Wednesday, 19 August 2009
A star fell
It was one of those oddly serendipitous moments. Carl, in whose Zurich flat we were staying, sings in the opera chorus there, and among his CDs were a few of my favourite tenor, Romanian born Joseph Schmidt. I came to Schmidt through my dear late friend and student Trude Winik, who grew up in what she called 'our red Vienna' and always claimed Schmidt as 'one of our people'. As such, he met a tragic and unnecessary end, dying in a Swiss transit camp aged only 38 of disease and exhaustion. But before that the diminutive Schmidt was a matinee idol, a film star - once his appearances on stage were limited by the growing anti-semitism - and a prolific recording artist.
We don't know enough about him in the UK, but in Germany he remained celebrated enough to merit a stamp in the centenary year of his birth.
I have four CDs at home of Schmidt's HMV recordings, and Trude gave me a couple of battered old records, but I'd never heard the Preiser disc Carl owns of 'Religious Songs and Arias'. So as well as marvelling at the wealth of different tones Schmidt brought to characters as diverse as Massenet's Rodrigue, Tchaikovsky's Lensky and Korngold's Paul, it was amazing to come across him as cantor in a couple of Hebrew songs. Even more amazing was to read in the booklet note that he was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Zurich.
It seemed too strange a coincidence to pass by: we were catching the train the next morning to Vienna, where of course my thoughts are often with Trude (who has a crucial part to play in the talk on Shostakovich 11 tonight, too). So we found out how to get to the cemetery, took a No. 13 tram to Albisgutli on the edge of the Rietberg and walked along a high path past smallholdings to what turned out to be the NEW Jewish cemetery. Further enquiry from a venerable orthodox gentleman with one eye led us down the hill, and there we were, able to lay two stones on the great man's gravestone.
Today I learnt of the death, aged 72, of Hildegard Behrens, another star who this time meant so much to my operatic wunderjahren. It was 1978 and I was 16: I'd been turned into an incipient opera queen hungry for Sutherland by mamma, who'd seen the Bell Song from Lakme in some film or other. But I was slowly coming to realise that much of the rep Joanie sang, including that season Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, wasn't quite to my taste. I wanted Strauss, Wagner. And having just bought the LPs of Behrens's Salome with Karajan, I was thrilled to bits to go to a friends rehearsal of the Royal Opera production. She stunned me with that odd, silvery sound and that terrifying development from innocent to harpy. I went backstage and the lady, clad in a leopardskin coat and with huge false eyelashes, was charm itself. She wrote 'Best wishes for you' on the back of the cast-list (in which I note John Tomlinson sang Fifth Jew) and signed my EMI booklet not just on her photo
but also on the booklet's cover, across the midriff of a naked dancing princes who, surprise, surprise, didn't do much for me.
Since then I saw Behrens's Elektra twice, relished her Met Brunnhilde and her Dyer's Wife for Solti on CD and will always remember her great singing acting as synonymous with my own musical growing-up.