The German Tradition — Three Great Sopranos

Maurice Richter

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]


Lisa della Casa, the Swiss-born soprano, was a famed interpreter of the music of Richard Strauss during the great generation of singers of the German repertory that arose during the forties and fifties. This generation, which counted Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Sena Jurinac, Elisabeth Grümmer, and Hilde Gueden among its female members constituted a genuine renaissance of great singing and provided the finest Mozart and Strauss interpretations for years to come.

Della Casa, like Schwarzkopf, was a strikingly beautiful woman and sang much the same repertory. After making her debut at Solothurn-Biel in Switzerland as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly in 1941, she sang with the Zürich Opera from 1943 to 1960, where she took on such diverse roles as Serena in Porgy and Bess, Pamina, Gilda, Mimi, Sophie and Zdenka in Strauss’s Arabella. She brought her interpretation of Zdenka to the Salzburg Festival in 1947, where a delighted Richard Strauss proclaimed, “One day this girl is going to be my Arabella.” In the summer of 1948, della Casa returned to Salzburg to sing the Countess in Strauss’s Capriccio. Her initial success at Salzburg led to a long regime at the Vienna State Opera that lasted from 1947 to her retirement in 1974.

Della Casa’s British debut came as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1951. That same year she sang her first Arabella in Munich and began a famous association with the rôle which she brought to Covent Garden in 1953 with the Bavarian State Opera and again in 1965 with the resident Covent Garden company. Her much-praised Eva in Die Meistersinger graced the 1952 Bayreuth Festival and that same year she sang Marzelline and Sophie at La Scala with Herbert von Karajan.

Della Casa’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera came in 1953 as the Countess in Figaro. Her career there encompassed such diverse roles as the Marschallin, Donna Elvira, Eva, Cio-Cio San, Arabella, Elsa, Octavian, Ariadne and Mimi. A great favorite of Met audiences, della Casa sang at the house and on tour with the company until 1968. Her lyrical Ariadne was a highlight of the Salzburg Festival in 1954, where one eminent critic was led to wonder (according to Alan Blyth’s notes) “how Theseus could have abandoned her on Naxos.”

As noted above, della Casa was most esteemed for her singing of Strauss — starting with Sophie, she progressed to Octavian and then the Marschallin. She similarly started with Zdenka and then became a famous Arabella and also sang Ariadne, Salome and Chrysothemis. Her beautifully smooth legato and unaffected simplicity, along with her soaring line, ideally suited her for the Strauss and Mozart operas as well as the lieder repertory, and her beauty, charm and graciousness endeared her to a wide audience. Her limpid, silvery voice was radiant in its sheer loveliness.

Testament has released a CD entitled Lisa Della Casa Sings Richard Strauss [Testament SBT 1036]. The disc opens with extended excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos, with Rudolf Schock as a fine Bacchus. (Schock’s Bacchus can also be heard in EMI’s complete recording of Ariadne with Schwarzkopf as Ariadne and von Karajan conducting). On the Testament recording, the Berlin Philharmonic plays with great richness of tone for Alberto Erede, whose conducting misses a bit of the special magic that Karajan brought to his complete performance with Schwarzkopf.

Della Casa’s virtues as Ariadne are immediately apparent — the vulnerability and loneliness of the solitary Ariadne find her in resplendent form. Her singing is fresher, more spontaneous, less studied and artful than Schwarzkopf’s rendition of the same rôle . Schwarzkopf, on the other hand, brings her own special poignancy as Ariadne to a memorable performance. Both are certainly worth acquiring.

Seven songs of Strauss complete the disc, with Sebastian Peschko at the piano. Della Casa brings an instinctive understanding of how to shade her beautiful voice to communicate real meaning and feeling. She brings perfect phrasing to the great “Morgen.” In the penultimate line “Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen” (“Speechless we shall gaze into each other’s eyes”), her momentary pause after the word “Stumm” (“Speechless”) contains a whole world of poignant meaning. “Einerlei” is sung with a welcome openness; “Hat gesagt — bleibt’s nicht dabei” more directly than Schwarzkopf, whose performances of this song tended to be more artful and studied. Della Casa is lovely here.

There are also fine interpretations of “Waldseligkeit,” “Seitdem dein Aug’ in meines schaute” and “Schlechtes Wetter.” In the last of the Strauss songs, “Befreit,” the first two lines intone, “Du wirst nicht weinen. Leise, leise/Wirst du lächeln…” (“You will not weep. Gently, gently/You will smile…”). Della Casa caresses the word “Leise” (“Gently”) and then creates a magical moment by repeating the word in a much quieter, softer, hushed voice.

Among recorded Strauss interpretations, these are some of the finest. A highly recommendable disc!



Some exquisitely beautiful singing by Elisabeth Grümmer is captured on Testament SBT 1086. Here are seven Schubert songs, five by Brahms and two songs from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, along with three excerpts from Verdi’s Otello. Grümmer’s was one of the great voices of the fifties. After a short career as an actress, she was persuaded to study singing by Herbert von Karajan, then the musical director of the orchestra in Aachen of which her husband was the leader. Grümmer made her debut as the First Flowermaiden in Parsifal in 1940. After two years as first lyric soprano in Duisburg, she joined the Städtische Oper in West Berlin in 1946. Her roles there included Agathe, Pamina, Eva and Desdemona. The excellence of her Eva led to engagements singing the rôle in East Berlin, Dresden and London in 1950 (under Sir Thomas Beecham), as well as at Bayreuth. In 1952 she sang with the Hamburg State Opera in Edinburgh as Agathe, Pamina and Octavian. The following year she made her initial appearances in Vienna and Salzburg and later sang at Glyndebourne as well as at the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan. Recitals and concerts rounded out the career of this much admired and beloved singer.

Grümmer had a beautiful voice and there was a complete lack of artifice about her singing. Her freshness, sweetness, warmth and aristocratic style are manifest here in Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” “Wiegenlied,” “Rastlose Liebe,” “Vor meiner Wiege,” “Die Forelle,” “Fischerweise” and Suleikas Gesang II. Tones are beautifully floated, the creamy quality of the voice easy on the ear. The “Wiegenlied” is sung with a perfectly sustained legato line, as is “Vor meiner Wiege,” whose seriousness is achieved with utter simplicity.“Die Forelle” is sung with delightful lack of guile, as is “Fischerweise.”

Grümmer perfectly captures the nostalgia of Brahms’ “Regenlied” in a wonderfully warm, clear-voiced, unaffected performance. His “Das Mädchen” is full of joy. “Geheimnis” and “Mädchenlied” contrast with one another in mood. The famous lullaby “Wiegenlied” receives an ideal performance — warm, direct and innocently fresh. Gerald Moore, as always, provides knowing, insightful accompaniments in all of these Brahms songs.

Special joys of the disc are the performances (with the Berliner Symphoniker) of the two songs of Solveig from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Recorded in 1953, these are monaural recordings, while everything else on the disc is recorded in stereo. So good is the recording quality, though, that one does not become aware of the difference. Grümmer’s innate musicality, great sincerity and wonderful warmth are heard at their best in the first of these Solveig songs.

Finally, the generous disc presents three excerpts from Verdi’s Otello (sung in German) with Rudolf Schock a lyrical Otello. As Alan Blyth observes in his accompanying notes, Schock, following Verdi’s score markings more closely than many Italian tenors, attempts the difficult task of achieving a true pianissimo in the final phrase of the Love Duet, as does Grümmer. In this Act I Love Duet, Grümmer is youthful and radiant, in the Willow Song vulnerable and full of foreboding, while, unlike some other singers, she makes the “Ave Maria” truly a prayer — her phrasing and tone here are flawless. Grümmer, in short, is one of the most believable Desdemonas I have ever heard, the beauty of voice perfectly matched by the simplicity and depth of feeling she communicates. These are truly moving performances. A real gem, then, with some of the loveliest singing to be heard in a long time, this disc is very highly recommended.


One of the great memories of the early years of my concert-going is an evening long ago when an expectant crowd attended New York City’s Town Hall to hear the American debut of a soprano whose European reputation had brought glowing reports. She was already a great star at the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Bayreuth Festival, La Scala and Covent Garden, and her recordings had only increased the anticipation of a very special occasion and a long overdue debut. The date was October 25, 1953, and the soprano was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. (Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Eighth Edition, revised by Nicholas Slonimsky, mistakenly places this debut at Carnegie Hall [Do we have experts or do we have experts? Wow! Ed.]). Questions about her earlier relationship with and involvement in the Nazi party had delayed her appearance in the United States, but she had now been cleared for this debut, and expectations were high.

A stunningly beautiful, elegantly dressed woman made her appearance on stage, and the concert (with Arpad Sándor at the piano) opened with the song “Bist du bei mir,” then attributed to Bach, but now believed to be by Stölzel. Within seconds it was clear that this was to be a great evening of music-making. The magic spell that Schwarzkopf wove, the very special innigkeit that characterized her singing, the great attention to detail and the high intelligence she brought to everything she sang, combined with the beauty of her voice and person, made this an unforgettable evening for me. Her later lieder recitals at Carnegie Hall and Hunter College became great occasions that were as eagerly awaited as they were greatly satisfying. One of the finest of these was the joint recital given at Carnegie Hall by Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau in 1964 (with George Reeves at the piano) in which they performed the Hugo Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch.

Now Testament has unearthed from the EMI archives a collection of unpublished Schwarzkopf recordings from the early years of her career, 1946-52, all of these in quite good sound. The two CD set, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf — the Unpublished EMI Recordings 1946-1952, Testament SBT 2172, is very much worth acquiring. Walter Legge, whom Schwarzkopf married in 1953, was the grand impresario of EMI and a notorious perfectionist and difficult taskmaster to his wife. He set her the task of carefully studying the recordings of some of her great female predecessors, including Rosa Ponselle, Elisabeth Schumann, Lotte Lehmann, Frida Leider, Tiana Lemnitz, Geraldine Farrar and Meta Seinemeyer. Over the years, Legge felt that some of the lieder recordings she made might well be bettered by later retakes and vetoed their release. That his standards were extraordinarily high is evidenced by this new crop of recordings that until now have lain dormant in EMI’s vaults. Schwarzkopf, who at eighty-four lives in retirement near Zürich, was frequently a harsh critic of her own recordings, but she has consented to this release.

The first CD opens with a performance dating from 1948 of Bach’s Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. The exciting coloratura leaps and freshness of voice are here bolder than in the commnercial release of this cantata that Schwarzkopf made two years later with the same orchestra but a different conductor. Mozart’s Exultate, jubilate, K. 165, follows dating from late 1946 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Josef Krips. Schwarzkopf rerecorded the work eighteen months later with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Walter Susskind, and this later version was then commercially released. The earlier version is more spontaneous, more exciting, while the voice is a bit more mature in the later version.

While preparing to sing Pamina in The Magic Flute in English at Covent Garden, Schwarzkopf, who had sung her first Pamina ever just two months earlier (in German in Vienna), privately recorded almost all of Pamina’s rôle (with piano accompaniment) for her own study purposes. This was in 1948, and the maturing of the great voice in the two intervening years from the earliest 1946 recordings included here is noteworthy. Schwarzkopf herself provides a spoken introduction (recorded in 1998 for this release) to the Magic Flute recording. It is a treat to hear almost all of Pamina’s music so beautifully sung and concentrated into the short space of just under half an hour.

Violetta and Mimi were roles that Schwarzkopf sang in English at Covent Garden, and here she sings a passionate “E strano … Ah! fors è lui” from La Traviata as well as Mimi’s Farewell from the third act of La Bohème. After hearing Callas sing La Traviata, Schwarzkopf gave up the rôle , and after 1952 she no longer sang Mimi. This first disc closes with the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria,” accompanied by Gerald Moore at the piano and Jean Pougnet on the violin. Schwarzkopf evidently needed strong persuasion to convince her of the musical value of this piece, and she almost refused to allow its inclusion on the disc. The wait was worth it!

The second CD opens with charming performances of Thomas Arne’s “When Daisies Pied” from Love’s Labour’s Lost and Thomas Morley’s “It was a Lover and his Lass” recorded in 1946. Mozart’s “Das Veilchen” follows and then three songs of Schubert — “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” “Der Musensohn” and “Wiegenlied.” The last of these, in particular, makes one wonder why these takes were rejected for release at the time, but listening to all of the performances here similarly points up Legge’s perfectionism, for they are all first-rate. Strauss’s “Hat gesagt, bleibt’s nicht dabei” and “Schlechtes Wetter” are sung with greater spontaneity than in the later commercially released performances . Two performances of Wolf’s “Storchenbotschaft” follow, the first from 1948 and the second from 1951. The first is fine, but the second more detailed, the varying moods more clearly realized. Legge rejected both versions and did not approve any performance of this song until the one Schwarzkopf made at the end of her career in 1977 (with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano). Wolf’s “Epiphanias” is similarly fine, but less detailed than the later commercially released 1957 performance. This is true of many of the total of sixteen Wolf songs included here. The accomplished accompaniments of Gerald Moore (in all but the Arne and Morley items) are a joy to hear.

In general, the early Schwarzkopf recordings exhibit a light, clear, brightly colored, fresh, lyrical voice capable of great flexibility in coloratura passages. The later voice was richer and darker, and the performances exhibited far greater deliberate control and artfulness as the singer came to carefully shade and emphasize individual words and pay greater attention to their meaning. Many people (not including this listener) felt that this more self-conscious artistry tended to fragment the musical line and lose the overall intention of the song. Certainly, the earlier and later Schwarzkopf performances are stylistically different, but both are beautiful and both are valid.

The two CDs reviewed here contain wonderful singing throughout from one of the century’s greatest artists, and more is to come, for EMI promises to release more of the unpublished Schwarzkopf, dating from the years after 1952. A top-notch release, this!