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Classical 101

Remembering Elisabeth Soderstrom

TWO AUDIO PIECES Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom died earlier this week at the age of 82. She was one of my favorite artists. She did a lot of performances at the Metropolitan in New York in the early 1960s (before my time, believe it or not) and then confined her appearances closer to home while raising a family. So the U.S. didn't experience her great performances of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and as Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss's Capriccio, both of which she sang and, thankfully, was filmed in, at England's Glyndebourne Festival. Outside of Scandinavia she didn't so much with the big Italian operas, but her Butterfly and Mimi were fixtures at the Royal Swedish Opera for years. I loved both the purity and the warmth of her voice. You could get lost in the sound, it was like melted white chocolate. The good artists sing and look well. The great artists connect to the text and leave you with "Ah-Ha!" moments in music you thought you knew very well. My great Soderstrom moments were less Ah-Ha! than slowly burning, simmering memories going back nearly thirty years. She returned to New York in the early 1980s - the kids were grown -to sing the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. She starred in the Met tour in this opera with Frederica von Stade and Kathleen Battle. I saw the performance in Boston on June 10, 1983. (OK, I had to look up the date, but do a Google search and you'll find people still raving about this performance.) But the great Soderstrom moment for me came at the end of Mozart's Figaro. February 7, 1987. I had been on Texaco Opera Quiz that afternoon so I was able to see the performance from the Texaco Box, front and center of the Met's parterre. In the last moments of Figaro, the Countess overhears her husband seducing another woman. It wasn't so much Soderstrom's singing, which was indeed applauded to the walls, but the look on her face that showed us the Countess's heartbreak and the Countess's resolve. I was in a theatre with 4,000 other people and I was a good 300 yards away from the stage, but I will never forget the look that came and went over her in less than five seconds. I remember thinking at the time: "This woman is an artist, and I am lucky to be here." God bless Elisabeth Soderstrom. She was gorgeous in Mozart and Strauss. Her recitals of Russian and Scandinavian literature won that music new audiences for decades. Offstage, I'm told she was warm and fun. She's in heaven now, and heaven wins! Here's Elizabeth Soderstrom in Dove sono from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, August 20, 1960, at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  Sir John Pritchard conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic [audio:figaro-es.mp3] And here's a bit from Im Abenrot from Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. Antal Dortai conduts the Royal Phiharmmnic at the Royal Festival Hall, London Ocotber 3, 1976.  The last lines translate as:  O vast , tranquil peace/so deep at sunset!/How weary we are of wandering/Is this, perhaps, death? [audio:abendrot-es.mp3]

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.