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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (1910)
A comedy for music in three acts by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Maria Reining (sop) ... Marschallin
Sena Jurinac (sop) ... Octavian
Hilde Gueden (sop) ... Sophie
Ludwig Weber (bass) ... Baron Ochs
Anton Dermota (ten) ... Tenor Singer
Walter Berry (ten) ... Police Commissar
Faninal (bar) ... Alfred Poell
Peter Klein ... Valzacchi
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Erich Kleiber
Recorded at Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, 29 May - 28 June 1954 by Decca. Originally issued as LXT 2954-57. ADD mono
Restored by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.111011-13 [3 CDs: 71:26 + 59:59 + 65:05]


This issue in Naxos’s historical series marks an important recording of this major work, the first on the new medium of long-playing records issued by Decca in 1954. However it was the not the first recording. That honour belongs to the one made in 1933 featuring Lotte Lehmann and Elizabeth Schumann, once available on the World Record Club. Another major version dated from 1950 and featured Rudolf Kempe and the resplendent Staatskapelle Dresden. The present set possesses a distinct historical weight as it was the first full-length recording of Der Rosenkavalier. It assumed a major hold on the early LP market; a hold disturbed only by Karajan’s Columbia recording with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and by Karl Böhm’s for Deutsche Grammophon with Marianne Schech and Irmgaard Seefried.

As usual in these matters it is the leading singers who generate most interest and who form the basis for definitive judgements on the competing merits of the many recordings in a crowded discography. I will come to my own preference in time, however let’s first make an appraisal of this Naxos reissue.

History informs us that it was Decca, who pioneered long-playing records in the UK and who forged the pristine recording methods; a lead maintained both in engineering and production technology through the decades. In this distinguished interpretation Decca found a master in the quintessential Viennese conductor Erich Kleiber conducting that most prestigious ensemble - the Vienna Philharmonic. With these forces and with singers from the Vienna Staatsoper one can expect the most truthful of interpretations.

One distinct advantage is that Kleiber and Decca give us the full score. Few could derive the sumptuous colours from Strauss’s score as this maestro could. Even the old monophonic recording cannot fail to express the wonderful tones and timbre of this music. He allows the singers to breathe and permit their interpretation to flow in unity with the orchestra. Maria Reining as the Marschallin reveals a great and familiar understanding of the score. This is despite some occasional insecurity perhaps due to the exhaustion of long sessions which lasted a full four weeks. Nevertheless, she is a wonderful singer radiating a noble tradition. Sena Jurinac’s Octavian is resplendent in this adorable role. Her contribution makes this a great production. She is matched by the Sophie of Hilde Gueden, one of the finest young sopranos of the day, and by the erstwhile Ludwig Weber as Baron Ochs. Anton Dermota is wonderful as the Tenor Singer and this excellence also extends to the minor roles: the young Walter Berry as the Police Commissar, Faninal taken by Alfred Poell and Peter Klein ably performing Valzacchi. Altogether, this is a magnificent recording and a collector’s item. I am fortunate to possess the original LPs in their beautifully decorated box. Why can’t Naxos emulate other companies in reproducing this on their cover?

Regrettably, despite cleaning the old records, Mark Obert-Thorn cannot reproduce the superb dynamic range and warmth of the original. Vinyl may have had its disadvantages but infidelity to sound was not one of them.

There is no doubt that this set laid the standard for all its successors. The Columbia recording set down by Karajan and Walter Legge three years later featured, like most of Legge’s productions, a starry cast selected from all over Europe. Karajan attained great sound from the Philharmonia and outstanding artistry from Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, yet it all seemed too contrived despite the great expense. Both mono and stereo sets were issued. Nevertheless this was not the complete opera and despite Schwarzkopf’s fine reading, her voice seems inappropriate, Christa Ludwig is excellent yet does not match Jurinac for Decca. The third major version of this era was that made by DG featuring Karl Böhm and with that great orchestra from Dresden (so accurately called the ‘Golden Harp’ by Richard Wagner). The Dresden orchestra so epitomises the sound-world of the composer and a tradition of Strauss performance remains there to this day. The Marschallin was Marianne Schech and Octavian was Irmgaard Seefried, Ochs was taken again by Kurt Böhme with the lighter role of Sophie taken delightfully by Rita Streich. Fischer-Dieskau assumed the role of Herr von Faninal quite resplendently.

It is the latter production which for this writer proves the finest in terms of the quality of the all-round recording and of the orchestra, chorus and soloists. This version reflects a harmonization of supreme artistry all enriched in the Strauss tradition: great singers and Karl Bohm, the supreme Richard Strauss conductor.

Nevertheless this Naxos issue is much to be welcomed and is a suitable introduction to the work.

Gregor Tassie

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