> STRAUSS Elektra Varnay [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra

Astrid Varnay (Elektra)
Elena Nicolaidi (Klytemnestra)
Irene Jessner (Chrysothemis)
Herbert Janssen (Orest)
Frederick Jagel (Aegisth)
Michael Rhodes (Servant)
Miriam Stockton, Edith Evans, Elinor Warren, Beverly Dame (slave girls)
Other roles including confidante and 5th slave girl unstated
New York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropoulos (conductor)
Carnegie Hall, New York, 25 December 1949
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Und ab die Wolke (Die Freischütz)
Ozean, du Ungeheuer (Oberon)
Richard WAGNER (1813-83)

Senta’s Ballad (Der Fliegende Holländer)
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)

Vol lo sapete (Cavalleria Rusticana)
Jules MASSENET

Il est gon (Herodiade)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

In quelle trine morbide (Manon Lescaut)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Ecco l’orride campo (Un Ballo in Maschera)
Come in quest’ ora bruna (Simon Boccanegra)
Astrid Varnay with unstated conductors and orchestras
GUILD GHCD 2213/14 [2’29"47]

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In the recorded history of Elektra, this set would appear to represent something of a dream team, combining as it does the talents of arguably the opera’s greatest protagonist and conductor to date. Despite Birgit Nilsson’s subsequent ownership of the role for a decade from the middle of the ’60s onwards many still regard Astrid Varnay as the ultimate Elektra. This is with good reason, to judge from the several recordings left to us: under Reiner in 1952, Richard Kraus in 1953, William Steinberg in 1956 and Herbert von Karajan in 1964. This set is now our earliest available documentation of Varnay in the role, from a concert performance given on Christmas Day 15 years before that Salzburg Festival appearance with Karajan. It’s worth noting the technical infallibility and vocal stamina one would need to sing this role over a period of 15 years, let alone to do so with such terrifying confidence.

This broadcast is also the earliest account I know of the score from Dmitri Mitropoulos; though I’m acquainted with performances from Florence in 1951 (Anny Konetzni) and Vienna in 1957 (Inge Borkh), I believe there to be several others. Messy ensemble for the opera’s opening ‘Agamemnon’ motif doesn’t get the opera off to a promising start, but Elektra’s opening monologue ‘Weh, ganz allein’ finds Varnay tempering Mitropoulos’s tendency to press ahead with icily powerful blasts of tone. This broadcast catches her in excellent voice, although in later years her characterisation of the part would deepen. For Mitropoulos too, impetuosity is the dominant feature here: the opening of Klytemnestra’s scene is too fast for full menace to register. As Richard Caniell points out in some notes that are nothing if not personal (‘the legendary 1949 broadcast… Varnay has never sung better than this, before or since… Orestes is the name of her sanity’ are some of the more debatable pronouncements) Elena Nikolaidi does better than many Klytemnestras in actually singing the part rather than spitting it. Irene Jessner gets around the notes but doesn’t invest them with the womanly allure offered by Karita Mattila (in recent memory) or Leonie Rysanek for Kraus. Mind you, she doesn’t get much chance to make an impact. There is a pause after Klytemnestra’s scene, possibly occasioned by the demands of the radio broadcast or a Christmas Day audience. It resumes with Elektra catching sight of the shadow in the doorway which is eventually revealed as Orest. Poor Chrysothemis’s second scene therefore is entirely cut and with it that creepy passage where Elektra casts an insinuating eye over her sister’s voluptuous body, ripe for motherhood, as Chrysothemis laments the lack of boyfriend material around the house of Atreus (can you blame them?). The other parts are fair, nothing more, though it’s a pity Guild couldn’t find out who half of them were.

The sound and playing under Kraus in studio conditions remain preferable. The WDR orchestra sounds far more amenable to the score’s extravagant demands than the reportedly recalcitrant New York Philharmonic, which in any case never took to Mitropoulos’s driven intensity. Varnay doesn’t quite go for broke on her opening entry as she did in 1949, but she builds the role with a slow-burning vengefulness that reaches its peak as Elektra scrabbles in the ground for the axe which Orest will use to murder their mother. She frequently seems to enjoy and benefit from Kraus’s more measured tempos with greater accuracy of intonation and more surely drawn phrases. But no one quite pulls the score round like Mitropoulos. Despite the fast tempos, his knowledge of the score pays dividends at moments of otherwise bewildering complexity like the arrival and departure of Klytemnestra where he is unmatched at drawing out the music’s strands. He can also stretch the big moments to realise perfectly the score’s unsettling combination (often simultaneous) of lyricism and violence, notably at the gloriously OTT conclusion, as Elektra dances herself to death. The Vienna performance from 1957 finds Mitropoulos in far more contemplative mood, dwelling on phrases more and spotlighting motifs from within the orchestra. If only the sound were not so crumbly this would be far more recommendable. The Florence version is likewise sonically inferior, though the faults are quite different; where the voices veer in and out of recession in Vienna, the Florence version is in a disconcertingly vivid electronic stereo, the focus of which wanders across the sound stage and makes me feel seasick when listening on headphones. This is a pity, because the orchestra is again extremely incisive and gutsy. Konetzni’s overcooked Elektra also disappoints.

The bonuses on Guild (Varnay in Senta’s ballad, bits and bobs from Boccanegra, Ballo and Herodiade inter alia) and Gala (substantial chunks of an Act I of Rosenkavalier with Varnay as the Marschallin from the Met with Reiner in 1953) are both appealing. Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren partner her in the two extracts from Act I of Boccanegra to especially thrilling effect, (and Weber’s Ozean, du Ungeheuer receives as full-on a performance as I’ve ever heard). If a partial version of Elektra doesn’t bother you, this set certainly offers a white-knuckle 90 minutes and a valuable chance to hear Varnay in full flight.
Peter Quantrill

See also review by Robert Farr and Calvin Goodwin

 


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