V2536. FRAUENLIEBE UND LEBEN (Schumann), 8 individual performances by Lotte Lehmann and Ria Ginster (sung in German); Germaine Martinelli and Ninon Vallin (sung in French); Elisabeth Schumann, Elisabeth Höngen and Sena Jurinac (sung in German); Zara Dolukhanova (sung in Russian). (Canada) 2–Immortal Performances IPCD 1062. Recorded 1930-53. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Elaborate 32pp. booklet features essays by Henry Fogel & Richard Caniell. - 019962435430
“There is a sore temptation for me simply to stop at this point and say that if you love the art of Lieder, you simply must buy this set and hear the magnificent artistry of this octet of vocal ‘greats’. That temptation is further pressed by a counsel of despair: FANFARE colleague Henry Fogel has contributed an essay of interpretive commentary to the booklet, written with such keen appreciation, penetrating insight, and wealth of illustrative detail as to leave me nothing [more] to say. There is a strong itch simply to copy his notes verbatim and abridge them for this review. But that wouldn’t be cricket, so I will say a little something of my own and beg the indulgence of my readers.
Choosing a favorite version from this embarrassment of vocal riches risks being a churlish exercise; but if forced to do so, I would unhesitatingly plump for the opening account with Lotte Lehmann (1888–1976). Hers is a magisterial reading of the widowed subject of the poems looking back over her life, rendered with sovereign majesty over her art and unmatched degrees of subtle shading and inflection of the texts. Although she was one week shy of 58 when she gave this recital, her voice is in pristine condition, and the excellence of this rendition is heightened by the sensitivity of her longtime accompanist, Paul Ulanowsky. Richard Caniell has rightly chosen to employ only minimal filtering of somewhat noisy acetates (though these are no worse than many 78-rpm discs from the same period) in order not to impair Lehman’s tonal coloration. Despite being a live performance, no audience noise is perceptible; applause is not included. The sound is vastly superior to that on an Eklipse release from 1995.
Ria Ginster (1898–1985) is undoubtedly best remembered today for her participation during the 1930s in the Hugo Wolf Society’s Lieder recording project through HMV. Hers is a light, almost transparent voice (she wisely avoided the opera stage), decidedly youthful in tone. She accordingly and sensibly takes an interpretive approach from exactly the opposite end of the spectrum as Lehmann, beginning with the first stirrings of love in a young woman’s breast and moving forward in time from there through courtship, proposal, engagement, wedding, pregnancy, new motherhood, and bereavement. From the sudden shift in tone color for the closing song, one imagines that this woman was widowed very early on, perhaps even before reaching age 30.
Germaine Martinelli (1887–1964) was another singer who concentrated primarily on song repertoire rather than opera. Her voice has the very bright timbre, with just a soupçon of acidity, so typical of the pre-World War II French school of singing. She provides the fastest traversal of the cycle, and indeed impetuosity is the interpretive keynote of her approach; she seems almost giddy with excitement throughout, and in her final song one senses that the reality of her husband’s death has not yet fully sunk in. Jean Doyen is a particularly elegant accompanist.
By contrast, Ninon Vallin (1886–1961) made her career primarily in opera and operetta, winning discographic immortality for her participation in the immortal 1931 recording of Massenet’s WERTHER as Charlotte opposite Georges Thill. Hers is a medium-weight voice, with more body and less brilliance than Martinelli’s, and her ‘take’ on the cycle is one of classical poise that emphasizes impeccable vocal execution over overt emotionalism…. Like Martinelli, she sings in French rather than German.
Elisabeth Schumann (1888–1952) was both Lehmann’s exact contemporary and her lifelong friend, with the two of them being particularly renowned for their joint appearances in DER ROSENKAVALIER as the Marschallin and Sophie, respectively. As that division of labors indicates, Schumann’s was indeed the more lyrical and less dramatic instrument. Caught here at age 61, her voice by then had lost a good deal of its youthful sheen; there is a hardness of tone at the top, and a lack of change in coloration. Nevertheless, the listener is amply rewarded with her legendary ability (again like Lehmann) to inflect the text and mine every ounce of meaning from each word without falling prey to preciousness. And, of course, in Gerald Moore she has the king of piano accompanists.
Although Elisabeth Höngen (1906–1997) sang the mezzo-soprano repertory, her voice had the timbre and range to ascend into the soprano repertoire, and her rendition of the cycle here is totally devoid of any trace of heaviness. Like Lehmann and Schumann, she is masterful at shading words for meaning; and she is similar to Lehmann in dramatic weight, overt emotionalism, and vantage point of retrospective reflection from late maturity. Another noteworthy feature here is the accompanist, Ferdinand Leitner, a prominent conductor in post-war Germany who made over 300 recordings.
Coming to Sena Jurinac (1922–2011), we have not only the youngest singer to undertake this cycle (she was only 32 at the time) but arguably also the one with the most sumptuously beautiful voice. But there is certainly no interpretive immaturity here; Jurinac was already established as a leading singer of Mozart and the lighter roles of Wagner and Richard Strauss, and her renditions are polished….One might characterize her approach as the golden mean in this set, equidistantly poised in all respects from the various opposing polarities represented here by her colleagues. She also enjoys the advantage of by far the best recorded sound in this set.
The fabled Armenian mezzo Zara Dolukhanova (1918–2007) abandoned the operatic stage at age 26 to focus upon song repertoire. Compared to the other seven versions in this set, she labors under some significant disadvantages: The switch to Russian is initially jarring; and the tinny, tubby recorded sound make listening to the piano (which also sounds as if it were poorly tuned) a sore trial throughout. However, it does not take long to place those factors in the background and focus upon Dolukhanova’s inimitable artistry. Here is the ardent, yet never gauche, heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that one always associates with the towering greats of the Russian repertoire (Sergei Lemeshev, Pavel Lisitsian and Mark Reizen immediately spring to mind as male counterparts). Like Höngen, her mezzo voice has an almost soprano-like timbre and top extension; interpretively, she partakes of the youthful excitability of Martinelli, though in the closing song she manages a gorgeous darkening of tone after the manner of Ginster.
As always, Immortal Performances lavishes Rolls-Royce production values on this set. Richard Caniell has taken his usual immaculate care with the remasterings to obtain the best possible sound. A luxurious 32-page booklet contains complete data for all of the recordings, the aforementioned essay by Fogel, Caniell’s own brief recording notes, detailed biographical entries for all eight singers, the complete German texts with an English translation, and numerous archival and artistic photos and drawings….This set is a triumph on every level; highest possible recommendation.”
- James Altena, FANFARE, March/April, 2017
“To hear these various female FRAUENLEBEN in one go is...a voyage through a Golden Age, and one that it is a privilege to undertake....If my arm were twisted, I would say it is the Armenian mezzo Zara Dolukhanova who provides the real treat of the collection, although her reading is not for everyday listening….The opening song seems already to be full of worldly sorrow, the Russian language seeming to underline this aspect….The piano chord that opens the final song is like a Tchaikovskian gesture of Fate; in response, Dolukhanova could be some sort of Russian Norn.
The choice of performances here is impeccable, taking in the full gamut, from light through to truly transformational....All credit to Immortal Performances for their stunning restorative abilities, too. Surface noises recede easily into the background of one’s consciousness; more, the timbre of the voices is beautifully retained....Henry Fogel’s booklet notes are unfailingly informative and interesting….A set that is truly revelatory.”
- Colin Clarke, FANFARE, March/April, 2017