As one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, German mezzo-soprano Elena Gerhardt was best known for her interpretations of the masterworks of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf. Her voice had a lovely warm middle register, but in her later recordings the upper register could, at times, turn harsh. Her earliest recordings from 1908 display the full beauty of her voice. Later recording sessions displayed more unique aspects of her art. The selections from Schubert's Winterreise are especially fascinating. Her most important recordings are those found in the first volume of discs issued by the Hugo Wolf Society. Most likely, without her participation in this project, it would not have gained publication. She championed the music of Wolf from her earliest recitals and she almost single-handedly brought his songs to the general public.
Gerhardt began her musical studies at the Leipzig Conservatory at the age of 16, studying with Marie Hedmont. She displayed such promise that the great conductor Artur Nikisch accompanied her in her first public recital which was given on her 20th birthday. In 1903 she made her debut at the Leipzig Opera as Mignon in Thomas' opera and later sang Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. However, she quickly abandoned the opera stage and concentrated her performances on recitals and concerts. A "Liederabend" with Gerhardt and Nikisch, who was often her partner in recital, became an important event. In June 1906 she sang her first London recital and became one of the first singers to make a successful career in England without the benefit of important operatic productions. Gerhardt made Leipzig her home while continuing to sing around the world. Her New York debut came on January 9, 1912, as part of her North American tour which again featured Artur Nikisch as her partner. Her other tours included visits to Spain, Russia, Holland, and Belgium. In 1932, she married Fritz Kohl, the director of the Leipzig Radio. When the Nazis came to power, Kohl, along with most radio directors, was arrested. When he was finally released, he and Gerhardt made the decision to make London their permanent residence. From 1934 on, London became the center of her musical activities. Her principal partners at the piano were Artur Nikisch, Conrad Bos, and Gerald Moore, a formidable group of pianists. All true partners in bringing song to life. She continued to give recitals until 1953, but also became very well-known as a teacher. Her most famous pupil was Flora Nielsen. In 1953 she wrote her autobiography entitled Recital which has a preface written by the great pianist Dame Myra Hess.