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Elisabeth Schumann - Early Recordings 1915–1923
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Fidelio: O, wär ich schon mit dir vereint;
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786–1826)
Der Freischütz: Trübe Augen, Liebchen; Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen;
Ambroise THOMAS
Connais-tu le pays?;
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791) Le nozze di Figaro: Non so più; Voi che sapete; Don Giovanni: Vedrai, carino;
Albert LORTZING (1801–1851) Der Wildschütz: Auf des Lebens raschen Wogen;
Charles GOUNOD
Faust: Air des bijoux;
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln; Welche Wonne, welche Lust; Don Giovanni: Batti, batti, o bel Masetto;
François AUBER (1782–1871) Fra Diavolo: Quel bonheur;
Hänsel und Gretel: Wo bin ich? Wach ich? Ist es ein Traum?;
Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland;
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Exultate, Jubilate: Allegro; Andante; Alleluia; Le nozze di Figaro: Deh vieni, non tardar; Die Zauberflöte: Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden;
Elisabeth Schumann (soprano) with orchestra
rec. 1915 (tracks 1-4), 1920 (tracks 5-14), 1922 (tracks 15-18) and 1923 (tracks 19 & 20)
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111098 [77:10]


Elisabeth Schumann, born in 1888, had a long and distinguished career, making her debut in Hamburg as early as 1909, when she was 21. She was still singing after the Second World War. On this disc we meet her at the beginning of her recording career. These are not her first recordings - they were made for Favorite in 1913 - but the first four titles, recorded for Edison in 1915 still catch her in her first blossoming. The sound quality on these sides is no more than acceptable, quite dim and with a distant orchestra. Five years later, on the earliest Polydors, there is much more presence and the singer’s voice is close and lifelike. The orchestra still sounds like an acoustically recorded orchestra but it is the voice that matters. We can still enjoy all the famous characteristics: the bell-like clarity, the exquisite phrasing, the warmth of tone and the “face”. Alan Blyth in his perceptive notes mentions “her inborn gift for communicating with her audience”. Not many communicators can bring this to the listener. Schumann’s was not a large voice and she obviously knew its limits. Much of what can be heard here is what we normally call soubrette repertoire. What is needed for those roles, besides a light and agile voice is a twinkle in the eye and charm and that’s what she had in abundance. There is not a dull moment during the 77 minutes of this disc. Of course there are some less desirable features and it must be up to the individual listener how these affect listening pleasure. One is that, apart from Exultate, Jubilate, everything, irrespective of original language, is sung in German; this was the norm in those days. She sometimes adopts a hooting sound, similar to what Kirsten Flagstad sounded like at the end of her career. I believe that this has something to do with the narrow frequency range of the acoustical recording technique since this afflicts other sopranos of this era as well. What can be more of an irritant is her generous, even exaggerated, use of portamento, the method of moving seamlessly from note to note so that the effect becomes a slide. This was more common in the ‘good old days’ and can be heard also on violin recordings - just listen to Fritz Kreisler. It is a matter of taste how much portamento one can tolerate. My first reaction when playing this disc was that Schumann’s use of it was too much of a good thing. In some places it gives a roller-coaster effect. I felt very disappointed with most of her singing since this over-shadowed all the good things. I did not recall anything similar in her later electrical recordings which I have known and loved for decades. Having replayed the disc several times, both through speakers and headphones, I have begun to tolerate it. The funny thing is that while I am writing this I am listening a last time through headphones and now it doesn’t disturb me at all; it might be an acquired taste after all. That said, readers who, like me, are unfamiliar with Schumann’s early recordings, should listen before buying.

Maybe the Mozart arias are the best things on this disc. It seems that Schumann had a special affinity for Mozart. Either of the last two tracks, Susanna’s aria from Le nozze di Figaro and Pamina’s aria from Die Zauberflöte is as good a place as any to start listening. These 1923 recordings also offer the best sound quality with fine woodwind contributions in the Figaro aria. It is difficult to imagine more sincere singing and it is also a good test of one’s reactions to her portamento. Cherubino’s two arias from Figaro (tracks 5 and 6) are also charmingly done with lots of rubato, especially in Non so più, and of course she was a wonderful Zerlina (tracks 7 and 12). Among the non-Mozart numbers the aria from Lortzing’s Wildschütz is one of the best, lively and with a fine trill. She is also an engaged Marguerite in the Jewel song from Faust and rides the Wagnerian orchestra in the excerpt from Hänsel und Gretel with surprising ease.

Ward Marston, as usual, has managed to lift as much information as possible from the old shellacs and has wisely left some of the background “bacon-frying” to be heard to preserve the high frequencies of the voice.

The cover photo shows Elisabeth Schumann as Ännchen in Der Freischütz. When writing this I listened to her singing Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen from that primitive 91-year-old Edison record and wow what a charming singer! She sounds exactly as she looks: fresh as dew, the tones like a valuable string of pearls streaming effortlessly out of the headphones. And I have come to love her portamento as well!

Göran Forsling




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