The Plaintive Last Song of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

The years were not kind to soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died yesterday at the age of 90. When she retired in the mid-1970s, she was an all-but-universally-adored diva -- a beautiful and enormously popular opera star, a revered interpreter of German art song, a central figure in some of the most celebrated recordings of the mid-20th century.

The revelation, in 1983, of her long-ago membership in the Nazi Party -- which she entered Jan. 26, 1940, while an aspiring young singer in Berlin -- came as a shock to many of her admirers. ("Everybody at the opera joined," she told the New York Times. "We thought nothing of it. We just did it.") And her harshly imperious manner in the master classes she gave after retirement infuriated many of her gentler colleagues. She terrified the young Renee Fleming, among others.

Moreover, styles of classical singing had changed, and some listeners found themselves agreeing with the late critic B.H. Haggin, who once complained of Schwarzkopf's "excessively mannered and affected phrasing and expressive hamming, exaggerated pouting, archness, gasps and whispers." The cliche about the forest and the trees could be adapted for Schwarzkopf: There were times when one could hardly hear the music for the interpretation.

Nevertheless, she was a very great artist, one who combined a lustrous and opulent voice, a thespian's gift for intimate characterization, a sharp, creative intelligence and an innate artistic dignity. Within the past two years, the music world has lost Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Angeles, Birgit Nilsson and Anna Moffo, all sopranos who blazed brightly in the 1950s and 1960s on early LP and stereo recordings; now, with Schwarzkopf's death, an era seems well and truly at an end.

It was, after all, through recordings that most of these artists won most of their audience. With the advent of recording tape and then the long-playing disc in the late 1940s, it suddenly became possible to capture complete performances of favorite (and sometimes not-so-favorite) operas in resplendent sound and convenient packaging. Carting old 78 rpm recordings around required the strength of an athlete: A single Wagner opera might weigh 25 pounds, and you had to change discs every four or five minutes. The LP could contain upward of 20 minutes to a side, and most opera sets weighed in at less than a pound.

So the record companies began an unprecedented expansion of the repertory, with albums that won enormous attention and steady sales, that have never gone out of print and that are still available on CD. Nobody was better placed to benefit from this new activity than Schwarzkopf, who was married to the all-powerful Walter Legge, then artistic director of EMI Records. He guided and guarded her career with obsessive devotion, and we are the richer for their collaborations -- complete recordings of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Cosi Fan Tutte," Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, the "German Requiem" of Johannes Brahms, Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg," "Der Rosenkavalier," "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "Capriccio" by Richard Strauss, and countless songs, notably those of Hugo Wolf.

In the early 1950s, Schwarzkopf became the center of a heated musical controversy when it was revealed that she had dubbed two youthful high C's to a recording of "Tristan und Isolde" by the aging Kirsten Flagstad, who was having difficulties with her upper register. The substitution was carefully accomplished and nobody would have likely found out about it had it not been for the voracious hunger for gossip within the opera world. Purists were scandalized -- they thought the whole thing smacked of fakery. The pianist Glenn Gould thought otherwise: He considered the loan of the two C's a professional courtesy from one artist to another, all to the creation of a more perfect "Tristan."

The best evaluation of Schwarzkopf remains that of the English critic J.B. Steane in his invaluable book "The Great Tradition": "The thought and art are so marvelously exact that one wants to call them calculated, which immediately suggests something unfeeling and insincere; yet this is self-evidently absurd, for insincerity, like sentimentality, betrays itself by inexactness and distortion. What one has in Schwarzkopf is a high degree of awareness -- of colors and styles, and of the existence of choice."

Schwarzkopf made two recordings of Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs" for soprano and large orchestra -- holy music by any standards I know, brimming with life, love, longing, gratitude and, finally, a serene acceptance of approaching death. I'm sure that many other people besides myself played one of these performances yesterday, after hearing the news. (I chose the one conducted by George Szell.) She owned this music. In one of Terrence McNally's plays, one vocal aficionado challenges another: "Which 'Four Last Songs' do you like? Schwarzkopf or Schwarzkopf?"

The question still applies.

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