> Richard Strauss - Elektra [RJF]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra (opera) and various arias sung by Astrid Varnay (sop).
Elektra, Astrid Varnay (sop). Klytemnestra, Elena Nicolaidi (cont). Chrysothemis, Irene Jessner (sop). Orestes, Herbert Janssen (bar).
New York Philharmonic Orchestra. cond. Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Live performance given in Carnegie Hall on Christmas Day 1949. Bargain Price.



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Elekra is the opera chosen for inclusion in the second tranche of this series. Even more extreme in its orchestral texture and dissonances than the composer's Salome, the opera is very much an acquired taste. Richard Caniell, progenitor of this series, and to whom I owe an apology for misspelling his name in some of my reviews of the first four issues in the series, provides a detailed and informative essay on the opera itself and performances in the post-Second World War era. Particularly, he puts into perspective both the anticipation, and realisation, of this 1949 performance given to a packed Carnegie Hall on, of all days considering the subject matter, December 25th. Mitropoulos's searing account of the score is the stuff of legend and can be heard in all its vitality in good sound. Regrettably it is not textually complete. With several excisions it lasts 91 minutes.

The name part of Elektra is sung by Astrid Varnay. It might be said she was to the Richard Strauss-Wagner repertoire what Callas was to the belcanto-ists and Italian romantics. Flawed vocally, in the purest terms, but one never left the theatre other than having been fully involved in her interpretation. She always gave 100% and then some. So it is here. Nicolaidi is a little stately as a Klytemnestra who, as Caniell notes, sings rather than merely declaims her lines. Janssen is imposing, if a little dry compared with his younger self. The other parts are all at least adequately taken, with some contributions inspired by the occasion and the conductor.

The recording derives from line transcription discs which, whilst having been subjected to restorative techniques, have not been filtered of grit or ticks (not that there are any particularly intrusive ones) in order that the orchestral and vocal overtones are not lost; nor is any electronic reverberation added.

There is 58 minutes of Varnay in a variety of arias ranging from the showpiece from Oberon, via Senta's Ballad and Voi che sapete to extracts from Boccanegra featuring Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren. It is to be regretted that these 1950 Boccanegra extracts are in poor sound and the Met audiences infuriating habit of applauding at inappropriate moments disturbs the impact. However, in today's era when singers have clearly defined fachs, It is awesome that this account of Varnay's Amelia comes eight years after her Met debut as Sieglinde (and which she followed six days later with Brünnhilde) and whilst she was singing the heaviest dramatic roles at the Met, Bayreuth, Florence etc. For those interested in the evolution of operatic singing, these tracks alone are worth the bargain price of this issue.

Strauss lovers will already have either, or both, Solti's or Sinopoli's versions. They shouldn't hesitate to add this version and then, as the examiner might say, compare and contrast. I say also enjoy!

Robert J Farr

See also review by Peter Quantrill

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