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Schubert: Winterreise, D.911. Lotte Lehmann, soprano, & Paul Ulanowsky, piano (recorded 1940-41). Vocal Archives VA 1173 (70:53).
This CD preserves an elusive and unusual set of recordings that, taken together, encompass nearly all of Schubert's Winterreise (the second stanza of the first song is omitted, apparently due to time limitations imposed by the original medium). A total of twenty mostly 12" 78-rpm sides were involved in the original project. One of three albums was issued by RCA Victor and Columbia provided the other two. The songs weren't recorded consecutively, and in retrospect little other than the timing of specific numbers seems to have driven the order of presentation. Because two record companies were involved, neither BMG nor Sony (current owners of the respective archives) was able to reissue the material as a unit. Now Pearl has done so, and their CD (GEM 0033) is the one to purchase. Readers may therefore wonder why the set under review carries another label. The reason is the growing problem of record piracy. There's a limited market for old recordings, and it never crossed my mind that Pearl's release, announced in the Summer 1999 issue of the English magazine International Classical Record Collector, would be hijacked almost immediately, so when I asked a local dealer to get it for me, I requested merely Lehmann's Winterreise without providing the label name and number - this Italian dub, manufactured in Austria, was the result.
The records, made in 1940 and 1941, are properly sequenced and correctly pitched, and the overall performance is stunning. The engineering's not bad - there's some filtering, but direct comparison with the original Victor 78s reveals that the processing isn't excessive. Lehmann, one of our century's great singers, was at home in opera and in recital halls around the world. She was of course one of the top performers of Strauss and Wagner, and her pre-Anschluss Salzburg appearances in Fidelio, under Toscanini's baton, are legendary. Her approach to Lieder was every bit as special, as this CD amply demonstrates. (Incidentally, after she retired from singing, Lehmann ran the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where Marilyn Horne has spent many summers.) Purists might balk at the thought of a woman singing a man's cycle, and indeed Lehmann was the first to record this one, but she was hardly the first to cross the gender line, even on records - the ground-breaker in this regard seems to have been soprano Germaine Martinelli, who made a French version of Die schöne Müllerin years ahead of Lehmann's Schubert and Schumann ("Dichterliebe," with Bruno Walter at the piano). That said, Lehmann was far and away the better singer - her interpretive skills were without peer, and this cycle clearly occupied a prominent place in her heart, for she devoted a large section of her 1945 book More than Singing to notes on its twenty-four numbers. Students of singing and collectors, too, will find much to treasure in this important release. Go for it - but support Pearl's commendable historic preservation efforts by purchasing their edition instead of this Italian rip-off.