Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Memorial Concert

Vier canzonen, D688 – Da quel sembiante appresi; Mio ben ricordati
Liebhaber in allen Gestalten, D558
Four Impromptus, D935 – Nos. 1, 2 & 3
Vier letzte Lieder – September
Allerseelen, Op.10/8; Schlagende Herzen, Op.29/2
Singet nicht in Trauertönen, Op.98a/7; Lied der Suleika, Op.25/9; Röselein, Röselein, Op.98/6; Jasminenstrauch, Op.27/4; Das verlassene Mägdlein, Op.64/4; Die Kartenlegerin, Op.31/2
Italienisches Liederbuch – Auch kleine Dinge; Mein Liebster singt im Haus; Mein Liebster ist so klein; Schon streckt’ich aus im Bett; Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund; Ihr seid die Allerschönste weit und breit; Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden?; Gesegnet sei das Grün und wer es trägt; Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen; Wie soll ich fröhlich sein und lachen gar; Ich hab’ in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen
Mörike Lieder – Fussreise; Verborgenheit; Um Mitternacht

Joan Rodgers & Ute Ziemer (sopranos)
Ágúst Ólafsson (baritone)

Kathron Sturrock & Christopher Glynn (pianos)
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano; Schubert Impromptus)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 12 July, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This review will not be a rehearsal of the debate over Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s style of Lieder singing, nor an evaluation of the criticisms that have been levelled at her of excessive sophistication, undue emphasis on textual detail and smothering the music in artifice. Nor do I intend to consider the influence of Walter Legge, the mastermind behind her recital programming, castigated by some as having both intimidated his wife and robbing her performances of spontaneity. This concert was a celebration of her life.

The Schwarzkopf/Legge Society, which promoted the concert, certainly produced a publication worthy of the great singer in the souvenir programme, which had an appraisal by John Steane, tributes by former colleagues (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig) and a former pupil (Thomas Hampson), articles on the singer as teacher and a dazzling array of photographs, excellently reproduced, in both professional and domestic settings. The Society was also instrumental last year in having a plaque erected in the foyer of the Kingsway Hall Hotel in London, where, in its previous incarnation as Kingsway Hall, Walter Legge had supervised many of his finest recordings.

The concert as originally planned offered as its best-established artist the baritone Stephan Genz and must have been thrown into some disarray by his late withdrawal. In the re-arrangement we lost his performance of mainly extrovert settings of Mörike by Hugo Wolf but the emphasis on that composer was not compromised: Ute Ziemer and Kathron Sturrock (of whom we could profitably hear more as an accompanist) offered at short notice three songs from “Italienisches Liederbuch”. Ziemer has a silvery, but not brittle, soprano. She coped confidently with the transition to head voice, producing some delicate sounds in the upper register, while showing the ability to flood her tone with warmth. Ziemer sang appropriately with the unpremeditated innocence of a novice, showing evidence of technical and interpretative lessons well learnt, rather as Schwarzkopf must have done in her Berlin and Vienna years, and which can be heard in her wartime recordings for German radio.

If Schubert’s “Liebhaber in allen Gestalten” was rather emphatic and heavy-handed before its dissolving into humour in the last stanza, the Wolf songs found both singer and accompanist choosing the right mood for each of three contrasted selections; Ziemer added facial to musical communication with a series of subtly varied smiles while avoiding archness.

Her Strauss group reflected Schwarzkopf’s versatility: one song, a piano-accompanied version of ‘September’ from “Four Last Songs”, embodying long soaring phrases, a second, “Allerseelen”, an intense love song and a third, “Schlagende Herzen”, having a light-hearted narrative. The breath control was imperfect in ‘September’ and there were moments of flatness but the temptation to deliver the account of boy-meets-girl in the final song with an excess of condescension was admirably avoided. Indeed, the relationship between artists and audience was direct and level throughout, not de haut en bas.

Each of the singers spoke briefly about their contact with Schwarzkopf. Ute Ziemer and Ágúst Ólafsson had both gone first to study with her in January 2003, with Ziemer having had a lesson with her as late as five days before her death in August 2006. Schwarzkopf had kindled in her an interest and appreciation of Lieder, which she had previously found dry and academic. At that last session they had worked on Strauss’s “Die Nacht”, which she then sang as her encore piece. Noticeable here was the precision of enunciation; had the final lesson concentrated on verbal clarity, I wondered.

Ólafsson did not deny Schwarzkopf’s severity as a teacher, nor the high expectations she had of her pupils, but in warm recollections of time spent with her he recalled a few moments which had made her happy. “Then she was the most appreciative audience a singer could ask for”, he said.Generally, the Icelander’s performances in this recital suggests a fine career ahead. The instrument itself is a bass-baritone, resonant in the low register and liquid at the top, though some of the high notes in Wolf’s ‘Um Mitternacht’ were uncomfortable. The hearty ambience of ‘Fussreise’ suited him well interpretatively, while musically he had the measure of the impassioned climax of ‘Verborgenheit’. His ‘Italian Song Book’ selections reflected the tender wooing of the male lover and his bombastic rhetoric to equal effect.

Joan Rodgers concluded the concert. She related how she had studied with Schwarzkopf at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh and in a masterclass on Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” at the Wigmore Hall itself. “Tough” and “perfectionist” were the adjectives she used to describe her mentor but the imprint she had left was not as recent as that received by the two other singers. It was quite obvious, if one did not know it already, that this was an artist in the prime years of her career, one who had absorbed all the influences of her teachers and arrived at professional independence. The variety of approach in her Schumann group and the confidence with which she deployed different areas of her vocal resources were undeniable evidence of that. The darkness of her middle voice was ideal in expressing the salty bitterness of “Verlassene Magdlein”.

Physically, Rodgers made much eloquent play with her hands. One feels that the dedicatee of the concert would have contented herself with a slight tilting of the head or a barely perceptible smile or a widening of the eyes to convey the same feelings and reactions. Her former pupil presented a much more human and natural persona, just as faithful to the poetry and the character the poet had created, reaching a memorable climax in her uninhibited rendering of the girl’s frustrated fantasising in “Die Kartenlegerin”. This was a tour de force. Her Wolf group ended with Ich hab’ in Penna’, which never fails to remind one of the broadcast of Schwarzkopf’s fastidious treatment of this setting in the televised 1980 Edinburgh masterclasses. Christopher Glynn crowned his impressive contribution to Rodgers’s section of the programme with the demanding accompaniment.

I was puzzled by the inclusion of three Schubert Impromptus before the interval, even if they were played magnificently by Elisabeth Leonskaja; she gave a concentrated performance of the one in F minor, with its ternary structure and then showed great resourcefulness throughout the Variations of the familiar A flat and B flat works.

The overall impression of this concert was of an appropriate and worthy celebration of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s life and of the continuity that her work as teacher promises to effect. She herself was described in a New York Times obituary as a “hard-working, self-challenging singer”. While acknowledging her individuality, these are surely the universal qualities she would have hoped to pass on to future generations.

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