Only 4'11", Joseph Schmidt was called "the pocket Caruso." His small stature, although it kept him from performing operas on stage – a production of La Bohème was mounted for him anyway – did not keep him from making films and concert appearances, appearing on the radio, and (of course) making records. Today, the "little man with the big voice" might not be as famous as his contemporary Richard Tauber, but he was no less an important figure on the music scene in the years leading up to World War Two. His voice had a brilliant top, but what was most alluring about it was its middle and lower regions, where Schmidt could purr like a contented cat. Hearing it today, the contentment is all ours!
Born in Romania in 1904, Schmidt was the son of Orthodox Jews, and he started singing in the local synagogue at a young age. He studied in Berlin, and was given a contract by Berlin Radio in 1929. As a result, over the next several years he was heard (but never seen!) in many complete operatic roles. (If only tapes of those broadcasts were extant!) He also started to make recordings for a variety of labels, including Electrola, Ultraphon, and Parlophon. His repertoire on discs included excerpts from operas and operettas, popular songs, and later, songs from his films. The first of these films, Ein Lied geht um die Welt ("A Song Goes Round the World") appeared in 1933, and he continued to make films for German- and English-speaking audiences until Nazi Germany ceased to permit it. Schmidt traveled extensively, including in the United States and in Israel, but he kept returning to Europe. This was his tragedy. When war broke out, he traveled to France in hopes of securing papers which would allow him to go back to the United States. Luck turned against him, though, and after spending a month in a Swiss internment camp (the Swiss didn't recognize Jews as political refugees), exhaustion and disease took their toll on him, and he died on November 16, 1942 at the age of 36.
Schmidt has not been ignored in the CD era, and there have been several worthwhile compilations. The present one gives an excellent overview of his career, from "Ach so fromm" ("M'appari"- Flotow's Martha) – an early Electrola side from 1929 – to the famous aria from Adam's Le Postillon de Longjumeau, recorded in May 1936 for Parlophon/Odeon. Some of my favorites are missing (his melting "Nessun dorma" from 1934, "O sole mio" from the year before, and so on), but with a singer like Schmidt, it's hard to limit oneself! On the other hand, this Profil compilations is treasurable for the inclusion of more unusual recordings such as the duet "Wer hat die Liebe uns in's Herz gesenkt" from Lehár's Das Land des Lächelns. To hear it is to sigh with pleasure, just as if one were taking a bubble bath while sipping champagne!
Profil includes matrix numbers and recording dates in their booklet, as well as the names of assisting artists. There's also a good essay by Jens-Uwe Völmecke in German and English, and several photographs and movie posters. The recordings used in this compilation come from Völmecke's collection, and were digitally remastered and restored by THS Studio Holger Siedler in 2003. The results, while not the best I've heard, are more than acceptable. Some of the original sides are a little noisy, and sometimes there is distortion when Schmidt lets one of his gorgeous high notes fly. From recording session to session and label to label, different recording techniques were used, and some were more complimentary than others. Fortunately, this Profil release does not force listeners to accept the heavily filtered transfers which were more common even twenty years ago.
If you don't know the voice of Joseph Schmidt, deny yourself this supreme pleasure no longer!
Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle