“Art taken to its subtlest peak.”
– The London Times on Schwarzkopf’s interpretation of the songs of Hugo Wolf.
Great Interpreters: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Broadcast “live” on Fine Music Radio on 27 July 2007.
Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006) was one of the most distinguished and influential singers of the 20th century and the last star of an extraordinary quintet of sopranos, all of whom emerged on the operatic scene shortly after the Second World War. Along with Victoria de los Angeles, Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson and Renata Tebaldi, Schwarskopf embodied, according to Patrick O’Connor of Gramophone, the meaning of the term “prima donna.” The pristine beauty of her lyric soprano voice, her elegance, poise and charm, combined with hard work and innate intelligence, lent her performances a compelling authority, even though some, not unjustly, considered her interpretations of both opera and especially, lieder, mannered and artificial. But in both these fields, she gained extraordinary acclaim during a long and distinguished career that spanned more than two-and-a-half decades.
Schwarzkopf had a beautiful, creamy and shimmering lyric soprano voice, with an impressive technical agility and exceptional understanding of style. According to her husband, the legendary His Master’s Voice producer Walter Legge, she possessed the sine qua non for international fame as a singer – an immediately recognizable and unforgettable timbre. Indeed, Schwarzkopf’s voice was known for its radiance, which she herself described as “Silberklang,” meaning “silvery-toned.” The music critic Harold Rosenthal throughout her career invariably used the term “whipped cream” in describing her voice.
A hard-working, self-challenging singer, Schwarzkopf performed a total of 74 roles in 53 operas, including Anne Trulove in the world premiére of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Venice in 1951. It was, however, as an exponent of the art of lieder singing, that Schwarzkopf made her greatest contribution to the art of singing. Her lieder repertory included hundreds of songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mozart and Strauss, and she was a pioneering champion of the songs of Hugo Wolf, which she sang with insight and affecting beauty. Like Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf sang a far larger and more ambitious repertory of song than any of their predecessors, taking advantage of the long-playing record’s appearance to commit to disc a vast quantity of material.
If ever there was an artist who reached the pinnacle of her profession through long and diligent study, constant hard work, and the most searching self-criticism, that artist is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She was a sublime artist who brought textual nuance, scrupulous detail, interpretive subtlety and elegant musicianship to her work. According to some, the best evaluation of her genius remains that of the esteemed English critic John Steane, who wrote in his invaluable book The Great Tradition: With Schwarzkopf’s performances, “the thought and art are so marvelously exact that one wants to call them calculated, which immediately suggests something unfeeling and insincere; yet this is self-evidently absurd, for insincerity, like sentimentality, betrays itself by inexactness and distortion. What one has in Schwarzkopf is a high degree of awareness – of colors and styles, and of the existence of choice.” In so many ways, according to Steane, Schwarzkopf embodied the very best of the European singing tradition of that time. The critic Thomas Voigt furthermore noted that with Schwarzkopf, the art is in the details (a statement especially true of her lieder recordings). Few singers have been able to transfer this art to the stage, concert platform or the recorded medium with such mastery as she did.
Podcast Track List
Vier letzte Lieder, Op. posth. (Strauss)
7) “Frühling” (Hesse)
9) “Beim Schlafengehen”
10) “Im Abendrot” (Eichendorff)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Conductor: George Szell
Radio Symphonie Orchester, Berlin
18) “Hab mir’s gelobt” from Act III of Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano)
Christa Ludwig (mezzo soprano)
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan