Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: Early Song Recordings for German Radio

0 of 5 stars

Songs by Rameau, Bach, Loewe, Reger, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Rossini, Wolf, Beethoven, Cornelius, Mozart, Busoni, et al

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf & Michael Raucheisen (piano)

With other artists

Recorded in Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin between 1941 & 1943

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: MUSIC & ARTS CD-1195 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes

Who was the decisive influence on Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s singing of Lieder? The average music-lover would not have to think for long before producing the answer: Walter Legge.

The issue of these CDs offers the possibility of an alternative candidate with a stronger claim than is generally recognised. It is timely, for it chronicles her collaboration with the musician who first moulded her approach to German Lieder, introducing her to a wide range of repertoire and accompanying her in spontaneous performances.Michael Raucheisen was the chosen accompanist of great singers and instrumentalists. He also accompanied Tito Schipa, Feodor Chaliapin and Marian Anderson. Raucheisen was musically inquisitive, as well as unusually energetic and enterprising. These qualities lay behind his project “Lied der Welt”, an attempt to document the international output of art-song, launched by Raucheisen and his family of mainly young German singers at the height of World War II.

Recordings were made on primitive magnetic tape for the ‘Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft’, the national broadcasting organisation, at its headquarters in the Reich capital.Raucheisen apparently possessed a vast collection of sheet music and showed boldness in his choice of composers and repertoire. More than 50 songs by Peter Cornelius were recorded, while Carl Loewe, nowadays known only as a composer of lengthy narrative ballads, was represented by many of his charming lyrical songs, sixteen of which appear in this collection sung by Schwarzkopf.

The term “Lied der Welt” is, of course, a misnomer, with few non-German composers being included, not to mention the restrictions made for political considerations, but there is much to be grateful for. Given the physical destruction of Berlin at the end of World War II, it is miraculous that so much has survived of the so-called “Lied der Welt” project.

Few singers evoke such divided judgements as the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I want to avoid providing ammunition for her detractors. However, I cannot ignore the fact that some hold that her husband had a detrimental effect on her singing, causing her to turn precious and self-regarding, to smother the music she sang with detailed interpretation, perhaps to lose sight of its overall meaning. The contrast with the music-making under Raucheisen and her future husband was notable in at least two respects: Legge was not a practising musician, however knowledgeable about and sensitive to music he undoubtedly was, and the wartime conditions under which these recordings were made precluded the luxury of endless analysis and rehearsal and a vast number of takes to choose from.

What I expected from these recordings was a fresh bloom on the voice and a naïve level of interpretation. I was influenced in that expectation by Schwarzkopf’s own words, quoted in the sleeve-note to the invaluable LP edition of the complete surviving recordings of the “Lied der Welt”, published on the Acanta label in the 1980s. Schwarzkopf says that Raucheisen’s coaching, combined with that of his wife, her second teacher, Maria Ivogün, helped her to develop beauty of tone and a smooth line. She claims that one can hear in these recordings an individual timbre and precise technical control but the colours “only came later.”

The transfers do not compare favourably with the same selections on my Acanta LPs: they have been made at a higher level, sometimes giving the voice a touch of harshness (particularly obtrusive in Schumann’s “Volksliedchen”) and amplifying hiss on some of the tracks. Acanta chose a more sensitive level to perpetuate the original masters.

Schwarzkopf, when interviewed in 1983, magnified the vocal and verbal development she underwent under Raucheisen’s tutelage, while implying that the crucial element of her eminence as a Lieder singer was the ability to colour the tone, which was brought out by Walter Legge. Raucheisen adds some weight to this assessment in claiming to have “hatched out” Schwarzkopf. What one hears on these CDs, however, is a remarkable voice well on its way to maturity but also a musical intelligence already fitted and inclined to the interpretation of art-song. We hear an impressive command of florid music in an admittedly ponderous and German-language performance of “Rossignols amoureux” (Rameau), and pearly tone in “Schafe können sicher weiden” (J.S. Bach) and rock-solid line in duets with Lea Piltti which make the older singer seem embarrassingly fragile. In two other duets by Cornelius Josef Greindl is heard in a cultured half-voice, light years away from his coarse Wagner persona.

I am puzzled by the inclusion of Tales from the Vienna Woods (Johann Strauss II), to which Raucheisen seems to deliver a deserved profanity in his opening flourishes. The Loewe songs are written in a folk style and are infectiously joyful, which frequently boils over into exuberant displays of brilliance. “Frühlingsankunft”, for example, requires runs, a trill and a climactic high note (here just a fraction raw). However, one becomes aware of more than vacuous display: the singer sets the scene of physical and emotional desolation into which spring gallops by vocal quality alone. There is a comparable contrast in “Die verliebte Schäferin Scapine”, with an initial mood of mellow reflection being established before a shepherd’s pipe provokes a brief mood of mischief, then itself replaced by a reversion to the original state of mind and feeling. In “Vogelsang”, the first of these Loewe songs, she differentiates subtly between the bustle of animal life and the stability of trees. There is even a clearly differentiated colour applied to different songs, accentuated by their juxtaposition on CD of “O süsse Muter” and “Irrlichter”. She did clearly possess natural interpretative skills in those early years.

Admittedly there are occasions when interpretation is absent: rarely can Strauss’s “Morgen” have sounded so bland. On other occasions subtlety is lacking: “Abendstunde” (Loewe) lacks the hushed ambience which the title and text suggest and her attempt at a dramatic emotional gesture in the last line, launching a powerful crescendo on “Pein” before letting it immediately dwindle in imitation of a sharp stab of pain, is heavy-handed. Mostly, however, one is grateful when over-sophistication would cloy: The German and Swiss folksongs benefit from being performed naturally, without any of the archness which Montserrat Caballé lampooned so devastatingly.

More frequent, though, are the surprise foretastes of the mature Schwarzkopf. One composer who benefits from this is Max Reger. In some of his songs here included facial expressions and the attitudes behind them are conjured up by the singer’s inflection. In “Ich glaub” the woman is clearly heard giving a knowing wink to her lover as she admits how wicked was the tryst she is urging him to remember. In the second verse the wink broadens into a triumphant smile! The composer is rewarding for both singer and pianist: “Viola d’amour” sets a difficult challenge, with its long, slow, winding phrases, “Die Verschmähte” has multiple cascades of notes, while he has to rock the cradle in “Wiegenlied”.There is even a hint of over-interpretation in “Da unten im Tale” and when we come to the only Wolf song in this collection, “Philine”, lo and behold, the soprano adopts an artificial voice, covers her top notes, emphasises certain words and seems to do much to draw attention to herself, as if 25 years had passed!

Schwarzkopf represents herself at this stage as an ingénue, absolutely in thrall to Ivogün and Raucheisen in terms of technique and in reliance on them for guidance about style and treatment of text. The evidence of these recordings is that Schwarzkopf was vocally very gifted as she emerged from her chrysalis under the influence of Ivogün: opulent in tone, steady of line, proficient in the dextrous skills of florid style, which originated in Italy, even if it had been absorbed into the music of other countries, and with a natural clarity of enunciation and a patrician manner of utterance. The most prominent thing she absorbed from her teacher was the use of the Kopftsimme and its natural integration into the line.

She is probably right to have claimed that her innocence led her to swallow without question from the Raucheisens what later seemed simplistic or otherwise dubious assumptions about the style in which the music should be performed but the freshness and spontaneity of many of these recordings gives them the documentary value of a child’s portrait. What then happened under Legge was an enormous extension of her repertoire and awareness. The producer may have been a musician manqué but this led him to see his second wife as an experimental subject on which he could try out his theories, most notably in the performance of the songs of Wolf, searching for the ultimate, probably unattainable fulfilment of the composer’s detailed vision.

This involved a visibly intellectual approach to the poems, in which the singer would over-use the Kopfstimme in an arch, self-conscious way, as if often communing with herself. A singularly large range of colours could be applied to words, even syllables, in ways that only someone with superior intelligence and poetic sensitivity would conceive but which eventually communicated only with connoisseurs. Ultimately, as she admitted, she only continued to perform for an audience of one—her husband.

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