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reviews of Leonie Rysanek as Salome and comparison of recordings on disc

Salome - Leonie Rysanek
Herodias - Ruth Hesse
Herod - Jon Vickers
Narraboth - Horst Laubenthal
Jokanaan - Thomas Stewart
Orchestre National de France
Rudolf Kempe
(Live - Festival D'Orange, 1974)
Golden Melodram GM 3.0047
2 Discs - 52'31 & 44'01
(mid price) Amazon UK £23.99

Salome - Leonie Rysanek
Herodias - Grace Hoffman
Herod - Hans Hopf
Narraboth - Waldemar Kmentt
Jokanaan - Eberhard Waechter
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Karl Böhm
(Live - Wiener Staatsoper, 1972)
RCA 74321 694320 2
2 Discs - 56'59 & 39'49
(mid price) Amazon UK £15.99

With the exception of Wagner, no opera composer benefits more from live performance on CD than Richard Strauss - and this is especially the case with his two single act operas, Elektra and Salome. When I wrote a comparative study of currently available recordings of Elektra it was live performances which triumphed over studio performances. The same goes for Salome which, perhaps even more than Elektra, benefits from the extra frisson a live recording brings to this once decadent work. The final scene - one of the few operatic scenes played in isolation and one of the very greatest conclusions in all opera - benefits enormously from live performance. The Dance of the Seven Veils is another. Hear one or both of these scenes on either of the recordings under review here and you will experience an electricity the recording studio cannot hope to emulate. Having said that, both of these operas require a near perfect balance of sound - particularly between orchestra (always vast) and soloists. Live performances often fail on this count, and both of these recordings, despite mostly splendid stereo sound, suffer occasionally from poor balance.

The similarities between these two operas are striking and obvious - yet they are also markedly different. The main difference lies in the range of the eponymous roles - Elektra requiring an altogether bigger voice capable of meeting Strauss' extraordinary demands on the dramatic soprano territory. There are no high Cs to hit in Salome, but there are more than a number of tough B flats that require accuracy and stamina. Elektra is altogether more taxing because the protagonist is on stage continuously after Scene 1, and both operas require someone capable of acting - with dance being an important element, and ultimately a fatal one. The one big difference is that Salome requires a singer who can convincingly portray a sixteen-year-old heroine, Elektra already being a mature woman. Since no sixteen year old could ever cope with the demands of the role an audience and listener requires a degree of imagination and tolerance. Jessye Norman famously sung the role on disc in a performance which is sweeping in its beauty and glowing in its opulence. This cannot rescue the recording from stretching believability to near impossible lengths.

Leonie Rysanek came to the role of Salome quite late in her career - having already sung Elektra and the role of the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, both, coincidentally, under one of her conductors here, Karl Böhm (a famous Decca video of Elektra being a truly harrowing experience). She is simply magnificent in the title role on both of these sets with a nobility and opulence of tone that sets her apart as probably the finest all-round exponent of Strauss' greatest roles in recording history. There is certainly no shortage of great singers who have tackled the role of Salome - Ljuba Welitsch (twice under Fritz Reiner on disc), Astrid Varnay, Inge Borkh and Christel Goltz being the leading advocates under comparison here. Rysanek not only equals these impressive achievements but also seems to go one stage further in giving us what I can only describe as being the definitive Salome. The sheer terror she evokes in her portrayal of Salome is often staggering, not least in her vainglorious attempts to seduce Jokanaan and her subsequent demands for his head.

Rysanek's assumption of the role underwent little change in the eighteen months that separate these two recordings. Her Viennese Salome is probably slightly straighter, even under the electrifying direction of Böhm. The French Salome is altogether more arresting, and her singing seems to have acquired both greater strength and incandescence. Listen to track 7 on the French recording in her dialogue with Jokanaan and you will hear some of the purest Strauss singing on disc with her notes constantly as bright as crystal and sustained with marvellous precision and beauty of tone. These are, of course, evident in Vienna but they are just that more affecting on Kempe's recording. Part of the reason for this must be her greater familiarity with the role - she did, after all, sing it 40 times in Vienna before undertaking this French production.

Choice between these two sets (although I would suggest you buy both) will rest largely on the remaining cast and the conductors and orchestras. Both Karl Böhm and Rudolf Kempe were Strauss conductors of the first rank - Kempe having conducted productions of both Salome and Elektra to enormous acclaim at Covent Garden in the 1950s, and Böhm having conducted both operas often at the Staatsoper throughout the 1960s and 1970s. There is little to separate them - both endowing this score with magnificence and grandeur you will not find bettered elsewhere. Bohm is swifter in the Dance and at the close of the final scene he is simply manic. Kempe gets glowing playing from a French orchestra not always noted for its refinement - but listen to them as Jokanaan descends into the Cistern and you find playing that is as hubristic as it is dark-toned and plangent. This is great playing by any stretch and quite the equal of the more famous Vienna orchestra on the RCA recording. Kempe's recording is nowhere better than in the wrangling of the Jews and the Nazarenes (track 8) with voices so delineated and so transparently separate one is compelled and riveted by it. In Kempe's hands, this is a virtuoso scherzo that is quite unrivalled and almost as purely atonal as Strauss surely intended it to be.

Unlike Elektra, which has little in the way of interesting roles for the male voice, Salome has three (although, Narraboth is by far the least interesting). Herod is not by any means a star role in this opera, but it requires a singer who can do more than simply declaim. Kempe had the advantage of Jon Vickers in this role - and if you want to hear him acquiring this disc will be essential; it is the only known recording to exist of him singing the role. As with a famous Tristan Vickers sang at the Orange Festival in 1973 (one of only two recordings I know of with Vickers opposite Birgit Nilsson in this opera) he is larger than life. This is the most authoritative Herod I can recall - and one that almost tries to upstage his Salome. Hans Hopf on the Böhm recording is singularly dull besides Vickers. Where Hopf is darker toned - his requests for Salome to dance for him being decidedly unpersuasive - Vickers brings a glowing Heldentenorish ring to his requests which are believable. Vickers' final order for Salome to be arrested and executed is the most perversely sung I have heard - but it is entirely memorable and shows why this great singer is just so mesmerising. Julius Patzak on a 1953 performance conducted by Hermann Weigert is perhaps even more memorable, overall, in the role, but only Vickers shades his voice and tone so individually. No tenor matches his increasing register as he concedes, exhausted, to Salome's demand for the head of the Baptist.

The role of Jokanaan can be difficult to cast. Since he spends much of his time off stage (or rather, under the stage) the voice is all we have for this role so a great voice is often required to do justice to the part. Böhm has the wonderful Eberhard Waechter, Kempe a glorious Thomas Stewart (a famous Wotan for Karajan). Fritz Reiner in 1952 at the Met had the greatest of all Jokanaan's, Hans Hotter, although latterly Bryn Terfel has proven magnificent in the role, not least on Sinopoli's absolutely thrilling studio recording, one of the great opera recordings of the last twenty years. Nowhere is Jokanaan greater than at the moment he descends into the Cistern, his victory over Salome's attempted seduction complete. As he sings ' Ich will dich nicht ansehn. Du bist verflucht, Salome, du bist verflucht. Du bist verflucht' [Sinopoli, tracks 15 and 16, Böhm, track 5, 4'50 and Kempe, track 7, 4'31] Jokanaan's descent is accompanied by one of the most dense (and sheerly thrilling) orchestral passages in all Strauss. Sinopoli is almost alone in the magnificence he gives this passage with bold brass, simpering woodwind and arching strings. Böhm is more spacious here than Kempe but the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic does not seem to me particularly refined with brass especially crude and strings somewhat emaciated of tone. Kempe's French orchestra is superlative, with a suitably bass rich recording adding to their magnificence. Taken as a whole, Terfel, Hotter and Thomas each bring the portentousness of Jokanaan's writing to dizzy heights. Hotter is perhaps slightly more successful at showing us the revulsion of Jokanaan to Salome's persistent seduction, possibly more at home in the insipid melodies that Strauss wrote for the part. Hotter and Thomas are both careful to phrase so they seem genuinely at a loss to hear the imagination in Strauss' Salome leitmotifs.

Pushed to choose between these two discs I would recommend the Kempe performance as being the most fascinating and worthwhile. Golden Melodram, who have made the live/pirated opera market almost their own, have remastered this disc superbly. Although it dates from 1974, the recording is enormously transparent and much better balanced than the earlier Böhm. Kempe and Böhm, master Straussians each, provide fascinating insights into this great opera - and with Rysanek on world-beating form, and with supporting casts of equal distinction - either would make an ideal supplement to the only studio recording worth owning - Sinopoli's. The Kempe, however, must now be considered one of the very greatest Strauss discs now on the market.  

Marc Bridle


Kempe - performance sound

Böhm - performance sound

Recording Assessment

Salome may be the more often played of the two one acters Strauss wrote, but on disc it is often overshadowed by some quite marvellous performances of Elektra. Elektra may be the more difficult role to sing, but perversely it has been the more successful of the two when it has come to casting the lead. Sixteen-year-old Isolde's might just be more difficult to come by.

Salome owes more to Tristan than any other opera Strauss wrote - not least in the erotic use of music, some of which already recalls the later Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier. Salome is, however, a more turbulent and violent work than Tristan - the barbaric and strident orchestral backdrop being the dominant one, the overwhelming tension being the other. Salome, like Elektra, has no prelude - a clarinet arpeggio being the first sound we hear. But like that other work, the melodious vocal line is often one set against the strong contrast of the orchestration. There is nothing quite like the Dance of the Seven Veils in any other opera (grand orchestral moments in Berlioz and Wagner being dramatic but not in the way Strauss intended in his dance, and latterly on stage involving nudity). It is a wild orchestral showpiece that sums up the drama of Salome more overtly than anything else. It also, like Tristan, ends on a great monologue - although one senses that Strauss wanted to go just that bit further than Wagner did: it is not only over twice as long, but comprises some of the most ecstatic writing and escalating drama ever written for the soprano voice. Death in Elektra is crazed and maddening; death in Salome is almost raised to the sexual. Salome hints more of necrophilia, no matter how distasteful it appears.

Rather controversially (because I know many of these recordings are held in high regard by others), I will dispense with most studio recordings in a single paragraph. As already suggested above, this opera works most successfully in live productions and few studio efforts recall any of the drama and ecstasy of this work. This opera's inherent tension means it needs to be interpreted as a single arc culminating in the great final scene. By necessity (and design), studio recordings are the very antithesis of this. Jessye Norman, with Seiji Ozawa at the helm on Philips, is imperious and statuesque in a role she was ill advised to sing. The singing is as always with this great singer intensely beautiful (and few final scenes reach such a high state of eroticism as hers with high B flats flung off with unmatched ease). Ultimately, however, she is a very unconvincing young girl - the least convincing, in fact, on disc. Birgit Nilsson, for Solti on Decca, suffers the same fate - even though the voice is perhaps more naturally suited to this role than Norman's. There are thrills galore in her singing, and Decca, under John Culshaw's guidance, provide a glorious sound for her and Solti, if highly artificial. Hildegard Behrens, for EMI on Herbert von Karajan's famous recording, was at the start of her illustrious career and is suitably innocent as Salome. The voice is young and fresh, and Karajan produces from a Vienna Philharmonic on magnificent form the most sumptuous and opulent (if at times a little opaque) orchestral backdrop of any recording. Kent Nagano, in the only version sung in the original French of this opera, is not an exciting interpreter of this work and Karen Huffstodt quivers like jelly in the title role. The French version comes across as considerably lighter than the normal German - and not very persuasively in this Virgin release.

The best recordings of this work are those, which as Saint-Saëns said, 'lavish upon young men the most voluptuous of kisses whilst drawing red-hot irons across their ribs'. Leonie Rysanek, on either of the two recordings reviewed above, but especially in the Kempe, seems to inhabit this double world of sadism and lust in equal measure. Hers is a dramatic invention, almost fetishistic in its conception, aspiring to drama in every phrase. Ljuba Welitsch on her two recordings for Fritz Reiner is similarly authoritative.

Welitsch was the most sought after Salome of the 1950s, singing it more than 50 times in Vienna alone under great Straussians like Böhm and Knappertsbusch. Her Jokanaan's were often Paul Schöffler and Hans Hotter - both great Strauss singers. None of these Vienna recordings have yet proven to exist on tape, but we do have two performances of her on disc singing Salome under Fritz Reiner from New York. The 1949 performance, on Golden Melodram [GM 3.0018] is one of the most Wagnerian of all recordings of this work - with Kerstin Thorborg as Herodias, Herbert Janssen as Jokanaan and Frederick Jagel as Herod. Some have viewed this as the greatest of all recordings of this opera and it is true to say that Reiner and Welitsch fire sparks off each other in ways that other singers and conductors do not. Moments such as the Salome-Jokanaan dialogue are often sublime - the pinnacle of a Reiner performance often being the moment Jokanaan declaims 'Niemals, Tochter Babylons', rather than the descent to the Cistern. Weilitsch's final scene is a moment of pure erotic energy - with her high notes sustained for miraculous periods of time, floating over an abyss of orchestral textures magically caught by an inspired Reiner.

In 1952, she again sang the role with Reiner and it is this second recording that perhaps earns the legend as the greatest of all. She may have been slightly older, but the voice was still remarkably fresh venting passion with a fulfilment one finds irresistible. On Myto [2 MCD 952.125]  Amazon UK  £23.99 this, in contrast to the Wagnerian casting of the earlier version, has an almost ideal Viennese cast - with Hans Hotter as Jokanaan, Set Svanholm as Herod and Elisabeth Höngen as Herodias. These were all great Wagnerians in their own right, but more assuredly Viennese than the New York stalwarts on the 1949 set. Svanholm in particular is a thrilling Herod, deep of tone, but perhaps struggling in the high tessitura passages leading to the Dance. Hotter is unmatched as the Baptist. Weilitsch, even more on this recording than the 1949 Met one, doesn't just sing the role - she almost convinces one that she is Salome. Once you have heard Welitsch it is just possible you might not imagine anyone else in the role again. Reiner is again in electrifying form - a master of Strauss' score teasing out details many others leave buried under a mass of sound. With well focused, full sound this is certainly an indispensable version.

Another of the great Strauss sopranos from the middle of the last century was Astrid Varnay. Although I personally find her style of singing more suited to the liquidity of Elektra (a role at which she truly excelled), she was a masterly Salome on the right day. Her recording of this role comes from a 1953 Cologne production on Bella Voce [BLV 107.210] [now Orfeo C503002I Amazon UK £17.99]. She does not perhaps persuade us that Salome is a sixteen-year-old, but there is no denying the thrill, noticeably at the top of the register which accompanies her singing. Few final scenes are as magnetic as hers, and fewer still leave the hairs on one's neck standing upright. The reason to acquire this set, however, is the Herod of Julius Patzak, one of the most sheerly beautiful of all tenors. As Herod he lends true beauty to his singing - more overtly lyrical than any other interpreter on disc (particularly in comparison with say Vickers or Svanholm). One hears more of Radames in this interpretation of Herod than anywhere else - a not unwelcome point of departure for this role.

Inge Borkh, again more well known for her assumption of Elektra, was a memorable Salome. There are a few recordings of her singing this role (a famous one from the Met in 1958 with Mitropoulos conducting and Ramon Vinay as Herod, and another from 1951 with Hotter as her Jokanaan), but the best, despite some limpid conducting from Kurt Schröder, comes from Frankfurt in 1952. She was somewhat sour at the top of the register, but her Salome is characterised by truly beautiful phrasing, even if one is not entirely convinced by the youthfulness of the interpretation. Hear this recording for Max Lorenz and Margarethe Klose as the King and Queen in one of the best cast of versions available. A young Christa Ludwig makes an appearance as the Page. This is on Myto [2 MCD 935.92]. Amazon UK £23.99

The finest studio performance remains Sinopoli's on Deutsche Grammophon with Cheryl Studer in the title role [DG 431810-2] Amazon UK £25.99. Like this conductor's recording of Elektra this performance has an over-the-top majesty and decadence that makes hearing this opera such a thrilling experience. Sinopoli invests his performance with a true sweep that belies the fact it is studio made. Moments such as the incandescence of the Salome-Jokanaan dialogue, the suicide of Narraboth, the dance of the Seven Veils and the eventual kissing of Jokanaan's severed head are gloriously graphic in a way none of the live recordings are, with the possible exception of Rudolf Kempe's. The swelling, nauseous intensity of the moment Salome kisses the Baptist's lips, tasting his blood, is presented in such sonorous sound it is hard not to be repelled by this recording. The violence of Strauss' score is here unravelled in a way Karajan possibly imagined it to be, but he couldn't get the Vienna Philharmonic to play for him in such a barbarous fashion as Sinopoli does with his Berlin Opera forces. The brass fanfare that initiates the final scene is here flourished with caustic bite, the stabbing high double basses that suggest Salome's sexualised breathing during the execution are here as unwanted as a knife in the back but compelling because of it. Orchestrally, Sinopoli plumbs depths that are shockingly vivid but what a sensuous sound he produces from strings during the great climax of the final scene. This is the most clearly shaped of any interpretation I have heard, the most dramatic and the most amplified of all Salome's on disc. Add to this Studer's magnificent Salome - vibrant, fresh, thrilling in the upper registers and sensuous of tone and you have what could be the ideal recording of this work. She recalls Welitsch in many ways - her deft use of pianissimo, her conviction at dramatising Salome's crazed lust and necrophilia in singing of astonishing range and power, and her empathy in a role difficult to surmount. Terfel, as already suggested, is magnificent as the Baptist, and Rysanek, in one of her final recordings, is a colourful Herodias.

Which are the recordings to go for? Sinopoli's studio recording offers a startlingly vivid experience of this opera at it most grotesque. It has a superbly sung lead, graphic orchestral playing and superb sound. Ljuba Welitsch on her 1952 recording with Fritz Reiner and an unmatched cast is also a key - perhaps the key - recording. Leonie Rysanek's recording with an inspired Rudolf Kempe from France in 1974 is also magisterial in a way opera recordings rarely are. No library would be complete without all of these recordings in it - each offering us something uniquely revelatory about this work. Get the Reiner, however, and you will perhaps hear more glories in this work than anywhere else. It really is that special. For those intent on sacrificing themselves before the alter of savagery and obscenity - then the recording that perhaps comes nearest to recalling the tempest of outrage that first greeted the work will surely be Sinopoli's. It is also that special. Opera recordings rarely come near the perfection of these two interpretations.

Marc Bridle


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