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Elisabeth Söderström In Memoriam: An appreciation from Göran Forsling (GF)

When Anna Elisabeth Olow, as she was officially registered, left this worldly stage on 20 November, dying at a hospital in Stockholm, aged 82. She had an uncommonly long and diversified career behind her. As a little girl she used to entertain guests in her home with songs and as a teenager she took singing lessons for the legendary Russian soprano Andrejewa Skilondz. Her real ambition was to become an actress but when she failed to be admitted to the theatre school she applied for and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. She made her debut at the Drottningholm Court Theatre in 1947 while still a student. The opera was Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne, and Mozart was to become a central composer during much of her career.

From 1950 until 1980 she was a member of the permanent ensemble at the Stockholm Royal Opera, and together with colleagues like Margareta Hallin, Erik Saedén (who passed away just a couple of weeks earlier), Barbro Ericson and Ingvar Wixell she belonged to the ‘Iron Gang’ – reliable, endurable and inspired singers who were the backbone of the house for several decades.

But besides this full time occupation and running a family, raising three children, she also had a busy schedule as international singer. She appeared at most of the great opera houses in the world including Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut in 1959 opposite Jussi Björling in Faust. Her repertoire was broad and many-faceted, spanning from early baroque to the present time. She sang at the world premieres of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers. Her versatility, sense of style and great acting ability made her successful in whatever opera she appeared in, but she was definitely one of the foremost Strauss sopranos, singing all three leading female roles in Der Rosenkavalier and the Countess in Capriccio. Another favourite composer was Janacek. The title roles in Jenufa and Kata Kabanova and Emilia Marty in Vec Makropoulos became some of her signature roles and she was also at home in Russian repertoire. Her mother was Russian so she had the language with her mother’s milk. Her last role was the Countess in The Queen of Spades which she sang at the Metropolitan as late as 1999.

As a recitalist she was equally outstanding, and she more often than not surprised the listeners with unexpected choices of repertoire. When Swedish Radio created a new concert hall, the Berwald Hall, thirty years ago, hers was the first song recital, and in an eclectic program she also included a couple of songs by Franz Berwald, presumably never heard for many a day. I was at the concert, together with a majority of the elite of Swedish singers, and the concert was recorded an issued on LP by Bluebell. I hope it will surface again as a memorial disc. She advocated Scandinavian music and committed to records a lot of important 20th century works, including songs by Gunnar de Frumerie, Gösta Nystroem’s Sinfonia del mare and Ingvar Lidholm’s Nauseeka ensam (Nauseeka alone). But French and British music were also frequently programmed – not least Benjamin Britten – and of course the Russian repertoire was close to her heart. Together with Vladimir Aszkenazy she recorded songs of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky and others – recordings that in many respects can be seen as definitive.

She was not foreign to lighter music either and together with her likewise versatile soprano colleague Kjerstin Dellert she made a number of TV shows entitled ‘Prima Prima Donnas’. There they mixed all kinds of genres and with their charisma, humour and verbal acuity the two donnas became enormous popular, also among people who otherwise had little interest in opera or classical music at large.

‘Prima donna’ may give the wrong associations, since the word can give impressions of haughtiness and snobbism. Nothing could be more wrong in the case of Elisabeth Söderström. Naturalness and amiability were what most of all characterized her and could be felt also at the distance that unavoidably exists between stage and audience. She was a serious and hardworking artist and made no secret of the fact that her job was ‘sweat, phlegm and black feet’ as she expressed it in her down-to-earth way. Her two autobiographies – as far as I know available only in Swedish – give wonderful glimpses of her personality as well as insights in what happens behind the scenes. They are written with that inimitable combination of irony, wit, seriousness and warmth that also endeared her to a wide audience in some radio talk shows.

I had the fortune to hear her, both on the concert stage and in the opera house, on numerous occasions when she was at the height of her powers in the 1970s and 1980s. The Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, the title role in Jenufa, the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Juliana in The Aspern Papers and Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, to mention a few key roles, were all deeply satisfying readings, vocally as well as dramatically. In my experience she never did anything half-heartedly and her acting also electrified her co-singers.

She left a comprehensive recorded legacy that will give deep satisfaction also to music lovers who never heard her in the flesh. Some recordings are briefly mentioned above. Among her complete operas Le nozze di Figaro is a worthy memento of her Countess, even though the aging Otto Klemperer’s tempos are eccentrically slow. In her memoirs Elisabeth recalls the recording sessions and when they were listening to the playback of the duet where the Count tries to seduce Susanna. Reri Grist, who was Susanna, ‘turned to Klemperer with her most charming smile, though desperate inside, and said: Please, Herr Doktor, could it be possible to have a little faster tempo, it is so difficult for me to make love slowly! In Klemperer’s sly eyes there was a little spark and he answered: What do you expect of me, I’m eighty-four …’

Her Decca series of Janacek operas with Sir Charles Mackerras is generally regarded as the benchmark versions, and Pelleas et Melisande under Pierre Boulez is also a top contender. I am also very fond of her Witch in Hänsel und Gretel, though some commentators think it is a bit over-the-top. Unfortunately her Richard Strauss is sadly underrepresented. In the mid-1960s Decca recorded a disc with excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier under Silvio Varviso with Regine Crespin, Hilde Güden and with Elisabeth Söderström as Octavian and for EMI she recorded Vier letzte Lieder coupled with the Feldmarschallin’s monologue from Der Rosenkavalier and the finale from Capriccio. There is also a live recorded snippet from Der Rosenkavalier on a Bluebell disc (see review) where we also get several glimpses of her roles not otherwise available.

Elisabeth Söderström is dead and she is greatly missed by hundreds of thousands of music lovers, but the memory of her will live, not least through her many excellent recordings.

Göran Forsling

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