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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Salome (1905)
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Salome; Gerhard Stolze (tenor) – Herod; Grace Hoffman (mezzo) – Herodias; Eberhard Wächter (baritone) – Jokanaan; Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) – Narraboth; Josephine Veasey (mezzo) – Page to Herodias; Paul Kuen (tenor) – First Jew); Stefan Schwer (tenor) – Second Jew; Kurt Equiluz (tenor) – Third Jew; Aron Gestner (tenor) – Fourth Jew; Max Proebstl (bass) – Fifth Jew; Tom Krause (baritone) – First Nazarene; Nigel Douglas (tenor) – Second Nazarene; Zenon Kosnowski (bass) – First Soldier; Heinz Holecek (bass) – Second Soldier; Theodor Kirschbichler (bass) – Cappadocian; Liselotte Mailk (soprano) – Slave
Wiener Philharmoniker/Georg Solti
publ. 1962. No recording dates and venue given. John Hunt’s discography in Birgit Nilsson’s autobiography says Vienna, October 1961
DECCA 475 7528 [53:52 + 45:34]

 

Produced by John Culshaw and engineered by Gordon Parry this is one of the most blatant examples of Decca’s spectacular Sonicstage recordings from the early stereo age. It could be argued that this is exactly what this music needs. Strauss’s orchestral palette balancing utter vulgarity and ravishing subtlety has probably never been performed, let alone recorded, with such uninhibited ferocity. Relish also the glow to the strings in the many passages where longing, desire and perverse lust are depicted. Solti, always one to revel in the excitement of the moment in preference to the long lines, nevertheless seems to have been in especially happy circumstances during this period. Das Rheingold, Aida, Rigoletto, Siegfried, Don Carlos and Götterdämmerung come to mind. This Salome may even be counted as the finest achievement of them all. It is an overblown reading in an overblown recording, but ‘overblown’ is probably the most accurate adjective for this opera. The carnal brutality is whipped home with such grandeur and so uncompromisingly that one gives in. Others, notably Karajan in his EMI recording from the late 1970s, have brought out more beauty and sensuality but at the same time also lowered the temperature a few degrees. Solti’s treatment is more in line with what Strauss must have wanted. I have admired Karajan’s reading for 25 years, but when it comes to the crunch it is Solti who wins hands down. In this latest 96kHz – 24-bit remastering the sound is even fuller and the sheen on the Vienna Phil’s strings even glossier, so much that on my machine there was a hint of unwanted fizz to the highest notes, but not enough to detract from the enjoyment – if that is the correct word in this case. In the instances when there is no need to be considerate towards the singers (CD1, end of track 6 and again end of track 9) Solti – and the listeners – can wallow in a torrent of magnificent playing from the VPO. Of course Salome’s dance (CD2 track 3) is another source of delight.

This issue is in the series "The Originals – Legendary Recordings from the Decca Catalogue" and legendary it certainly is. Even the original cover is retained and reproduced on the cover complete with that notorious photo of Birgit Nilsson at her most diabolic. The reissue is also a fitting tribute to Ms Nilsson as one of her most consummate impersonations on record. She may go down in history as the unsurpassable Isolde and Brünnhilde and, possibly also Turandot, but her Salome, later also Elektra and The Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten were also calling card roles. This recording definitely belies the criticism that she was cold. Cold she may be – and now I talk about Salome and not Birgit. Salome is cold in the sense that she wants her wishes to come true, irrespective of means and consequences. One could argue that, in modern terms, this girl was autistic, focusing on one particular thing, lacking empathy. The desire, the overriding incentive, is the lust to kiss the lips of Jokanaan; perverse no doubt, but passion is never completely devoid of feeling, even empathy. When she first looks down into the cistern to see Jokanaan, she exclaims: "How black it is, down there! It must be terrible to be in so black a pit! It is like a tomb." Nilsson conveys Salome’s awe with a light shiver in the voice. All through the opera she leaves the listener in no doubt that this is a young girl. There is no mistaking her voice for anything but one of the greatest heroic sopranos of all times, steady, shining like stainless Swedish steel. It also expands at climaxes to belittle even Solti’s efforts to drown the singers in his Philharmonic tornados. Likewise impressive is her pianissimo singing and I wonder how many hochdramatische sopranos have ever been able to spin such lovely soft singing on the thinnest thread of tone imaginable; just as steady as the fortissimos and radiating warmth! Former Swedish Minister of Culture, Bengt Göransson, said during a speech held as an introduction to the Aida performance at Dalhalla in August, given as a tribute to Birgit Nilsson, that he remembered a party a number of years ago where Birgit Nilsson was a guest of honour. As usual at Swedish dinner parties, there was some community singing, in which Birgit joined but she didn’t lord "over us amateurs" but scaled down to a community voice with the utmost ease. Hearing her Salome one can understand why. As a curiosity, Nilsson recalls in her autobiography the last recording session when she had just sung the last tone after having kissed Jokanaan’s chopped off head, a large head on a tray appeared in front of her. "I was near having a fit", she writes. The bloody and disgusting head, covered with green-yellow marzipan, turned out to be a wonderfully tasty cake. Orchestra, soloists and recording team lustily feasted on it afterwards! A fitting reward for a grandiose achievement.

And Birgit Nilsson is not alone in vocal glory. Her longstanding partner at numerous performances and a handful of commercial recordings, mezzo-soprano Grace Hoffman, is a Herodias to be reckoned with. She almost matches La Nilsson in volume and glorious tone. One almost wishes that this evil woman had a larger part. Magnificent is Eberhard Wächter’s Jokanaan. Wächter was always a very expressive singer. My first memory of him was the legendary second Schwarzkopf recording of Die lustige Witwe where he was the Danilo of one’s dreams although he was not always ideally steady. Here, though, there is not a trace of unevenness in his delivery. José Van Dam on the Karajan recording is masterly, and possibly even nobler of tone, but Wächter is the more incisive. Generally speaking one both singers are ideal in relation to their respective conductors’ approach. Gerhard Stolze, one of the great character tenors of his, and indeed any, time, creates a deeply penetrating portrait of Herod. He expresses every facet of this unattractive but at the same time fascinating character. CD2 tracks 5–7 should be compulsory listening for every student of singing. How he runs through several stages of emotions to end up in track 7, snarling – a man brought to the limits of his senses. Another important tenor of the last fifty years, Waldemar Kmentt, is an ardent Narraboth, with his characteristic bright tones. He was still singing at the Vienna State Opera a few years ago.

In the long list of secondary parts we find such names as Josephine Veasey (Herodias’s Page), Kurt Equiluz as Third Jew, one of the great Bach singers of the sixties and seventies, the young Tom Krause’s characteristic nut-brown baritone as First Nazarene and Heinz Holecek’s sonorous Second Soldier, another singer who has had an unusually long career. This careful casting contributes to the overall excellence of this recording.

The booklet contains a few session photos and Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome and Jokanaan but does not reprint the original essay. Instead we have Michael Kennedy’s article from 1985, probably from the first CD issue. Full texts and translations of course but alas, page 38 has been printed twice, on both page 37 and 38, so listeners without another version of the opera will miss a couple of minutes.

A clear recommendation? Yes, for everyone except the faint-hearted. The Karajan, luxuriously cast as well, has the young Hildegard Behrens an exceptionally good Salome, more vulnerable than Birgit Nilsson, and Agnes Baltsa a strong Herodias. It is actually more of an antidote to Solti’s than an alternative. Lovers of Strauss, and this "shabby little shocker" will need both: Solti for the raw animal thrill, Karajan for the opulent sensuality. If the budget limits the choice then the Solti is the one to have. As a complement everyone should also invest in another Hungarian émigré, Fritz Reiner’s final scene, coupled with excerpts from Elektra. With Inge Borkh, another high-octane dramatic soprano, this is also a classic and is now available in superb SACD sound (review)

Göran Forsling


 



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