The Beauty of Song
Part 2

[In the last issue of Copper, Jason Victor Serinus introduced us to the beauty and communicative power of art song. That story paves the way for what follows below.—Ed.]

One of the great joys of many art song aficionados is comparing multiple interpretations of the same song. Conducting a YouTube search for Schubert’s great hymn to music, “An die Musik” , yields page upon page of very different versions of the song. Some are from its greatest exponents, while others are by students, amateurs, and professionals who demonstrate that they would be wise not to try to make a living from art song.

Let’s begin by visiting the song’s original German and English translation:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen, Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

 

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

Let us begin with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the soprano who, in the decades following WWII, recorded more German art song than any of her rivals. Though Schwarzkopf owed her ubiquity as a recording artist in no small part to her marriage to Walter Legge, the record producer for EMI who also worked with Maria Callas, it is nonetheless true that her superb instrument and piercing intelligence were destined to make her the German art song soprano specialist of the 1950s and ‘60s, whose few rivals included the very different-voiced Irmgard Seefried :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3r3FzAGqeE  and Lisa della Casa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guR7wnALheg.

Schwarzkopf had already amassed a sizable post-war discography when, in 1952, Legge brought her to EMI. Here is her famous rendition of “An die Musik” recorded with Edwin Fischer in 1952, as she was approaching her 37th birthday:  

 

We next jump ahead eight years to ponder the differences between Schwarzkopf’s early rendition of “An die Musik,” and her 1961 video of the song with Gerald Moore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm_AKMV0ME0 . Not only does Schwarzkopf sound fresher on the earlier version, but she also allows herself to sing softer, with great intimacy. Head tones that in 1953 float naturally, sound more effortful eight years later, and are placed in a more self-conscious manner. The voice is also more covered in the midrange.

But there’s far more to a successful performance of “An die Musik” than technique, sheer beauty of voice, and thrilling head tones, all of which Schwarzkopf had in spades. The basic question that must be asked, with this or any rendition of a song, is if it convinces. Is the singer true to meaning of music and words? Have they internalized them to the extent that the song seems to be flowing naturally, from the center of their being? Or are they perhaps faking it, and doing all they can to sound as though they believe in and feel deeply what they are singing?

Does Schwarzkopf sound as if she is truly singing a hymn to music? Does her professed devotion, as reflected in her body language and gaze in 1961, seem real? Or does she instead seem as though she is constantly thinking about how best to sound devout and grateful?

For contrast, I turn to the lower-pitched, noticeably slower 1949 recording of “An die Musik” by English contralto Kathleen Ferrier and Phyllis Spurr: 

 

Here, beyond the sheer beauty of Ferrier’s remarkable voice, we can sense a depth of feeling – a virtually egoless piety – that seems far removed from Schwarzkopf’s studied approach.

For more analysis of Schwarzkopf’s singing, and comments on her newly remastered early commercial recordings from 1946-1952, please see my piece on Stereophile.

Here are several more clips of “An die Musik,” performed by some of the greatest singers of the last 100 years:

—English Mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker with Murray Perahia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pt19nrxdVb4, an interpretation especially notable for the hushed sincerity with which the duo begins the second verse.

—A second version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1DB5xB0RyM by Janet Baker, recorded with Geoffrey Parsons. How can one not believe this woman when she sings?

—Dutch soprano Elly Ameling with Jörg Demus in 1970 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TDEyW9JLuc, a performance beautiful in its simplicity, and perfect, save for the breath in the middle of the first phrase of the second verse.

—As she aged, Ameling became a deeper but no less lovable artist. Here, in her retirement, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tD8_UKfdnsM she talks about “An die Musik,” and then offers up her finest commercial recording of the song. You can hear it in better sound here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wfohl-zEDU&index=2&list=PLGneby1hN84M8tp0Bo2lVbERKEdicS6_i. It took going through 13 pages of “An die Musik” on YouTube to find both of these videos. As you can hear, the hunt was worth it.

—The totally idiomatic Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles with Gerald Moore https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-E7IicGOfQ, who, albeit a bit self-consciously at first, manages to transcend artifice and charm the pants off this song.

—English tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake, with Bostridge fussing even more than Schwarzkopf with this simple song.

—French baritone Gérard Souzay was a bit past his best and trying a bit too hard when he recorded this version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvNVPzudBis with Dalton Baldwin in 1967. Nonetheless, there is something very special about the end of the second verse.|

—The variety of vocal coloration is extraordinary in this recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-qYwh4e6i4 of the great Welsh bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, accompanied by the equally great Malcolm Martineau. Does it convince you?

—The one and only Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballé, with Alfredo Rossi, captured live in Buenos Aires at the start of her international career. Caballé’s many indulgences, which include arbitrary pianissimos and stretched notes, demonstrate why she is not famed for her lieder singing.

—The great lyric tenor Fritz Wunderlich https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-VqK088TF4, who died in his prime, may not invest the words to “An die Musik” with a plethora of individual touches, but his singing is so beautiful that the performance succeeds. The slowing in the second verse is very special.

—Ditto for this lovely performance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9TlAOKCmaQ by soprano Felicity Lott.

—For sheer gravity of utterance, you can’t do much better than bass-baritone Hans Hotter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFsaO7lZ6JU.

—For contrast, here is the beloved soprano, Elisabeth Schumann with Gerald Moore in 1936:  

 

Schumann’s voice had already peaked, but her sincerity and intensity, and the beauty that remains of her unique top, transcend all technical limitations. No one on record has ever sung like this.

As much as I wish to stick with “An die Musik,” I cannot resist linking to this rare film of a younger Schumann singing parts of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”:  

 

The sound may be poor, and the visual conceit decidedly old-fashioned, but the singing is heaven itself. When Schumann’s voice rises to her incomparably pure, glowing top, she radiates golden light. Her miraculous commercial recording  of “Ave Maria,” recorded in 1934, is a treasure. The way Schumann rounded off phrases was unique:

 

—Returning to “An die Musik,” here is the incomparable German soprano Lotte Lehmann https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxsETaJxMJw, with orchestra. Lehmann may sing slower than she comfortably can without taking breaths in the middle of phrases, but she nonetheless expresses an uncommon depth of feeling. The voice is like no other in its combination of gravitas with beauty.

—In 1941, Lehmann was 53 when she appeared on the radio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81-g46Z_3Fk with Paul Ulanowsky to introduce and sing a host of great songs. Extra breaths again intrude in this version of “An die Musik,” but her heartfelt sincerity is beyond question.

—The best Lehmann version of “An die Musik” was recorded in 1947, when she was 59 years old:

 

It tears my heart apart to hear how much love she pours into this song. While the age in the voice is apparent, its greater depth actually makes for a more convincing interpretation.

Four years later, Lehmann stunned a Town Hall audience by announcing her retirement in the middle of what turned out to be her last New York recital. As an encore, she attempted to sing “An die Musik.” Overcome with emotion, she walked off the stage in the middle of the second verse rather than breaking into tears, and left it to her accompanist, Paul Ulanowsky, to pick up the pieces.

—In this single verse, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yyIqN-E96Q , French baritone José van Dam gives us a sense of why he is so highly prized.

In the baritone range, the one man who dominated the field of German art song (lieder) from 1951 through the mid 1980s was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. An extraordinarily versatile singer, who also excelled in the vocal music of Bach and Mahler and the operas of Mozart and Strauss – he even sang Verdi and Wagner – Fischer-Dieskau was virtually ubiquitous in recording studios during the prime of his career. In some years, a month rarely went by without another Fischer-Dieskau recording.

Here is Fischer-Dieskau singing “An die Musik” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxsFgJF6XS4. As beautiful as his voice may be when he softens, it is hard not to notice how much he varies volume and tone, and pays special attention to the consonants and vowels of certain words.

Following other Fischer-Dieskau links on YouTube somehow took me to this:

 

…and to this:

 

A PBS remembrance of the man, recorded just days after his death, it is remarkable in that it honors the singer by presenting, not just a snippet of his singing, but rather an entire extraordinary performance intact. Equally important, it includes an interview with Washington Post chief music critic Anne Midgette at her perceptive best.

Fischer-Dieskau’s prime was unusually long. The tribute’s clip, a song from Schubert’s great song cycle, Winterreise (A Winter’s Journey), was recorded in 1979, when he was 54. Just one year earlier, he retired from opera. His prime probably would have extended far longer had he not smoked so much. Nonetheless, if this citation his true, he could still sing magnificently when he was 62: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=td5rg_p0z2c .

After you get a sense of how well Fischer-Dieskau could sing, this snippet from his final interview, conducted shortly before his death at age 86, provides great insight into how he viewed art song in the context of opera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyBBb0izYmM .

There is so much more one can say about art song. Truly, I’m just getting going. Let me end with several very different performances of Mahler’s great song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) by Fischer-Dieskau. This is the music that first introduced him to an international audience, and helped make him a household name.

The first https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKpjJCvWxRg , from 1952 with Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recorded commercially one year after the men performed the cycle together at Salzburg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sMLTC1lGEk . This live performance first surfaced decades after the commercial recording had made its mark.

In 1960, Fischer-Dieskau joined conductor Paul Kletzki, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur-3LrpgB0Y for a filmed performance of the cycle. Note how his interpretation had changed in the intervening years. In general, the older he got, the more he tried to do with a given piece of music.

For contrast, here is the famous recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMZmuV5vrlU of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Janet Baker with Sir John Barbirolli. Finally comes the latest recorded version by a great mezzo, from Alice Coote with Vladimir Jurowski. My review of that recording for stereophile.com, contains a very detailed discussion of performances of three Mahler song collections, and I urge you to read it.

While Coote and Jurowski’s Pentatone SACD is not on YouTube, we have in its place clips of them performing Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen at the BBC Proms in 2012 (complete with English translation). Broken into four parts, you can find the performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKoYyABuTio , here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrGMh3LQWeY, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrGw1oxDWqM, and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qBUiqWdixM.

We are so fortunate to have access to so many live performances by great artists, and to live in an age where many recordings are instantly accessible. If any of the voices or performances cited in this overview have touched you, I urge you to obtain out high-quality recordings of their artistry. The better the recording and playback chain, the more nuance you will hear.