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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 21 August 2006 —One of the 20th century’s most illustrious sopranos, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died at the beginning of August at the age of 90. She triumphed as a recitalist, never compromising in her programs, championing Hugo Wolf above all, who was not in most people’s top ten list.

 The Schwarzkopf glamour was an integral part of the package as we can see in various film clips made for the BBC that have surfaced recently. She was also an exceptional opera singer, even though her later operatic performances centered on only a few roles, most notably Mozart’s Countess, Elvira and Fiordiligi and Strauss’s Marschallin, with occasional excursions as Alice Ford. In her early years the repertoire was much wider, many roles sung in English at post-WW II Covent Garden, but the desire to focus on just a handful of roles allowed her to probe incessantly for meaning. And that is where her detractors enter into the fray, claiming that too often her performances lacked spontaneity. Anyone who saw her live, however, can testify that she took possession of the stage and could hold an audience enthralled—Cosi fan tutte in Salzburg and Chicago, Rosenkavalier in New York or on film, recitals in Carnegie Hall (far from ideal for a liederabend) were among the events I was privileged to witness. Schwarzkopf was always a hard worker as we know from her experiences with Maria Ivogun, but she more than met her match in Walter Legge, her husband and mentor. In their process of extracting every ounce from a piece, particularly for recording, we sometimes witness a meta-performance. And it was the work ethic that sometimes during master classes resulted in bitchiness directed at singers who clearly had not done their homework to her exacting standards. While not as voracious as her almost contemporary colleague, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose curiosity was amazingly wide-ranging, Schwarzkopf cultivated her personal garden with every tool at her disposal. Nothing can efface her influence on subsequent generations, though few—other than the diametrically opposed Elly Ameling—were the sopranos who brought the recital to such empyrean heights.

Among her large recorded legacy, I would especially recommend her first Cosi fan tutte conducted by Herbert von Karajan, her Marschallin on either audio or video, her Ariadne (never sung onstage), her Elvira and Countess (any recording), Madeleine in Strauss’s Capriccio and the many operettas recorded for EMI in the 50s.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Photo: © Faye
Photo courtesy of EMI Classics 

For lieder, I would suggest her Salzburg Wolf recitals, either with Wilhelm Furtwängler or Gerald Moore, other Wolf recorded with Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder (I have a weakness for the first recording with Otto Ackermann). She recorded Mozart with Walter Gieseking and Schubert with Edwin Fischer, though for some tastes her approach is considered too sophisticated for this music. Nor should we forget that the soprano also had her imperfections—by the late 60s vowel sounds were often reduced to an all-purpose umlaut —but we should not forget that all her recordings offer matter for reflection on the performer’s responsibility to composer and poet.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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