> Strauss Elektra Varnay Guild [CG]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra (opera in one act)
Elektra: Astrid Varnay (soprano)
Klytemnestra: Elena Nicolaidi (mezzo-soprano)
Chrysothemis: Irene Jessner (soprano)
Aegisthus: Frederick Jagel (tenor)
Orestes: Herbert Janssen (baritone)
Attendant of Orestes: Michael Rhodes (baritone)
Four Handmaidens: Miriam Stockton; Edith Evans; Elinor Warren; Beverly Dame
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor
Christmas Day, 1949 NY Philharmonic broadcast
CD2 filled out with arias sung by Astrid Varnay:-
WEBER (1786-1826): Der Freischütz - Und ob die Wolke; Oberon - Ozean, du Ungeheuer
WAGNER (1813-1883): Der Fliegende Holländer - Traft ihr das Schiff (with chorus)
MASCAGNI (1863-1945): Cavalleria Rusticana - Voi lo sapete
MASSENET (1842-1912): Herodiade - Il est doux
PUCCINI (1858-1924) Manon Lescaut - In quelle trine morbide
VERDI (1813-1901) Un Ballo in Maschera - Ecco l'orrido campo
"Austrian Symphony Orchestra" conducted by Hermann Weigert;
from the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 28 January 1950:
VERDI: Simon Boccanegra - excerpts from Act I as follows:
(1) Come in quest'ora bruna (Varnay)
(2) Cielo di stelle orbato....Vieni a mirar (Varnay and Richard Tucker)
(3) Orfanella il tetto umile.....Figlia! A tal nome palpito (Varnay and Leonard Warren) Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Fritz Stiedry]
The non-Elektra items from Remington LP 199-53 (issued 1952)
GUILD GHCD 2213/14 [2CDs: 2:29:47]
Bargain price


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"Immortal Performances" is the rubric under which this Christmas Day, 1949 NY Philharmonic broadcast is offered. It is indeed a famous performance and was issued by several private sources during the LP era, most widely perhaps as BJR 510. Now it is revived on CD and generously filled out with arias and duets by its Elektra, Astrid Varnay.

How does the performance stand up to legend half a century on? Not entirely successfully, I fear. By now several of Varnay's assumptions of this, one of her most noted roles, have appeared. There is a 1953 German radio performance with a cast at least the equal of this one (the young Rysanek and Hans Hotter prominent within it). This is available on both the Orfeo and Gala labels. The latter, at bargain price like this Guild issue, includes as a bonus a sizeable portion of the first Act of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier taken from a Metropolitan Opera performance of 1953 with Varnay as the Marschallin and Rise Stevens as Octavian - and with Fritz Reiner conducting.

Reiner also leads the Met's own issue of its 1952 Elektra broadcast with Varnay, Hoengen, Svanholm and Schoeffler - again a cast to rival that of 1949. There is also a later (1964) Salzburg Elektra under Karajan but with Varnay past her best vocal state.

All of these have the advantage of being more complete than the 1949 edition which, in addition to taking almost all the standard cuts (a portion of Elektra's solo in her scene with Orestes, frequently omitted in performance is, however, restored here), omits entirely Chrysothemis's second scene with Elektra, jumping from the end of the Elektra-Klytemnestra encounter to that between Elektra and Orestes! Perhaps this was done to spare Irene Jessner, near the end of her career as Chrysothemis and giving evidence of distinct limits around the A above the stave. Some of the B naturals in the final scene are more willed than sung, the more distressing as, since the underpinning choral lines are omitted, Chrysothemis, in this edition, is more exposed.

Herbert Jannsen too was by this time within a couple of years of retirement. The once lustrous sound has greyed and, it must be said, his is not one of the more commanding Orestes on disc. Frederick Jagel, on the other hand, though he too would soon retire from a lengthy career at the Met, finds in Aegisthus a part well suited to his abilities and gives a well-characterised and well-sung interpretation. Elena Nicolaidi, the Greek mezzo (not to be confused with the Bulgarian Elena Nicolai), also sings and acts well as the corrupt Greek murderess-queen. Hers is a voice of many colours; she revels in the low-lying tessitura of her part and often makes points by singing softly, abetted by the frequency with which Mitropoulos finds chamber music-like sonorities within this score, so often played for bombast and brilliance.

Mitropoulos in fact probably provides the major selling point of this issue even though the extra items make it clear that it is intended as a tribute to Varnay. Yet even here there is competition, primarily from his 6 March 1958 Elektra broadcast, also from the NY Phil, again more complete than the 1949 edition and available until recently as Arkadia MP 459-3. This will surely show up again before long and its cast of Inge Borkh, Blanche Thebom, Frances Yeend, Giorgio Tozzi, and David Lloyd is quite competitive.

Still the current issue makes it clear that the combination of Mitropoulos and the young Varnay was a potent one. The soprano goes from strength to strength during the performance, her high notes pealing and her use of the words, if slightly less compelling than in the 1953 performance (whose excellent sound no doubt contributes), imaginative and forceful. Sound is variable in this 1949 preservation, a bit congested in loudest passages but with the voices forward and with good presence. I found that a little extra in the treble helped.

The added items make the issue a generous one and are of course interesting for the light they throw on Varnay's ambitions to conquer non-German repertoire. The covered, somewhat occluded timbre of her middle range diminishes her success, but she was a clever and aware technician and makes the most of her resources.

In the end I would say that this Guild set provides an excellent introduction to Varnay's art as well as a tribute to Mitropoulos. But there are other Varnay Elektras that more fully preserve the soprano's achievement in this particular opera.

Calvin M Goodwin

Jan Neckers has also listened to this recording

The frontal record sleeve proudly mentions: "The Legendary 1949 Broadcast". Legendary this performance may have been but the recording company clearly and rightly didnít think of it as someoneís first choice of Elektra as there is not even a libretto included. The performance of the opera itself takes no more than 87 minutes. There are a few small cuts and one big cut in the score as there was an intermission following the scene between Elektra and Klytemnestra after some 40 minutes of music (Oh happy days, when managers or producers still heeded the publicís call of nature and didnít give us the whole three acts of Katja Kabanova etc in a single throw). Nor is this recording meant as proof of Mitropoulosís art as the remaining hour on CD2 is not filled by another pirate recording of the conductor. Instead we get what the back note hypocritically and in small print calls "Astrid Varnay: little known recordings". Come on, this is a welcome reissue of that early fifties-Remington-LP RPL-199-53 and two live duets (with Tucker and Warren) thrown in for good measure. In short, this is more a tribute to the art of Astrid Varnay than just another Elektra.

Not that the New York performance is to be despised. Granted, the sonics are constricted and the soloists are much in front as could be expected but one still understands the unanimous enthusiasm from the New York critics. (read pages 283/4 of Mitropoulosí biography ĎPriest of Musicí). The drive of Mitropoulos is amazing while at the same time he succeeds in letting us discover the many melodies which are to be found in the score instead of stressing the shattering dissonances. Mitropoulos doesnít drown his singers and one understands better their love for the maestro after this performance.

But with the sound-picture being what it is, the main reason of this reissue is the singing. Herbert Janssen as Orestes sings with warmth and dignity as long as he hasnít to struggle for volume. Then the voice loses focus (he was 57 at the time). Elena Nicolaidi as Klytemnestra has a real Mediterranean voice (wide vibrato included) and what a joy it is to hear one steeped in the Italian repertoire in this mixture of passion and piety instead of the usual Deutsche hausfrau who, after ten years as Brünnhilde, now tries to lengthen her career in the mezzo repertoire. But the Ďraison díêtreí of the performance is, of course, Astrid Varnayís Elektra. Compared to Nilssonís laser this is a far more massive sound in the middle voice. Only at the top does it tend to thin out somewhat just before attacking the note and then swelling to the usual impressive size. Itís not a sympathetic voice as there is something sweet-sour in it which is just right for this role. The lady is clearly in command of all her forces and after one and a half hours of strenuous singing the voice is as fresh as when it started.

Varnayís strengths as Elektra are her weaknesses in the filler on CD2 which turns out to be a complete operatic recital. There is simply no sensuality in the timbre for Agathe, Hérodiade, Manon Lescaut or Amelia. That slow and careful attack in the high register too doesnít sit well with the French and Italian roles. On the other hand she is near perfect as Rezia and Senta. Itís a shame that the sleeve notes donít even mention the name of the conductor of that recital. It is Hermann Weigert who married Varnay in 1944 when he was 56 and she 26. Weigert was the very respected chief repetiteur of the German wing at the Met and except for a 1953 München Salomé with his wife, this is one of the rare examples of his conducting. The original record was produced for Remington by that amiable rogue Eddie Smith. The producers of the CD probably didnít use the master tapes (if they still exist) but employed a very good copy of the original LP as there are some sounds which point to a little wear. Anyway the sound is a marked improvement on my old LP as those Remingtons were notorious for their cheapness and bad vinyl quality. Then there are the two live pieces from Simon Boccanegra. When one hears Varnayís matronly and somewhat tentatively Amelia Grimaldi one understands that the Metís new master Rudolf Bing didnít want to give her Italian roles. Twice she is clearly out-sung by two young American singers with the right voices and style: Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren. Incidentally, why donít the sleeve notes tell us that these two live selections come from the Met performance on the 28th of January 1950?

Jan Neckers



See also review by Robert Farr and Peter Quantrill


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