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"The Art of Edith Mathis"

CD Button Fassbaender, Procter; Ochman, Schreier, Fischer-Dieskau; various pianists, orchestras and conductors. DG 479 8337 (7)

Recordings Edith Mathis Cover 618
Critics Choice Button 1015 

EDITH MATHIS, cherished by so many operagoers as the ingénue par excellence, celebrated her eightieth birthday in February. Commemorating that occasion is a box set so satisfying that, even after seven discs, listeners will long for more of the Swiss soprano’s luminous voice and interpretive intelligence.

We had too little of Mathis in this country. She sang only tweny-five performances of five roles at the Met (1970–1974), but she was loved at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Salzburg, Hamburg, Munich and her home theater, Deutsche Oper Berlin. It was in Berlin that she triumphed as Luise in the world premiere of Henze’s Junge Lord. This set includes that character’s monologue, which Mathis sings exquisitely.

In recordings made between 1964 and 1982, her recognizable timbre shows bell-like clarity throughout the range, with a warm lower octave unusual for a light lyric instrument. There was a single chink in Mathis’s vocal armor: she lacked ideal “spin” at the very top, noticeable in her otherwise delectable Sophie. Her technique, however, was rock-solid; listen, for example, to the runs of Bach’s “Jauchzet Gott,” each of them perfectly articulated. In such instances, Mathis invariably draws the listener’s attention to the genius of the music itself, rather than to the technical feat of producing it. 

The most unfussy of interpreters, Mathis impresses listeners with her naturalness. Her sincerity can be devastating. On disc, I’ve heard only one other singer, mezzo Bernarda Fink, approach Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und Leben with such simplicity and naked directness of address. 

Another Mathis hallmark is her ability to collaborate in her music-making. That applies not only in opera repertoire but in Bach (with Janet Baker), Brahms (with Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in a vocally vivid Liebeslieder Walzer) and Dvorˇák (a sublime performance of “Fac ut portem,” from the Stabat Mater, with Wieslaw Ochman). Associated with virtually every important conductor of her time, Mathis is especially compelling in her partnerships with Neville Marriner (in Haydn’s Schöpfung)and Leopold Hager (in Mozart concert arias). In K. 505, Hager’s own playing of the solo piano part ideally complements Mathis’s glorious singing. (Mozart roles were central to Mathis’s stage career; the ones represented in this set are Zerlina, Ilia, Servilia and Susanna. Mathis’s wonted elegance of phrasing in “Deh vieni” is rewarding.) 

The Marzelline and Ännchen arias are definitive, with the usual relentless perkiness conspicuous by its absence. Berlioz’s Marguerite is surprising; many critics questioned her casting in the part when DG’s Damnation de Faust under Seiji Ozawa was released. For a role more often assigned to mezzos, perhaps the conductor craved a more youthful timbre. Mathis can’t quite fill out the lower range sufficiently in the two solo scenes, but she’s eloquent, intensely musical and achingly vulnerable.

Mathis’s career exemplified profound commitment to concert and recital repertoire, substantially documented here in performances exhibiting the full depth of her communicativeness. In Haydn’s “Auf starkem Fittiche,” her singing brings to life all the images abounding in the text. (The cooing of the dove is ravishing.) She sails through the treacherous solo of Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem, remaining wonderfully human rather than distantly ethereal. Here, as well as in Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8, the soprano’s innate radiance of tone and delivery provides extraordinary pleasure.

DG clearly recognizes that Mathis’s greatest recorded legacy is lieder, which take up three of the box’s seven discs. She could take a familiar number—Mozart’s “Das Veilchen,” for example—and make something utterly fresh. Her voice presents song literature with all the necessary colors, especially Schumann; sample the contrasts of her warm “Sonntag,” hushed “Der Sandmann,” sweet “Röselein, Röselein” and bleak “Das verlassene Mägdlein.” (There’s a telling shudder in the voice in that song’s closing phrase.) Not one lied on these discs tests Mathis technically, allowing her the vocal freedom to do justice to every detail on the printed page.

Mathis’s connection to text is complete, resulting in one memorable characterization after another. Several songs (such as Mozart’s “Die kleine Spinnerin”) delightfully feature a feisty young girl telling off a boy. For sheer adorability, the prize goes to Schumann’s “Die Kartenlegerin” (with pianist Christoph Eschenbach, superb in all his performances with Mathis, making a delicious contribution). No matter whom she’s playing, Mathis can illuminate a song through her shaping of a single word; in the fourth of Schumann’s Myrthen songs, her different ways of treating the all-important word “jemand”—fierce, tender, breathless—do much to reveal how eagerly the singer of this song longs to find the “someone” of her dreams.

The set includes no texts but does have a fine tribute essay. This release will thrill all Mathis admirers as well as instruct and inspire future generations of lyric sopranos. —Roger Pines 



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