Reviews for IPCD 1062–2
Schumann FRAUENLIEBE UND -LEBEN
SCHUMANN Frauenliebe und –leben (sung in German1,2,5-7, French3,4, and Russian8) 1Lotte Lehmann, 2Ria Ginster, 3Germaine Martinelli, 4Ninon Vallin, 5Elisabeth Schumann, 6Sena Jurinac (sop); 7Elisabeth Höngen, 8Zara Dolukhanova (mez); 1Paul Ulanowsky, 2Paul Baumgartner, 3Jean Doyan, 4Godefroy Andolfi, 5Gerald Moore, 6Fritz Holetchek, 7Ferdinand Leitner, 8Bertha Kozel (pn) IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1062-2 mono (2 CDs: 159:51)
Remember back around 1960, when the bootleg TAP record label issued an LP of 40 different tenors in historic recordings of “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il trovatore ? (Well, to be honest, I don’t remember it either, being less than two years old at the time. But the friend who introduced me to historic vocal recordings when I was 20 owned a copy.) Well, here we have nothing so obsessively single-minded, but rather quite a good idea indeed: a collection of eight different historic recordings of Schumann’s beloved song cycle, set down over a 23-year span. Here, in a more readable format than the headnote offers, are the eight versions in the order they are presented in this set:
- Lotte Lehmann (sop), Paul Ulanowsky (pn), 2/20/1946 (live, New York – Town Hall recital).
- Ria Ginster (sop), Paul Baumgartner (pn), rec. 1943 (Gramophone/HMV).
- Germaine Martinelli (sop), Jean Doyan (pn), rec. 1935 (French Columbia).
- Ninon Vallin (sop), Godefroy Andolfi (pn), rec. 1930 (Pathè).
- Elisabeth Schumann (sop), Gerald Moore (pn), rec. 1949 (Gramophone/HMV).
- Elisabeth Höngen (mez), Ferdinand Leitner (pn), rec. 1950 (DG).
- Sena Jurinac (sop), Fritz Holetchek (pn), rec. 1953 (Westminster).
- Zara Dolukhanova (mez), Bertha Kozel (pn), rec. 1953 (Melodiya).
There is a sore temptation for me simply to stop and this point and say that if you love the art of Lieder, you simply must buy this set and hear the magnificent artistry of this octet of vocal greats. That temptation is further pressed by a counsel of despair: Fanfare colleague Henry Fogel has contributed an essay of interpretive commentary to the booklet, written with such keen appreciation, penetrating insight, and wealth of illustrative detail as to leave me nothing to say. There is a strong itch simply to copy his notes verbatim and abridge them for this review. But that wouldn’t be cricket, so I will say a little something of my own and beg the indulgence of my readers.
Choosing a favorite version from this embarrassment of vocal riches risks being a churlish exercise; but if forced to do so, I would unhesitatingly plump for the opening account with Lotte Lehmann (1888–1976). Hers is a magisterial reading of the widowed subject of the poems looking back over her life, rendered with sovereign majesty over her art and unmatched degrees of subtle shading and inflection of the texts. Although she was one week shy of 58 when she gave this recital, her voice is in pristine condition, and the excellence of this rendition is heightened by the sensitivity of her longtime accompanist, Paul Ulanowsky. Richard Caniell has rightly chosen to employ only minimal filtering of somewhat noisy acetates (though these are no worse than many 78-rpm discs from the same period) in order not to impair Lehman’s tonal coloration. Despite being a live performance, no audience noise is perceptible; applause is not included. The sound is vastly superior to that on an Eklipse release from 1995.
Ria Ginster (1898–1985) is undoubtedly best remembered today for her participation during the 1930s in the Hugo Wolf Society’s Lieder recording project through HMV. Hers is a light, almost transparent voice (she wisely avoided the opera stage), decidedly youthful in tone. She accordingly and sensibly takes an interpretive approach from exactly the opposite end of the spectrum as Lehmann, beginning with the first stirrings of love in a young woman’s breast and moving forward in time from there through courtship, proposal, engagement, wedding, pregnancy, new motherhood, and bereavement. From the sudden shift in tone color for the closing song, one imagines that this woman was widowed very early on, perhaps even before reaching age 30.
Germaine Martinelli (1887–1964) was another singer who concentrated primarily on song repertoire rather than opera. Her voice has the very bright timbre, with just a soupçon of acidity, so typical of the pre-World War II French school of singing. She provides the fastest traversal of the cycle, and indeed impetuosity is the interpretive keynote of her approach; she seems almost giddy with excitement throughout, and in her final song one senses that the reality of her husband’s death has not yet fully sunk in. Jean Doyen is a particularly elegant accompanist.
By contrast, Ninon Vallin (1886–1961) made her career primarily in opera and operetta, winning discographic immortality for her participation in the immortal 1931 recording of Massenet’s Werther as Charlotte opposite Georges Thill. (Completion of the recording was allegedly imperiled because the two singers fought incessantly throughout it.) Hers is a medium-weight voice, with more body and less brilliance than Martinelli’s, and her take on the cycle is one of classical poise that emphasizes impeccable vocal execution over overt emotionalism—Schumann repristinated through Racine rather than Victor Hugo, if one will. Like Martinelli, she sings in French rather than German.
Elisabeth Schumann (1888–1952) was both Lehmann’s exact contemporary and her lifelong friend, with the two of them being particularly renowned for their joint appearances in Der Rosenkavalier as the Marschallin and Sophie, respectively. As that division of labors indicates, Schumann’s was indeed the more lyrical and less dramatic instrument. Caught here at age 61, her voice by then had lost a good deal of its youthful sheen; there is a hardness of tone at the top, and a lack of change in coloration. Nevertheless, the listener is amply rewarded with her legendary ability (again like Lehmann) to inflect the text and mine every ounce of meaning from each word without falling prey to preciousness. And, of course, in Gerald Moore she has the king of piano accompanists.
Although Elisabeth Höngen (1906–1997) sang the mezzo-soprano repertory, her voice had the timbre and range to ascend into the soprano repertoire, and her rendition of the cycle here is totally devoid of any trace of heaviness. Like Lehmann and Schumann, she is masterful at shading words for meaning; and she is similar to Lehmann in dramatic weight, overt emotionalism, and vantage point of retrospective reflection from late maturity. Another noteworthy feature here is the accompanist, Ferdinand Leitner, a prominent conductor in post-war Germany who made over 300 recordings. Hers is probably my second-favorite version in this set after Lehmann’s.
Coming to Sena Jurinac (1922–2011), we have not only the youngest singer to undertake this cycle (she was only 32 at the time) but arguably also the one with the most sumptuously beautiful voice. But there is certainly no interpretive immaturity here; Jurinac was already established as a leading singer of Mozart and the lighter roles of Wagner and Richard Strauss, and her renditions are polished to the proverbial tee. One might characterize her approach as the golden mean in this set, equidistantly poised in all respects from the various opposing polarities represented here by her colleagues. She also enjoys the advantage of by far the best recorded sound in this set. This recording also has been previously been reissued on a separate Westminster CD, and again by Universal in a 40-CD set of Westminster recordings, in a multi-CD set; I have not heard that remastering.
Finally, a rather different take on the proceedings is brought in with the fabled Armenian mezzo Zara Dolukhanova (1918–2007), who abandoned the operatic stage at age 26 to focus upon song repertoire. Compared to the other seven versions in this set, she labors under some significant disadvantages: The switch to Russian is initially jarring; and the tinny, tubby recorded sound make listening to the piano (which also sounds as if it were poorly tuned) a sore trial throughout. However, it does not take long to place those factors in the background and focus upon Dolukhanova’s inimitable artistry. Here is the ardent, yet never gauche, heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that one always associates with the towering greats of the Russian repertoire (Sergei Lemeshev, Pavel Lisitsian, and Mark Reizen immediately spring to mind as male counterparts). Like Höngen, her mezzo voice has an almost soprano-like timbre and top extension; interpretively, she partakes of the youthful excitability of Martinelli, though in the closing number she manages a gorgeous darkening of tone after the manner of Ginster.
As always, Immortal Performances lavishes Rolls-Royce production values on this set. Richard Caniell has taken his usual immaculate care with the remasterings to obtain the best possible sound. A luxurious 32-page booklet contains complete data for all of the recordings, the aforementioned essay by Fogel, Caniell’s own brief recording notes, detailed biographical entries for all eight singers, the complete German texts with an English translation, and numerous archival and artistic photos and drawings. In an ideal world, the sung French and Russian translations plus bios of the pianists might also have been provided; but I live in the real world and know what is and is not reasonably possible. This set is a triumph on every level; highest possible recommendation.
Schumann FRAUENLIEBE UND -LEBEN
SCHUMANN Frauenliebe und –Leben (sung in German1,2,5-7, French3,4, and Russian8) 1Lotte Lehmann, 2Ria Ginster, 3Germaine Martinelli, 4Ninon Vallin, 5Elisabeth Schumann, 6Sena Jurinac (sop); 7Elisabeth Höngen, 8Zara Dolukhanova (mez); 1Paul Ulanowsky, 2Paul Baumgartner, 3Jean Doyan, 4Godefroy Andolfi, 5Gerald Moore, 6Fritz Holetchek, 7Ferdinand Leitner, 8Bertha Kozel (pn) IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1062-2 mono (2 CDs: 159:51)
As the booklet notes state quite clearly to this release, “this set is not meant to be listened to straight through.” That’s more the reviewer’s lot (plus individual playings, of course), but let’s be clear: To hear these various female Frauenlieben in one go is a voyage in its own right, a voyage through a Golden Age, and one that it is a privilege to undertake. All credit to Immortal Performances for their stunning restorative abilities, too. Surface noises recede easily into the background of one’s consciousness; more, the timbre of the voices is beautifully retained.
The set kicks off with Lotte Lehmann and Paul Ulanowsky, recorded in 1946, a New York Town Hall recital. The booklet notes refer to less than perfect surfaces, but rest assured there is nothing here to detract for one’s listening enjoyment. The first song is an intimate narration; the more outgoing second (“Er, der Herrlischste von allen”) is not the hell-for-leather rapture of some interpreters. Lehmann’s girl likes to interiorize regularly, as if checking within the emotions raging in her heart. So her “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” oscillates in mood; only when we get to “Du Ring an meinem Finger” is there a true blossoming out. It is easy to imagine her admiring the ring as she muses onwards; the breathless penultimate “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust” leads on to a darkly resigned “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,” with its anguished cries of “Die Welt ist leer” (the world is empty) a heartfelt cry of anguish that itself inevitably, turns once more inward. Recorded at Lehmann’s New York’s Town Hall recital in 1946, this is a lovely, eminently believable account.
The German singer Ria Ginster has more of a tendency to slide between notes in the first song. There is more energy to her second song, though, and Baumgartner’s accompaniment is beautifully alive, the right-hand melodic snatches marvelously modulated. (Baumgartner’s clear attunement to Schumann’s writing is clearly heard, too, in “Du Ring an meinem Finger,” in his quicksilver way with “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust” and in his wonderfully shaded coda to the cycle). Detail comes through miraculously from the Gramophone/HMV1943 recording. This is a calm Frauenliebe : “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” is remarkably restrained, the clue to this reading in the last two lines: “Grüß ich mit Wehmut / Freudig scheidend aus eurer Schar” (I greet you with melancholy / joyfully departing from your flock). That melancholy suffuses “Süsser Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an.” Under Ginster’s strategy, it is only right that she darkens her voice only in the final song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,” and that by doing so, the reading takes on maximal grief, moving towards a decidedly autumnal, Brahmsian mode of expression.
Closing the first disc is Germaine Martinelli’s reading with Jean Doyan on piano, taken from 12-inch French Columbias and sung in French. Her slurs in the first song, although with a touch of the slide, are perfectly, artfully done. The whole indeed seems light, and speeds are on the rapid side (nowhere more so that in the second song); “Du Ring an meinem Finger” is almost matter-of-fact. The whole is a fascinating experiment, in some ways, but less believable in terms of taking on the emotions of the protagonist. Yet the depth of “Süsser Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an” is all there. Doyan’s piano feels rather recessed, but there is a lovely presence to Martinelli, and there is no doubt she feels every (French) inflection. Doyan is rather pressed, too, with the speed for “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust,” but the strategy pays off dramatically. The final song suddenly seeps true heartbreak.
French lyric soprano Ninon Vallin also presents the text in her native language. Taken from Pathè originals, this is perhaps the most purely sensitive and sonically lovely reading here. The lightness of “Er, der Herrlischste von allen” seems to refer to the protagonist’s floating heart at that stage of the relationship. The tenderness (or perhaps one should refer to tendresse ?) is remarkable. Perhaps “Hilft mir, ihr Schwestern” suffers in drama, as does “An meinem Herzen,” but there is no doubting the sheer individuality of this reading. Pianist Godefroy Andolfi is perfectly acceptable throughout, although perhaps a little literal in “Süßer Freund.” Although the recording dates from 1930 there is plenty of detail throughout and background surfaces, as elsewhere, are kept to an absolute minimum.
The second disc brings us back to German soil for Elisabeth Schumann’s June 1949 version with Gerald Moore on piano. Again, listening straight through the set really emphasizes the extra focus in recording here, and the real presence. Fans of Elisabeth Schumann will not need to hesitate, as her golden tone is here in all its glory. Gerald Moore’s accompanying will need no introduction. Aged 59 at the time of recording, Elisabeth Schumann brings a career’s worth of experience to her interpretation. The sheer sense of dignity in the second song (“Er, der Herrlischste von allen”) contrasts with some of the breathlessness already heard along the way. The balance between voice and singer seems perfect. The blissful blossoming of the voice in “Du Ring an meinem Finger” is a joy. Needless to say, perhaps, Moore’s accompaniment is beyond criticism. What is nice is that the sweetness of his treble register is wonderfully preserved in Immortal Performances’ transfer. It is true that age has taken some toll on Schumann’s vocal equipment, but actually I do not find it as bothersome as Immortal Performances’ own booklet notes might suggest. There is a world-aged aspect to this performance that, like aged wine, has its own glow; perhaps particularly obvious in “Süsser Freund, du blickest” and in the work’s final gesture, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan.”
Over on DG, another Elisabeth (Höngen) is joined by Ferdinand Leitner on piano for a 1950 LP performance. Höngen’s voice is beautifully rich. Apparently Karl Böhm called Höngen the greatest tragedienne, something eminently believable when experiencing this particular lady’s trials and travails in love. All of this conspires to give “Du Ring an meinem Finger” a sense of huge melancholy. Höngen is not quite Erda-ish in her lowest register here, but she’s not that far from it, either, and there is something proto-Wagnerian about her way with “Süsser Freund,” too; it’s impossible also not to hear these pre-echoes in her delivery of “Todesschlaf” in the final song of the cycle.
It was a good idea to contrast Höngen’s deeply Romantic reading with Sena Jurinac’s performance, taken down when the singer was a mere 32 years of age, the youngest age of any singer in this collection at the times of recording. This is taken from a Westminster LP, and the transfer is excellent, the only caveat being some occasional muddying of the piano bass. Clarity of vocal reproduction is remarkable. Pianist Fritz Holetchek, while not as sensitive as, say, Gerald Moore, is nevertheless good; but it is Jurinac’s delivery that is utterly captivating. The restrained, almost hymnic “Du Ring an meinem Finger” indicates just how deeply Romantic Jurinac saw this cycle as being, and it is the line “Die Welt ist Leer” that takes on particular resonance (almost Winterreise-isch , in fact). Jurinac’s diction is particularly delicious: The words require no straining on the part of the listener for comprehension, yet there is no sense of any interruption of line.
If my arm was twisted, I would say it is the Armenian mezzo Zara Dolukhanova who provides the real treat of the collection, although her reading is not for everyday listening. The cycle appeared on Melodiya D 011631-2, where it was coupled with six popular Schubert Lieder, and one assumes this is Immortal Performance’s source LP. The opening song seems already to be full of worldly sorrow, the Russian language seeming to underline this aspect. The second song is breathless in the extreme, almost panicked. Here is a girl overwhelmed, perhaps frightened, by the strength of her feelings. Dolukhanova’s way with each individual word in “Ich kann’s nicht fassen” is perhaps the most individual of all the singers here. Bertha Kozel is Dolukhanova’s pianist. She finds great variety of piano tone over the course of the cycle, and is eminently sensitive to her soloist’s lines; she does not exude the confidence or individuality of some of her more distinguished colleagues in this collection, but it is probably fair to say that all ears are on Dolukhanova anyway. Her interiorized way with “Süsser Freund” is like a granite monument in sound, imposing and in highest contrast to the massively rapid “An meinem Herzen.” The piano chord that opens the final song is like a Tchaikovskian gesture of Fate; in response, Dolukhanova could be some sort of Russian Norn.
The choice of performances here is impeccable, taking in the full gamut, from light through to truly transformational. Henry Fogel’s booklet notes are unfailingly informative and interesting (not always the same thing, but here they thankfully are). A set that is truly revelatory.