Elisabeth Soderstrom (Elisabeth Söderström)
With the announcement of the death of Soderstrom on November 20 we revisit a "Reputations" article from June 2004 in which John Steane recalls the flowing grace and ease of the Swedish soprano
If reputation is indeed the issue, then it's a matter quickly settled. Elisabeth Soderstrom's is high and deservedly so. And though we speak of it in the present tense, the word implies a past, an estimate arrived at over a period of time and shared by a community at large. Soderstrom came to be known internationally in the late 1950s, and over the next three decades, on until her retirement from singing in the early 1990s, she never 'blotted her copybook'. She neither sought nor won a cheap success. She never overstretched her voice, which never went through a bad patch. Along with a core-repertoire of 18thand 19th-century opera and song, she played a full part in the musical extensions of our time, both backwards to Monteverdi and in the then-present with composers such as Britten and Henze. In her public character she was (and is) seen to be intelligent, humorous and practical. Her short book In my own Key (Hamish Hamilton: 1980) is not so much an autobiography as a serviceable sketchbook of scenes from a professional singer's life. She has never, so far as I know, been the centre of controversy; equally, she has never been bland. The reputation is almost too good to occupy us further; and it is no use thinking that the recordings might show up some unsuspected weaknesses, because they don't.
But of course the real question is that rather harder one concerning the exact nature of this agreed excellence. Her voice was one of those which, while being of no more than moderate volume, carry within it a certain concentration of dramatic power. If I try to 'place' it alongside others in my mind (partly from records), I come up with Seinemeyer, Ljungberg, Brouwenstijn, Schwarzkopf, Varady, Isokoski. Something these have in common with Soderstrom is that essentially they are 'straight-ruled' voices (you see a column of sound) and yet there's vibrancy too: a capacity for infusing these 'straight' tones with the more thrilling, more dramatic, intensity of a quick vibration. Again, like those others, she used the limited volume to the finest possible effect, grading carefully so that the climax tells. Her singing has presence; it is continent and compact; you listen.
And conducting this as a shared exercise in memory, what kind of art is it we 'hear'? A stream, certainly; a genuine legato, in which the notes of a phrase are evenly bound. With that as a basis, the expressiveness (as I listen inwardly) encompasses a full emotional commitment though it does not touch the extremes. In character, she is distinct (Melisande's 'Ne me touchez pas', Madeleine's 'Du Spiegelbild', the pained tenderness of Jenufa's prayer in Act 2): not Callas-distinct yet still catching each utterance as specific to that character.
It strikes me now, on coming to a momentary halt, as adding up to a little less than I'd thought: so we'll put it to the test of records.
An affinity for Janacek
Memory of Jenufa's prayer calls for it to be heard in context. Söderström's voice in her first phrases radiates youth. And at the time of recording (April 1982) she was within a month of her 55th birthday. That of itself is astonishing. Throughout, we listen with complete faith in the age-relationship between her and Eva Randová, the magnificent Kostelnicka of the recording. And the other 'external' wonder is her mastery of text. Söderström has said that she makes it a principle as far as she can to learn the language she is singing. Janacek has become, I would say, the composer with whom she is now most closely associated — the great three, Jenufa, The Makropoulos Affair and Kat'a Kabanová, all under Mackerras, have a place of very special honour in the history of opera on record. Yet it's all against the odds. Swedish is a long way from Czech, and these operas cannot be performed in their original language without sufficient linguistic assurance to make it sound like second nature. Most of us do not speak the language and therefore cannot judge, but I did once try the Jenufa recording on a visitor from Prague who assumed the whole cast were native speakers.
The centrality of Janacek in her recorded operatic repertory is matched by Rachmaninov's in song. The five volumes (as they were originally) with Ashkenazy constitute another of the gramophone's crown jewels. They were recorded over five years (1974-79) and, now in a boxed set of three CDs, include 83 solo songs, one duet (with John Shirley-Quirk) and two arrangements for piano. Ashkenazy's part is of course that of an equal partner, and, as John Warrack wrote in Gramophone (12/76), his playing and understanding are 'beyond reproach' in songs which 'depend strongly upon an intelligent and sensitively handled contact between a singer of lyrical warmth and a pianist of more than usual virtuosity'. For Soderstrom the dozen first songs alone speak volumes. The primary act of a singer's interpretation is to settle for the apt tone of voice. With Oh, never sing to me again it is thrillingly vibrant — the poem may tell of the sad songs of Georgia, but this is no peasant's folk-tune. The next one, Harvest of Sorrow, is much closer to folk music and the voice responds. Gone now is the glamour of a sophisticated vibrancy; in its place a tone which might conceivably be that of a sweet-voiced girl of lovely natural gifts, untutored and in no need of tuition. Then comes How fair this spot, one of the bestknown, the soft high B beautifully taken, the mood magically held by both voice and piano. In Daisies, a song dedicated to Nina Koshetz, we sense, even without an understanding of the language,
Soderstrom's vividness with words and, in this song, a smiling eagerness. The Pied Piper introduces a more playful idiom and, in the singer, an undertone suggestive of Wolf's Die Spröde. With The Storm, a full opera-house voice is produced to withstand the passionate clamour of Rachmaninov's piano part, and in The Poet a new expression enters, with help from the chest register, ironical and mordent.
Nina Koshetz, mentioned above, made some famous recordings of Rachmaninov songs in 1939. They lurk in the mind as one plays Soderstrom, and yet hearing them again brings something of a shock. The voice, once gloriously lustrous on high, cannot now match Soderstrom's, and the phrasing is short-winded. But what a bold and subtly imaginative play of colours, what emotion, and what personality! The comparison does point to a limit in Soderstrom's expressive art. On the other hand, it illustrates, once again, her mastery of the voice itself. We think of those Rachmaninov recordings as 'late-Koshetz', but she was only 45, while Soderstrom, whom we think of as still young in 1974, was already 47.
The latterday nightingale
She had then been known to us on records for about 10 years — so that even the 'young' Soderstrom was a fully mature and experienced singer. An early recital record, from 1964, presents her in a programme of songs associated with Jenny Lind, and it was in these that I myself first heard her in person. The concert was a private one at the Swedish Embassy in London and, to my considerable discomfort, I arrived late. This meant, however, that the voice came to me first from 'off-stage', and that can be magical, as indeed it was. Listening from just beyond the hall, I heard a pure soprano of such freshness and charm that one could well have supposed it to be the legendary Swedish nightingale herself. She concluded with the famous Echo song, silvery with high As and Bs, as we hear it on a recording made about the same time. That is one of many choice recordings that have disappeared (temporarily, let's hope) from the catalogue. A delightful Stockholm concert in 1980 has gone the same way. We need also to persuade EMI to reinstate her Strauss disc with the Four Last Songs and closing scene from Capriccio. Recitals with Ashkenazy of songs by Chopin and Tchaikovsky should come back, and the wonderful Saul and David with Boris Christoff. And how about a good, generally available transfer of the 1959 Faust with Jussi Björling from the Metropolitan? All of these are essential Soderstrom: a singer whose art from first to last was alive, human and communicative. And from first to last we have loved her for it.