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Karajan

Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Posted on 2006.08.04 at 07:33
Cross-posted to opera

From The Daily Telegraph:


Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who has died aged 90, was a lyric soprano whose aristocratic purity of tone and attention to detail made her the supreme female exponent of the songs of Strauss and Wolf and produced some of the most authoritative operatic performances of the postwar era.

In the words of her husband, the British record producer Walter Legge, Schwarzkopf possessed "a brilliant, fresh voice, shot through with laughter, not large but admirably projected, with enchanting high pianissimi". It was Legge who revived the beautiful young singer's career after the embarrassment of her wartime association with the Nazi party, and, together with Herbert von Karajan, encouraged her to develop a formidable gift for characterisation that only occasionally spilled over into artfulness.

During the peak of her operatic career in the 1950s and 1960s, Schwarzkopf concentrated on five roles: Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Countess Madeleine in Capriccio and, above all, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. It seemed fitting that four of these characters were noblewomen: Schwarzkopf possessed a patrician manner which, coupled with a generous measure of self-esteem, earned her the reputation of opera's most intimidating grande dame.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Schwarzkopf choosing seven of her own performances for Desert Island Discs - a gesture which, as her biographer Alan Jefferson noted, made her famous to countless radio listeners who had never previously heard of her. Yet her recorded legacy was indeed impressive. In particular, her ravishing version of the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, recorded with George Szell and the Berlin Radio Orchestra, became one of EMI's best-selling classical discs - "a desert island recording if ever there was one" as the Penguin Record Guide pointedly observed.

Olga Maria Elisabeth Frederike Schwarzkopf was born to highly-educated Prussian parents on 9 December 1915 at Jarocin, Poland, and sang her first operatic role, Eurydice in Gluck's Orfeo, as a schoolgirl in Magdeburg. In 1934 she entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where her singing tutor Lula Mysz-Gmeiner took the bizarre decision to train her as a mezzo-soprano. Fortunately, no damage was done; Schwarzkopf became a pupil of Maria Ivogfln and in 1938 she joined the Deutsche Oper as a coloratura soprano.

After the war she made her Covent Garden debut as Donna Elvira in 1947. She was lucky to be allowed to perform in Britain at all, for her involvement with the Nazi party had been at least as intimate as those of Karajan and Furtwängler. Its full extent was revealed in Jefferson's controversial 1996 biography, which made extensive use of the 200-page file on Schwarzkopf kept by the Nazis. From this it appears that she applied to join the party in 1938 and quickly attracted the attention of Goebbels; she also acted, sang and played the piano in propaganda films. When she was questioned by Allied authorities in Austria about her party membership, she produced a succession of lies and half-truths. These were swiftly uncovered, and Jefferson finds it strange that someone as intelligent as Schwarzkopf should have resorted to such "clumsy methods of fudging her past". He speculates that she was attempting to hide more than NSDAP membership: there were rumours that she was the lover of a senior Nazi.

Her meeting with Walter Legge in 1946 saved her career. The owlish, coarse, thick-spectacled Legge, then with Columbia Records, was in Vienna scouting for talent; he already knew about Schwarzkopf from soldiers who had heard her on German radio broadcasts.

During a two-hour audition, Legge made the soprano spend the best part of an hour and half experimenting with different ways of colouring a single phrase in a Wolf song - "pure sadism", said Karajan, who was listening. Legge was intolerant of the slightest fluff, and at one post-recital reception years later was overheard telling Schwarzkopf that "you sang that last Wolf Lied like a pig." It was a curious judgment, for in the opinion of many critics Schwarzkopf's singing of Hugo Wolf, especially when accompanied by Gerald Moore, represented her finest achievement - "art taken to its subtlest peak", as the Times put it.

Under Legge's tutelage, Schwarzkopf's international career raced ahead: she sang Countess Almaviva at the 1948 Salzburg Festival with Karajan; she made her debut at La Scala in the same year and appeared there annually until 1963. Legge, later artistic director of EMI records, would sit in a stage box while Schwarzkopf sang, watching for the exact moment when women fumbled in their handbags for handkerchiefs and men tugged them from their breast pockets. He recalled: "We tried for years and once or twice succeeded in achieving Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl's" so heartbreakingly that there was no applause." Some critics felt that there was element of calculation in this which robbed Schwarzkopf's performances of their spontaneity; but what no one could deny was that over the years her voice became richer, warmer and ever more accurately focussed.

Schwarzkopf's most celebrated role was Strauss's Marschallin, whom she made winningly flirtatious. Her 1956 collaboration with Karajan and the Philharmonia remains most collectors' first choice of recording; Legge described the music and text as "honey for a fine Lieder singer's subtle art". There was real surprise, therefore, when her keenly awaited 1959 Covent Garden debut in the part failed to win approval. The general objection was that her Marschallin was cold and coquettish: Harold Rosenthal felt it was "a case of art failing to conceal art, and one must regretfully register a major disappointment."

Hermione Gingold put it succinctly: "Arch, dear? She's more Arch than the Admiralty." Schwarzkopf was furious and swore that she would never again set foot on the London opera stage - a promise she kept.

Schwarzkopf's other great partnership was with Karajan, who directed her in over 20 stage productions and, during the years of Legge's ascendancy at EMI, persuaded her to record as many works as possible. Some felt that he occasionally pushed her into unsuitable roles, such as Leonore in Fidelio, which in Legge's phrase "demands more vocal weight than she ever carried". During the 1950s, Karajan frequently occupied the spare bedroom of the Legge's Hampstead house, and Schwarzkopf always spoke well of him during his lifetime; but after his death in 1989 she revealed her bitterness at his neglect of Legge in later years.

"I do have to say, Karajan was an utterly bad character," she declared. "In my case and in the case of my husband it was utterly awful. Although he was a great conductor, the behaviour of Karajan was such that we have no reason, even after his death, to say he was a great man. He was not."

Two operatic roles were created for Schwarzkopf: Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, which she sang in Venice in 1951, and Cressida in Walton's only opera, Troilus and Cressida. She refused to sing Cressida at the work's Covent Garden premiere in 1954, on the ground that she did not wish to perform in English again; the real reason was that Legge detested the work's "Ivor Novello-ish" libretto.

She was a noted exponent of the Verdi Requiem, which she sang annually at Lucerne during the 1950s; according to one local critic, "her solo in the "Libera me" will long be remembered in Lucerne, for in it this prodigious interpreter reached the limits of human subtlety". Her concert repertoire also embraced the Bach Passions, Handel and Haydn oratorios, Beethoven's choral works, the Brahms Requiem, Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Tippett's A Child of Our Time.

Schwarzkopf was matched only by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in her superb articulation of German texts; unfortunately, like the great baritone, she continued to perform Lieder in public long after the intelligence of her readings ceased to compensate for the loss of vocal bloom. Her last recitals, in the 1970s, were sad affairs; her masterclasses, on the other hand, provided magnificent insights into her art, and sometimes revealed the gulf between her own rigour and the glib facility of her pupils.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf married Walter Legge at Epsom, Surrey, in 1953; he died in 1979. There were no children. She retired to Zurich, and was appointed DBE in 1992.

Comments:


Tomas (pronunced Thomas)
professortom at 2006-08-04 22:12 (UTC) (Link)
I don't get it?
CeltManX, Devlin O' Coileáin
celtmanx at 2006-08-05 05:06 (UTC) (Link)
She's dead Jim... She's Dead!!!
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