, May 2007
By 1935, when the earliest of the recordings on this disc were made, Lotte Lehmann was nearing 50 and had a long and distinguished career behind her. Starting at the Hamburg Opera in 1910 she got a contract with the Vienna Court Opera in 1915 and there she remained until 1937, singing 54 different roles. She was also much sought after in the rest of the world, including London, Paris, Chicago and the Met. She sang at the Salzburg Festspiele, where from 1934 her Liederabends with Bruno Walter became an institution. But Lieder had long attracted her and it is believed that she gave her first song recital in Argentina in 1922. Her recording career started well into the acoustic era with Richard Strauss’s Cäcilie and Morgen for Polydor. After a ten-year stint with Odeon she moved over to EMI for two years and then from 1935 she was under contract with Victor for five years, the result of which is collected on this disc and a companion disc to be reviewed before long.
These 64 titles, some of them never issued on 78s, were earlier available on the now defunct Romophone label but when re-mastering the transfers for this Naxos issue Mark Obert-Thorn has cleaned them further and re-equalized them to obtain a warmer sound. Sound quality is still an inherent problem since the originals were never very good with Ms Lehmann recorded too close to the microphone causing distortion. Also the piano was too backwardly recorded and had an unattractive clangy tone. As so often with these old ’uns one reacts to begin with but very quickly adjusts and accepts the sound on offer – as long as the music and the performances are good. They are. I can believe, though, that listeners unaccustomed to historical records may need an apprentice period before they get used to the narrow frequency range which robs the voice of important overtones and also, at the other end of the range, reduces the warmth and the roundness of the tone, giving an impression of squalliness. In some instances she possibly is squally so one has to take the bad with the good. In the long run the good completely overshadows the bad. The final outcome of close to 80 minutes’ listening is that one has heard some of the finest art songs of the 19th century performed by one of the finest Lieder singers of her and indeed any period. Of her contemporaries only Elisabeth Schumann on the female side could be any threat to the title “Queen of Lieder singing”, but while E.S. has life and charm in abundance she is also more uneven and her intonation and steadiness of tone sometimes falters whereas L.L. may initially seem more faceless but has a stunning security, warmth of tone and often probes even deeper when it comes to interpretations.
The lack of a face is apparent in the first Mozart song, which also is a bit relentless. Die Verschweigung on the other hand is expressive and nuanced. Schubert’s Ungeduld – uncommon to hear a female voice in this cycle conceived for a man – is certainly expressive, but here the shrillness at the top is disturbing. It seems that these first sides were something of a warming up; maybe she took a rest and had a cup of coffee – or it may be as I have already implied: one gets used to her – but from Im Abendrot (tr. 4) she only becomes better and better. The Schumann, Brahms and Wolf are all beautifully sung with exquisite nuances and care for the texts: the lively Waldesgespräch, the solemn Der Tod as ist die kühle Nacht – though the piano tone mars it, Anakreons Grab and In dem Schatten with magic pianissimo singing.
The next session, half a year later, opened with a number of lighter songs. Her accompanist, Hungarian-born Ernö Balogh – or Balough as some sources spell his name – was also a composer. Do not chide me might just as well be a Victorian parlour song from around the turn of the last century. Anyway there is nothing here to reveal his Hungarian extraction. That Grechaninov was Russian is, on the other hand, very clear. Why this Fa la Nanna, Bambin was never issued is an enigma, since this should have been a best-seller. It has a lovely melody, it is sung with honeyed tone, alluring phrasing and well judged rubatos. And who was he – Cesare Sodero? He was Italian, born in Naples, studied at the conservatory there with Martucci and graduated at the age of fourteen. After a period as touring cellist he arrived in the US in 1906, where he worked mainly as opera conductor but also as music director for gramophone companies and later radio, where he conducted hundreds of symphony concerts. He spent his last years as principal conductor of the Met.
Beethoven’s Ich liebe dich is inward and offers possibly the finest singing on the disc but she also lavishes all her considerable on the traditional Schlafe, mein süsses Kind, singing with disarming simplicity, which doesn’t come naturally to all classically schooled singers. The French songs are finely nuanced although there is some unidiomatic scooping in the Gounod.
The session on 16 March 1937 was devoted to the Austro-German school, and not only the most obvious representatives. Pfitzner surprises with a lively, folksong-like Gretel – could be late Brahms or even early Mahler. Selige Nacht shows Joseph Marx’s melodic gift. He is not too well represented in the catalogue. – the latest disc I can remember was Katarina Karnéus’s EMI Debut disc, issued some eight years ago. Robert Franz and Adolf Jensen are even more obscure and from what we can hear on this disc they should be more frequently heard.
On more familiar ground Ms Lehmann makes a lively dramatic scene of Wolf’s Storchenbotschaft, really whipping up the tension towards the end. It is obvious how Wolf’s far from easy-to-come-to-terms-with songs so often gain from being sung by an opera singer: within the narrow frame of his songs there is a wealth of expressive potential. A roughly contemporaneous recording of this song features the dramatic soprano Martha Fuchs and she also makes the most of it but her voice isn’t as attractive as Lehmann’s. Gretchen’s spinning-wheel revolves as eagerly as one could wish, “enhanced” by an uncommonly noisy pressing, and Lehmann is just as intense as Irmgard Seefried on a late recording from around 1968. For that session Seefried was about the same age as Lehmann but the latter’s voice is in far better shape: clean and steady where Seefried is decidedly worn and prone to shriek. The Wiegenlied is ample proof of Lehmann’s superior legato and she slows down towards the end when the baby has already fallen asleep. The two concluding Schumann songs, two of his loveliest creations, are again phrased to perfection.
Alan Jefferson manages to pack a lot of information into the limited space he is allotted and playing time is generous. Lotte Lehmann was undoubtedly one of the greatest singers of the last century. This and its companion discs – there is a third coming up too – give a good picture of her excellence in one field. For a fuller portrait one needs her operatic recordings as well, one of the highlights being Die Walküre act 1 with Lauritz Melchior and Bruno Walter, and the abridged Rosenkavalier from about the same time. There are also several good compilations of aria recordings from the 1920s and early 1930s but readers who are tempted to start building a Lehmann collection could do much worse than start here.