"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
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
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?
See also review by Robert
Farr and Peter Quantrill