Thursday, August 03, 2006

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf

The soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf died today.

Schwarzkopf (or "Betty Blackhead" as some call her, based on the English translation of her name) was is also one of the most-recorded singers of all time, because her husband, Walter Legge, was the head of artists & repertoire for the classical recording giant EMI. (Though he was an Englishman, Legge was a Germanophile who built EMI up by signing a number of German artists who were being semi-boycotted by other companies after the war: Schwarzkopf, Herbert Von Karajan, and William Furtwangler among others.) From 1953 through the early '60s Legge gave Schwarzkopf the lead roles in many of EMI's big operatic recordings. As a specialist in Mozart and Richard Strauss, she of course recorded Fiordiligi, the Countess, Ariadne, and the Marschallin; but she also got to record Gretel in Hansel and Gretel (with Karajan), Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus (also with Karajan) and even roles that she wouldn't have done on stage, like Liรน in Puccini's Turandot. She even did cameo appearances on recordings she wasn't technically participating in; when Legge recorded Tristan Und Isolde with Kirsten Flagstad, he had Schwarzkopf sing a few high Cs that Flagstad could no longer reach.

Her style of singing was a point of some controversy, and makes her one of those singers you either love or hate. It's hard to describe, but it sort of sounded like she was letting her interpretation of a piece be shaped by the words, instead of the notes. Depending on what the words were about, she would shade her voice differently, croon or bark certain passages for emphasis; even if a melody was being repeated, if the words were different, she would respond to that and sing the melody somewhat differently. Her style was similar to the emphasize-every-word style of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with whom she made several recordings.

Her way of singing, especially her tendency to croon instead of singing full-out -- something which may have been a way of disguising weak spots in her voice, particularly since she herself admitted that her voice was basically a small-sized one, too small for some of the roles she sang -- has been described as "mannered," and it can sometimes sound downright unmusical, as if she doesn't care much about actually making the melody sound beautiful. I'll admit that I don't care much for most of her recordings; I think a more sheerly musical, sensual way of singing is better-suited to most of these roles. But I will admit that her emphasis on words and dramatic timing has its own pleasures sometimes; in The Marriage of Figaro, when the Countess fumbles and stumbles while trying to make up an excuse to her husband ("Lo vieta... lo vieta...") Schwarzkopf really understands that the fumbling and stumbling is built into the music and works it into her interpretation of that music; other singers just treat it as a meaningless series of repeated notes, without conveying the dramatic reason for the repetition. Schwarzkopf, whatever her mannerisms, understands the why of the music.

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