Karl Erb, Tenor (1877-1958)
Wilhelm Kienzl: DER EVANGELIMANN (The Evangelist)
Aria/Prayer: "Selig sind, die Verfolgung leiden" ("Blessed are those suffering from persecution")
Conducted by Frieder Weissmann
My personal opinion: Beauty is a double-edged sword, often only skin-deep and fading. "If you love for beauty, do not love me", a wisdom by Mahler and Rueckert. French composer Reynaldo Hahn even said the love for beauty is a weakness, because beauty does not challenge our mind and makes us lethargic. In his book "Du chant", he claimed: "However beautiful a sound may be, it is nothing if it does not have something to express" (see also my remarks in the Kiri Te Kanawa posting).
Not everyone loves every voice - sometimes it takes a while to find out the qualities of a singer; qualities more than just an attractive timbre. Some are interesting and magnetic in spite of, or due to the fact that their voices are not beautiful in an ordinary sense. Callas is an often-quoted example; among tenors I would name immediately Aureliano Pertile and Jon Vickers, Peter Pears and Julius Patzak.
Interesting (?) and peculiar at once, sometimes perhaps even disturbing was the singing of Karl Erb, a German tenor with a voice far away from what we call usually beautiful, although, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Scottish philosopher David Hume added, "beauty is not a quality in things themselves, it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them". From this point of view, it might be interesting to search the veiled beauty in the vocals of Karl Erb, but I'm afraid it will be very difficult...
Erb was no ordinary tenor. Measured against comparable colleagues (Patzak, Pears) his voice was even more anemic, nasal and unattractive. There was a great lack of warmth and sensuality, marked by a wistful coloring, a kind of "Weltschmerz" (a term by Jean Paul, meaning "world-weariness"). A noticeable feature of Karl Erb's interpretations is the awkward phrasing of whole sentences, and sometimes it is not easy to describe it any more as "singing" (it reminds me of critic Steane who heard Pears in Schubert, saying: "That's all right as long as you don't call it singing").
Erb cultivated a kind of "Sprechgesang", a melodic "speaking" accompanied by music. His "mastering" of dynamic gradations was uncontrolled, the volume changed many times within a single phrase - for instance in "Das Wirtshaus" from Schubert's WINTERREISE he "sings" the sentence "Sind denn in diesem Hause die Kammern all' besetzt?" with an intense and loud attack that make record-listeners cringe. It is the typical presentation of a mainly self-educated musician, an autodidact without the final touch. Most noticeable in Erb's shortcomings is the deficient breath control that forced him to several breaks within a phrase or even after syllables in words. Occasionally Karl Erb's uncommon recitations make us think we hear a parody, for example in Schumann's "Alte Laute", starting with a naive pronunciation of "Hörst du den Vogel singen?" - or Beethoven's "Zärtliche Liebe". The romantic "Adelaide", set to music by Beethoven around 1795, is a young man's shy declaration of first love. With Erb it sounds like the sad memory of an aging man who re-reads an old love-letter. In none of his many song recordings Karl Erb reflects joy and lust for life. There is always the strange melancholy of a seemingly sick and tired man. Is this the reason, why his recordings are distancing and yet somehow touching at once?
Also in his private life, Erb was an introverted and reserved man, and his marriage with the open-minded Hungarian soprano Maria Ivoguen (often his partner on stage and in the recording studio) ended after ten years - Ivoguen later married pianist Michael Raucheisen. Karl Erb's life was not without tragedy: After some accidents, he was forced to retire from the opera stage in 1930 at the age of 53.
Inseparably linked his name with two parts: The Evangelist in Bach's ST. MATTHEW-PASSION and the name part in Pfitzner's PALESTRINA, first performed with Karl Erb on the occasion of the premiere on June 12, 1917 in Munich (I couldn't find any sound documents; in the two first complete recordings under Heger (1951, live) and Kraus (1952) the role was sung by Patzak).
Karl Erb's numerous recordings of opera arias, all sung in German, are affected without exception by the instability of high notes, a nasal squashing of vowels and - over and over again - by the awkward phrasing. His prayer here from Kienzl's EVANGELIMANN may serve as an object of study and
negative example. Personally I still find it difficult to discover the hidden appeal behind the painful poetry of Karl Erb's voice...