Recordings > Editor's Choice

Irmgard Seefried: "Recordings 1944-67"

spacer Arias, Scenes and Songs. Various orchestras, ensembles and conductors. Erik Werba, piano. No texts or translations. ORFEO C877 1341 (4)

The Natural

A four-CD set of live performances by Irmgard Seefried captures the legendary soprano's seemingly effortless brilliance.


The beloved German lyric soprano Irmgard Seefried (1919–88) was for decades closely associated with the operas of Mozart and Richard Strauss at Vienna State Opera (1942–76) and the Salzburg Festival (1946–64), epitomizing the dramatically potent, vocally slim performing style of the period. A quality of effortless directness pervades Seefried's singing: her colleague Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made the often-quoted remark that Seefried did naturally what other singers, including Schwarzkopf herself, worked all their lives to achieve.The present four-CD set focuses on live-performance material, unearthing previously unreleased song repertoire, improving sound quality and correcting the pitching of all selections to achieve a highly enjoyable, often breathtaking document of a formidable artist. 

A 1944 performance of "Ach, ich fühl's" , paced slowly by Karl Böhm for expression and sustained by Seefried with heartbreaking simplicity, is followed by a Leopold Ludwig-led "Leise, leise" , from Der Freischütz, in which legato is filled with intensity, the long phrases never verging on self-congratulation. Although the demanding finale to the aria taxes Seefried, the soprano — never one to be cautious where emotional truth might be compromised — proves fearless. Two scenes from Meistersinger, recorded with Paul Schöffler as Sachs under Böhm in 1944, remind one of why Eva was Seefried's breakthrough role in Vienna: her combination of sweetness of tone, lack of affectation, and textual acuity is entirely winning. Also superb is a chunk of the Ariadne auf Naxos Prologue under Böhm, with Seefried's vital, young Composer reminding us how marvelous it was when this role was still performed by lyric sopranos, able to sail through Strauss's line and deliver words with the clarity of crystal. A novelty is the finale to Puccini's Suor Angelica, from "Senza mamma" (here auf Deutsch as "Ohne Mutter") to the end of the piece, including the fascinating Debussian-sounding "aria dei fiori" , which Puccini cut from the final published score. Seefried avoids maudlin sentimentality with sweet simplicity, exposing every layer of the young nun's emotional pain; only the killer final passages are a bit of a trial vocally.

Seefried's only Metropolitan Opera appearances were in autumn 1953, when she joined the company for five performances as Mozart's Susanna, which had already been established as one of her signature roles in Vienna and Salzburg. Her 1947 "Deh vieni" , accompanied exquisitely by Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, may not feature idiomatic Italian, but every word is caressed lovingly, every phrase arched beautifully, each shift in mood captured perfectly. Parts of Fiordiligi's two arias, recorded under Böhm in 1956, can be heavy going for this essentially lyric voice, and in an otherwise impressive "Exsultate, jubilate" (with the New York Philharmonic under Bruno Walter in 1953) some florid passages are fudged.

Two extremely gratifying discs are devoted to song repertoire. Twenty-three selections offer Seefried with her long-time accompanist and musical partner, Erik Werba; their work is on the highest level in terms of synchronicity and sheer music-making. Whether in well-known songs by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms or treading less familiar turf with Mussorgsky or Milhaud, Seefried is unerring in her measure of how far to go — never precious, always full-blooded in the darker songs, never cloying or cutesy in lighter fare. Among many highlights are Schubert's "Ganymed"  and "Gretchen am Spinnrade," Schumann's "Der Nussbaum"  and Brahms's "Unbewegte, laue Luft" . A particular treat is Seefried's (German-language) treatment of six of the seven surviving Mussorgsky "Nursery Songs." Her open vowels take on a childlike quality, brilliantly conveying every shifting mood. The final CD ends with a 1967 group of songs by composer Joseph Kosma (1905–69), a Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Paris in 1933. Kosma wrote several film scores for Jean Renoir (La Grande Illusion, La Règle du Jeu) and Marcel Carné (Les Enfants du Paradis) but is best known for the pop hit "Les feuilles mort" (Autumn Leaves). Seefried invests her Kosma set with ample charm .

With such vocal and interpretive riches, great conductors and orchestras (as well as Seefried's husband, celebrated violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan, on hand for violin obbligatos in two selections), it seems a pity to cavil, but a genuine drawback to this set is its lack of any texts or translations. This won't be a handicap for German-speakers (Seefried sings almost everything in her native language), but it poses a major online research project for the conscientious. spacer 


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