COMPOSERS: Brahms,Dvorak,Grieg,Jensen,Liszt,Mahler,Medtner,Mendelssohn,Mozart,Mussorgsky,Schubert,Schumann,Sibelius & Wolf,Strauss,Tchaikovsky
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Songbook
WORKS: Songs and arias by Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Jensen, Mahler, Strauss, Grieg, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Medtner, Sibelius & Wolf
PERFORMER: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), with Gerald Moore, Geoffrey Parsons, Nikolai Medtner, Cyril Szalkiewicz (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHS 5 65860 2 ADD mono/stereo (1948-75)
In his booklet notes to this collection, Schwarzkopf s discographer, the critic John Steane, remembers her recitals thus: ‘The programme itself was often a work of art. A topic or theme would be followed, a mood set, or sometimes a challenge issued.’ With this in mind, EMI’s eclectic eightieth-birthday tribute does the singer a disservice: the packaging is lavish, the booklet fabulously illustrated, but the discs themselves seem randomly compiled and bitty, and do little to celebrate the career of one of the greatest singers this century. The first disc, ‘Songs in German by Austrian, German & Hungarian Composers’, comprises single songs from Schubert’s Dieschone Miillerin and Mahler’s DesKnaben Wunderhorn, half of Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis, a stunning live performance of Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia made by the BBC in 1968 but available for the first time here, and miscellaneous Lieder by Mozart, Mendelssohn (an enraptured ‘On Wings of Song’), Brahms, Liszt and Jensen. The recordings were made between 1947 (Mozart’s arietta ‘Warnung’) and 1974 (the Schumann), and the sound quality is therefore variable, but Schwarzkopf s exemplary standards of performance remain constant: bright, beautiful, secure and impeccably modulated.
The second disc is devoted to Wolf, for whose re-entry into the repertory Schwarkopf and her mentor/producer/husband Walter Legge were largely responsible. It begins with the 25 songs for female voice from the Italian Songbook, recorded eight years before her celebrated 1967 account made with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and is followed by various Goetbe-Lieder, Morike-Liederand ‘In dem Schatten meiner Locken’ from the Spanish Songbook. Again, Schwarzkopf s pre-eminence as a performer is not in question, but her interpretation, particularly of the Italian songs with simpler texts, is an acquired taste, and her minute attention to the emphasis and colour of every word can sound over-mannered and self-conscious.
The real interest is therefore to be found on disc diree, ‘Rarities’, a collection of songs by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Medtner, Sibelius and Dvofdk (an uncomfortably operatic account of’Songs My Mother Taught Me’ in almost unintelligible English). Medtner himself accompanies her in his settings of poems by Goethe and Pushkin (sung, unfortunately, in English not Russian), and though they may not be definitive interpretations (Schwarzkopf learnt them specially for this 1950 recording and never repeated them), it is good to hear these all-too-rarely performed works.
The real highlight of this set, however, is the Sibelius with which it ends: a recording made by the Finnish Broadcasting Company in 1955 of eight songs, most arrestingly ‘The Echo Nymph’, a gloriously Romantic and atmospheric piece in which Schwarzkopf is at her most sublime. Claire Wrathall