> Erna Berger: Decca The Singers series [RJF]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Erna BERGER soprano (1900-)
‘The Singers’ series

Arias and duets by Grieg, Mozart, Donizetti, R Strauss, Verdi, etc.
Orchestra of Staatsoper Berlin, Various conductors
Rec. Berlin, Germany, 1934-44
DECCA 467 917-2 [69.29]

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This disc is one of the first twenty, issued on the Decca label, under the generic title ‘The Singers’. The series, with another thirty in preparation, claims to present the artistry of the greatest singers from the first century of recording. The selection of these first releases was made by the late John Ardoin and is somewhat idiosyncratic in chosen repertoire, despite having access to the recorded annals of DG and Philips as well as Decca. More significantly, these discs are more than merely sonic CDs but ‘multimedia’ items, being enhanced for those with ROM facility, to include photo gallery, biographies and texts. If you lack ROM facility you get a booklet with brief essay and track listing, the latter lacking such basic information as to the operatic character singing the aria! The presentation aims to be different and unique, being a cardboard case within a plastic slip case emblazoned ‘The Singers’.

Erna Berger was born in 1900 and made her debut in 1925, later singing at Bayreuth, Salzburg, Covent Garden and in 1949 at the New York Met. However, most of her singing was at the Berlin State Opera, her international career being cut short by the outbreak of World War II when she was at the height of her vocal powers. She was the possessor of a light lyric coloratura soprano with an immaculate legato and on this CD she is heard both in her fach and vocal prime.

First the bad news! A browser looking at the listing on the back of the packaging might well miss the fact that all the tracks are sung in German; they are listed in the language of their composition and includes extracts from Figaro, Don Giovanni, Pearl Fishers, Rigoletto, Butterfly, etc. Secondly, with surface noise evident (tks 5 and 13) and no effort made to equalise the sound levels –you need to sit near the volume control.

The good news is the quality of the singing of Berger and her partners. Her fresh voiced singing, fine legato, excellent phrasing, security above the stave and convincing trill are all heard to good effect. Her partners are amongst the most distinguished singers performing in pre-war Germany. Certainly the baritone of Heinrich Schlusnus, with her in Tutte le Feste from Rigoletto, a raw note apart, would be very welcome today with the present dearth of Verdi baritones (tk 15). Likewise, the redoubtable Viorica Ursuleac, who created three of Richard Strauss’s great soprano roles, is heard first as Mozart’s Countess duetting with Berger’s Susanna and then as the Marschalin with Tiana Lemnitz as Octavian and Berger as Sophie in the great trio from Rosenkavalier (tk 19), which is only marred by mushy congestion at the peak – microphone overload or poor mastering?

Berger makes an appealing Gilda in Caro Nome (tk 14) and Violetta (tk 15). Only in the Don Pasquale (tk 6) does she seem unidiomatic, and as Adele’s Spiel ich, from Die Fledermaus, is she unsympathetic to the part. Put aside all reservations and listen to Last Rose (tk 1), Pearl Fishers (tk 9) and Là ci darem (tk 4) with Schlusnus, these will convince of the virtues of this issue and its generally well-chosen programme.

I have touched on variability of sound level. This is also true of the relative placing of the singer, sometimes quite recessed or, at other times, very forward. Track 15, recorded in 1944, with more modern equipment, is very forward and with presence if a little echoey. The essay in the accompanying booklet is by John Steane; like all his contributions to this series it is outstanding.

Robert J Farr

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