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Label : EMI
Format : Flac (image + Cue)
Cover : Yes

This extensive 10 disc boxed set is part of EMI’s Icon line – a series of which I am becoming a very big fan. This respect and affection has increased with every new set I have become acquainted with. The present collection, like the others, includes a broad selection of songs and arias from widely dispersed dates. One can learn a good deal about post-war singers from listening to some of these albums including figures such as Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi and Franco Corelli.

The present album ranges principally across the music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Wolf, Strauss, Puccini, Wagner and Rossini. Recording dates are included throughout and the album is organised with songs from the same composer being together even if the recording details are decades(!) apart. This allows for some interesting comparisons.

The discs are organised in broad categories: Mozart Lieder/Concert Arias, Mozart Opera Arias, Wolf Lieder and so on. CD 10 is a mixture of arias which would not quite fit into the other more compartmentalised selections. Most of the discs have programmes that are varied enough so that you can enjoy listening to them in one complete sitting. Alternatively there’s the opportunity to jump about to the dictates of your own choice – there are, as you can see, many tracks on each disc. I am going to discuss just the CDs I find most interesting but I believe that the strengths and criticisms I highlight are stand for all the content.

The marriage of text and music was always a particular talent of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with a special intelligence evident in her records. Having said that, I believe the balance shifted somewhat throughout her career. If we listen to CD5 there is a mixture of dates from 1950, 1951, 1954, 1956 and 1959 through 1965-1968 and as late as 1970 and 1974. Track No.1 – ‘Auf Flugeln des Gesanges’ Op 34 No.2 by Mendelssohn – finds Schwarzkopf at near her peak form in 1956. The words and music are allied in an ideal mix providing tonal pleasure and clarity of words; consequently their meaning is nicely communicated. Moving on through tracks 2-7 from 1974 I find the results a little disappointing. In the Schumann songs the musical line disappears altogether with the words over-emphasised. Add to this the extent that the voice is not allowed to ring out – the introvert nature of the music a factor here – and the shift from 1956 to 1974 does not seem a change for the better. The voice, or what you can hear of it, sounds in quite good fettle if a little looser and less shining than two decades years earlier; hardly surprising! The trajectory is so typical of intelligent artists as they age; somewhat over-compensating for any, sometimes slight, decline in vocal opulence. There are many examples. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jon Vickers, as they got older, became more fussy regarding diction and phrasing. Their earlier recordings provide the more ‘straightforward’ rich-toned-singing. Their later recordings were more ‘mannered’ if sometimes providing fresh insights.

Another Schumann song from much earlier in Schwarzkopf’s career – ‘Auftrage’ (Track 8) – from 1951, an extrovert piece, enjoys a tonal beauty greater than any of the 1974 set. I say this even making concessions for the earlier mono sound. The words seem no less clear or the interpretation less intelligent. I find the works from the early/mid 1950s the most satisfying of all with the exception of really wonderful sessions in 1970 . The rapport with Gerald Moore makes their recordings especially cherishable in all the repertoire they perform – Schumann, Brahms, Grieg Dvorák and more on this CD alone. In ‘Widmung’ (9 on CD5) the voice is captured in clear stereo sound and the singer is in excellent form. The diction and phrasing are perhaps more fussy than some would find ideal but I enjoy hearing the singer’s tone still sounding youthful. Brahms is a composer who draws the very best from Schwarzkopf as the 1960s progress into the 1970s. Tracks 12-16 enjoy more refulgent tone than the Schumann records. The folk-song influence on ‘Der Jager’ brings a joyful and smiling performance and the years seem to fall away – the voice could be mistaken for 1954 (the date of Track 11) not 1970! Geoffrey Parsons is an excellent accompanist – in Track 16 really charming and flexible. The lack of texts is unfortunate but with the generous selection included it would quickly have out-grown the cardboard box. I enjoy the Grieg songs from 1968 less than those from 1970 which are incidentally from the same session as the excellent Brahms selection (Tracks 12 -16). ‘Ertes Begegnen’ (Track 23) is the highlight of this CD for me. Before this review becomes interminable I must move onto other discs.

CD 3 is a special joy for it showcases Schwarzkopf in Mozart opera arias from the very beginning of her career (1946-1952). Karajan is an exceptionally fine accompanist from arguably the finest period of his career: c.1946-1956. ‘Matern aller Arten’ is an early recording (1946) but it shows off Schwarzkopf in a role which is very demanding. Arguably she lacks the impact of delivery which made Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland’s recordings so dramatic but the voice is projected with far more drama than Rothenberger or some other contemporaries. The sound is rather limited but well enough re-mastered. Schwarzkopf sounds just as idiomatic in Italian as Cherubino as Fiorenza Cossotto on the complete set with Giulini. Arguably her voice had the ideal weight for the youthful role at that point in her career. ‘Porgi, amor’ sounds fresher and fuller than in the complete set from around seven years later. It is a classic performance from one of her great roles; indeed she was one of the greats in the post-war generation. ‘Dove sono’ is beautiful if a little studio-bound compared to the stereo set. Schwarzkopf sounds at her absolute best in ‘Non mi dir’. So odd to think that Callas at her biggest and the voice at its darkest and heaviest also sang this aria for Walter Legge only a year later. This shows the variety of voices that can find success in the grateful roles Mozart created for his prima donnas. A short excerpt from the 1962 Cosi fan tutte with Bohm is included on CD 10 . I might have picked from the 1954 Karajan set instead but this is really splitting hairs given the success of the recording.

CD 6 is a complete concert of Lieder from Hugo Wolf recorded live in 1953 with Wilhelm Furtwängler at the piano. A historic collaboration if ever there was one!

Among the most grateful roles for soprano voice are those of Richard Strauss’s Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier – which is included in extended extracts with Karajan and Christa Ludwig – or the operetta roles essayed on CD 9. Schwarzkopf promptly steals the show in all these performances and it helps that they were all recorded in her absolute prime. The quality of conductors and colleagues must have made other sopranos of the time – or indeed most sopranos of any era! – envious indeed.

I cannot begin to cover all the variety of songs and arias here in the detail they rightly deserve – I can only wholeheartedly endorse this set and hope that as a result you may at your leisure become acquainted with it.

This is certainly a very special collection of lieder, opera and operetta from one of the great post-war sopranos.

Complete tracklist : Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Perfect Prima Donna