, February 2007
A year ago I reviewed another Elisabeth Schumann disc on Naxos (see review) with her early, acoustic recordings from 1915–1923: a lot of Mozart but also other Austro-German composers and some French. While admiring her freshness and charm, as I have always done, I was a bit worried about her too generous use of portamento – moving from one note to another by “sliding”. Excessively used this can give a slight feeling of travel sickness. I admitted to not having been particularly aware of this in her later recordings, something that was confirmed when I listened to this latest disc which offers recordings from the earliest electricals 1926 to just before WW2. Her portamento is in evidence here too but much more tolerable. It is possible that the acoustical recording process exaggerated this feature.
As on the previous disc Schumann stands out as a natural Mozartian. She sings the Italian arias in the original language which makes it easier to produce a smooth line; the hard German consonants are often an obstacle in this respect. There are still some objections to be raised, though. Tempos are on the slow side, slower than on the acoustic discs, and her use of ritardandi, magically done, makes them even slower. This is most noticeable in Non so più (tr. 3), which in consequence loses some of its butterfly weightlessness. Nor is she everywhere perfectly clean in intonation – Alleluia from Exsultate jubilate (tr. 1) the most flagrant example. Weighed against the loveliness of her interpretations, the genial personality that shines through everywhere and the purity of tone, this objection can easily be discarded. A technically perfect voice, however beautiful, falls flat if there isn’t life and heart behind.
All the Mozart arias were recorded 1926–1927 and show her at the height of her powers. The operetta arias, which constitute the rest of the disc, were, with a couple of exceptions, made about ten years later. She was then approaching fifty and when listening closely it is possible to detect a slight decline in vocal quality: some notes can be a bit squally. This is only a marginal phenomenon, and the charm, the expressiveness, the absolutely magical turning of a phrase are even more pronounced here. As with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf we meet a consummate Lieder singer who has the ability to transfer her skills in that intimate field to the popular area without becoming cheap. While Schwarzkopf has been accused of being too knowing there is nowhere even a trace of Elisabeth Schumann singing “down” to the audience. If Nancy Storace, the first Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, was “the Julie Andrews of the 18th century” as one source has it, then Elisabeth Schumann had the same position in the early 20th century.
Most of the operetta numbers are standard fare but they are never treated perfunctorily. The line-up includes Die Fledermaus, Der Vogelhändler (the so-called Nightingale Song from Der Vogelhändler given in two versions, one of them in English) and Der Opernball. The three concluding numbers are also much loved popular pieces, of which Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume was Birgit Nilsson’s obligatory encore. Pick any of them and I bet most readers will be hard pressed to find another recording that communicates such charm, such warmth, such conviction. It is not really a matter of letting her hair down, it is rather a question of taking this “lighter” fare just as seriously as any Mozart aria or Schubert song. We also get a few numbers from operettas that are seldom heard today but, going by these songs, definitely worth being unearthed. Ziehrer, for instance, was possibly the most serious competitor to Johann Strauss II, with 22 operettas and a total of 600 works to his credit. Am Lido (1907), Ball bei Hof (1911), Cleopatra oder Durch drei Jahrtausende (1875), including among other things a Pilgrim Chorus, Das dumme Herz (1914), Das Orakel zu Delfi (1872) and Der bleiche Zauberer (1890) have probably collected dust in the archives for many decades. I doubt that many operetta lovers, apart from specialists, have ever heard of them. According to the website dedicated to his memory, he was the darling of the Vienna audiences but he also had tremendous success in the US at the World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. With an advocate of the calibre of Elisabeth Schumann it is quite possible that some of his works could be successfully revived.
Das Dreimäderlhaus (tr. 16) is also interesting. It is a Singspiel in three acts with a libretto by Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert, based on the novel Schwammerl by Rudolf Hans Bartsch. The tracklist gives Heinrich Berté as composer but in reality he has adapted and arranged music by Franz Schubert, who also is the main character in the play, sung by a tenor. It takes place in Vienna in 1826, two years before Schubert’s death, and in the long cast-list we find names like the poet Franz von Schober, the bass singer Johann Michael Vogl and the painter Moritz von Schwind. It was first performed on 15 January 1916 at the Raimund Theatre in Vienna and was a great success. Soon it was played everywhere: in 22 languages and more than sixty countries! It was severely criticised by the experts but it has claims to be the second most played operetta ever – Die Fledermaus reigns supreme.
It should be said that Berté did more than just arranging Schubert’s music. Most of the fifteen numbers, linked with spoken dialogue, are compiled from two or even more sources and sometimes also changed to suit the texts. The song that Elisabeth Schumann recorded, Was macht glücklich (tr. 16), has a kind of marching first part, the origin of which I haven’t been able to track down. Then comes the most Viennese delightful waltz, where the text begins: Was Schön’res könnt sein als ein Wiener Lied (What could be more beautiful than a Viennese song), the melody derived from Schubert’s German Dances, D783 No. 7, originally for piano. Schumann sings it with such melting tone and superb phrasing – like a gracefully purring cat – and also indulges in some virtuoso whistling, which she also does in some of the other numbers. If you are sceptical about my enthusiasm and for some reason don’t want to be won over, then don’t play this track, because if you do you will be hooked forever!
A kind of rarity is also Fritz Kreisler’s Sissy. The story was well-known to the Viennese people: “the courtship of young Emperor Franz Josef and Elizabeth, 16-year-old, harum-scarum daughter of Bavaria's Duke Max. Elizabeth, whose nickname was Sissy, was the favourite of her father who roved the forests with woodcutter friends, played the zither, behaved more like a peasant than a duke.” Thus Time described it on 2 January 1933, when reporting on the premiere a week earlier at Theater an der Wien, with the composer conducting. Kreisler drew on some themes from earlier compositions of his and the aria Ich glaub’ das Glück is based on the languorous main theme from Caprice Viennois. When searching the internet in connection with writing this review on 9 February 2007 I found that at that very moment Sissy was being played at Baden bei Wien! Remarkable coincidence.
The sound is excellent. I could have written instead: Producer and Restoration Engineer is Mark Obert-Thorn, which in my book is synonymous with the highest possible quality in historical transfers. The liner notes also give highly interesting background information to Elisabeth Schumann’s life and career. The author, Joy Puritz, being the singer’s grand-daughter, vouches for authority.
Grading the singing greats for loveliness and charm Elisabeth Schumann inevitably occupies the top position. This disc shows her at her most lovely.