Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Self-Portrait

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COMPOSERS: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Self-Portrait


As the coffee is poured into elegant bone china comes the disclaimer. An unseen Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was born in Germany in 1915, tells us that she was always sheltered from politics. ‘You don’t have to listen,’ her mother said. What follows is an entirely partial account of a career that began in Berlin in 1938 under the Nazis and continued in England after the war when Schwarzkopf married EMI’s recording guru Walter Legge.

The dates and places tell their own history, but Gérald Caillat’s film is entirely without dates and it plays fast and loose with place, too, in its use of archive film. What are the ethics of intercutting footage from Walter Ruttmans’s silent documentary Berlin, Symphony of a Great City with sound sequences from a fiction film set in an opera house? Treasures such as Schwarzkopf’s film debut, shot in Berlin during the war, coexist with excruciating TV footage, including a recording of ‘Porgi amor’ that turns Mozart’s Countess into a simpering soubrette.


Only once does the relentless charm slip. While explaining the text of a Lied in a masterclass Schwarzkopf snaps at a student, ‘It’s a pity you weren’t born German’. To have the language at the tip of your tongue, of course. If you care about one of the last century’s finest Lieder singers then save your money. For a much truer self-portrait of a very great artist go out and buy her recordings. Christopher Cook