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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Anni Frind: The Beauty of Elegance

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Had Keats been eulogizing singers, and not Grecian urns, I feel he would have to have found a place for elegance in his formula. It is an aesthetic problem of the first order: what exactly is the relationship between elegance and beauty? Can something be elegant and not beautiful? Or vice versa? Anything but easy! I do know that the very first time I heard Anni Frind sing, the first thought that entered my mind was, "this is absolute elegance!" And a moment later, "and very beautiful!" Whether the relationship be causal or parallel, I simply cannot say, but listening to Anni Frind may suggest an answer.

Anni Frind was born in Nixdorf, Bohemia, presently the Czech Republic, in 1900.* A musically precocious child, she was trained at an early age, in Dresden, studying with Eleanor Kahler-Riese, Grete Merrem-Nikish, and Luise Willer. She made her professional debut at the Berlin Volksoper in 1922, at first in a minor role. As so often happens in Europe, the big roles soon came along, as she gained in experience and public exposure. She was soon singing at the Munich Staatsoper, the Salzburg Festival (1926), and in Berlin, Dresden, and other major European cities. She was noted not only for her operatic singing (Mélisande, Papagena, Cio-Cio-San, Musetta, others) but also for her operetta singing and concert work, which was extensive. Like so many other European singers of her approximate age, her career was seriously interrupted by WWII, and she emigrated in 1951, along with her husband, to the United States, where she settled in New Orleans and began a teaching career at Tulane University. Her singing, throughout her career, was characterized by an extraordinary elegance, along with attention to minute musical and stylistic detail.

Anni Frind died in New Orleans, in 1987. However, as the great Caruso once observed, a singer's life should be told in song, not words. If you do not know her, please permit me to introduce you to Anni Frind!

I think a good place to start would be with an aria that will be known to most, and that is the lovely and wistful "Vilja," (Which we generally know as "The Witch of The Woods") from Lehar's eternally popular Merry Widow: (turn up volume)

So lovely! This is one of the best versions of this piece that I have heard. It is characterized from the first notes to the end by a curious but fascinating wistfulness and sentimentality that is somehow contained with the bounds of stylistic and aesthetic propriety. Sentimentality for its own sake often fails, and turns the listener away at precisely the moment he or she should be most emotionally engaged. I'm sure we can all think of moments when this happens. (Puccini, whom I admire greatly, can nevertheless have his share of faux pas in this area!) This is different. Wistful? Yes. Sentimental and retrospective? Yes. Schmaltz? NO! That is the secret, and that is the aesthetic conundrum. How does this happen? Extreme musicality, stylistic excellence, infinite attention to small detail, and a near worshipful regard for the author's intentions. It may not be the complete answer, but I believe all these elements are at the very least present.

With these notable gifts, it should not be a surprise that lieder singing was one of Anni Frind's greatest gifts. This area of musical art gave full scope to her abilities. She was particularly fond of the music of Max Reger, (and here is the respect for composer element manifesting itself again) and her rendition of "Waldeinsamkeit" is certainly one of the best ever:

That is simply exquisite. The attention to phrase and the near-infinite stylistic inflections she bestows upon the song make this a model of elegant singing. This cannot be faulted in any way—it can only be praised.

Finally, a Reger piece which I think illustrates another of the qualities that I mentioned above. If "Waldeinsamkeit" reflects the most exquisite regard for authorial intention and stylistic excellence, "Des Kindes Gebet" ("The Child's Prayer") reflects her equally refined (and almost mysterious) ability to refract sentimentality and contain it within the bounds of stylistic beauty. This is as hard, musically, as anything I can think of. Even to sing a song called "A Child's Prayer" is to immediately put the discriminating audience on alert. How does one soar above the sentimental aspect of THAT theme? Here is how:

Very, very touching, but the sentimentality is constrained. In fact, I think "constraint" may be the word I have been looking for, or perhaps "understatement." Frind is wise enough to know that the subject matter per se is all the sentiment that is needed. What she can add is musicality. Perhaps that is the secret: musicality (and this includes respect for authorial intention, something now so out of style in literature and increasingly in music ) coupled with a superior vision, which includes aesthetic purity and a restraint more Olympian than visceral. However it is that elegance becomes beauty, it would be hard to find a better exemplar than Anni Frind.

I would like to take this opportunity to advise readers that Anni Frind recorded a lieder recital in November,1954, which has been issued on Centaur Lp CRC-1002, featuring works by Schumann, Schubert, Hans Pfitzner, and Joseph Marx. It also contains comments by Frind and her pianist Peter Hansen, added in 1977. Plans are now being made for this recording to be released as a download by Centaur Records, Inc. When I hear of this release, I will advise readers.




*I am most grateful to Mr. George Weaver, at "Opertutto," who provided me both with photographs and important information relating to Anni Frind's biography.