The Young Lotte Lehmann
So how young is 'young'? Lehmann was born in 1888 and made her debut in 1910. We hear her first on these records in 1914: just two items—the voice sharply etched—on Pathe, made in the year of her British debut, when at London's Drury Lane under Beecham she created no great impression as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. The main sequence of recordings began in 1916 as did her spectacular career in Vienna. Then, with some breaks (nothing from 1918, 1922 and 1923), we go through to 1924, when at Covent Garden she sang her first Marschallin on stage, making history and her house debut at the same time. She was then 36.
In fact, the set should probably be called 'The Vocal Prime of Lotte Lehmann'. She had of course a long-lasting career after that; her voice survived, a little worn and reduced in range but still sturdy and steady, till retirement in 1951, and her best-known operatic recordings (the HMV Rosenkavalier and first two acts of Die Walkure) were made in her mid and late forties. But these earlier records collected here have a freshness of tone, a joyful freedom on the high notes of the lyric soprano's range, and the adaptability to move from the low tessitura and dramatic style of Sieglinde's narrative to the tender lyricism of Massenet's Manon or Puccini's Angelica, then back again to ''Ozean, du Ungeheuer'' and on to provide the delicacy of touch appropriate to Mozart's Susanna and Cherubino. The flexibility of voice also manifests itself in scale-work, and in the fine cadenza closing the aria from La juive. Her trill is in good working order, she can float a quiet top A as at the end of ''Senza mamma'', and though she had problems with breath-control she can still manage skilfully in such testing pieces as the Freischutz arias.
Now of course at this point, with many singers, one would have to change key, go into the minor, and report that, though this may have been the vocal prime, interpretative maturity still lay in the future, and that for artistic satisfaction one would have to turn to the well-known recordings of later years. Actually, that would be conspicuously untrue. There were indeed things that came out more vividly in the electrical recordings—the phrases about the ''Nachtigall und Grille'' in Der Freischutz for instance. But generally these early versions are themselves wonderfully expressive. The fun of Nicolai's merry wife is just as characterful here as in the more familiar 1932 recording (EMI, 10/88) and the Marschallin's monologue has already profound understanding in its variety of shading and warmth of affection. Her feeling for the shape of a verse, as in Mignon's ''Connais-tu le pays?'', is unerring, as is the emotional colouring of Desdemona's voice in the Willow Song or Manon's in her farewell. Then there is that gem of a duet from Die Meistersinger with Michael Bohnen, where the strong personalities of both singers enjoy a wonderfully spontaneous interplay.
Transfers are good, though not of the sort that take the unsuspecting listener by storm—and that listener may need a reminder that these are, after all, pre-electrical recordings in which an orchestra usually sounds like anything but. Surfaces are unavoidable too, except in so far as you quickly learn to eliminate them from what you consciously hear. Most of the original copies are in fine condition: they are, moreover, exceedingly rare and one is very likely to go through life without coming across better ones.'