A Cornucopia of Great German Singing From 1925 to 1947

Maurice L. Richter

[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]

As part of Deutsche Grammophon’s Centenary Collection comes a five CD set of Great Voices of the Early Years, with recordings dating from 1925 to 1947. The remastering on almost all of these is superb. The album (459 066-2) is an interesting survey of some of the finest German singing of the era, containing some of its best voices in a mix of opera, operetta and lieder, all of them engaging and some of them unsurpassed.

On one fascinating CD, Peter Anders sings Schubert’s last song cycle, Winterreise, with Michael Raucheisen at the piano. Recorded in 1945 in Berlin while that great city lay in ruins as World War II wound down, this is a superb performance. Anders was Germany’s leading tenor at the time, and the intensely emotional performance may reflect the fact that frequent Allied air raids were interrupting the recording sessions. The recordings were part of Raucheisen’s enormous project to record Songs of the World with the greatest German lieder singers of the day — Tiana Lemnitz, Hans Hotter, Erna Berger, Emmi Leisner, Maria Müller, Karl Erb, Julius Patzak and the very young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, among others. The massive project, which remained incomplete because of the exigencies of the war, is a major contribution to the song literature, and Anders’ Winterreise is one of its finest gems. It is one of the most expressive, most harrowing of all recorded performances of the cycle, not really surpassed by any more modern one. Anders seems to live the songs as he sings them. There is a deep, immediate connection to the meaning of the words being sung. From the almost operatically heroic to the incredibly delicate, the beautiful voice captures the changing moods in their moment to moment reality, with a spontaneity and directness that are at times almost painful, so strong are the feelings Anders projects. His phrasing and enunciation are flawless, and Raucheisen is an equal partner at every moment, in a piano accompaniment of high intelligence, complete control and deep feeling.

Anders’ heroic opening of the first song, “Gute Nacht,” heralds a performance of great originality. The final song, “Der Leiermann,” is shattering. The emotional intensity is remarkably sustained through the entire cycle of songs in a truly great performance. Sadly, Anders was killed in an auto crash in 1954 at the age of forty-six.

Another disc in the album, entitled Lieder, begins with Leo Slezak’s performance of Brahms’ “Feldeinsamkeit.” There is some beautifully expressive sustained legato singing here, but at times Slezak’s phrasing is surprisingly choppy, and at those moments he loses the long, floating line of the music.

Heinrich Schlusnus then sings eight songs by Wolf, Schumann, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. His effortlessly produced, warmly lyrical baritone is very easy on the ears. All of Schlusnus’ singing is characterized by a warm, velvety sound, the smoothest legato and a fresh, open, ringing quality. Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” recorded in 1930, soars lyrically in a superb performance. This is followed by Beethoven’s “An Die Hoffnung,” recorded eight years later, the voice exhibiting a slight darkening and even greater power. Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is beautifully sung, but there is less individual characterization of the four voices — the narrator, the father, the child, and the Erl-king — than in many other recordings. The urgency that is beautifully captured in Franz Rupp’s piano accompaniment is somehow missing from the more placid vocal line. Finally, Mendelssohn’s famous “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” (“On Wings of Song”) is sung beautifully, but somewhat slowly in a performance that lacks intimacy and sweetness. At times it almost sounds inappropriately heroic. The problem here is that Schlusnus, though one of the greatest of all German singers, with firmness, grace and an easily produced voice of complete technical security, nevertheless provides somewhat generalized interpretations, in which there is insufficient focus on the meaning of individual words. But what glorious singing it is!

Heinrich Rehkemper was always an intelligent singer, and although his voice does not have the ringing quality of a Schlusnus, his performance of Schubert’s “Eifersucht und Stolz” from Die schöne Müllerin is an authoritative one.

Theodor Scheidl’s fine, warm baritone brings a dramatic interpretation of Liszt’s “Die drei Zigeuner,” and Josef von Manowarda provides a rich, smooth bass to Loewe’s “Meeresleuchten” and Wolf’s “Verborgenheit.” Though he sings the Wolf with admirable technical control, von Manowarda’s voice proves too heavy for the song, and the slow pace of the performance is ponderous.

Brahms’ “Wiegenlied” (“Cradle Song”) follows, sung by the silvery, girlish voice of Erna Berger, and Franz Völker then sings two songs of Richard Strauss — “Traum durch die Dämmerung” and “Allerseelen,” the latter a fine example of Völker’s lyrical art. He also performs Schubert’s “An die Musik” and “Der Musensohn.” “An die Musik,” though well sung, is too extroverted an interpretation, lacking somehow the intimate, very personal commitment other singers have brought to this great song.

The rich, warm, intimate voice of Tiana Lemnitz graces Schubert’s “Am Grabe Anselmus” and Wagner’s “Träume.” These two represent absolute perfection in singing, complete understanding and communication of the song texts. They are a high point of this disc and of lieder singing in general. The disc closes with Walther Ludwig bringing his special lyricism to two songs of Max Reger — “Des Kindes Gebet” and “Herzenstausch.”

These recordings provide a well-chosen sample of lieder singing in Germany from the late twenties through the early forties. The voices are beautifully captured, and Deutsche Grammophon’s remastering is truly fine.

Another CD of Wagner Scenes and Arias begins with Frida Leider’s 1925 recording of Kundry’s “Ich sah das Kind” from Parsifal. Considerable surface noise and some distortion mar the fine singing.

Next come some 1928 recordings by Leo Slezak, the most popular German tenor of the first decades of this century (and the father of Walter Slezak, the actor). Slezak uses his finely controlled mezza voce to great effect in “Im fernem Land” and “Mein lieber Schwan!” from Lohengrin, as well as the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger (of which Slezak made eleven versions from 1901 to 1931!). Slezak, though singing with distinction, occasionally loses steadiness when his voice is under pressure here. His phrasing does not flow as easily as one might want in this music, and his singing has an effortful quality at times. The golden timbre of the voice, however, makes up for some of the idiosyncrasies — Slezak was, after all, a great artist. The sound on these and on the remaining excerpts of the disc is quite fine for the time, and the disc has been beautifully remastered.

Theodor Scheidl sang the baritone repertory at the Berlin State Opera as well as the Bayreuth Festival. His moving rendition of Amfortas’ Lament from Parsifal dates from 1928 and is a gem. This is followed by a fine performance by Karin Branzell of Erda’s Warning (“Weiche, Wotan, weiche”) from Das Rheingold, also captured in 1928. Branzell, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera until 1946, was a true contralto, and her rich, steady voice and long, legato line here are admirable.

Highlights of this collection are examples of some of the greatest Wagner singing on record — Hans Hotter’s flawless, deeply moving portrayals of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, singing the “Fliedermonolog” and “Wahnmonolog” as well as his matchless delivery of the Dutchman’s monologue “Die Frist ist um” from Der fliegende Holländer. In the Meistersinger excerpts there is a marvelous nobility of line. Hotter’s powerful, extraordinarily expressive voice produces an overwhelming flood of sound in the “Fliedermonolog.”

A disc of Italian Opera Arias offers much pleasure, though some listeners may be put off by hearing familiar Italian lines sung (as most of these are) in German. It was the custom at the time of these recordings made in the late twenties, thirties and early forties (and even afterwards, through the early fifties) for opera in Germany to be performed in German, whatever the language of the original libretto. The ear easily adjusts to this once the initial surprise of consonant-laden German replaces the vowel-rich Italian.

The CD opens with the famed baritone Heinrich Schlusnus singing Verdi’s “Pari siamo!” and “Cortegiani, vil razza dannata” from Rigoletto. Schlusnus was a major artist, a light baritone with an extraordinarily smooth, graceful, firm voice and a superb legato. His voice was always steady, unforced and free of mannerisms. The “Pari siamo!” here possibly lacks a bit of drama and is somewhat generalized, but the “Cortegiani” is marvelous. Both of these, incidentally, are sung in the original Italian.

Leo Slezak then performs Verdi’s “Niun mi tema” (the death of Otello) and “Recitar!…Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci. The Pagliacci comes out as unidiomatic, not just because this quintessentially Italian aria is sung in German, but because Slezak chops off his phrases and, as is the case in some of his lieder singing, loses the long, flowing line of the music.

Highlights of this disc are a warm, graceful, charming performance of Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” sung by Franz Völker, along with a passionate “Tu?! Indietro! Fuggi!” from Verdi’s Otello; also a lovely, lyrical “I sacri nomi di padre” from Verdi’s Aida sung by Tiana Lemnitz, a beautiful “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore sung (in Italian) with lovely, long legato line spun out by Gino Sinimberghi and a fresh, technically fine “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville sung by the girlish voice of Alda Noni. Here, too, are Georg Hann in Rossini’s “La calunnia è un venticello,” Koloman von Pataky in the Siciliana from Cavalleria rusticana, and Julius Patzak singing both Verdi and Puccini.

Maria Cebotari, the ill-fated soprano who died prematurely at the age of thirty-nine, sings a fine “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca. Outstandingly, her girlish, but warm and secure, passionately involved “Un bel di” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the finest things on the CD and a high point in the many recorded interpretations of this aria.

Finally, a CD of German Opera and Operetta includes as highlights a lovely, lyrical “Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain” from Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, sung by the fine Hungarian tenor Koloman von Pataky and the exquisite duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, beautifully, lovingly sung by Felicie Hüni-Mihacsik and Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender. This is followed by Heinrich Rehkemper’s fine “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” also from The Magic Flute. Not to be missed either are a ravishingly beautiful “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig” from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio sung by the admirable Julius Patzak, whose fine tenor also graces a rarely heard aria from Millöcker’s operetta Gasparone, as well as the DiCapua song “Maria, Marì” sung in German. In other hands, this might be kitsch, but here it is delightful. For fans of German operetta, Walther Ludwig sings the Gondolier’s Song from Johann Strauss’s A Night in Venice, and Franz Völker’s fine lyrical voice and great sense of style are heard in Franz Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (“Yours is my Heart Alone”) from The Land of Smiles.

Clemens Krauss conducts the final trio and duet from Der Rosenkavalier, the trio with Tiana Lemnitz, Erna Berger, and Viorica Ursuleac, and the duet with Lemnitz and Berger. These are radiant performances, with Lemnitz and Berger two of the finest sopranos of the period. Lemnitz’s warm, lyrical Octavian blends beautifully with the sweet, girlish Sophie of Berger.

The disc, which includes the voices of Heinrich Schlusnus, Wilhelm Strienz, Helge Roswaenge, Leo Slezak, Walther Ludwig, Hilde Güden, and Georg Hann closes with a passage from the end of the Prologue of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Maria Reining as the Soprano/Ariadne and Irmgard Seefried in an incomparable performance as the Composer are joined by a fine Paul Schöffler. Seefried’s Composer has never been bettered, and Karl Böhm’s conducting in the 1944 recording is truly exciting.

This five CD set provides an interesting cross-section from an era in which German singing reached an apex of achievement. While most of the repertory presented here is familiar, the set provides interesting sidelights, including lesser known German operetta arias and two rarely heard songs by Max Reger. Even if not all of the performances are equally recommendable, the finest things here include some of the greatest German singing on record. Certainly, among others, Peter Anders’ Winterreise, Hans Hotter’s Wagner arias, Tiana Lemnitz’s lieder singing, and Maria Cebotari’s “Un bel di” are defining performances.