August 4, 2006
The acclaimed soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died yesterday at 90. A formidable figure in both opera and lieder, she was much-loved, even adored. As The LA Times' Mark Swed says, "all it took was a short Schubert song for her to wrap an audience around her little finger. And once she had you, she never let go."
And yet, some of us never quite got hooked -- in fact, were left a bit chilled by her mannered and infinitely-calculated delivery. The voice may have been pure silver, but (to these ears, anyway) all that glittering perfectionism felt contrived, ruthlessly purged of any unsightly human naturalness or intuitive depth. You can't help but respect her musicianship, her hard work, her enormous contributions (not least resurrecting the songs of Hugo Wolf). But did her singing feed the soul?
NPR's Tom Huizenga has a fairly sympathetic audio piece on her (he recalls the famous story that Schwarzkopf, when asked for her "desert island" list, offered eight of her own recordings), and The Washington Post's Tim Page pays balanced homage: "The cliche about the forest and the trees could be adapted for Schwarzkopf: There were times when one could hardly hear the music for the interpretation," he writes. "Nevertheless, she was a very great artist, one who combined a lustrous and opulent voice, a thespian's gift for intimate characterization, a sharp, creative intelligence and an innate artistic dignity."