Friday, March 16, 2012

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 11: It Is Evening

When I was a young singer, I heard the second number in the video montage below, the Monteverdi duet "Baci cari," on a program on Columbia University's radio station, WKCR. I already knew and loved the controversial artistry of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but I had never before heard the compelling singing of her Vienna State Opera colleague Irmgard Seefried. Schwarzkopf and Seefried recorded a legendary album of duets in 1955, accompanied by English collaborative pianist par excellence Gerald Moore, which included the Monteverdi piece. Though in today's post-authentic-historical-performance age, no one with any pretensions to musicological know-how would dare to sing Monteverdi with a piano, I loved it so much that I sang it, with a wonderful soprano colleague, in the edition for piano in my M.M. voice recital.

Schwarzkopf, a Marlene Dietrich look-alike with an equally glamorous voice, takes the top line in all the pieces. Seefried, whose voice and aspect both convey more a sense of Mitteleuropean stolidity than Schwarzkopf's soaring emotional extravagance, sings the harmony throughout with a remarkably affecting purity, almost an aesthetic of austerity. To me, the highlight of the album is the Dvořák duet cycle Klänge aus Mähren -- Strains from Moravia -- sung in German. In this repertoire, the two voices just seem to work together so naturally, and convey such warmth and intimacy, and such a lovely sense of the conversational, that I've always imagined that Schwarzkopf and Seefried were true friends in real life.  Schwarzkopf, often expressive to the point of exaggeration, is beautifully restrained here, and the two sopranos sing together with an enviable simplicity, more touching by far than a more conventionally expressive interpretation. I couldn't find any selections of this repertoire on Youtube, so here is one of the Dvořák duets, "Fliege, Vöglein," sung by the American soprano Barbara Bonney and the German mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager. 

It is lovely, but to me, it lacks something of the naturalness, the simplicity, of the Schwarzkopf-Seefried performance.

In looking for recordings of the pair on Youtube, though, I found something that I thought astonishingly beautiful: Seefried, again with Gerald Moore at the piano, singing the well-known late Mozart song "Abendempfindung" (Emotions at evening). 

At first I thought the tempo was too fast, but after several bars it seemed to me the perfect framework for the delicacy and restraint of Seefried's interpretation. The text:

It is evening; the sun has vanished,
And the moon shines with its silver rays.
Thus flee Life's fairest hours,
Flying away as if in a dance.

And soon Life's colorful scenes will fly away too,
And the curtain will come rolling down.
Our play is done: the tears of a friend
Flow already over our grave.

Soon, perhaps (the thought arrives gently,
like the west wind, with a quiet foreboding)
I will part from this life's pilgrimage,
And fly to the land of rest.

If you will then weep over my grave,
Gaze mournfully upon my ashes,
Then, o Friends, I will appear
And waft you all heavenward.

And you, too, bestow a little tear upon me,
and pluck me a violet for my grave,
And with your soulful gaze
look gently upon me.

Weep the smallest of tears for me, and ah!
Do not be ashamed to cry thus for me;
Those tears will become
the loveliest pearls in my diadem.

Seefried's singing here seems like the embodiment of the violet in the  text, the most un-showy of flowers, and of the humble tears that become the most beautiful jewels in the beloved's crown. 

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