The power of sentiment grows with age. Who’d have thought a report in last Friday’s Mercury, headlined ‘Soprano Legend Dies’, could reduce a hard-nosed reader such as myself to unforeseen tears?
The soprano was the German-born diva assoluta, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose death last Thursday at her home in Austria touched music lovers around the globe.
One of the greats of the 20th century’s cultural landscape, Schwarzkopf, at the height of her powers, exercised a spell-binding effect never forgotten by audiences lucky enough to have experienced her magic onstage.
She held a Durban City Hall audience enthralled throughout a taxing lieder programme heard during my student days. I recall as if it were yesterday that feeling of breathlessness lasting for suspended seconds before she appeared in all her glamour to cast that spell.
For good reason, she was known in the 50s and 60s as a sorceress of the opera stage, and her recitals remained legendary long after she’d retired from opera. British dramatist Terrence Rattigan’s dictum, ‘What makes magic is genius, and what makes genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains’, rings true with regard to Schwarzkopf.
In his wonderfully entertaining memoirs, Am I Too Loud?, her long-time partner Gerald Moore described the soprano as ‘the most cruelly self-critical person imaginable’, marking her scores with ‘arrows, stabs, slashes and digs’.
An early musical mentor of mine corroborated this impression with a first-hand account of a recording session she sat in on of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, when Schwarzkopf insisted on completing no less than sixteen takes of the Countess’s cavatina, Porgi amor, before she was satisfied.
Decades after those tracks were set down, the result of those ‘infinite pains’, along with the rest of her bench-mark performance, stand as a supreme testament to the divine fertility of Mozart’s and da Ponte’s creation, brought to full flower through the singer’s interpretive genius.
Time and again, Schwarzkopf takes you to the heart of the matter. This explains why her recorded legacy is here to stay: like her contemporary, Maria Callas, she ‘sells’ as vigorously today as she ever did during her 40-year career.
Her high-summer signature roles in Mozart, that heart rending Figaro Countess, her consummate, tragi-comic Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, her spine-tingling Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, these are uniquely rich interpretations. They are matched in Richard Strauss by her definitive Marschallin, Ariadne and Capriccio Countess, and by her indelible Four Last Songs with George Szell.
Her imagination is infinite, her word-painting uniquely evocative, creating a ‘visual’ illusion in sheer aural terms. Listen to Mozart’s miniature masterpiece, Die Alte K517, and marvel at how palpably she conjures the pernickety old woman. This magic pervades virtually all her ‘high-terrain’ repertoire, her Schubert, Wolf, Mahler, Brahms…
Then listen to the sorceress turning tinsel into gold, as she puts her unforgettable stamp on Danny Boy and Viennese schmaltz like Vilja or Im chambre séparée. Hear these and die happy.
In a tribute to the diva last week, Edward Greenfield, The Guardian’s music critic emeritus, wrote: ‘She was one of the greatest of all singers. She combined every quality you wanted in a great soprano.’ Here’s seconding that salute.
Classical Notes, The Mercury, 10 August 2006