About this Recording
8.111098 - SCHUMANN, Elisabeth: Early Recordings (1915-1923)

Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952)
The Complete Edison and Polydor Recordings (1915-1923)

No artist so endeared herself to her public as did Elisabeth Schumann. The charm of her manner is legendary; so is the attraction of her pure, silvery voice and her inborn gift for communicating with her audience. Even those, like myself, who encountered her near the end of her long and distinguished career were touched by her presence: I heard her at a recital at Covent Garden in 1946 when she first returned to London after the war. She was nearing sixty, but she still evinced an ability to hold her audience with her pleasing presence, charm, communicative zest, and with a voice that was remarkably well preserved. It is her ability to catch and hold an audience’s attention that is such a vital element in her success on disc.

In the period covered by these, her first recordings, she was working almost exclusively in opera and was self-evidently able to captivate her audiences. That was true from the very outset of her career at Hamburg in 1909, when she was only 21 (singers in those days seemed to mature earlier than they do today). She was born at Merseburg in Saxony on 13th June 1888 (a glorious year for singers, given the number of famous ones born then). She worked with three teachers - Natalie Hänisch in Dresden, Marie Dietrich (a notable turn-of-the-century soprano whose records suggest a close similarity in voice and style to that of her pupil) in Berlin and Alma Schadow in Hamburg.

Even as a child she had sung at concerts, and her family were gratifyingly supportive — indeed her father, an organist, had given the young Elisabeth her earliest training. So, when she made her stage début, as the Shepherd Boy at the Hamburg Opera, she was well prepared for the appreciable career that lay before her, although for long insecure regarding her own abilities.

Other small rôles followed before she was allowed to sing Zerlina in 1911. The following year she performed Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro under Klemperer (with whom she had a brief and notorious extramarital affair, something much less common than it is today; five years later she graduated to Susanna in the same opera. In 1914-5 she journeyed to New York for her single season ar the Metropolitan appearing as Papagena, Sophie, Gretel, Marzelline, the Woodbird (Siegfried) and, surprisingly, Musetta.

In Der Rosenkavalier, The New York Times wrote of Schumann’s Sophie: ‘Mme Schumann’s voice, as it was disclosed in the difficult tessitura in the music she sings in the second act (Presentation of the Rose scene) is a clear and high soprano of pure quality and agreeable timbre, a voice possessing the bloom of youth, that will be listened for with high expectation in other music as the season progresses.’

Schumann had already sung Sophie at Hamburg in the first performance of Strauss’s opera in the city. Edyth Walker, her Octavian, who had attended the work’s première in Dresden, coached her, an enormous help to the young soprano, who was still extremely shy and nervous. It was on the strength of that performance that Strauss himself recommended Schumann to the Metropolitan. In 1917 the two actually met in Switzerland when Strauss was enchanted by Schumann performing Mozart. It was at that time that the composer, famously, urged her to undertake Salome, something she knew to be impossible for her. Strauss, however, was central to Schumann being engaged in 1919 by the Vienna State Opera. When she made her début, as Sophie (to Lotte Lehmann’s Octavian, on 4th September that year), she was acknowledged as a true jewel in the company’s crown. She now proceeded to delight her new audience with her Mozart rôles, which now included Despina and Blonde, and her Marzelline, Aennchen in Der Freischütz, Micaëla and Gretel.

During the 1920s she became increasingly sought after at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, at Covent Garden (début 1924) and at the Salzburg Festival, but Vienna remained her headquarters until 1938 when the Anschluss decided her to leave, virtually spelling the end of her stage career. A recording made at the Vienna State Opera in 1938 of her in the Presentation of the Rose reveals that she had lost nothing of her vocal ease in the part.

Although her main recording career did not begin until 1920 when she made acoustic discs for Polydor, she had begun her long and distinguished appearances in this field with Favorite as early as 1913 and with Edison in 1915. The four Edison titles here give us a chance to catch Schumann near the outset of her career, showing just how fresh was her tone, how accomplished her technique at this stage. Schumann, then still in her twenties, brings an ideal freshness and an appropriate eagerness to both Aennchen’s arias, the tone being pearl-like, the line finely etched. Just the same characteristics, together with a rapt infatuation with the supposed youth Fidelio, inform Schumann’s account of Marzelline’s aria, while Mignon’s longing for Italy is beautifully proposed in the remaining item. This, one realises, is how Schumann sounded in her Hamburg days, and the discs are thus a historic document of importance in chronicling the soprano’s career.

The 1920-23 Polydors catch her Mozart, among other things, in its pristine state. The solos from Die Entführung not only indicate the ease of her technique but also the brightness of her tone. You can also glean over the years how enchanting must have been her Blonde. As Zerlina she is alternately flirtatious and tender, the phraseology, with a generous use of portamento (now sadly frowned on), used to enhance the expressive force of what she is singing. Her Cherubino is predictably ardent and spirited. Marguerite’s Jewel Song discloses another, rarer side of Schumann’s vocal make-up, her ability to sparkle in more extrovert music; she also suggests all Marguerite’s sense of expectancy. Zerline’s aria from Fra Diavolo brings a natural smile to the Schumann tone: you can sense the element of fun she brought to such parts, while for the Baroness’s aria from Der Wildschütz Schumann produces a real display of quickwitted patter. Perhaps the most valuable of all the 1920 titles, though, is Gretel’s solo, where the sheer wonder in the singing mirrors precisely Gretel’s feelings.

In 1921 Strauss took Schumann on a recital tour of the United States where his own songs took a prominent part, so the Strauss song recorded in 1922 can be seen and heard as an authentic souvenir of that visit, while the Mozart motet nicely contrasts the fine legato in the middle movement with the coloratura required in the last, both demonstrating the ease of Schumann’s singing in her prime.

The more serious side of Schumann as a Mozartian is revealed in the two 1923 titles. Though she later came to record Susanna’s aria in the original (on HMV) as she did Zerlina’s pieces, this earlier version is in some ways preferable, for its sheer sweetness of timbre and control of line. Pamina, which was at this time central to her repertory, was obvlously a rôle that she cherished. She lavishes on ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ the soft grace of her singing and allows a plaintive quality, so essential to the piece, to enter her tone.

Schumann’s later, more easily obtainable discs are always enjoyable, but here she is in her absolute prime, a source of sheer pleasure.

© Alan Blyth

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