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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier

Eleanor Steber (Die Feldmarschallin), Erna Berger (Sophie), Risë Stevens (Octavian), Emanuel List (Baron Ochs), Hugh Thompson (Faninal), Martha Lipton (Annina), Peter Klein (Valzacchi), Giuseppe di Stefano (Italian singer), Thelma Votipka (Marianne Leitmetzerin), Peggy Smithers (Mahomet), Emery Darcy (Marschallinís Major-domo), Paula Lencher, Maxine Stellman, Thelma Altman (Orphans), Lois Hunt (Milliner), Leslie Chabay (Animal vendor), Matthew Vittucci (Hairdresser)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Fritz Reiner
Soundtrack of American Broadcasting Corporation Telecast, 21 November 1949
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110277-79 [3 CDs: 67:24+52:46+60:56]


This looked promising, but Iím afraid itís more one for the specialists. For one thing, the sound is, well, like a typical 1940s film soundtrack, shallow and dry in the orchestra, with the voices very far forward and given a cavernous air by the lack of upper frequencies. Of course, a certain type of collector (including myself) will put up with much worse than this for a performance that knocks spots off all subsequent competition but on the whole the verdict is of a fine, sometimes marvellous performance but not quite as marvellous as some better-sounding studio performances.

We know Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) above all for the wonderful series of records he made during the last decade of his life in Chicago and so tend to think of him as a symphonic conductor. But, like virtually all European conductors of his day, he had worked his way up through the opera house and was appearing regularly at the Met at the time of this performance. It is interesting to note how the super-tight ensemble he always drew from his musicians nonetheless allows the singers space to breathe Ė he is far from inflexible. However, while this Rosenkavalier does not lack poetry or warmth, it is above all a tense, purposeful affair and I wonder if the blind listener would realise he was hearing a comic opera? Erich Kleiber, whose 1954 recording was the first ever unabridged version, was as much of a relentless perfectionist as Reiner, yet he is able to bathe the characters in a warm glow of humanity which Reiner just misses. Of course, having the Vienna Philharmonic to play music that is in their very collective bones helps, and so does a warmer acoustic and far better recording (though a little shrill as transferred on DECCA 467 111-2); maybe Reiner would make a different impression in better sound but I canít help wishing he was conducting Salomé or Die Frau ohne Schatten instead.

Another famous recording followed two years later, conducted by Herbert von Karajan (EMI CMS 5 67605 2). At times an imaginative genius is at work, as in Sophie and Octavianís first meeting which is drawn out like a Delius tone-poem, leaving time suspended. It was an interpretation which set the stage for many more personalised interpretations to come, but the trouble is, if you donít know your basic Rosenkavalier then the variants from the norm will become, for you, the norm, and that is dangerous. The Kleiber version conserves the best of a Viennese tradition which had its roots in Straussís own world.

The casting of the Met performance certainly differentiates between the leading ladies. The strongest performance is that of Eleanor Steber (1914-1990) as the Marschallin, pouring forth much steady, sumptuous tone and characterising authoritatively. She stands up well beside Maria Reining in the Kleiber recording who, some say, recorded the role a little late in her career (she was 51). Well, Strauss himself said the Marschallin was 35, and that is the age of Steber when she sang this performance. But my ears at least donít register the difference and they seem to me equally effective. A quite different type of interpretation is to be heard from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the Karajan set, much more lieder-like in its savouring of the words, and obviously fitting in with the conductorís own conception.

Erna Berger (1900-1990) was making her Met debut Ė she was 49. She was noted for a light, girlish timbre which she is said to have preserved throughout her career (she ceased to sing in 1955). This was the kind of voice ridiculed by Anna Russell as "the Nymphs and Shepherds, or Ďpure whiteí style of singing" Ė an effect obtained by very clear vowels (no rounding of the Is and Es) and little vibrato. I have to say I donít care for it much, even in "Nymphs and Shepherds", and furthermore, whatever people say, it sounds the voice of a middle-aged woman to me. I cannot possibly imagine anyone preferring this to Hilde Guedenís creamy tones on the Kleiber recording. Teresa Stich-Randall, who sings Sophie for Karajan, was also said to have a clear, virginal voice, but I find much more quality to it than Bergerís. There are some moments of pure magic where her almost disembodied high tones float above Karajanís diaphanous orchestra. All the same, Guedenís is surely more central to the Strauss tradition.

Bergerís girlish tones certainly make maximum contrast with the feisty mezzo of Risë Stevens. This is a strong performance, but not a particularly subtle one (anything but in her Mariandl moments) and the end result is that Octavian and Sophie both sound too old (they are supposed to be in their teens). Perhaps it is not fair to compare her with Kleiberís Sena Jurinac since that is a soprano interpretation (the role can be sung by either soprano or mezzo) but all the same, who could not prefer Jurinacís lovely bell-like tones and the generally far more sympathetic character she draws? Karajan had a mezzo, the young Christa Ludwig, and she, too, makes a far more lovable person of Octavian.

Emanuel List has a bigger and blacker voice than the singers on the Kleiber and Karajan sets and, heard and seen live, it must have been quite a performance Ė the audience rises to him rapturously after the second and third acts. However, as a listening experience it has to be said that there is more barking than singing Ė he was by then 63 after all. For Kleiber, Ludwig Weber sings far more, exuding smarmy, self-satisfied charm; surely Strauss wanted a comic seducer rather than a comic villain. Otto Edelmann, for Karajan, is basically in similar mould, but as this is a Karajan performance he is encouraged to drop frequently into a sort of crooning half-voice, notably in his monologue at the end of Act Two. This could be tiresome on repeated hearings.

The other singers donít make or break this opera, but for what it is worth the Faninal is better managed on the other sets by Alfred Poell (Kleiber) and Eberhard Wächter (Karajan). The latter recording has some remarkably distinguished names in the smaller roles (Ljuba Welitsch as Marianne, Kerstin Meyer as Annina) while Kleiber perhaps benefits even more from the famed Vienna "house" team of the time, all steeped in the Straussian tradition. As the Italian Singer, Giuseppe Di Stefano is obviously just that. Unfortunately he seems to want to demonstrate the point by spreading himself unduly, adding an extra half-beat to the bar every time he takes a breath. Reiner evidently doesnít agree and, in place of his considerate collaboration with the rest of the cast, has the orchestra anticipate him at the beginning of every phrase. Since musicians flaunted Reinerís will at their peril, this could have been a genuine attempt to "throw" him and make a fool of him. It can also be heard that, even at this early stage in his career, Di Stefano was wont to be a shade flat on his top notes. In comparison Anton Dermota (Kleiber) and Nicolai Gedda (Karajan) are both nonpareils of vocal elegance and sound quite Italianate enough for this context.

The recording gives what has remained of the broadcast announcements, including a few words with Reiner, and the presentation is excellent with biographical information about the leading singers and conductor. There is no libretto but the synopsis is very detailed.

All things considered, I feel this is a set best left to specialists of archive recordings. When I want to hear Rosenkavalier for pleasure it will always be the Kleiber version, or just sometimes the Karajan, to which I will turn and I doubt if I will ever hear this one again complete, though I am glad to have it to hand for comparisons in specific passages, particularly when Steber is singing.

Christopher Howell

 



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