seizure of power in Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and their
pursuit of dissidents during the rest of the decade and during
the war is one of the blackest periods in Western Civilization.
Nobody will ever know the exact number of victims but one
of them was Joseph Schmidt. He was Jewish, born in 1904 in
a village in Northern Bukovina, an area which now is in the
Ukraine but then belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The family had to flee during the First World War when the
village was invaded by Rumania but returned a couple of years
later and became Rumanian citizens. Joseph was engaged in
the synagogue choirs and in his late teens he studied singing,
first in Czernowitz, later in Berlin. He auditioned for Berlin
radio, which broadcast operas with a permanent ensemble, and
he was an immediate success.
never had a stage career, due to his small stature and also
a relatively small voice, but in the radio and gramophone
studios this was no problem and obviously what could be regarded
as a certain hoarseness in the flesh was transformed by the
microphone, cutting the upper frequencies. He recorded for
several companies: on this compilation Telefunken, Parlophon,
HMV, Electrola and Odeon are represented. He also appeared
in films, the most famous certainly Ein Lied geht um die
Welt (A song goes around the world), through which he
became internationally renowned. Tragically this year was
also the year of Hitler’s becoming Chancellor of Germany,
which heavily affected Schmidt’s career. He left Germany and
settled in Vienna but after the Anschluss in 1938 he
went to Brussels and later Lyon and finally Switzerland where
he died of a heart attack on 16 November 1942. On his grave
stone in Zurich one can read: Ein Stern fällt (A star
falls). With hindsight he should have taken the opportunity
to flee to the USA, but was discouraged by his uncle who was
also his manager.
was but one of innumerable tragedies as a direct result of
the Nazi regime, but we are at least lucky to still be able
to enjoy his recorded legacy and these two well-filled discs
certainly show what a loss his demise was to the musical world.
As was the norm in those days Italian and French opera was
performed and recorded in German but Schmidt actually sings
some of the arias here in the original language. The Rigoletto
and Tosca arias as well as both arias from Turandot
are in Italian and so are the Italian songs at the end of
CD 2. But it should be said at once that so superb was his
legato technique that it hardly matters that he sings other
numbers in German. His voice may have been small but it was
produced with a clarity and an evenness and with such poise
that one believes it is much larger – and his top was truly
brilliant, much more so than Tauber’s, with whom he has been
compared. They have the same mellow middle register and the
same honeyed pianissimo but Schmidt’s voice is the more pungent
– and there is nothing pejorative in this choice of adjective:
he has bite, which Tauber doesn’t.
Una furtive lagrima (CD1 tr. 2), also sung in Italian,
he also demonstrates his effortless trill. Maybe both this
aria and the preceding Zauberflöte aria are marginally
too sentimental, but one cannot avoid capitulating before
such beauty. He makes the most of the wonderful melody in
the hymn from Alessandro Stradella and though we are
used to hearing the arias from La Juive and L’Africaine
with heavier voices there is no lack of power here.
Duke of Mantua is at the same time an aristocrat and a charmer.
When did you last hear La donna e mobile sung so lightly
and elegantly? Maybe from Alfredo Kraus and he is also the
singer that comes to mind when I hear Schmidt as Rodolfo.
Cavaradossi and Calaf should be too much for him but he knows
his limitations and never goes over the top. The aria from
Le Cid is another winner, as is Lensky’s passionate
outpouring from Eugene Onegin.
CD 2 he impresses in the aria from Le postillon de Lonjumeau
with absolute freedom in the entire register and it is good
to have the full scene from The Bartered Bride, where
Michael Bohnen is less imposing than some blacker basses but
also avoids to ham up his aria.
has the required Schmaltz for the operetta excerpts and it
is instructive to compare him with Tauber in the numbers from
Das Land des Lächelns, recorded in October 1929, not
long after Tauber set them down. His voice is slightly thinner
and leaner than Tauber’s but has the same smoothness and ease
and he can sing a true diminuendo on a high note without a
trace of falsetto.
of the arias and songs on CD 2 are from long forgotten operettas
and maybe Schmidt also knew they were no masterpieces but
he is just as deeply involved in them, and it is of historical
importance to have three songs from the film Ein Lied geht
um die Welt.
zarzuela aria by Serrano is lively and brilliant, Rossini’s
La danza is a marvel of effortless articulation and
L’ariatella is a lesson in soft singing without crooning.
He challenges Gigli – without becoming lachrymose – even Schipa,
the highest praise I can give. The song may not be a masterpiece
– the singing is!
so is the singing in the remaining songs, where the superb
final pianissimo note, held forever, should be noted.
sound is variable but this concerns the orchestras more than
the singer. There is such a treasure-chest of marvellous singing
in the archives from the first half of the last century and
anyone interested in the art of singing should invest in such
issues as the present one, especially when they come at Naxos’s
give-away prices. Joseph Schmidt may not be a name written
in the Pantheon of Singing with golden letters of the same
carat as Caruso, Gigli, Melchior and a few others but his
art is on their level.
miss this issue!