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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949):
Der Rosenkavalier - opera in three acts
libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
The Feldmarschallin, Princess Werdenberg: Maria Reining (soprano)
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau: Jaro Prohaska (baritone)
Octavian: Jarmila Novotná (soprano)
Herr von Faninal: Georg Hann (baritone)
Sophie, his daughter: Hilde Güden (soprano)
Marianne, Sophie’s duenna: Stefanie Holeschofsky (soprano)
Valzacchi, an intriguer: Peter Klein (tenor)
Annina, his partner: Dagmar Hermann (contralto)
The Major-Domo to the Feldmarschallin: William Wernigk (tenor)
An Attorney: Alfred Muzzarelli (bass)
An Italian Singer: Helge Rosvaenge (tenor)
Police Inspector: Georg Monthy (bass)
Innkeeper: William Wernigk (tenor)
Choir of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell
Recorded by Sendergruppe "Rotweissrot" at a performance in the Festspielhaus, Salzburg 29 August 1949 (Archive of Austrian Radio ORF)
Der Rosenkavalier: excerpts

Excerpts from Act 1: Introduction [3’04"]; "Wie du warst! Wie du bist!" [3’45"]; "Warum ist Tag?" [4’31"]; "Der Feldmarschall sitzt im krowatischen Wald…" [6’32"]; "Da geht er hin…"[4’27"]; "Ach, du bist wieder da!" [1’59"]; "Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding." [10’28"]
Excerpts from Act 2: "im dieser feierlichen stunde…" [3’21"]; "Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren…" [7’56"]; "Wart, i hau’ dich z’samm…" [6’41"]
Excerpts from Act 3: "Weiss bereits nicht…" [5’32"]; "Mein Gott, es war nicht mehr als eine Farce." [6’30"]; "Marie Theres’!" [8’31"]; "Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein…" [3’01"]
The Feldmarschallin, Princess Werdenberg; Lotte Lehmann (soprano)
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau: Richard Mayr (baritone)
Octavian: Maria Olszewska (soprano)
Herr von Faninal: Victor Madin (baritone)
Sophie, his daughter: Elisabeth Schumann (soprano)
Marianne, Sophie’s duenna: Anne Michalsky (soprano)
Valzacchi, an intriguer: Hermann Gallos (tenor)
Annina, his partner: Bella Paalen (contralto)
Choir of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert Heger
Recorded in the Konzerthaus, Vienna 20-24 September 1933
Source: HMV DB2060/72
Matrix: 2WX581/606
ANDANTE AND 3985 [4 CDs: 65’53"+53’55"+54’56"+76’18"]
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This set contains one recording of Der Rosenkavalier (or, at least, of extended excerpts from it) that has been famous for many years and one recording which deserves to take a place of honour in the annals of recordings of this work, even if sonic limitations necessarily prevent it from being a library choice.

George Szell’s extensive recorded legacy contains very little operatic work. However, like most other great conductors of his generation his early training and career involved a significant amount of time in the opera houses of Europe. From recordings of several tone poems that he made with the Cleveland Orchestra we know he was a first rate Straussian and now this live Rosenkavalier further proves the point.

Recorded during a run of performances at the 1949 Salzburg Festival this performance boasts a superb cast, drawn mainly from the Vienna State Opera. Maria Reining and Hilde Güden were already noted exponents of their respective roles and in 1954 both sang them again in the benchmark Decca studio recording under Erich Kleiber. For Kleiber, the role of Octavian was sung by the great Sena Jurinac. Here the role is sung with no less distinction by the Czech soprano, Jarmila Novotná. Baron Ochs is sung by the Austrian baritone Jaro Prohaska

The very opening sets the tone in several ways for the whole performance and for the recording of it. Szell launches into the orchestral introduction with immense vigour and one senses that this is to be an energetic, vital reading. However, the lyrical passages are not rushed at all but are savoured, though without self-indulgence. For what it is worth, as a rough guide, Szell gets to the very first vocal entry (Octavian) at 3’15" whereas in their respective studio recordings Kleiber reaches the same spot at 3’29" and Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1956) at 3’30". Szell sets out his stall immediately in these pages, I think. His is going to be a taut, dramatic reading where the score calls for it but the romance, the rubato and the sheer hedonism in the score will also receive their due.

Unfortunately, the other way in which this passage typifies the recording is in the sound of the orchestra. It is backwardly balanced in the aural spectrum and if you are looking for a performance in which the opulence of Strauss’s orchestral writing is fully revealed you should look elsewhere. However, I honestly think that this is a drawback with which one can live. As I’ve said, this is not going to be a library version, chiefly because of the balance between voices and orchestra. But all the singing registers beautifully and I suspect that purchasers of this set will already own at least one other recording, probably a studio one in which the orchestra is revealed in its full glory.

This disadvantage of orchestral balance is more than outweighed by the positive points of the performance. Maria Reining is a splendid Marschallin. She conveys very touchingly the vulnerability of an aristocratic beauty who knows that sooner or later the years will catch up with her. Throughout the set her singing and her characterisation are marvellous. Her dismissal of Octavian towards the end of Act I, beginning at "Er soll mich lassen" (CD 1, track 10, 6’32") is wonderfully tender. Szell matches her languor perfectly and it’s interesting to note that in this performance the whole passage lasts 3’19" whereas it’s appreciably faster in the Kleiber reading, where it runs for 2’36". On both occasions I prefer Reining to Schwarzkopf, who sounds too knowing.

Opposite Reining, Jarmila Novotná is an ardent Octavian. Sample, for instance, the passage in Act I, "Ja, ist sie da? (CD 1, track 9) just after figure 296 in the Boosey & Hawkes vocal score. Novotná is mightily impressive in the key scene of the Presentation of the Silver Rose in Act Two (CD 2, track 2) and Hilde Güden is no less fine as Sophie. Here again, we find Szell a touch more expansive than Kleiber. The Presentation scene takes 6’56" against Kleiber’s 6’14" but it’s not a second too long. In his introductory essay Tim Page makes the very valid point that both Güden and Reining were, perhaps inevitably, in fresher, more youthful voice in 1949 than they would be five years later for Kleiber. I wouldn’t disagree but, on the other hand, five years later both singers were even more experienced with the music and words and to my ears they both bring more in the way of nuances to their parts when working under studio conditions for Decca. This, I feel, is especially true of Güden, whose contribution to the Presentation scene here is top class but even better in 1954. Mind you, as Sophie Teresa Stich-Randall, on the Karajan set, is in a class of her own. In this very scene, especially, she offers singing of lustrous beauty and at cue 30 in the score, her silvery tone for the phrase "Wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie Rosen von hochheiligen Paradies" is just to die for.

The one principal I’ve not yet discussed is the Ochs of Jaro Prohaska. He offers what I suppose I’d call a very traditional, echt-Viennese interpretation of the role. This baron is pompous, vain, vulgar and lecherous. Some may feel that Prohaska hams the role up a bit too much although in his defence I’d point out that he was singing in a live production, never intended for repeated listening, and vocal histrionics would have been the natural accompaniment to stage "business". Personally, I don’t find Prohaska over the top and indeed Otto Edelmann (Karajan) does just as much vocal acting without the "excuse" of a live occasion. My personal preference would be Ludwig Weber (Kleiber) who sings more of the role than do his peers but when we come to Richard Mayr later on we shall experience a different way with the role. Prohaska’s is a vivid, comic assumption of the role that is highly entertaining. Incidentally, this is perhaps the time to mention that the performance does have a number of small cuts in it but as most of these involve Ochs’s more garrulous passages I don’t really feel they are a major loss.

The scene where Ochs gets his comeuppance in Act III is tumultuous, with vivid and dramatic work both onstage and in the pit and the opera’s concluding pages are all that one could wish. The celebrated trio (CD 3, track 9) is radiant and is made more effective, I feel, because the three protagonists, caught up in the drama on stage, feel themselves to be in a real situation. The trio rises to a wondrous climax at the end of which the Marschallin’s concluding phrase, "In Gottes Namen" is delivered with great dignity and pathos by Reining.

This, then, is a well paced, expertly sung and acted performance caught on the wing. There isn’t a weak link in the cast and the principals are first class. Presiding over all is George Szell. He acquired a reputation as a martinet and this might lead us to expect a hard-driven, unyielding or cold performance. Not a bit of it. There is a really authentic Viennese feel to the waltz rhythms and, following in the score, I found that Szell was faithful to all Strauss’s copious markings of tempo. Indeed, he goes beyond these and, without disrupting the flow, works with his singers, allowing them to phrase naturally, expressively and expansively. This performance is the work of a real man of the theatre.

This wouldn’t be a first choice recording of Rosenkavalier. Kleiber still reigns supreme, I think though if you want opulence Karajan has much to offer, not least the Sophie of Stich-Randall. However, all lovers of this marvellous score will want to hear this Szell recording too. You won’t hear the full glory of Strauss’s orchestral score but you will hear some tremendous, idiomatic singing with all the voices reported well by the recording and you’ll hear the evidence of a very fine conductor at work.

And if you invest in this set you’ll also get a tremendous bonus in the shape of the abridged version of the score recorded by HMV under studio conditions in 1933. The conductor, Robert Heger is nowhere near as celebrated a figure as George Szell but on the evidence of this recording he was a far from inconsiderable opera conductor. He displays a very fine feeling for the score, supports his singers every bit as well as does Szell and gets splendidly responsive playing from the VPO.

It must be said straight away that the sound on this transfer is nothing short of miraculous. Of course there is a bit of surface hiss but it is never obtrusive and, listening through speakers, I first became aware of surface noise as far into the CD as track 12! There are some sonic limitations, of course, not least in terms of the range of the recording but one’s pleasure in the music is never compromised and, in fact, far more orchestral detail can be heard than is the case in the accompanying recording of the whole opera.

If the principals in the Szell performance were first class then those singing for Heger are truly outstanding. In particular I was struck by the Ochs of Richard Mayr (1877-1935). His is a completely different way with the role than that offered by any of the singers on the complete versions I’ve been listening to. First of all, he sings every note (though I grant that he might have approached more histrionically some of the scenes that we don’t hear in these extracts.) Secondly, his is a lighter, more suave baritone than we are used to hearing in the role. Nothing in his reading is exaggerated and as a result we experience Ochs as a nobler figure than is usually the case. It’s interesting to read in one of the booklet essays, by Gottfried Kraus, that Strauss said he wrote the role with Mayr in mind. The set also includes an excellent essay by the late-lamented Michael Oliver on the collaboration between Strauss and Hofmannstahl in which he reminds us that at an early stage they thought of calling the opera Ochs. Could it be, then, that Mayr’s way with the role comes closest to Strauss’s own conception? Mayr makes Ochs into a richly comic creation, suggesting a mix of decadence and faded (but still very present) nobility. However, with Mayr, Ochs is never just a lecher, still less a pantomime figure. The scene between Ochs and Annina that closes Act Two (CD 4, track 10) is very well done. As well as the excellent Mayr, the role of Annina is taken by a first rate singer, Bella Paalen, and with Heger and the VPO investing the waltz rhythms with poise and élan the result is a delight.

However, despite the importance of the role of Ochs, Rosenkavalier is, understandably, I suppose, a soprano-fest and Heger’s recording is graced by three great ones. It might be objected that Maria Olszewska’s voice is a bit heavy for the role of Octavian but I think she sings beautifully and hers is an ardent Octavian, whether she’s lavishing affection on the Marschallin or, later, on Sophie.

As Sophie, Elisabeth Schumann is as radiant as you would expect even if, to my ears at least, she doesn’t sound quite young enough for the character she is portraying. Her contribution to the Presentation of the Silver Rose is a thing of wonder, sung with glorious tone and embellished with portamenti.

But the glory of the recording is Lotte Lehmann, incomparable as the Marschallin. She is a true Grande Dame, investing every syllable she sings with meaning and singing long, glorious lines. In particular her contribution to the opera’s conclusion is superb. (Tracks 11 to 14, commencing at "Weiss bereits nicht…" just after cue 235, runs the opera through from that point to its conclusion.) She is every inch the lady as Ochs gets his comeuppance and admits defeat. She crowns her performance in the Trio which she launches (Track 13) full of dignity. She has realised that what must be will be (" Hab’ mir’s gelobt, ihn lieb zu haben..") and "In Gottes Namen" is unforgettable. In this reading of the Trio the voices are well matched and well balanced. Schumann soars effortlessly and magically and Lehmann is regal. When visitors to the BBC’s Desert Island choose this piece as one of their discs it’s almost inevitably the Karajan version that is broadcast but right now I’d want this Heger-led recording to move my spirits on a desert island.

I do congratulate Andante on including this Heger recording in the set and in such a fine transfer. It’s a marvellous appendix to a very involving and enjoyable account of the complete opera. Having had the opportunity to immerse myself in these two recordings (and to use them as the excuse to experience again the copious delights of the Kleiber and Karajan recordings, both in their different ways classics of the gramophone) I’m more conscious than ever of what a marvellous, human and glorious score this is.

Andante’s documentation is usually excellent but here they surpass themselves with a 416-page book that includes the full libretto with English and French translations (separate, not side by side!). There’s also a selection of good, informative articles and some evocative photographs. I recommend this set wholeheartedly to all those who love the music of Richard Strauss and this wonderful opera in particular.

John Quinn

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