Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Gramophone, October and November 1976) by Edward Greenfield
‘I do not want you to buy a cat in a sack!’ said young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to Walter Legge, when he came to the Café Mozart to negotiate a contract with her. It was the first winter after the war. He was in Vienna snapping up talent among the many artists who had emerged in Germany and Austria in the previous six years. He had already started negotiating a contract with Herbert von Karajan as the major new talent among conductors, an artist he had already admired in Aachen before the war. It took him six months to get that contract signed, but in that time they became close friends. By the merest chance Legge had managed to meet Furtwängler – who was then secretly in Vienna – and had already renewed contracts with such established artists as Edwin Fischer, and made new ones with Ginette Neveu and Dinu Lipatti.
Legge heard Schwarzkopf first as Rosina in II Barbiere di Siviglia, which was one of her roles at the Theater an der Wien. It impressed him, he has said since, as ‘a brilliant fresh voice shot with laughter, not large but admirably projected with enchanting high pianissimo’. He heard her in one or two other roles. Despite near-starvation the Viennese still maintained their traditions of Hausmusik, and a concert in a friend’s house set the seal on his response to the young artist, whom Karajan had already spoken of as ‘potentially the best singer we have’.
Legge at once arranged the meeting at the Café Mozart, and was amazed to meet not the delighted and immediate acceptance he expected (others far more famous were only too eager to sign), but a firm insistence that she would not sign a contract until he had given her a proper audition. She did not want to be bought like ‘a cat in a sack’ but promised to wait until she had been listened to. Legge made her wait. Impressed (despite his irritation over wasted time) he decided to put this girl through her paces, and for a gruelling two hours he worked with her intensively on Wolf’s brief song ‘Wer rief dich denn?’ (‘Who told you to come?’ – the defiant and contemptuous woman railing at her lover). Half-way through, Karajan who had come along to gather his own impressions, left with the remark that Legge was ‘torturing the girl’. But not a bit of it. At the end of the long session, in which every word of the tiny song was inflected and re-inflected in the search for what Wolf meant, Legge still had another singer to hear, the bass Endre Koreh. By this time the accompanist had had to leave, but the unabashed Schwarzkopf promptly offered to deputize as pianist. Koreh had come without music, but Schwarzkopf accompanied the Sarastro arias from memory. ‘Anyone could have done it’, she says today.
‘In those days we both had tremendous energy,’ Schwarzkopf comments in characteristic understatement about that period. Now, 30 years later, with her London farewell still unannounced, still in radiant voice as her Wigmore Hall recital showed last May, vibrant and glamorous, 60 years old so the calendar impossibly tells us, we can see this first encounter as the start of a historic partnership. If Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has established herself as a positive artist of unrivalled magnetism, she is the first to attribute to Walter Legge a dominant share in that success. ‘If I say I’m His Master’s Voice, people think I’m joking,’ she says, ‘but I’m not’. That first audition proved at the very start that Schwarzkopf’s firm will could stand up to Legge’s insistence, that her all-demanding artistic standards could blossom from the most searching scrutiny, that their talents, and indeed their strong and vital personalities, were complementary. In their marriage as in their artistic partnership Schwarzkopf and Legge have a mutual dependance which must impress even a stranger who meets them together. When she first met Legge, Schwarzkopf was poised on the brink of a successful career. As she well knew, she might still have fallen short of her potential. So far it had not been an easy road.
She was born in a small town near Posen – soon to be Poznan on its transfer to Poland – in December 1915. After the end of the First World War the German population was given the chance to be repatriated. The train in which they travelled from Poland to Silesia, their new home, was under the command of a young French colonel, Charles de Gaulle. Her father was a schoolmaster (subjects: Latin, Greek, History and Physical Training) who progressed up the professional ladder from school to school, town to town every two years or so, so that Elisabeth’s formal education was repeatedly interrupted. Her first school was at Liegnitz, and there at the age of seven she had her first music lessons, principally piano. She is grateful to this day that her teacher’s use of ‘TonikaDo’ – tonic sol-fa in English – made her read music very easily from the start.
She was a bright child, and remembers that it was only during the year when she was in her father’s class that she had poor marks, for he felt that he had to be over-severe. Moving from school to school sometimes made her jump a class and miss parts of the regular school syllabus – she never did catch up, she says, on French grammar and Chemistry, and at one period in Wahlstatt, between the ages of 9 and 12, she was the only girl in a boys’ school – a tough training. She played the glockenspiel in the boys’ band, and there too she remembers a music teacher, who composed the score for a school opera based on the Hans Anderson story involving a Chinese nightingale. The characters wore masks, and only the nightingale had a human face, while Elisabeth, who in most productions automatically had the female lead but who here was relegated to the orchestra, played the piano. She remembers ‘the very ghostly silky effect faking a cembalo, produced by threading parchment paper through the piano strings’ – quite an advanced effect for the time.
Exceptionally at that school the choir sang madrigals (folk songs were the more normal fare in German schools), but she struck lucky again when the family moved to Magdeburg, and Elisabeth went to a girls’ school. She heard her first opera, Aida. There too she sang madrigals, and took the principal part in an opera of Haydn, Lo speziale, translated into German as Der Apotheker. In her early teens she came to England one summer for three months on a League of Nations exchange. She stayed with a family in Leicester, then cycled with her schoolmates round Britain, seeing the sights and visiting schools who shared in the scheme. The German and English students sang songs and madrigals at each other. They carried their tents with them, and ‘lived on porridge’. (‘Imagine what happened to our figures’, comments Elizabeth.) Her most indelible impressions were of Winchester Cathedral, Oxford, Cambridge and surprisingly, Whipsnade Zoo.
Elisabeth’s father was finally promoted to be headmaster of a school at Kottbus. During the late 1920s he joined the Social Democratic party. As soon as Hitler came to power, along with other Social Democratic teachers who had opposed the Nazis he was dismissed and had to find a post in Berlin, where they lived on a much reduced income at a time when Elisabeth was hoping to start university. She was uncertain whether to study medicine or singing, but as she says in one of her understatements, ‘fortunately the voice was good enough’. She was lucky at this point in being the only child, the undivided concern of her parents both of them forceful characters. To the end of their lives they more than kept their end up against the formidable man who was to become their son-in-law.
Elisabeth’s father was an obsessed humanist. His classical studies were at the root of the family’s philosophy. During the Second World War he was given the grim job of identifying and supervising the burial and informing the bereaved of the war dead in field on the Russian front. Later he volunteered to work on the preparation of the war blinded for further education. He kept his humanist faith, and never lost his sense of purpose. After the War the American occupation forces put him in charge of the denazification court in Hessen.
Both parents encouraged their daughter’s love of music. She studied the piano, viola and organ as well as singing. Her mother was her severest critic. When later a teacher seemed to be harming Elisabeth’s voice, Frau Schwarzkopf was the first to detect it and insisted on a change. It was just when the family was facing difficulties after her father’s demotion that Elisabeth was enrolled in 1934 at the Berliner Hochschule Musik, which has produced many of Germany’s most distinguished performers. Her first teacher there was Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, a famous Lieder singer and according to Legge ‘a good old hooter’. Mysz-Gmeiner was already nearing the end of her singing career, and Elisabeth heard only one recital by her, remembering in particular her rendering of Schubert’s Erlkönig. She was not the right teacher. Mysz-Gmeiner had it firmly in mind that Elisabeth was a contralto like herself. The pupil did not at first resist, relating the vocal sound she was making to that of the instrument she loved playing, the viola – and Amneris.
After 18 months Elisabeth’s mother came to the rescue, knowing even as an amateur that something must be wrong with production which after five minutes’ singing left the voice hoarse. Elisabeth’s next teacher was married to a ballet dancer, from whom she took valuable ballet lessons, which proved more useful than the husband’s singing instruction. He thought of his pupil as potentially a high soprano, and his methods did not suit her. But at least he did teach Elisabeth something of the physical basis of singing – the use of the diaphragm. At the opera classes of the Scharwenka Konservatorium she prematurely studied Agathe in Der Freischütz and even Sieglinde in Die Walküre. It was Agathe’s first aria that she sang at her audition at the Stadtische Oper in Berlin. She was at once given a beginner’s contract, and had to learn and take over as a Flower maiden in the Good Friday performance of Parisfal the following day (Easter 1938). She had never seen the score or a performance of Parsifal, and had never been near a theatre dressing-room. ‘I can’t imagine how I learnt the part overnight, but I did’, she reports, ‘and I got screamed at by the other Flower maidens, because I whistled my music in the dressing-room, which shocked my colleagues because in German theatres whistling is superstitiously believed to bring bad luck’. Throughout the performance she kept her eyes glued on the conductor (Artur Rother) and somehow managed to move with her colleagues of the herbaceous border.
She was already a member of the professional chorus which in 1937 sang in Beecham’s classic recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and innumerable semi-professional singing engagements. This choir’s repertoire was formidable, made up as it was of some of the most talented singers of the rising generation. Elisabeth as a soloist was frequently engaged on radio and experimental television. Of the Zauberflöte sessions Elisabeth remembers her awe at being in company with Tiana Lemnitz and Erna Berger. Of Beecham she remembers relatively little, and nothing at all of the young recording manager who was one day to play a vital part in her career and who had himself prepared the whole cast for the recording.
One of her first roles was a page in Tannhäuser (‘I must have been rather slimmer then and I did have good legs’), and later in the same opera as the boy shepherd. In that role, from very far back on a large stage, she had to produce every note appreciably sharp to counteract the effect of distance. For nearly two years she sang every page boy role in the theatre’s repertoire. At the Stadtische Oper Rother gave her the role of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Though she had not yet worked at coloratura agility, she sang six performances. Her colleague, Karl Schmitt-Walter who sang Arlecchino, then one of Germany’s most distinguished baritones, was full of admiration for the feat, but told her frankly: ‘It’s such a pity – you should learn to sing’. He advised her to go to Maria Ivogün as the only teacher in Berlin who might help. Ivogün who had been one of the great coloraturas of her day always chose her pupils carefully. Weeks passed before she was confident of the young singer she had accepted. But after some months there was no holding back. Occasionally Ivogün telephoned Elisabeth in the middle of the night to suggest some solution to a particular technical problem that had just occurred to her. The three weekly lessons, officially 45 minutes each, often stretched to three hours a time. Starting from four or five notes which already carried the natural Schwarzkopf sound as we now know it, she extended them upwards and downwards until the whole range was consistent and the voice agile. Ivogün’s husband, Michael Raucheisen, the great German accompanist of his day and one-time piano partner of Fritz Kreisler, also helped to develop the young singer, guiding her and later accompanying her in recitals.
She was ambitious and plainly progressing fast, when with the war at its height, her career suffered what at the time looked like a most serious setback. She had been promised Adele in Die Fledermaus but when the performance was announced as a ‘gala’ the part was given to a senior colleague. Elisabeth was furious. She refused to sing Ida (which was her usual part in the operetta) and was promptly accused of ‘sabotage in war-time’ by her director, the once-great Munich baritone Wilhelm Rode. She was arraigned at the Ministry of Propaganda. The charge was serious enough for her father to be fetched from the Russian front. Largely thanks to the intervention of Ivogün and Raucheisen she was acquitted, but her recitals, of which she had already given one at the Beethovensaal, were no longer allowed to be advertised. Thanks to word of mouth and to Elisabeth’s growing reputation, four recitals were packed out. At the opera too she was more and more appreciated. By this time Karl Böhm had already heard about her, and in November 1942 he invited her to an audition in Vienna. Blondchen’s aria went well, but she muffed the high D at the end of Zerbinetta’s aria. She feared the worst but in spite of that she was given a contract to start at the Vienna State Opera the following summer.
Now came a major crisis. Having spent long nights in damp air-raid shelters in Berlin, she developed tuberculosis. Ivogün and Raucheisen again came to her aid, and managed to get her into a sanatorium in the Tatra mountains, now in Czechoslovakia, a thousand metres up. She went there in April 1943, expecting to be well again in three months, in good time to take up her contract in Vienna. In fact she had to stay a whole year, and it was not until spring 1944 that she at last sang at the Vienna State Opera. Even then misfortune dogged her, for within two months the opera house was closed. This time Raucheisen recruited her into the company of entertainers he had organized for the German equivalent of ENSA. They would give up to a dozen concerts a week at factories and army units. The young soprano generally sang Solveig’s Song and arrangements of Strauss waltzes, though she managed also to include arias of Lucia, Frau Fluth (Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor) and Gilda in her touring repertory. They even gave concerts behind Germany’s Eastern Front in the depths of winter, with conditions growing steadily worse. She went back to Vienna to give a recital in the Konzerthaus for factory workers.
The war in Europe was coming to an end. Her father had had to return to the Russian front and he advised his wife and daughter that if things got worse, they should try to make for the Salzkammergut. They finally arrived at Attersee, where one of Elisabeth’s former colleagues from the Vienna Opera had a house. To their relief he actually welcomed them, for it saved him from having less agreeable refugees billeted on him. More help, characteristically warm-hearted, came from Kathe Dorsch, the great actress, whose other refugees at the time included Karl Böhm and his wife. Elisabeth and her mother had quarters over a chicken-run.
Soon the Americans arrived and this time Max Lorenz, Schwarzkopf’s tenor colleague, came to her help. From among members of the Vienna Opera Company he chose singers to do concerts for American troops. For a CARE parcel Elisabeth and her colleagues would sing to audiences even less used to classical music than those in the war factories. To the inevitable Strauss waltzes in her repertory she added ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. She went to Salzburg, and with the Mozarteum Orchestra sang in the market place of Sankt Johann im Tirol an open-air concert – Mozart’s Exultate, jubilate and Strauss’s Voices of Spring.
This was the time when they were grateful to have the chance of eating even horse meat. When in the summer of 1945 Elisabeth had her first real engagement in Graz with Weber, Patzak and Cebotari in Flederrnaus and Entführung, it seemed like a breakthrough. By November she managed to get back to Vienna in a jeep with her mother, and the first music she sang there was the Verdi Requiem in the Musikvereinsaal. Even then the going was not smooth. She learned Nedda (Pagliacci) for performances at the Volksoper and her first Vienna new production was Constanze in Entführung at the Theater an der Wien. As a German she was prevented for a while from giving scheduled performances. Only when guest singers had failed to arrive was she allowed to appear, singing in Rigoletto, Traviata, Bohème, and Turandot (as Liù), as well as in Barbiere.
In every sense Schwarzkopf’s whole career was transformed by the appearance of Walter Legge. Not immediately of course – her insistence on an audition added to the delay – but within a very few months. The upheaval of war could easily have destroyed the budding talent. As it was, Legge more than anyone ensured that her career, so far from fading, was about to expand more brilliantly than she had ever dreamed.
It was not until October 1953 that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Walter Legge married, but from her first memorable audition onwards, the partnership was the dominating factor in her development. Neither of them could have been busier. Legge, having founded the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1945, was pushing forward the unique recording programme inspired by the spectacular list of artists he had contracted to EMI. As well as producing all recordings of the artists he had engaged and the EMI recordings at La Scala with Callas, he was shuttling between London and the principal musical centres of Europe, with two or three trips a year to the USA. He was also planning and supervising some 30 concerts a year at the Royal Albert Hall, and later the Royal Festival Hall, for his Philharmonia Concert Society. Schwarzkopf herself was now a rare guest in Vienna but was spending four or five months a year giving recitals in the USA and singing opera at San Francisco and Chicago.
‘For most things, and of course for recording, my husband had all the say’, Elisabeth explains, and anyone taking a superficial view might suspect that here is a case of Svengali and Trilby. It is of course far more complex than that, for as an interpreter Schwarzkopf is every bit as positive and creative in her preparation as her admirers infer. What Legge did was to provide a unique challenge. Just as Ivogün had challenged the young singer to develop a consistent and individual tone-colour, so Legge projected her emergent artistry further, gave it the spur needed for supreme success.
As we can hear from some of Schwarzkopf’s very early records, the voice as Ivogün left it was consistent but of a lighter quality than emerged later. Her roles after all included such coloratura parts as Zerbinetta and Rosina. Legge’s intensive coaching was directed to two principal ends. Firstly, without disturbing the vocal technique instilled by Ivogün, Legge developed the timbre of the voice still further. He also developed Schwarzkopf’s interpretative awareness on very much the lines he had employed at the first audition of ‘Wer rief dich denn?’.
‘I guided my wife’s voice by the examples of at least six great sopranos – all recorded – and many instrumentalists’, Walter Legge once said to me, and at the time I took it as a pardonable exaggeration. But since then, having many times seen them working together (Elisabeth necessarily standing up to Legge, the implacable task-master – as obviously he wants her to) I can believe the essential truth. As Legge has described it: ‘I set out to widen by recorded examples her imaginative concept of the possibilities of vocal sound. Rosa Ponselle’s vintage port and thick cream timbre and noble line; the Slavic brilliance of Nina Koshetz, a few phrases from Farrar’s Carmen, whose insinuations were later reflected in Schwarzkopf’s ‘Im chambre separée’; one word only from Melba, ‘Bada’ in ‘Donde lieta’; some Rethberg and large doses of Meta Seinemeyer to show how essentially Teutonic voices can produce brilliant Italianate sound. Then Lehmann’s all-embracing generosity, Schumann’s charm and lightness, McCormack’s incredible octave leap in ‘Care sleve’, Frida Leider’s dramatic tension – all these were nectar and ambrosia for Schwarzkopf’s musical appetite. Instrumentalists too: Fritz Kreisler for the dark beauty of his tone, his nobility and elegance, his vitality in upbeats, his rubato and cavalier nonchalance; Schnabel for concentrated thinking over long musical periods, firmly rhythmical, seemingly oblivious to bar lines’.
Under her EMI contract Schwarzkopf’s first sessions in the recording studio were – rather surprisingly – devoted to English songs, including, she remembers, When daisies pied. Her English was already good (her visit as a schoolgirl to Leicester had been an enormous help), but Legge patiently coached her in pronunciation. In a way that concentration on analysing precise details of sound in English words helped to develop their joint analysis of musical and interpretative points too.
Her first record with Karajan, Constanze’s ‘Martern aller Arten’ from Entführung, she rejected because the final top C went a shade sharp. Subsequently it was pirated, and issued under the name of Cebotari! The next year Karajan conducted the first-ever complete recording of Brahms’s German Requiem with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Singverein and with Hans Hotter as the other soloist.
Among Schwarzkopf’s greatest triumphs of the period were her first appearances at Salzburg in 1947 as the Countess in Figaro with Karajan. Furtwängler was another conductor with whom she sang the part. Soon she added Donna Elvira which became one of her supreme interpretations. Another step in her career was marked by her appearance in Salzburg in a star-studded performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, singing Marzelline to the Leonore of Flagstad and the Florestan of Patzak, with Furtwängler conducting. She also sang Brahms’s Requiem at the Lucerne Festival of 1947, with the same baritone soloist as in the recording, Hans Hotter, but with a different conductor, Furtwängler.
Schwarzkopf’s London debut. The role was Marzelline in Fidelio, then Donna Elvira, and already it was clear, with the career expanding so rapidly, that here was one of the most important singers of the post-war generation. We sometimes forget that Schwarzkopf joined the Covent Garden company for three years, devoted as it was at that time to singing opera in English. Her roles included Pamina, Violetta, Mimì, Susanna, and once Gilda, and it was at Covent Garden that she gave her only performances as Manon in Massenet’s opera and Butterfly. There she also sang her first Eva in Meistersinger.
Walter Legge was not the only one who directly influenced her career. Furtwängler continued to give her many of her most important opportunities to shine on the international concert platform, and in 1951 at the re-opening of Bayreuth, it was Schwarzkopf who sang in the inaugural performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a recording of which was later issued on disc, and Eva in Die Meistersinger in Karajan’s Bayreuth performance. With Walter Legge she met Toscanini at his Italian home; and sitting side by side soprano and husband were made to sing Mozart following the mastero’s beat as he hypnotized them with the first finger of his right hand.
In 1951 Schwarzkopf sang in the first performance of Stravinsky’s new opera, The Rake’s Progress in Venice. The composer had himself asked for her to take on what in effect is a neo-Mozartian role. It was with Schwarzkopf in mind that Walton wrote his great romantic opera, Troilus and Cressida. Sadly she never sang the role of the heroine on stage, but a recording of excerpts was made to show what might have been. In 1951 too came one of her proudest moments of all, when she, a German soprano, was chosen by the conductor, Victor de Sabata, as soloist alongside three of the greatest Italian singers of the day – Stignani, di Stefano and Siepi – in the performance of the Verdi Requiem at La Scala which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.
It was at La Scala in the 1951-2 season that Schwarzkopf first accepted the challenge of a role that has since become inseparably associated with her, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. At Covent Garden and elsewhere she had already been singing the part of Sophie, and changing over to the Marschallin spelled an important step forward, dramatically as well as vocally. With Karajan at La Scala Schwarzkopf also appeared in a wide range of roles, including Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, her only Elsas, Mistress Ford, Pamina as well as Donna Elvira. With Karajan too she sang in the world premiere of Orff’s Trionfi d’ Afrodite, and with Cantelli as Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte – his only operatic performances. Maybe surprisingly, also at La Scala, Schwarzkopf sang Melisande in Debussy’s opera under de Sabata. With Rodzinski she even sang Marguerite in Faust, but as her husband has commented, ‘she like Goethe sank without trace’. She also sang in Handel’s Hercules. She was nothing if not versatile.
Her reputation – from Elvira onwards but particularly after her Marschallin – had developed into that of a singing actress, not just the possessor of a beautiful voice, and it was just at this time that she and Legge became friendly with another great singing actress, Maria Callas. Legge heard Callas’s first Norma in Rome. During the years when in EMI recordings at La Scala and elsewhere Legge was recording Callas in many of her greatest roles, Schwarzkopf was sometimes present as friend.
The physical act of singing is something that Schwarzkopf is acutely aware of – the more keenly when Ivogün made up for her earlier lack of such training. It was one of the points of immediate understanding with another great singer to whom Legge introduced her, Kirsten Flagstad. In the early 1950s there came a point when Legge’s intention was to record Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with Flagstad as the heroine and Furtwängler conducting. At the time Furtwängler, jealous of the success of Karajan and Legge’s sponsorship of him, did not relish the prospect of working with Legge. He agreed to record Tristan, but without Legge. Flagstad by contrast said she would not record Tristan unless Legge took part. She had already stipulated that she wanted Elisabeth to sing the top Cs for her – a course that had already been adopted in the Siegfried love duet. As the world knows, the recording did get made, and it was Legge who directed the sessions.
The very process of recording, quite apart from Legge’s detailed commenting, was important in Schwarzkopf’s development as an artist. She remembers being disconcerted when an early take was ‘all swoops’, and she learnt the lesson at once. Tempo on records is not always the same as in a vast concert hall. On record too, she points out, it is possible to do everything with the voice to the absolute limit. ‘It is more difficult on stage, when you have to sing so much for audibility. You haven’t always a Karajan, a Szell or a Furtwängler in the pit’ – three conductors who in the Schwarzkopf book have been models of consideration to singers.
‘Looking back’, Schwarzkopf says, ‘recording sessions have been the happiest times of my life – not just working and rehearsing but hearing the results as well. It is like sculpting and painting in music’. Hearing playbacks has been vital to her. ‘I know that many singers sing from the feel of the sound alone, but I’ve never sung that way. I’ve always sung from what I’ve heard’. When it comes to refining her interpretations from playback, the wear and tear on her scores has often been fearsome. After a session they would be covered with dozens of hieroglyphics crammed almost on top of one another in various coloured pencillings, so close that she alone could read their meaning. Arrows stabbed over notes indicate where she had gone sharp or flat in a take, and warn her not to repeat the error. Vertical strokes indicate where she wants by a whisker to anticipate the beat or hold it back in a later take. The energy with which she searches for perfection is invariably registered by the depth of indentation – sometimes perforations – by the pencil strokes. Schwarzkopf recalls the many times during Legge’s great years as international producer for EMI’s Columbia label, when opera sets with the Philharmonia were being prepared. Karajan in particular was meticulous in supervising all the piano rehearsals with the pianist and repetiteurs, Heinrich Schmidt and Antonio Tonini. The singers would all make their ways to the Legges’ house in Hampstead, and there in the drawing room the performance would be minutely prepared, before a single member of the orchestra had played a note. As a rule the actual sessions would be down at Kingsway Hall. Legge would accept EMI’s No 1 Studio at Abbey Road only reluctantly as a substitute, though one of Karajan’s classic sets was made there – Cosi fan tutte with Schwarzkopf, Merriman, Otto, Simoneau, Panerai and Bruscantini. Of particular occasions Schwarzkopf remembers vividly the first day of the sessions on Strauss’s Capriccio with Sawallisch conducting. Only hours before, Dennis Brain had been killed driving back overnight from the Edinburgh Festival, and the sessions became almost valedictory in tribute to a colleague whose horn-playing in Strauss (witness the Karajan Rosenkavalier set as well as the concertos) was without equal. Alan Civil acquitted himself nobly.
In more recent years I myself remember in particular a classic session, when with George Szell conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and with Fischer-Dieskau as the other soloist, Schwarzkopf recorded Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Back once again in Kingsway Hall, Legge took up his characteristic position in the basement control room, imposing on a dais, puffing on his cigar. More than any other producer I have ever seen at work, Legge by his very presence tells you that any session is a great occasion. That in my experience has invariably been so. It lies, I feel, at the very heart of Legge’s unique qualities as a promoter of fine recordings, and Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Szell was classic even among those.
Schwarzkopf remembers on another occasion at a rehearsal with Szell that confidentially in the middle he said to her: ‘For heaven’s sake breathe, breathe! Make an expression out of it’. His understanding of the technical problems of musicians around him was often uncanny, and here he had spotted Schwarzkopf’s concern over a particular breath. ‘When I was young’, she explains, ‘I had a very long breath. Taking an extra breath has sometimes latterly become a necessity – especially as I have had to rely more on my middle voice, which uses more breath’.
When I once asked Schwarzkopf what her favourite among her records was, she was rather at a loss. We both put forward the claims of her operatic recital record, ‘Romantic Heroines’, containing arias from Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Der Freischütz. That, she and Legge both agreed, was among the finest, and their affection for it was protectively increased by its relative lack of commercial success, partly the result of a crude sleeve design. By any standards it reveals Schwarzkopf’s art in the late 1950s at its very peak.
Immediately before that came Schwarzkopf’s great Strauss opera records – Ariadne auf Naxos as well as Rosenkavalier with Karajan and Capriccio with Sawallisch – not to mention the Karajan version of Cosi fan tutte, fascinatingly contrasted with her later, equally commanding account under Böhm. There are also the great operetta records – Karajan’s mono version of Die Fledermaus, Wiener Blut, Eine Nacht in Venedig, Der Zigeunerbaron and the two versions of Die lustige Witwe, as well as the superlative operetta recital record, recently refurbished – all of them making one marvel that in fact Schwarzkopf has never sung operetta in the theatre since her Berlin days.
Of the later records, made since Walter Legge retired from EMI in 1964 (except for his wife’s recordings), the ones I would first single out are those made with Szell, not merely Des Knaben Wunderhorn but the recordings of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and orchestrated Lieder with the Berlin Radio Symphony as well as other Strauss songs recorded with the LSO in London. When it comes to Lieder proper, Schwarzkopf’s records merit a book on their own, reflecting as they do directly the unique, almost ritual, occasions that her recitals have become in the world’s great centres of music. In Wolf’s Kennst du das Land for example, the greatest of all Lieder, it is fascinating to contrast Schwarzkopf’s studio recording of 1959 and the very different interpretation made in 1967 at Gerald Moore’s Farewell. This shows typical development, the later version darker with the climax made more intense. Latterly too the series of ‘Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Song Books’ has been nicely judged to convey the essence of a Schwarzkopf recital, notably the sparkle of the encores. For myself I am specially fond of one of the most recent in the series in which a sequence of seven Brahms songs ranges in microcosm over the whole emotional gamut of that composer’s songs. Each one is unerringly characterized and contrasted from the veiled legato of Immer leiser, the innocent child-like tone of Sandmannchen, the eye-sparkling brightness of Die Jäger, the biting wistfulness of Liebestreu with the mother and daughter vividly alive, to the open and laughing manner of the two light-hearted serenades at the end.
Can Schwarzkopf’s secret be explained? To ask that of any great artist is normally impossible, and even such a self-analyst as Schwarzkopf found it hard to answer me. It is not, she insisted, a question of her seeking to communicate to a particular individual or even to a particular audience. ‘Singing needs too much concentration for that’. Rather she wants to re-create the interpretation that she had relived when she last rehearsed. ‘If you ask me what the magic is’, she said, ‘I think it is that people really listen to my singing’. It is good news that plans are afoot to bring out unissued and other classic material from EMI’s archives for a Schwarzkopf retrospective series.
And though the American farewells have been made, nothing of the sort is being lined up in Europe. ‘Every concert may be my last’, she says. ‘One can never tell at my age. But I want it to be a particularly good one’.