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DIVA ASSOLUTA (article first published : 2006-08-15)

The power of sentiment grows with age. Who’d have thought a news report last Friday entitled ‘Soprano Legend Dies’ could reduce a hard-nosed reader such as myself to unstoppable tears?

The soprano was the German-born diva assoluta Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (90), whose demise last Thursday at her home in Austria touched music lovers around the globe.

One of the greats on the 20th century’s cultural landscape, Schwarzkopf at the height of her powers exercised a spell-binding effect never forgotten by audiences lucky enough to have experienced her magic onstage.

She held a Durban City Hall audience enthralled throughout a taxing lieder programme heard during my student days. I recall as if it were yesterday the feeling of breathlessness lasting for suspended seconds, before she appeared in all her glamour to cast that spell.

For good reason she was known in the 50s and 60s as a sorceress of the opera stage, and her recitals remained legendary long after she’d retired from opera. British dramatist Terrence Rattigan’s dictum "What makes magic is genius, and what makes genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains" rings true with regard to Schwarzkopf.

In his wonderfully entertaining memoirs, Am I Too Loud? her long-time partner Gerald Moore described the soprano as "the most cruelly self-critical person imaginable", marking her scores with "arrows, stabs, slashes and digs."

An early musical mentor of mine corroborated this impression with a first-hand account of a recording session she sat in on of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, when Schwarzkopf insisted on completing no less than 16 takes of the Countess’s cavatina, Porgi amor, before she was satisfied.

Decades after those tracks were set down, the results of those ‘infinite pains’, along with the rest of her bench-mark performance, stand as a testament to the divine fertility of Mozart’s and da Ponte’s creation, brought to full flower through the singer’s interpretive genius.

Time and again Schwarzkopf takes you to the heart of the matter. This explains why her recorded legacy is here to stay: like her contemporary, Maria Callas, she ‘sells’ as vigorously today as she ever did during her 40-year career.

Her high-summer signature roles in Mozart, that heart-rending Figaro Countess, her consummate, tragi-comic Elvira in Don Giovanni, her spine-tingling Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte, these are uniquely rich interpretations. They are matched in Richard Strauss by her definitive Marschallin, Ariadne and Capriccio Countess, and by her indelible Four Last Songs with George Szell.

Her imagination is infinite, her word-painting uniquely evocative, creating a visual illusion in sheer aural terms. Listen to Mozart’s miniature masterpiece, Die Alte (K517), and marvel at how palpably she conjures up the song’s pernickety old woman. This magic pervades virtually all her ‘high terrain’ repertoire, her Schubert, Wolf, Mahler, Brahms ...

Then listen to the sorceress turning tinsel into gold, as she puts her unforgettable stamp on Danny Boy and Viennese schmaltz like Vilja or Im chambre séparée. Hear these and die happy.

In a tribute to the diva last week, Edward Greenfield, The Guardian's music critic emeritus, wrote: "She was one of the very greatest of all singers. She combined every quality you wanted in a great soprano”. Here’s seconding that salute. - William Charlton-Perkins




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