Friday, April 3, 2009

A wonderful singer bar nun

This afternoon I was driving along with the windows open listening to one of my favourite pieces of music. It has bells, nuns, top Cs, romance and tragedy, not to mention a possible Nazi sympathiser. I give you 'The Nuns' Chorus' from Casanova.

I was brought up on Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She was a rather wonderful introduction to the world of opera through her recordings of Viennese operetta and a little Mahler. Her beautiful, flawless voice was part of my childhood and though I may now appreciate that her delivery could be occasionally mannered and of its time and place, I don't think any singer can doubt her amazing technique, the sheer quality of her tone and the sensitivity and intelligence of her performance.

Of course, when I fell in love with Schwarzkopf there was no suspicion of Nazi sympathies and no talk of her infamous 'Desert Island Discs' appearance when she chose all her own records. My Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was the stunningly beautiful woman on the record sleeve with Hollywood hair and cheekbones like knives dressed in a sheeny silk gown. This, coupled with the swooning romanticism of Viennese operetta, of which she was a peerless exponent, made her a major influence on the life of a hopelessly romantic child with a weakness for glamour.

At eleven I could sing along with 'The Nuns' Chorus, 'Einer Wird Kommen' and the deeply unsuitable 'Meiner Lippen Sie Kussen so Heiss' in a personal version of German, with little idea of the meaning except for what I had gleaned from the cover notes. Of course I now realise that an eleven yera old singing Viennese operetta to herself in 'German' might be considered somewhat weird but I consider Schwarzkopf, despite her possible history and faults, one of the major artistic influences on my life. She taught me about beauty of tone at all times, holding back to create tension, how thoughtful and beautiful delivery can make even the most banal music potentially exquisite - so many things. I don't say I can do all these things but Schwarzkopf offered something for all singers to aspire to.

Later I discovered other recordings and she never disappointed. She is famed for her interpretation of lieder and later I watched her school singers in a masterclass (including a young Bryn Terfel), a fearsome and exacting perfectionist and clearly a consummate artist. Singers trembled as she uncompromisingly dissected their performance to the 'enth'degree but patently benefited from her advice and experience.

Above all she is for me the beginning of my lifelong appreciation for and love of beautiful singing of all kinds and in all genres. The fact that ,despite developing more 'sophisticated' tastes, I can still be sent by Schwarzkopf soaring to a desperate climax over the women's voices in 'The Nuns' Chorus' is for me telling. Some music remains a deeply visceral experience yet sometimes it's not the stuff you want to admit to your friends you enjoy! For me little compares to driving along with the windows open listening to Schwarzkopf begging the Virgin Mary to release her for her torment as she soars effortlessly to the top of her range in a desperate but refined, polished and beautifully executed agony.

Camp? Maybe. But none the worse for it.

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