1. Lucrezia Borgia, Donizetti, Brindisi (Il segreto per esser felici) [3.04]
(sung in German)
2. Arditi, Leggero Invisibile (Bolero) [4.08]
3. Becker, Frühlingszeit [3.21]
4. Le prophète, Meyerbeer, Ah, mon fils! [4.19]
5. Le prophète, Meyerbeer, O prêtres de Baal… Il va venir (Prison scene) [6.52]
6. Das Rheingold, Wagner, Weiche, Wotan [4.10]
7. Millöcker, I und mei Bua [3.58]
8. Rienzi, Wagner, Gerechter Gott! [4.26]
9. Rinaldo, Handel, Lascia ch'io pianga [4.23]
10. Schubert, Der Erlkönig [3.52]
11. Wagner, Traume [4.24]
12. Reimann, Spinnerliedchen [1.51] (piano: Hoffmann)
13. Molloy, The Kerry Dance [3.56]
14. Brahms, Wiegenlied [2.06]
15. Böhm, Still wie die Nacht [3.06]
16. German folk song, Du, du liegst mir im Herzen [3.11]
17. Lieurance, By the Waters of Minnetonka [2.44]
18. Das Rheingold, Wagner, Weiche, Wotan [4.10] (dir: R. Bourdon)
19. Götterdämmerung, Wagner, Höre mit Sinn, was ich dir sage! [5.01] (dir: R. Bourdon)
Ernestine Schumann-Heink (contralto), with Herbert Witherspoon (bass) track 6
Austrian Ernestine Schumann-Heink was a phenomenon, vocally and historically. As well as being the pre-eminent contralto on the operatic and concert stage in a career lasting nearly sixty years, she also became a national institution in the United States as a singer, mother-figure and, ultimately, if briefly, even a film star.
Her voice was exceptional and of the kind Verdi would have recognised; on this disc you may hear her range from G flat beneath middle C to a flicked top B flat, just beneath top C, in the first aria from “Le prophète”. Indeed, her first operatic role at the age of 17 was Azucena. As well as being esteemed at Bayreuth as a specialist in the stentorian Wagnerian roles such as Erda and Waltraute, she had the coloratura facility to tackle Donizetti, as in the famous “Brindisi” here, which also displays her perfect trill on a sustained E. She sang her last Erda at the Met at the age of 70 and was still singing on tour almost until her death from leukaemia in 1936. As well as having 150 operatic roles in her repertoire, she knew hundreds of songs which she would intersperse between operatic arias during her concerts. She created roles in several premieres, including Klytemnestra in “Elektra” at the express invitation of its composer, Richard Strauss. She became even more famous through her public performances to raise morale during World War 1 and later as “the nation’s favourite mom” in weekly radio concerts sponsored by a baby food manufacturer. In her personal life, she knew first despair then triumph, contemplating suicide after her first husband left her while she was a failing opera singer pregnant with her fourth child, but then finding success almost overnight in Hamburg; by the early 1900s she was the favourite contralto in her adoptive country of America. Even then, her life continued to be marked by improbable events: she lost one son who was fighting on the German side while another was with the Allies.
Good-humoured, homely of appearance, built for comfort and possessed of a famously robust appetite, she was never one to take herself too seriously, as we can hear from her spectacularly entertaining rendering of Millöcker’s yodelling song here. Yet there is an innate dignity and grandeur in the columnar sound that issued from her stately form.
Nor was she any mean vocal actor; her assumption of the four distinct voices in Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” is a tour de force: the narrator impassioned, the child pale, whining and pitiful, the father sturdy and imperturbable, the Erlkönig chillingly menacing and seductive. By contrast, particularly lovely is the haunting, lyrical ballad in English, “By the Waters of Minnetonka”, made when she was 65. One hears virtually no discernible decline in the steadiness or tonal quality of her voice between the first version of “Weiche, Wotan” in 1907 and the second in 1929, when she was 68; this artist’s vocal longevity was extraordinary.
Only the last three tracks are electronic, making one regret the muffled quality of the rest, but the voice shines through, being similar to Caruso’s in its aptness for acoustic recording. Incidentally, a misprint puts the Wotan credit under the wrong aria, corrected above.