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First and Last Songs

Bananas

At the sound of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s singing, strong men fell weak, nightingales blushed with envy, sunsets went pale. The pleasures she purveyed were guilty as hell, but how she could dish them out! We all had our favorite lines of her music, and they delivered sweet dreams: a defiance from a Johann Strauss operetta, a sad resignation from the other Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, a phrase from a Schubert song no matter how twisted out of context. Fond memory, cloaked in the pure silver of a Schwarzkopf recall, was enough to stop all clocks. “Sei nicht bös . . . ,” I will write (or simply breathe), and a teardrop will fall upon my keyboard . . . or almost.

“Sei nicht bös” — the traffic-stopping moment from Karl Zeller’s Der Obersteiger — isn’t even included in EMI’s new five-disc, reduced-price collection, but I’m sure that every well-equipped household already has its copy of a Schwarzkopf Sings Operetta disc in every room. The new collection has its own charms, and its curiosities as well. The first disc is worth the price of the whole set: a collection of Hugo Wolf songs that has been out of print for years. And on that disc there is a tiny pearl, lasting little more than a minute, that is worth the price of the entire disc: “Morgentau,” a perfect song you will play and replay and replay, and then go bananas over this wonderful young singer from back in 1954, who hasn’t yet learned how to flirt and fuss and turn into the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf that she would become, to the detriment of musical integrity, 20 years later.

This new collection seems made up of a fair number of barrel-scrapings: remastered recordings, outtakes from rehearsals, and worthy recordings retrieved from the dustbin. Almost everything is in mono. Some of the material doesn’t deserve the light of day: the 31-year-old soubrette chirping her way through a Strauss waltz; Wagner’s “Träume,” breathy and overphrased. A set of perfunctory songs by Walter Gieseking, with the eminent pianist at the keyboard, is hardly redeemed by his presence. But there are also treasures worth rediscovery: the Wolf disc, or a rehearsal sequence of Bach, with Schwarzkopf in harmony with the fabulous Kathleen Ferrier. Now and then, however, you can be beguiled by the bright clarity of the rising Schwarzkopf — not all that young, at 40 and 45, but clear of voice and strong of phrase and sometimes more the responsible, serious artist than she would occasionally later become. There is evidence, too, of ground she would never cover, for all those silvery tones. Listen, on disc No. 5, to her making her tortuous way through Bach’s Cantata No. 199 (“Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut”), pretty much note by note, phrase by phrase; listen then to the artistry, the comprehension of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s performance of the same music (on a Nonesuch disc issued two years ago).

Love for Love

Hunt Lieberson’s surpassing art has blessed this region lavishly in person, in opera, choral works and solo recital, but nothing so profound, so disturbing (in the best sense) as the set of orchestral songs to texts by Pablo Neruda that she sang here in May 2005. The music was by her husband, Peter Lieberson, who conducted the Philharmonic; the poems are Neruda’s own meditations on love. “My love,” sings the lover at the end, “if I die and you don’t, let us not give grief . . . We might not have found one another in time.” Only 14 months later, the wondrous singer herself was dead.

Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs stands as one of the romantic miracles of our time. The marvel extends to Lieberson himself, whose music on this occasion breathes a renewed sense of romantic communication, reborn from anything of his I know. The blending haunts us all — husband and wife, poetry and music, a oneness both ecstatic and desperate. Shaken as we are by the intensity of her recordings — the Bach cantatas, the Handel arias, even some of the earlier Lieberson songs — we also hear a quality that goes beyond the music: a reaching, a touching. The Nonesuch recording, done live with the Boston Symphony conducted by James Levine, is beautiful and moving; if it doesn’t quite touch my memory of that May night at Disney Hall, with Lorraine standing engulfed by the orchestra and Peter’s baton the embodiment of a love beyond expression, probably nothing can.

Refreshment

The rains came on Saturday night, and so did Noah’s Flood, both welcome. Benjamin Britten’s setting of the 16th-century miracle play, not quite an opera but more fun than most, was most magically dealt with under Los Angeles Opera auspices, as the latest in the admirable outreach program designed to involve other community agencies in widespread music making. Already that has meant more new activity — newly composed school opera and revivals of bygone works like this delirious Britten masterwork — than one pair of ears or legs can keep up with. The L.A. Opera’s new music director, James Conlon, has been the firebrand in much of this, with his restoration last season of music created under Nazi captivity, his announcement of further exploration of this extraordinary repertory and the impression he generates over all that the “out” in his “outreach” has no end.

Conlon was in charge of the Britten as well, masterminding the crowd — something close to 4,000, crammed into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels — in a rehearsal of the sing-along hymns and leading the 40-minute production in similar high spirits. Jason Stearns was the Noah; Jamieson K. Price, the Voice of God; Phyllis Pancella, Mrs. Noah decked out with a gift for bitchcraft that the framers of the original Book of Genesis had somehow overlooked. Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music supplied the mostly percussion orchestra (with a few L.A. Opera ringers); the children and adults, under Eli Villanueva’s direction, were from St. John Eudes Church, every one a scene-stealer, every one entitled.


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