News & Reviews

Quantity and Quality

by noted author, musicologist, composer and critic:
Eric Rees
London, March 17 2005

Patria Productions has brought out a remarkable set of two CD's devoted to the astonishing soprano Marta Eggerth - its striking character can be demonstrated by a few factual observations, without even embarking upon the perilous waters of subjective appraisal. The first CD, devoted to recordings made by Eggerth during her pre-war film career, presents one of her earliest discs - made in 1932, when the singer was only 19. The second brings us almost up to date with 13 tracks recorded in 2002 - a little matter of 70 years on, with the artist triumphantly past her 90th birthday. In a singer, a recording career of 70 years must surely be unique. It is even more astonishing to reflect that when she made her first recording Marta, who had been a child prodigy, had already had more than eight years experience of the musical theater and the concert platform. Yet even now she cannot be written off as a singer of the past, for last autumn sang at the "Licia Albanese Puccini Gala" at the Lincoln Center-earning, moreover, a standing ovation. Ah well; after 80 years of public performance she must be in tolerably good practice.

Hungarian born in 1912, Marta Eggerth was an acclaimed operetta star within a year or two of entering her teens. By the time her film career began in Berlin in 1931, she was a hardened veteran of 19. Her fresh, natural beauty, her unstudied grace; her intelligence and acting ability made the young soprano a heaven-sent gift to the makers of musical films. Marta brought to it a charm and a natural musicality matched by only a handful of the great opera and lieder singers-and even then never exceeded. It would be difficult to detect, in the whole history of the gramophone, a more exquisite musical experience than her rendering of Franz von Vecsey's Denkst du nie daran, in which her phrasing is as shapely and as beautifully poised as that of a great violinist. Melting tenderness and coruscating brilliance similarly lend distinction to operetta and film songs by composer like Kálmán, Lehár, Robert Stolz and Paul Abraham. Some of her films dealt with famous composers; in consequence we have here arias by Rossini and Puccini. These are sung with a sparkling vitality, lovely phrasing and a fine instinct for characterization. There is, moreover, an affecting performance of a Bellini song-whose melody was incorporated (with different words) in the opera Norma, becoming world-famous as 'Casta Diva'.

Even in its prime, Marta Eggerth's voice was neither the most luscious nor the most heroic of all time. It was essentially an operetta voice; in her rare operatic appearances she never attempted anything heavier, vocally, than Mimi or Manon, whom her superb acting enabled her to impersonate with affecting pathos. But the voice had a crystalline purity, an innocent grace and a joyous lilt to it; as well as a beautifully measure expressiveness which gave it an instant and potent appeal. Here was a singer whose love of music and love of life were inbred-and found spontaneous expression in her art. Its deceptive simplicity was informed by profound gifts of the spirit.

But it is the second disc, devoted to post-war material that begins with marvels and draws us onward to the near-miraculous. First we have the 78-year-old Marta gloriously singing two Stolz songs at a Robert Stolz gala in Linz in 1990. Then we regress to 1958 for broadcast excerpts from Lehár's Der Zarewitsch." An absolute gem is the Neapolitan duet, in which Marta was gloriously partnered by her late beloved husband Jan Kiepura, the great Polish tenor star of opera and films. Again, Marta's phrasing of the touching refrain is a miracle of musicality, moving to a degree; while Kiepura's variety of resource, which can scarcely ever have been equaled by any tenor since Caruso, is handled with marvelous assurance. They sang operetta together from 1943 to 1965, starring in Lehár's Merry Widow more than 2000 times - in five different languages and six countries! After this fine souvenir we visit another Stolz gala; then on to 13 astonishing tracks dating from 2002, the scarcely credible work of a 90-year-old singer. Here credulity is challenged.

What is remarkable is that this singing is still beautiful. One has no need to be apologetic about it; the brightness and vitality remain intact, there is life and lift in the sound; all is easy and unforced; all is sheer loveliness. The singing commands your attention, your wonder, your love. There is an infinity of unforced eloquence, there is poise, there is grace; that "spirit of delight" once celebrated by a great poet.

The most significant items, musically, are the little aria from Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges and three Chopin songs in Polish. The other items are lighter in character-mainly Viennese or operetta songs-but splendid of their kind and sung with the imagination and musicality an average singer might devote to a Lied by Wolf. This is a great artist, manifesting the fruits of a long life honorably devoted to music and song. Her accompanists back her up magnificently at the piano-not least her son Marjan, who plays the Chopin songs with a perfection of phrasing and pianistic command such as might have delighted the composer himself. Marta's glorious offering comes to a fitting end with her own delicious arrangement of music from The Merry Widow, the operetta of which she and her late husband were such memorable protagonists.

Let us turn, finally, to subjective appraisal. In 2001 I attended a recital given, in London, at the Wigmore Hall, by the 89-year-old Marta. I sat next to a fine young soprano from Paris. Afterwards she said to me: "Never in my life have I heard anyone whose singing moved me so deeply." A striking tribute from one so young. And it goes to the heart of the matter.

Eric Rees-London, March 17 2005

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