About this Recording
8.110733 - BERGER, Erna: A Vocal Portrait (1934-1949)



A Vocal Portrait

If ever a singer sang within her limits it was Erna Berger. While she has long been a favourite among specialist record collectors, she deserves more general recognition for her clarity of diction, the unforced ease of her high register, her musicality and perennial youthfulness, outstanding qualities which marked her forty-year career and make her a model for present-day lyric-coloraturas. Rita Streich’s "fabulous teacher" Erna Berger attained a rare perfection within her chosen idiom and was rated then as now a peerless Mozart specialist who brought a rare combination of sweetness and classical restraint to everything she sang. Overall, something of that perfection is captured on disc and in the items from the mid-1930s, which focus on a less typical, lirico spinto repertoire, legato, not passion is invariably the keynote. In Musetta’s waltz from La bohème and Butterfly’s Un bel dì vedremo her avoidance of histrionics evinces both artistic restraint and a fidelity to the score, but these remain vibrant performances which should not disappoint the most ardent devotees of verismo.

Erna Berger was born in Cossebaude, near Dresden, on 19th October 1900, the daughter of a railway engineer. After World War I her family emigrated to Paraguay and following her father’s premature death, Erna worked in Montevideo as a governess, taking piano and vocal lessons in her spare time. In 1923 she returned to Dresden where she worked as a bank clerk to finance her studies, first with Hertha Boeckel then with Melitta Hirzel. In 1925 she was engaged by Fritz Busch for the Dresden State Opera where she made her début as First Boy in Die Zauberflöte and, subsequently, played a minor rôle in the world première of Busoni’s Doktor Faust. Under contract to Dresden until 1928, her rôles with that company included Blonde in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Ännchen in

Der Freischütz and parts in further world premières: Paul Graener’s Hanneles Himmelfahrt (title-rôle, 1927), Richard Strauss’ Die Ägyptische Helena (1928) and Mark Lothar’s Lord Spleen (1930).

In 1929 Erna Berger made her first guest appearances with the Berlin City Opera and also at Bayreuth (impressed by her Ännchen at Dresden, Siegfried Wagner engaged her for the Shepherd Boy in Tannhäuser, Woglinde in Rheingold and the Forest Bird in Siegfried). The following year, at the request of Toscanini, she made further appearances at Bayreuth and, under Karl Muck and others, returned to the festival each season until 1934. During 1932 she was signed by the Berlin City Opera, where her rôles included Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, and appeared as Blonde at the Salzburg Festival (she would make several appearances there, the last as Zerlina under Furtwängler, in 1954). In 1933 she was a guest at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Opera (as Constanze, Butterfly, and Nedda in Pagliacci) and in 1934, at Covent Garden, sang Marzellina, Woglinde and the Forest Bird. That year also marked the start of her long association with the Berlin State Opera, as Leila in Les pêcheurs de perles.

Berger maintained star status with the Berlin State Opera for more than twenty years. There, her wide-ranging lyric-coloratura and soubrette repertoire included the Queen of the Night (a rôle later to become one of her most legendary associations), Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Zerlina in Fra Diavolo, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Adele in Die Fledermaus. Among several noted ‘firsts’ were the world première of Fried Walter’s Andreas Wolfius (1940) and the rôle of the Sea Princess in the Berlin première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. During the late 1930s Berger guested regularly at other major European venues, notably Rome Opera (1936), Oslo, (1937, 1939), Amsterdam (1938), Paris (Opéra, 1941). She was also frequently heard at both the Hamburg and Munich State Operas and from 1938 onwards made intermittent appearances at the Vienna State Opera where, in 1952, she created Anne Trulove in the Viennese première of The Rake’s Progress. She returned to Covent Garden in 1938 (as Constanze and the Queen of the Night, both under Beecham. Berger also sang the Queen of the Night in HMV’s famous contemporary Beecham recording of Zauberflöte, and Sophie in Rosenkavalier, another of her most highly-praised rôles) and again in 1949-1950 (as the Queen of the Night, Sophie, and Gilda in Rigoletto).

Berger’s association with the Metropolitan Opera began comparatively late in her career. In 1949, however, her 49-year-old Sophie charmed the New York audience and stupefied the critics and in each season thereafter until 1953 she was an acclaimed Queen of the Night and Gilda. In later years she won equal renown for her second flowering as a recitalist; between 1946 and 1953 she made extensive tours of North and South America and also appeared in concert in Australia (1948) and Japan (1953). Having retired from opera by 1955, she continued on the concert platform until 1968, her voice still youthful and showing no signs of age. From 1960 until 1971 she was a respected professor of voice at the Hamburg Musikhochschule and afterwards retired to Essen, although she was occasionally still heard in public even in her eighties. Her memoir, Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, was published in Zurich in 1989. Erna Berger died in Essen on 14th June, 1990, at the age of 89.

Peter Dempsey

Ward Marston

In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs’. Opera News calls his work ‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy.

Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932.

In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on works released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78 rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.

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