Ernestine Schumann-Heink Opera & Song Recital
Great artist, great woman. One feels a trifle sentenious writing the words, but truth is on their side. There is a well-known story of Blanche Marchesi—not normally the weepy sort—having to leave her box in the opera house because of the emotion that came over her at one of Schumann-Heink's last appearances. It is quite understandable, for by the end of this excellent selection of her recordings the special quality of her voice and artistry and of the woman herself could hardly leave the listener unmoved despite the great gap of time, with its differences of taste and its advances in technology, that has come in between.
She continues to astonish. With the depth of true contralto tone she combines the clarity and agility of a soprano. With the dramatic force of her Wagner, it is amazing that she had such a light, right touch for a bolero of Arditi or The Kerry Dance. Considering that she worked her voice so hard (she sang practically everything and every day in her early years, and at one performance of Gotterdammerung at the Metropolitan Opera in 1900 trebled up as Waltraute, a Norn and a Rhinemaiden), it is a wonder that she had any left to sing Erda in Siegfried at the age of 70. But more remarkable still is the character. Everything on these records has imagination and a loving commitment brought to it. The sheer vividness of her Prison scene in Le prophete or the Lucrezia Borgia Brindisi defies all the limitations of early recording; the story-telling in Der Erlkonig, the tenderness of Brahms's Wiegenlied, the smile and complete absence of self-consciousness or inhibition in I und mei bua, all are clear and immediate as in any modern recording, and (I come to think) a great deal more so than in many.
In this collection we meet her at the age of 45, follow her through the early fifties, catch up again at 60 and leave her at 68. It is quite possible that the gramophone never caught her in her prime; but, if so, what must that have been like!
Of course, the Nimbus transfers again come into question. There is some hall and horn resonance, but, since the Prima Voce series have met with severe criticism elsewhere on the grounds that they are in some way untruthful, perhaps I may quote a sentence from a letter I received recently from the States: ''I remember her voice just as it sounds on the CD''. The writer was Schumann-Heink's youngest grand-daughter, who heard her daily, still practising scales and exercises, and who played the piano for her to sing, probably for the last time, two days before she went into hospital and a fortnight before her death.'