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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra - music drama in one act (1908)
Astrid Varnay (soprano) - Elektra; Res Fischer (mezzo) - Klytemnestra; Leonie Rysanek (soprano) - Chrysothemis; Helmut Melchert (tenor) - Aegisthus; Hans Hotter (baritone) - Orest; Heiner Horn (bass) - Der Pfleger des Orest; Gerti Charlent (soprano) - Die Vertraute der Königin; Helene Petrich (soprano) - Die Schleppträgerin; Käthe Retzmann (soprano) - Die Aufseherin; Hasso Eschert (tenor) - Ein Junger Diener; Arno Reinhardt (bass) - Ein Alter Diener; Ilsa Ihme-Sabisch, Trude Roesler, Marianne Schroeder, Marlies Siemeling, Käthe Möller-Siepermann (alto, mezzo, soprano) - five Mägde
Kolner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Kolner Rundfunkchor/Richard Kraus
rec. Funkhaus des WDR, Saal 1, Koln, 22-28 August 1953. ADD
CAPRICCIO 5008 [35.30 + 64.59]
Experience Classicsonline

My initial disappointment that this was not one of those seat-of-your-pants live recordings but a 1953 studio recording made by WDR radio for later broadcast turned to dismay at WDR’s tepid engineering. The WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln is set behind the voices so those flare-ups which should threaten in Strauss’s score are curtailed. Poor Richard Krauss is the biggest casualty. He may be more accompanist than protagonist, unlike the thrilling Sinopoli (DG), but Krauss’s taut and sure-footed account deserves the opportunity to make more impact than it does here. Even Aegisthus sounds like he could overwhelm the orchestra in his death throes. Worse, the following final scene is horribly compressed. On top of all this the singers are sometimes noticeably pulled back when they open out. Otherwise Capriccio’s latest re-mastering is surprisingly clean with a solid bass. What a pity the original engineers did not set up a single microphone and let rip.

Res Fischer is a superb Klytemestra, crystal clear and creepily intimate when quizzing Elektra for the solution to her blood-soaked nightmares. Her death screams are terrifying. Hans Hotter is both commanding and resonant; his opening dark sinister tones warm into an ecstatic duet with his new found sister. Leonie Rysanek’s chesty soprano certainly imparts all Chrysothemis’s pent up womanly passion but her voice is too close to the fine Elektra she was to become. Surely a purer voiced Chrysothemis such as Della Casa (1957 Orfeo) is a better match, although Ljuba Welitsch (1947 Myto) is more engaged.

Astrid Varnay’s Elektra is quite remarkable. Fearless in attack, fresh and with utterly clear diction, this is an Elektra to rank amongst the greatest on CD. There is little suggestion of the irksome swelling into notes heard in her Gotterdammerung Brünnhilde, recorded live only two years later at Bayreuth (Testament). She is also steadier and less fruity-toned than her 1964 Elektra under Karajan (Orfeo). However Varnay’s Elektra also raises interesting questions about characterisation. She certainly has the authority and power to suggest Agamemnon’s noble daughter but, as with many dramatic sopranos, the listener may be left wondering whether her Elektra is vocally too close to her Brünnhilde? Elektra is much more than Brünnhilde unhinged. Try Inge Borke (1957 Orfeo) who better conveys the gritty madness of the outsider first seen skulking near the city walls. Madness and inner turmoil are also keystones of Gerda Lammers’s vivid Elektra (Royal Opera House). She and Kempe memorably point rhythms and shape phrases to convey the power of the score’s dances. There are sonic failings here too, including a final fall-out, but their set remains truer to a theatrical experience.

Capriccio’s booklet is on the stingy side with index, synopsis and short essay. The essay claims the premier dress rehearsal audience was stunned into silence, to which Strauss responded by getting up and saying “I liked it”. In fact this happened after the first dress rehearsal performance of Salome. There is nothing on the performers or recording which is surely an omission in an historic issue. Kempe’s set again gets it right. Happily you can find a libretto with the DG Sinopoli recording, which remains best choice for any newcomer to Strauss’ mesmerising opera.

David Harbin

Survey of Elektra recordings



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