Joseph Schmidt - (The) Ultraphon Recordings
With a taste for tenors and no previous experience of this particular one, you might be likely on hearing the first sound of him in these recordings to say ‘And where has this voice been all my life?’. It is rich and romantic, seemingly powerful though easy and unforced, with a good ring on top and a somewhat husky tone (not unattractive) in its descent. There is nothing Germanic about it, though Austrian perhaps by association with Richard Tauber. Schmidt came from what is now Ukraine. He carried a Romanian passport and if asked about his nationality would say ‘I am a Jew’. The tragedy of his life, or rather of the fate which led to his early death in a Swiss internment camp in 1942, lay in that. A tragedy for his art lay in his shortness of stature – at something probably under five foot he had no chance of pursuing am operatic career, and it was on radio, record and film that he made his name.
His story is well told in the notes to this double-CD album, well illustrated too with photographs and memorabilia including reproductions of two blue Telefunken labels. At the time of recording, the company was known as Ultraphon, and the series in its original form is the rarest and probably the most prized of Schmidt’s output. They used the hall of a Berlin nightclub, the Marienaue, and were noted for what was advertised as their ‘Raumton’, or acoustic with space to it. We still don’t know for certain how ample Schmidt’s voice was (surviving accounts differ), but it certainly reproduced wonderfully well. Irrespective of ‘size’ his singing had the unquestionable merits of a good legato, fluency and control. Striking incidental features are the brilliance of his cadenzas in ‘La donna è mobile’ and ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ and the trills he interpolates in that and (as written) in the aria from Il trovatore. He sings mostly in German, but occasionally in Italian which helps to free him from a tendency to overmuch nasal concentration. In expressiveness he can capture gaiety, sadness, tenderness, but I rarely find that kind of inner tension or dramatic conviction which distinguishes the truly great operatic tenors. A gem of a record, and one of the best here, is his duet from The Bartered Bride with Michael Bohnen.
This is a fine edition, though I have to point out that another exists on Pearl, also a two-disc set, omitting only two alternative ‘takes’ and adding a few desirable items from other sources. The Pearl transfers are very clear; those on Teldec have more body.