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Der Rosenkavalier
Sena Jurinac (Octavian), Hilde Gueden (Sophie), Maria Reining (Marschallin), Ludwig Weber (Baron Ochs), Alfred Poell (Faninal), Judith Hellweg (Marianne), Hilde Rössl-Majdan (Annina), Anton Dermota (Singer), Walter Berry (Police Commissioner), Peter Klein (Valzacchi), Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Erich Kleiber.
Decca 467 111-2 [3 CDs, 197' 06"]

This was the first absolutely complete Rosenkavalier, made in 1954. I'll start with the recording since the legendary status of the performance itself has never been questioned. Early Decca LPs usually had a good, warm sound, but successive remasterings have too often gone for brilliance (and sometimes false stereo too), inviting comments like "papery strings". This is much better. The opening attack does have a touch of stridency, but there is also a body to the sound and later there is plenty of warmth. In short, unless you make track-by-track comparisons with modern stereo versions you are likely just to settle down and become engrossed in the music itself. And if you do make track-by-track comparisons you are going to find a clarity and a transparency of textures which not many later versions can match.

Which brings me to the real hero of the set. If there is a perfect balance between voices and orchestra, if every contrapuntal strand in fast-moving passages is clear, if loud passages never degenerate into confusion, if slower passages never become heavy or soggy, this is due to Erich Kleiber's quite astonishing ear and mastery of the orchestra. He secures the utmost precision, holding everyone on course through the great ensembles at extremely taut, but never hectic, tempi, but he also shows a wonderful tenderness and sensitivity in the more lyrical moments and has the strings soaring ecstatically as the Act 3 trio reaches its climax.

The glorious Straussian voices of Jurinac and Gueden are well-remembered. Maria Reining made fewer records, but hear her launch the second part of the trio (Hab mirs gelobt, a few seconds into track 13 on the 3rd disc) to be reassured that she is the equal of the others. Fine and well-contrasted Ochs and Faninal from Weber and Poell; strongly characterised minor roles showing the strength of the stable company-system. My small reservation is that Dermota, an elegant Mozartian, was not quite an Italian tenor and seems to be struggling to be one.

Although Strauss presented an enormous challenge to singers and conductor, it is a challenge which has stimulated many performers over several generations to give of their best. I am prepared to say that this performance is unbeatable, but it would be risky to say it has not or cannot be equalled. If you don't insist on digital stereo it is certainly a strong contender for first choice. And if you have a modern version and can stretch to a second recording, then make this a must.

Seasoned listeners can stop here. But since Internet reaches places where classical music magazines rarely penetrate, I'd like to add a word for the new music-lover, feeling his way into the repertoire. It's true that this opera contains many pages of swiftly-paced exchanges between the characters, often sung contemporaneously so that you're hard put to keep your place in the libretto, but persevere and you will find the characters come alive as in few comic operas since Mozart, and the lyrical moments, above all the Act 3 trio but also the Marschallin's scene in Act 1, are among the most wonderful things music has to offer.

Detailed notes on the performance and a synopsis in English, French and German, the libretto for some reason is only in English and German.

Christopher Howell



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