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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Salome (sung in English, translation from German by Tom Hammond) (1905)
Susan Bullock (soprano) – Salome
John Graham-Hall (tenor) – Herod Antipas
Sally Burgess (mezzo) – Herodias
John Wegner (baritone) – Jokanaan (John the Baptist)
Andrew Rees (tenor) – Narraboth
Rebecca de Pont Davies (mezzo) – Herodias’s page
Anton Rich (tenor) - First Jew
Wynne Evans (tenor) – Second Jew
Colin Judson (tenor) – Third Jew
Alasdair Elliott (tenor) – Fourth Jew
Jeremy White (bass) – Fifth Jew
Michael Druiett (bass) – First Nazarene
Robert Parry (tenor) – Second Nazarene
Graeme Broadbent (bass) – First Soldier
Alan Ewing (bass) – Second Soldier
Roger Begley (bass) – Cappadocian
Gerald Strainer (tenor) - Slave
Philharmonia Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Gareth Hancock – assistant conductor
rec. Watford Colosseum, 16-18, 20-22 December 2007
Booklet notes and synopsis: English, German, French and Italian. Libretto: English
Salome’s dance of the Seven Veils (concert version)
CHANDOS CHAN 3157(2) [61:39 + 52:40]


Experience Classicsonline


Dohnanyi/Vienna Philharmonic (Decca)
Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic (EMI)
Reiner/Metropolitan Opera (Walhall)
Schønwandt/Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)
Sinopoli/Deutsche Opera Berlin (DG)

Five years ago Opera North performed Tristan und Isolde in Nottingham and the star of the show was obviously Susan Bullock. This Isolde sang Celtic rings around her Tristan with a bright, forward tone of molten steel which cleaved through the orchestra. If she did not quite melt into the character the directness and power of her singing was world class.

Four years later these qualities have to some extent reversed. Bullock brings stunning dramatic intensity to Salome, scaling and warming her voice to reveal the awakening sexuality of the teenage girl. Her escalating passionate volleys attacking John the Baptist’s siege against her love are almost overwhelming. She and Mackerras darken much of the final monologue into a fantastic psychotic nightmare, basses and tubas becoming subterranean caverns mirroring Salome’s disturbed state. Notice how sweet and small Salome sounds when she requests something on a silver platter after her dance. Bullock then digs down into her chest voice in her insistence that what she demands is nothing less than Jokanaan’s severed head. Such malice is worlds away from Luini’s fifteenth century painting, chosen for the booklet cover.

It is sad then to hear that, as in her disappointing Wesendonck lieder (Avie), Bullock has developed a pronounced vibrato under pressure, notably in the crucial final lines. The voice no longer opens out securely as weight is pressed on the vocal chords. This is also a dramatic flaw as vibrato implies a mature voice undermining the successful youthfulness of Bullock’s acting elsewhere. However Bullock always holds the centre of the notes and the vibrato is not off-putting, especially when compared with Catherine Malfitano’s unhappy Salome for Dohnanyi (Decca). You will just need to listen around it. Luckily Strauss employs orchestral crescendos sparingly so Bullock’s vocal flaw in no way rules out the glories of either her interpretation as a whole or the rest of the recording.

And what a recording! Why do people bother with hallucinogenic drugs with sounds like this? The Philharmonia and the Chandos engineers have gone supersonic here, retaining clarity and bite within a primarily deep, rich-layered palette, very different from the crystalline textures of the Vienna Philharmonic for Dohnanyi. There are so many revelations that Mackerras’s team etch on the mind: the battalion of trombones after Jokanaan curses Salome, the zig-zag strings over the escalating violence of the timps and brass as Salome’s unbalanced parents finally debate what to do with their "monster" daughter, the degenerate slip sideways as the orchestra discordantly crashes after Salome’s final line. Throughout, Mackerras combines poetry and sweeping energy, never pulling or pushing the score. Even Salome’s Dance, which Alma Mahler recognised as the weakest part of Strauss’s music, holds a sovereign symphonic line.

John Wegner’s Jokanaan deserves special mention. His resonant cavernous baritone is both youthful and arresting, well contrasted with Andrew Rees’ fine lyric tenor. Wegner, like all others, misses the blackness and sheer loudness of Hotter’s implacable Old Testament prophet. Whilst there is an element of kitsch in both Oscar Wilde’s original play and Strauss’s score, John Graham-Hall’s degenerate Herod only narrowly avoids panto overacting. Mind you he sounds positively restrained compared with Horst Hiestermann for Sinopoli. Sally’s Burgess’s Herodias is dark, smoky and has real edge. She, more than Graham-Hall, has the cold command to evoke real horror.

English cannot replace the grip of the German text and no collector should be without outstanding sets by Sinopoli (DG) and Karajan (EMI). Yet it is revelatory for non-German speakers to hear lines take on new life immediately within the context of the music. Salome’s expectation as she hovers before the cistern and Herod’s distracted search for his wine and ring whilst waiting for Jokanaan’s execution really stand out. Overall the cast enunciate clearly but, to be honest, I sometimes needed to keep the libretto on hand as singers shift from the lyric to the big dramatic voice and words are elongated. Also Chandos bring voices into sensible focus whilst avoiding the mistake of their earlier Salome where the orchestra is too distant. Here the few occasions where tuttis almost overshadow the text are a fair trade-off for orchestral impact.

There is a real emotional and sonic surge to Mackerras’s Salome that tears the listener’s centre of gravity both up and down, occasionally at the same time. If you want a spectacular recording that leaves you battered and shaken then this is a Salome you must hear. It is a testament to the Metropolitan Opera live in 1952 with Fritz Reiner, Hans Hotter and the incomparable Ljuba Welitsch that their Salome, despite much less impressive sound, has even greater emotional kick.

David Harbin



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