Brief biographical notes on the great Danish tenor
Aksel Schiøtz can be found in my review
of Vol. 1. Volume 2 consisted principally of his 1945 recording,
with Gerald Moore, of Die schöne Müllerin, a recording
which remains essential listening for all who care about Schubert and
about lieder singing. The principal offering in Vol. 4 are the two songs
from the same cycle which Schiøtz recorded with Moore in 1939
and the eight songs which are all we have of an abandoned cycle with
Herman Koppel from 1939-40.
Though Denmark was occupied by the Nazis in 1940 its
position remained ambivalent for some years since its democratic government
remained in office until 1943 when a full jackbooted dictatorship was
imposed. Thus Danes, though not enjoying the isolated freedom of non-belligerent
Sweden, were relatively at liberty to come and go within their own country.
To travel outside, however, required the permission of the Nazis, thereby
putting the applicant in the position of an effective collaborator,
something which Schiøtz staunchly refused to do. His career was
therefore confined to Denmark in these years. Furthermore his regular
collaborator in so many recordings, Herman Koppel, being a Jew, got
out while he still could and fled to Sweden in 1940. Schiøtz
was under some pressure not to sing German lieder at this time but he
strongly maintained that the culture which had produced Schubert, Schumann
and Brahms had nothing to do with the repulsive politics of the Nazis
and continued to sing their music until 1943. However, the Danish people
would hardly have flocked to buy records of lieder in those days and
it is not surprising that no attempt was made to complete Müllerin
with another pianist.
What the Danish public did readily buy, in the face
of the threat to their national identity, was records of songs by their
own native composers, and here the problem was that the masters of the
many records of such songs which Schiøtz had made before 1940
were in London. Therefore the 1938/9 Weyse, Hartmann and Riisager recordings
here were made again by Danish HMV in 1940/43 while the 1941 Hartmann
and Lange-Müller recordings are in their turn re-makes of discs
cut in 1938/9. All this alternative material is to be found in Vols.
5-7 of the present series.
Taking first the two Schubert songs recorded with Gerald
Moore in London, a comparison with the 1945 recordings reveals that
the voice had acquired greater baritonal solidity in the intervening
six years, though advances in recording technique may contribute to
this impression. The downward portamento is revealed to have been a
constant in Schiøtz’s style but the tendency was to use it less
over the years. In 1939 a gentle downward swoop colours the end of the
first phrase of Das Wandern, and thereafter every time this same
phrase occurs. It is quite tastefully done, but its elimination in 1945
is all to the good.
When it comes to actual interpretation the increased
range of the later performances is striking. Das Wandern is interpreted
in 1939 as a gentle little tone picture, complete in itself. In 1945
the tempo is faster (all five stanzas take 02:45, while in 1939 the
fourth was omitted, yet they took 02:29 even so) and the song is felt
to be an introduction to something larger. There is also greater variety
between the stanzas. The 1939 Morgengruss has a misty, trancelike
quality which is treasurable; interestingly, this mood is reserved in
1945 for the third stanza, omitted in 1939. Though the 1939 recordings
have their own special qualities they ultimately underline the greater
depth of the later ones.
The attempted cycle with Koppel is quite a different
matter, since it gives us a fascinating glimpse of what would have been
a performance with a quite different character. Moore was at heart a
classically-based musician. The excitement he creates in Eifersucht
und Stolz or Die böse Farbe derives from his tight control
of the semiquavers, with very little pedal, while Koppel offers a more
impressionistic view. Koppel, it would seem, was the more romantic,
impulsive musician, and tempi are inclined to be extreme in both directions.
Ungeduld, in the version with Moore, goes at a tempo exactly
gauged to allow the words their value; in the more impetuous Koppel
version words risk spilling over one another in their excitement (but
cold mathematics tells us that it is only two seconds shorter!). Des
Baches Wiegenlied with Koppel lasts 04:35 against 04:49 with Moore,
but this disguises the fact that with Koppel only three stanzas are
sung, in almost the same time as it takes to sing four in the performance
with Moore. The Koppel performance is certainly beautiful, but I am
sure Schiøtz with Moore hit the right tempo; all five stanzas
at Koppel’s speed would not be an enticing prospect, however beautifully
sung. In Tränenregen and elsewhere Koppel’s piano interludes
sometimes drift off into tempi of their own while Moore is more rigorous,
but Koppel does at times succeed in creating a poetic atmosphere beside
which Moore can seem literal. I feel it is a great pity this cycle was
not completed (when they jumped to the end of the cycle in the 1940
sessions, did they realise they would do no more?); the result would
have given us two complementary performances and endless illumination
in passing from one to the other.
I mentioned in earlier reviews that the 1945 recordings
sometimes show signs of strain deriving from the tumour which was affecting
Schiøtz’s vocal chords. However, comparison between 1939/40 and
1945 produces conflicting evidence. The final Gs of Eifersucht
do seem more ringingly secure in 1940; on the other hand the As of Ungeduld
are better placed in 1945, perhaps because Moore allows him a little
more time to get them. The leap from B to G sharp towards the end of
Des Baches Wiegenlied is a little effortful in the first and
third stanzas both times, and equally beautifully managed in the last
both times (it’s easier to do when the vowel is an "o"). So
it looks as if the problem derives from a slight chink in his technical
armoury rather than encroaching illness, but I shall listen to the recordings
from the mid-thirties with great interest.
The Mozart test recording tells a tale of pretty well
unalloyed vocal beauty; it was never intended for issue and is not complete.
The Weyse songs are very simple, strophic pieces, caressed
into life by Schiøtz’s honeyed tones; of rather more interest
to non-Danish singers is Hartmann’s very attractive Lær mig,
Nattens Stjerne (Teach me, Star of the night). Unfailingly romantic,
too, are the operatic items by Hartmann and Lange-Müller. Knudåge
Riisager is notable as the composer of an attractive Trumpet Concertino
recorded by George Eskdale (available on DANACORD DACOCD 523-4). Reading
the words I expected a sort of Danish "Land of Hope and Glory"
but this is a disarmingly intimate piece which must nevertheless have
kept many hopes alight in its day.
The "Lilac Time" excerpts are brief and their
existence only goes to show that even this most modest and musicianly
of tenors was nonetheless a tenor and thus constitutionally unable to
break free of Hans von Bülow’s dictum that "a tenor is not
a voice, it is a disease".
The booklet notes by Arne Helman are, as ever in this
series, full of interest. They also include a spirited defence of the
much-maligned poet of Die schöne Müllerin, Wilhelm
Müller: "At their best, however, the Müller poems seem
to me superior to Heine’s selfconsciousness and superficiality which
do not wear well". Students of German poetry, over to you!
I suppose this is ultimately a more specialist issue
than Vols. 2 and 3. But if your lieder library is a large one and if
you have already fallen under the spell of Schiøtz’s later complete
Müllerin I think you will not regret hearing his rather
different renderings of eight of the songs with Koppel.