MAX LICHTEGG A tribute in sound and words by Alfred A. Fassbind + click here to order the book, 560 pp , ISBN 978-3-905894-31-8

4 Cd’s, 44 pp booklet, CD Andromeda 9127, about 18 Euros

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(Note : the highlighted names etc. are links !!!)



The fact, that the name Max Lichtegg is today mainly known to record collectors only, has nothing at all to do with the artistic importance of this singer. Lichtegg belongs to the large number of artists who enjoyed enormous recognition and success during WW II and into the 50s and 60s; this was due to their stage presence, recordings, radio broadcasts and television appearances. Max Lichtegg was in his prime without doubt the most popular tenor in Switzerland.

That his present-day fame doesn’t measure up to his erstwhile reputation is partly due to the fact that his record companies (mainly Decca) weren’t interested in transferring his recordings to present day media.: Also today’s radio stations rely almost exclusively on the most recent issues of today’s market.

Alfred Fassbind (1949) known for his wonderful Joseph Schmidt biography (click here) and a former voice student of Lichtegg’s himself was of course the right person to write the Lichtegg story as he personally knew the tenor and his family. The outcome is an excellent detailed biography not only of his artistic career but also of his personal often tragic life. And that personal life reads like a film scenario covering also a greater part of Western history in the 20th century.

Max Lichtegg was born 1910 to Jewish parents as Munio Lichtman in Buczacz, a small town in Poland (now the Ukraine). He lost his parents and his younger brother during a bombing in WW I. An uncle in Vienna took the orphaned boy in, who grew up there under very poor circumstances. Already as a boy people noticed his beautiful alto voice; in the synagogue choir he was soon entrusted with little solo parts.

After graduating from High School he enrolled in 1929 at the University of Vienna to study Philosophy. A scholarship stipend enabled him to simultaneously study voice under Victor Fuchs at the New Conservatory of Vienna. Later he would also study with Salvatore Salvati.

1934 Lichtegg won first prize in a voice competition; this resulted in a recording contract with Odeon and also his first stage appearances in operettas. Due to the political developments Max Lichtegg decided in 1936 to accept an engagement at the Stadttheater Bern (Switzerland). There he also continued his university studies and became from 1937/38 on Guest Soloist for 2 years at the Stadttheater Basel; he already appeared in the leading roles of Freischütz, Hoffmann and Don Carlo.

In 1940 he was offered a contract by the Stadttheater (now Opernhaus) Zürich. He remained there as a permanent member and as 1st lyric tenor until 1956. He appeared on that stage in a total of 44 different operas; He was regarded an extremely intelligent interpreter in a repertoire that ranged from Mozart, Lortzing, Flotow, Wagner, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Auber, Bizet, Debussy, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Richard Strauss to contemporary composers like Honegger, Stravinsky, Schoeck, Hindemith, Menotti and Henze.

After concerts in the USA and stage appearances in San Francisco and Los Angeles Max Lichtegg returned 1948 to Switzerland. In spite of very tempting offers from the Vienna State Opera he remained, for family reasons, “faithful” to the opera house in Zürich. He made guest appearances in Munich, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Bilbao, Lucerne, Geneva, Monte Carlo, Strassbourg, Schwetzingen and many other cities. Until 1971 he also could frequently be heard as a guest star at the Opera in Zürich. The Art Song was of the greatest importance for Max Lichtegg. Interesting is the fact that the tenor was one of the earliest tenors to champion  the songs by Britten or Von Einem.

Fassbind illustrates Lichtegg’s career with numerous (balanced) reviews, concert programmes, playbills and contracts. By telling Lichtegg’s life we also get a fairly good view of how the operatic world worked in those days and not only in Switzerland.  Revealing are his references on contracts and record royalties.  Revealing too are the stories involving colleague singers, conductors  and composers such as Della Casa (diva antics), Dusolina Giannini ( more diva antics), Laszlo Chabay (tenor friendship),  Karl Boehm (Mr Aloof) , Hindemith (guy with a sense of humour) , Lehar (sadness and loneliness), Chaliapine (admiration), Flagstad (more admiration), Margherita Perras (not just a coloratura), Jeanine Micheau (a ‘preference’ for handsome tenors), Georg Solti (promise and give little), Igor Gorin (1930 Volksoper debut) and numerous others.

Included are numerous photos , a detailed survey of his opera, operetta and concert repertoire and a complete discography.  A separate chronology is missing but intertwined in the story.  A mistake has been made in the caption of a photo taken in Israel (pg. 428) where he (or Lichtegg) mixes up singers Yehoshua Zohar and Mordechai Ben Shachar.

In short the definitive Max Lichtegg biography has been written.



So far only two CD releases have been available featuring the Polish born Swiss tenor but not one of them contained any of Lichtegg’s operatic recordings. This new release finally does. Max Lichtegg (1910-1992) is hardly known outside of Switzerland where for more than four decades he was a household name. Yet he also made several international appearances as surely the Bjoerling fraternity knows as it was Lichtegg who substituted as Don Ottavio for the announced Swedish tenor in L.A.  The first Cd in this compilation contains one of the most interesting tracks going back to Lichtegg’s time in California : the first act of Wagner’s Walkuere with Rose Bampton as Sieglinde.  A 1947 live radio b’cast under the direction of Alfred Wallenstein a descendant of Albrecht von Wallenstein. 

On occasion the Lichtegg tone displays some intruding nasal resonance typical of the tenor German-style but there’s always excellent enunciation and he’s a hearty singer supplying ample bright tone. Though the heavy part of Siegmund doesn’t come easily for the lyrical tenor his impressively heroic portrayal of Siegmund was in fact his American debut. On occasion he struggles valiantly and successfully with the composer’s demands but he manages to remain musical and sonorous and he never runs out of breath or stamina. In short he shows himself as a master of Wagnerian methods as does Rose Bampton who sings a blazing Sieglinde with also excellent German. She displays ample power and warm colour.

Other gems are excerpts from a live performance of “the Bartered Bride” in French (!!) from Geneva in 1953  Lichtegg's ardent Jenik is partnered by a top notch Jeanine Micheau as Marie and Victor Autran as an animated Kezal. There’s also a live excerpt (1955) from a Boris Godunov performance from Monte Carlo with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. Lichtegg's portrayal combines power and tenacity with passionate utterance.

Lichtegg never failed in the standard repertoire and he didn’t hesitate to present himself in new works or those less familiar. In 1962 he sang the world premiere of Bernd Bergel’s Jacob’s dream as part of a guest performance in Israel. The German born composer (1909-1967) who studied with Hindemith and Schoenberg  emigrated to then Palestine in 1937. The composer expressly requested Lichtegg to perform the part, he sang it in the original Hebrew. The Israel Philharmonic is conducted by Georg Singer in the harangue “Here I stand Idnibaal”. As far as I know this is a first-ever release of Bergel’s music and it definitely asks for more. The music depicting and enforcing the drama on stage, and the rhythmical declamatory recitative grips the listener by the ear.

The CD also features Max’s aria from Der Freischutz (live Monte Carlo 1953) for which Lichtegg possesses the necessary cutting edge, Rigoletto (live Questo a quella, 1940-ies) , Fra Diavolo (Decca 1950), Les Contes d’Hoffmann, 1947 Decca), The Rakes Progress (live Zurich 1976), Les Pecheurs de Perles (1987!!).

Mozart is represented with the “Bildnisaria” (1949 Decca and 1986 live) and Don Ottavio’s “Il mio tesore” (Decca 1949). Both airs are splendidly given with a noble style throughout.
Lichtegg also sings Stefan’s “Polonaise” aria from Moniuszko’s “Haunted Manor” in Polish. (Zurich 1981). At age 71 Lichtegg still phrases with dignity as well as dramatic sentiment.

The second CD is devoted to operetta, a genre Lichtegg excelled in. Not only does he sing this repertoire as to the manner born but the repertoire he recorded includes several rarities from operettas such as Ver-Vert, Das Spitzentuch der Koningin, Das Walzerparadies and Die blaue Mazur. A revelation is the live  duet (1947)  from  Tic-Tac by Paul Burkhard (1911-1977) an operetta hitherto unknown to me. The composer himself conducts and as extra bonus we get Lisa della Casa. Probably the earliest recording of the Swiss soprano’s voice.
Moreover the music is pure operetta Viennese style. Burkhard was a Swiss composer. He primarily wrote oratorios, musicals and operettas. Probably his most famous artistic creation was the song "O mein Papa" ("Oh! My Pa-Pa") about the death of a beloved clown-father, written for the musical Der schwarze Hecht  that premiered in April 1939.  The song has been performed and recorded by numerous artists since then, including Connie Francis and The Everly Brothers.

Equally interesting and historically important is the 1942 live broadcast from Zurich’s Tonhalle under Franz Lehar himself! Lichtegg sings “Wien, du bist das Herz der Welt”, a song Lehar had only just composed and recorded with Esther Réthy. The concert also includes the duet “Frei und jung dabei” from Schon ist die Welt. Lichtegg is partnered here by Lela Bukovic more than likely the only existing recording of the fine soprano.

Sadly enough only one sample is included of the duet recordings with the once immensely popular Erna Sack. She still sounds absolutely delightful and charming in the duet from Der Zarewitsch recorded in 1947. There is not one single soprano today who can sing operetta as Sack does here. Just wonderful! Moreover their voices blend very well and the diction of both singers is irreproachable.

The "Polenlied" from Léhar’s Blaue Mazur rightly counts as one of the absolute favorites among Lichtegg’s operetta recordings of the shellack period. The melancholy piece is sung by Count Olinsky at the end of act one. It starts in German (Du meiner Seele holder Abgott) but ends with a strophe in Polish (Oj, tak teskno mi za toba) !! Simply the best version of this wonderful Lehar romanza available.

The fine musicianship, the charm and dignity Lichtegg displays in all of his operetta recordings he also displays to his Lieder recordings on the third CD.
The CD starts with two Schubert songs from Schwanengesang accompanied by none other than the young  Georg Solti in 1947. Thanks to the intercession of Lichtegg Georg Solti was taken under contract by Decca. These two Schubert recordings remain the only document of the future star conductor appearing as Lieder accompanist. 5 More songs of Schwanengesang are included but this time Lichtegg is accompanied by his son Theodor Lichtmann who provides refined and tasteful playing. Lichtmann is now professor emeritus at the Denver university. He initially studied with Irma Schaichet and later also with Leonard Shure, assistant of Arthur Schnabel in New York. Lichtmann also accompanied Heinz Rehfuss in recital.

Several songs by Schumann, Tchaikovski, Mahler, Mendelsohn, Brahms and Schoeck are represented as well. In 1962 Lichtegg recorded an LP for Decca with Heine poems set to music. This release (Decca SXL 6019) included four songs by Johann von Puttlingen. This contemporary of Schubert, a tenor himself, was rediscovered due to the predilection of Lichtegg for Heinrich Heine. Luckily these songs are included in this release.

Lichtegg is without doubt a Lieder singer of no mean ability.  It’s obvious that he made a close study of the songs he recorded and mastered them alike as a vocalist and a musician. The voice is always steady and pleasant, the attack neat, the intonation absolutely sure and the diction beyond praise though sometimes there’s a tendency to over-stress the accent. Lichtegg sings Schubert’s Standchen in the orchestral version of Felix Weingartner (Decca 1947) and the Erlkonig in the orchestral version by Max Reger. The latter though fine as it is nevertheless doesn’t suit a tenor’s voice in my opinion.

The CD ends with Beethoven’s ‘Der Kuss”  taken from Lichtegg’s final public appearance at age 78 in August 1988. Time has dealt kindly with Lichtegg's voice though towards the end of his career the rock-like steadiness lost something of its quality but there was never a wobble and he was still able to thrill Zurich audiences as the late live recordings clearly show.

The final CD devoted to Judaica is another one to treasure as it not only includes unique repertoire for the first time ever available but also displays Lichtegg at his very best in a music genre he was not immediately associated with.

He’s at his very best in the 1943 world premiere of Max Ettinger’s (1874-1951) “Yiddish Lebn”.  This work was dedicated by the composer to the conductor and former violinist  Alexander Schaichet. As the booklet says it gives the tenor ample occasion to show his coloratura prowess. Yiddish was obviously Lichtegg's mameloschen and the cantorial style of singing comes very natural to the tenor. Therefore it is indeed a great loss no record company ever asked him to record cantorial music.

19 years later one finds Lichtegg in Jerusalem where he sings (in perfect Hebrew) in the world premiere of Paul Ben Chaim’s  “The visions of a prophet” under 35 year old Gary Bertini who conducts the Israel Philharmonic and the Kol Israel chorus. This cantate was dedicated by the composer to Lichtegg.

This tribute ends with a Yiddish song recital for Radio Zurich (1973) with his son at the piano. The eleven songs "from the world of Shalom Aleichem" start with Mark Warshavsky's (1848-1907) famous "Oyfn Pripetshok" (On the hearth) a song also recorded by Rosa Raisa but which remained unpublished. Our readers unfamiliar with Yiddish song may probably know the tune from the soundtrack of Schindler's list. Warshavsky was the last folk bard of the nineteenth century, bridging the gap between the songs in folk style and the Yiddish art songs of the last century. Two of the songs (Der Baalagole and Wos wet zein mit Reb Jisroel?) were arranged by H. Kopit and were published by the Sint-Petersburg "Society for Jewish Folk music". Both songs were new to me

Track twenty features another good example of the artistic setting of a traditional song : "Lomir sich iberbeten" (Let us forgive one another, also recorded by Louis Danto) arranged by Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1978) utilizing the distinctive Ahavah Rabbah (1) scale stereotypical of Eastern European song both outside and inside the synagogue.

Moses Milner (1882-1953) studied at the Sint Petersburg conservatory for several years and Lichtegg sings his best-known composition "Im Chejder" (also recorded by Leon Lishner) which captures the relationship between an aging rebbe and his young student on the latter's first visit to religious school. The intimate interplay between voice and piano in this largely through-composed song demontrates that Jewish story telling can be elevated to the ranks of high musical art. Lichtegg and his pianist wonderfully capture the sing song chant of the European yeshivoth of yesteryear.

Joel Engel (1868-1927) a graduate of the Moscow conservatory is represented here with his "Kaddish fun Reb Levi-Itzchok Barditshever". Engel's music was championed by the well-known bass-baritone Joachim Tartakov and an English version was recorded by Paul Robeson but Lichtegg of course sings it here in the original Yiddish.

All in all Lichtegg's voice fits the often touching music like a glove. His Yiddish is clear, the phrasing now subdued and mournful, now lively or strong and replete with the spirit of desolation is intensely moving. The pianist offers a good deal more than mere flawless execution. It is apparent in the amazing diversity of touch : soft and caressing, crisp and bright or strong and commanding. Such is the combination of Lichtegg senior and junior that they are literally one with each other in bringing to life a world gone-by. They are well-worth hearing indeed and this whole recital brings our tenor back to where he was born : Buczacz, a shtetl in then Poland.

Included is a beautifully produced 44 page booklet with 20 high quality photos, a biography by Alfred Fassbind and a tribute by Lichtegg’s son Theodore.
A wonderful and very welcome release at a very affordable price.

Max Lichtegg was a  fine tenor who displayed secure vocalism combined with great taste and interpretive skills in whatever he sang in whatever language be it German, French, Italian, English, Polish, Russian, Hebrew or Yiddish. The only fly in the ointment is the omission of Lichtegg's own compositions. Like Tauber or Schipa our Swiss tenor was also a refined and talented song composer. These compositions were once issued on a Swiss CD which has now become 'introuvable'. As a tribute we uploaded to our youtube channel one of his compositions and some Schubert songs not included in this Cd release. Lichtegg's song "Das schonste Zeichen unsrer Zeit' shows some real Robert Stolz flavour -yes, it is that good- but also some Brechtian social criticism. Click here to listen.


Rudi van den Bulck, Operanostalgia, November 2016

(1) click here for more info