimo note, held forever, should be noted.
The sound is variable but this concerns the orchestras more than the singer. There is such a treasure-chest of marvellous singing in the archives from the first half of the last century and anyone interested in the art of singing should invest in such issues as the present one, especially when they come at Naxos’s give-away prices. Joseph Schmidt may not be a name written in the Pantheon of Singing with golden letters of the same carat as Caruso, Gigli, Melchior and a few others but his art is on their level.
Don’t miss this issue!