My modus operandi with music – and a lot of other things, I guess – is to hear something, get obsessed with it and listen to it over and over again until everyone I talk to is heartily sick of hearing about it. The thing I have been obsessed with the last week or two is this recording, or rather compilation of parts of other recordings, of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schubert, Schumann and Strauss songs.
Interpretation of operas, particularly I think of operas written before 1800 or so, has changed since the 1950s and 1960s. Everything looks a little different from the other side of the Great Historically Informed Performance Divide. But this doesn’t seem true to the same extent with songs. When I listened to this recording for the first time, the style seemed familiar. A lot of these songs I have heard before, performed by people who weren’t even born yet when Schwarzkopf made this recording. There doesn’t seem to be the same startling difference between “Gretchen am Spinnrade” performed in 1965 as opposed to 2005 as there is between, say, Ariodante performed in 1965 (to the extent that it was performed in 1965) and Ariodante in 2005.
And according to various sources of probably varying degrees of reliability, it turns out that the style of Lieder singing that I’m used to was a relatively new thing in the decades after WWII when Schwarzkopf was becoming known for it. Indeed, she’s partly responsible for it. And people used to complain! Along the lines of not being able to hear the song through all the interpretation. (But after all, it’s not art unless someone is bitching about it, right?) It makes me want to seek out some of this same material, but recorded in, say, the 1930s.
All that aside, I do like this recording for more than historical reasons. The first songs on it are of the Schubert “birdies!” variety (can I make a special request? can we arrange things such that whenever anyone rhymes “Fisch” with “frisch” I get to drop-kick a late-romantic German poet?) and my first impression as far as Schwarzkopf’s sound was that it was very chirpy and warbly. But I soon learned that this is a quality of the interpretation and not the voice. That youthful, almost chirpy sound returns later for the youthful narrator of Richard Strauss’s “Hat gesagt, bleibt’s nicht dabei.” I mean, you can hear that this song is about a young person even without reading or understanding the text – the singing is that communicative. In the meanwhile, there are some really wonderful changes in depth and color, e.g. the weightier sound she gives Schubert’s “Heidenröslein” or for the various characters in Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” I also particularly liked the silky weirdness of Strauss’s “Wie erkenn ich mein Treulieb vor andern nun?”
And isn’t odd that women singing songs where the narrator is assumed to be male do the same kind of thing to communicate this in the sound? I have a recording of Vesselina Kasarova singing some of these same songs, and the way she colors her voice to achieve the same end is distinct, but there’s a kind of family resemblance to it.