18 Apr 2005

Joseph Schwarz Sings Arias by Verdi, Wagner, Leoncavallo and Meyerbeer

For whom is this fine CD? It is published by Hänssler Verlag; a publishing house that specializes in Christian literature and that has a classical record branch as well.

Still, the older collector will probably have the originals, the Preiser LP’s or the 2 Preiser CD’s with most of Schwarz’s output on Parlophone and Gramophone. As far as I know no one has ever put young Schwarz’s records on Zonophone (2), Edison (1) or Pathé (12) on CD. The CD under review gives us 18 tracks, all recorded for Gramophone and is very much duplicated by the Preiser CD’s. Therefore this is meant for either the new collector or for someone who doesn’t need to have the complete recorded output of a particular singer. Not that Schwarz doesn’t deserve to be remembered by every note he ever sang for the horn. In his magnum opus German critic Jürgen Kesting (Die Grossen Sänger, 3 vols., 2089 pp.) writes: “ though he never recorded electrically his recordings show us the best German baritone of the century.”1 High praise indeed though probably well-deserved. Kesting still tells us that Schwarz died at the early age of 46 due to kidney insufficiency. However the sleeve notes on this latest issue bluntly say the baritone was an alcoholic who by the time of his death had become a sad wreck. Therefore it was Schwarz’s own behaviour that caused the tragedy which resulted in us having no electric recordings.

Still, these acoustics give a formidable portrait of the singer and we can understand British publisher Victor Gollanz who put Schwarz’s Rigoletto on the same height as Caruso’s Duca. As Schwarz was Jewish, his records were not available in Germany for a whole generation and this may be one of the reasons he is less well remembered than he deserves.

All of the transfers on this CD were recorded during the baritone’s best years between 1916 and 1918. It strikes me that in those exceedingly lean years when elementary conditions of living had so badly deteriorated in Germany (due to the Allied blockade) singers still made records. It strikes me still more that Schwarz sang a few of them in the war’s last year in somewhat unidiomatic Italian, a language he probably didn’t know because everything was sung in German in those days and his brief international career didn’t start until three years later. I have an inkling that by 1918, when all international imports had long dried up and Germany was at war with Italy since 1915, there was some need for the international version.

These recordings are not among Schwarz’s best as he is clearly somewhat less incisive in Zaza than he is when singing in German and the recording of “Solenne in quest’ora” is severely handicapped by the pinched sounds of Jadlowker, lost in territory foreign to his voice. But all other records show Schwarz’s mastery of bel canto, which almost immediately makes you forget he is singing in translation. There is much to enjoy here. There is the easy top, common to many golden age baritones, easily sailing to G and even A. Then there is the rich and homogenous sound of the middle voice which he can colour at will. At the lower end there is some weakness, one of the reasons he probably avoided the later Wagner roles, which ask for more bottom. Schwarz’s legato is impeccable and the few sobs he introduces in “Cortigiani” are sung as a means of expression and not meant to break the line to take a breath. On top of all this is the imaginative phrasing from an artist who had carefully listened to Mattia Bastianini as can clearly be heard in both singers “Di Provenza”. Some of these recordings are pure magic, maybe the best being the “Scintille diamant” where he decorates the high G sharp and then finishes with a heavenly diminuendo on a long final E. Indeed he often uses pianissimo in places where the common baritone roars away like “Eri tu”; therefore impressing his listeners all the more with strong endings on high F.

The sound of these transfers is clear and I have no complaints with pitching decisions.

Jan Neckers

1 Translation by author.