One voice stilled, one soars

CRITIC'S CORNER//Music

Music Review

August 08, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There are none left.

Well, almost none. The death last week of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the German soprano famed for her Schubert and Strauss, continued a sad cycle. In the space of two short years, we've lost Victoria de los Angeles, Renata Tebaldi, Anna Moffo and Birgit Nilsson. (And that's just the sopranos.)

One after another, the deaths remind us how good the good old days really were in plenitude and quality of vocal artists. They just don't make them like that any more, the same way they don't make them like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn.

Then again, we're not so bereft. On the same day that news came of Schwarzkopf's death, I heard Renee Fleming sing with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap in Virginia.

I am invariably lifted out of the longing-for-singers-gone-by rut whenever I encounter Fleming. The American soprano has her own golden sound, her own insightful style, and she poured out both in that NSO appearance. At her best, she makes vocal art with a level of care, sincerity and beauty that measures up to Schwarzkopf and other luminaries of past eras.

In her retirement years, Schwarzkopf gave master classes for young singers, including Fleming, and earned a reputation for being awfully demanding. No surprise. Schwarzkopf, who died at 90 last Thursday in Austria, was, above all, a perfectionist.

She was not to every taste. The most common criticism levied against her was that her phrasing could sound mannered. But, for me, the soprano bore the stamp of musical truth.

The amply recorded Schwarzkopf left an indelible testament to that artistic integrity. You can savor it in several operas, especially those of Mozart and Strauss, and in many discs devoted to art songs, including authoritative accounts of lieder by Schubert, Wolf and Strauss. The latter's Four Last Songs inspired in Schwarzkopf a particularly compelling expressive depth. She inhabited those sublime reflections on approaching death and used her silvery, intimate voice to make them wonderfully comforting.

The dark side of Schwarzkopf was not artistic, but personal: her membership in the Nazi Party as a young, eager star-to-be in Germany. She kept that part of her life secret for a while, then downplayed it when it became irrefutable (comparing it to joining a union in order to get work).

I'll leave to higher authorities the ultimate judgment on that part of the soprano's career. For me, Schwarzkopf's lifelong devotion to the Holde Kunst -the "blessed art" she sang about so touchingly in Schubert's An die Musik - may provide her some measure of expiation. Musically speaking, the 20th century would have been a poorer time without her.

As for the 21st, we're starting out well with Fleming.

It's not every day that you get to hear Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber's atmospheric setting of the James Agee poem, with natural sound effects. At Wolf Trap last week, "the dry and exalted noise" of the annual cicadas really did come "from all the air at once."

In addition to that enchanting buzz during Fleming's performance with the NSO of the Barber masterwork, there was rolling thunder left over from a sudden, power-interrupting storm that delayed the concert, as the soloist waited in the wings. ("Sopranos don't like to be upstaged - by anything," Fleming told the crowd later.)

Stage lighting wasn't fully restored when the singer finally came out to perform Knoxville, but there was plenty of glow from her voice. A little strain and dip in pitch were of little concern amid the singer's beautifully detailed phrasing of this evocative, bittersweet/nostalgic music. Fleming's long-breathed, meltingly molded accounts of arias by Cilea and Puccini also enchanted.

The orchestra backed the singer with polish and color, led by NSO associate conductor Emil de Cou, a supple, sensitive music-maker.

On its own, the ensemble also did classy, spirited playing in Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice (despite distractions of the storm) and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe.

After the storm stopped the show, de Cou was an unflappable host, coming up with very droll, vamp-till-ready standup to keep the audience of about 3,300 entertained while waiting for generators to kick in. He's a natural.

BSO program change

Yuri Temirkanov has changed the program for his season-opening week with the BSO, which he will be leading in his new capacity as music director emeritus.

Replacing the Symphony No. 1 by Prokofiev and a short work by Sviradov will be Mahler's deeply beautiful Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). The soloist will be mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby. The rest of the program remains the same - Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich.

Performances are Sept. 28 at the Music Center at Strathmore, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Call 410-783-8000 or visit baltimoresymphony.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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