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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Scenes from Salome and Elektra

Elektra (1909): Elektra’s Soliloquy: Allein! Weh, ganz allein [9:34]; Recognition Scene: Was willst du, fremder Mensch? [21:37]; Finale: Elektra! Schwester! Komm mit uns! [9:42]
Salome (1905): Dance of the Seven Veils [9:04]; Final Scene: Ah! Du wolltest mich micht deinen Mund [17:03]
Inge Borkh (soprano), Paul Schöffler (baritone) (Elektra), Francis Yeend (soprano) (Elektra), Chicago Lyric Theater Chorus (Elektra)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. 1956, 1954 and 1955. ADD
BMG-RCA LIVING STEREO 82876 67900 2 SACD [67:10]

With ominously rumbling double-basses in the beginning of Elektra’s Soliloquy and then a reproduction of the Chicago Symphony’s brass section that make the wineglasses in the cupboard in the adjacent room chink from exaltation, I had to reach for the jewel case to check the recording date. Look at the heading: nineteen hundred and fifty six! Half a century ago! It’s unbelievable! I could have sworn that this was a brand-new state-of-the-art effort but it is in fact a very early two-channel analogue stereo recording, enhanced through some technical wizardry and served through my SACD system, which actually is quite modest, adapted to my relatively small listening room. Not only does it give this not very restrained music a punch that is felt physically in the pit of the stomach but it also reveals the beautiful and homogenous Chicago string sound in all its glory and all the details of Strauss’s marvellously colourful score. This is a sonic feast – as well as a musical one, for the prime function of the sound reproduction should of course be to present the music in as favourable a light as possible. With Fritz Reiner at the helm this music could hardly be in safer hands; few conductors of his or any time knew Richard Strauss’s music better than he did. In 1914 when he was 25 he was appointed principal conductor of the Royal Opera in Dresden – Strauss’s preferred stage, nine of his sixteen operas were premiered there. During the seven years Reiner worked in Dresden he cooperated with Strauss on productions of several of the early operas, and much later, when he made his Metropolitan debut in 1949, his first opera was Salome. And everything about this recording seems absolutely right: the taut control, the sexual allure of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils - certainly one of the finest versions of this oft-recorded piece - and the surprising warmth of much of the music.

The only regrettable thing is that he didn’t record the complete operas. If he had they would have been serious contenders to Solti’s supreme recordings from the 1960s with the late lamented Birgit Nilsson - I am writing this only a couple of days after the message of her passing away reached the world. Even on vocal grounds these could have challenged the unsurpassable Nilsson – not necessarily being better but as a valid alternative. It is true that Inge Borkh recorded Elektra in the early ’sixties with Karl Böhm, but by then she wasn’t quite as secure and intense as here. She started as an actress and does indeed live her parts here with great expressiveness. However an actress with a singing voice isn’t enough for these parts - they need a tremendous voice, and that’s what they get. It is powerful, untiring and rings out magnificently in the climaxes, well, most of Elektra’s soliloquy is a climax, but there are also moments of great tenderness, which she handles with great warmth. In the Recognition Scene, from ca. 13:00 we hear one of the finest "love-affairs with the female voice" that Strauss ever wrote. The sensuous orchestral tissue is chamber music-like and Reiner unfolds these pages with the benefit of wonderfully transparent sound. Inge Borkh’s soprano blends superbly with the orchestra and soars just as beautifully as anywhere in Der Rosenkavalier.

The final scene from Salome presents more singing of great intensity and great restraint. This is another great performance. Oh what a riveting moment when she lets loose in the final pages before that monstrous chord at 16:16, followed by the soldiers crushing Salome between their shields!

She is partnered in the Elektra excerpts by veteran baritone Paul Schöffler as Orestes, still steady of voice, warm and expressive, and Frances Yeend, a soprano who is fairly little known, at least as a recording artist. I know her from some live recorded opera duets with Mario Lanza and as the soprano soloist in Bruno Walter’s recording of Bruckner’s Te Deum. She is an excellent Chrysothemis, silvery in timbre. It’s a pity she wasn’t more in demand in the recording studios.

This is a disc that should be in every opera collection, irrespective of how many other versions are already there. In this new sonic garb it is even more irresistible than before.

It comes with a reproduction of the original LP sleeve on the front of the booklet and an interesting essay on the history of these two operas by Francis Robinson, assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera back in 1956. I would have been even happier if the sung texts had been there, but I couldn’t find them. That, however, is the only disappointment about this issue, and my advice is: Don’t miss this one!

Göran Forsling

 

 



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