, April 2007
Few if any singers in recorded history have invested such feeling, so many nuances in their Lieder singing as Elisabeth Schumann. Whatever song one picks from her large output one finds the same deeply considered reading paired with tangible spontaneity. Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau from more recent times are in the same league but both of them appear more calculating. On the debit side one can mention the actual sounds she produces. I have commented on her overdone portamenti before, her tendency to slide from one note to the next, which either can sound sentimental or, at worst, create a feeling of her being out of tune. At times her tone can also be shrill and glaring, but this is more than compensated for by the charm, the personality and very often by a bell-like purity. Different listeners react differently of course and appreciating Ms Schumann may be an acquired taste, but just as one can carp at certain features of both the aforementioned F-D and the other E.S. these deficiencies – if that is what they are – are quickly forgotten when one starts to listen through the surface. There isn’t a dull moment on this disc.
Going through the songs one by one would actually be a very monotonous affair, since the same words would appear again and again: “exquisite phrasing”, “uses rubato to enthralling effect”, “lively”, “charming”, but also, though never as frequently: “uneven tone”, “exaggerated portamenti” and “sometimes squeezes the tone”. To hear her at her very best I would advise still sceptical readers to try Der Nussbaum (tr. 3) from her earliest recording session on this disc, set down in February 1930, where she shapes the beautiful melody to perfection; Aufträge (tr. 5) from the same day which is so lively and twittering while Mondnacht (tr. 6) is taken so slowly that it almost comes to a standstill but it is sung with such hushed concentration that one sits on the edge of the chair, leaning forward not to miss anything. Her well-known recording of Wiegenlied (tr. 11) is heartfelt and sincere; the remake with orchestra (tr. 18) is more measured but the phrasing is just as exquisite. Vergebliches Ständchen (tr. 12) is masterly and in Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht (tr. 16) with Gerald Moore at the piano, she underlines the cold and the gloom by darkening the tone. Her last series of recordings from 1938 still finds her voice in perfect shape and the seven songs from Deutsche Volkslieder invite comparison with Schwarzkopf in the legendary recording from the 1960s with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore – a set I have cherished for almost forty years. The liveliness, the cajoling of the phrases – they both sound so right and at the same time having their own individual ways with the songs. Only the last four were ever issued on a 78 rpm disc (HMV DB 21605) and one must ask why. Was it the dark political clouds that were beginning to obscure the sun? These sides were recorded in London after she had left Vienna – a couple of months earlier Hitler had marched into the Austrian capital and the threat of an approaching war grew stronger. Ms Schumann said repeatedly that her voice had lost some of its bloom during this period but I believe that was more a mental feeling than anything purely vocal. Apart from a Bach cantata recording in New York the following year these were her final recordings and a glorious end to a great recording career they certainly are.
As on a previous Schumann disc on Naxos (see review) the comprehensive liner-notes are by the singer’s grand-daughter Joy Puritz. Everything on this disc has some imperfection but everything is so alive – and isn’t that what Lieder singing is all about?