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Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Ariadne auf Naxos (1916)
Gundula Janowitz (soprano) – Prima Donna/Ariadne; Sylvia Geszty (soprano) – Zerbinetta; Teresa Zylis-Gara (soprano) – Composer; James King (tenor) – Tenor/Bacchus; Erich-Alexander Winds (Speaking role) – Major-Domo; Theo Adam (bass-baritone) – Music Master; Eberhard Büchner (baritone) – An Officer; Peter Schreier (tenor) – A Dancing Master/Scaramuccio; Günther Dressler (bass) – A Wig-Maker; Wilfried Schaal (bass) – A Lackey; Erika Wustmann (soprano) – Najade; Annelies Burmeister (mezzo-soprano) – Dryade; Adele Stolte (soprano) – Echo; Hermann Prey (baritone) – Harlekin; Siegfried Vogel (bass) – Truffaldino; Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (tenor) – Brighella
Staatskapelle Dresden/Rudolf Kempe
rec. 27 June-5 July 1968, Lukaskirche, Dresden
Libretto and translations online
EMI CLASSICS 2088242 [38:28 + 79:41]
Experience Classicsonline

With some justification one could say that Ariadne auf Naxos is Richard Strauss’s chamber opera. Not that the vocal parts have chamber dimensions – on the contrary some of them are among the most demanding he ever conceived – but compared to its predecessor Der Rosenkavalier it’s a short work and the orchestra is far from the gigantic Strauss normally employed: only 37 players and still they couldn’t be accommodated at Max Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater but had to be moved to the Hoftheater in Stuttgart, where it was premiered in 1912. The initial idea was that Strauss write a short divertissement to be performed at the end of Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, to which Strauss also composed some incidental music. In the end Ariadne occupied ninety minutes and together with the play a full performance would last over six hours.
The length was one problem for further performances, the need for both a company of actors as well as a company of highly skilled opera singers, would make it too expensive. Consequently Hofmannsthal suggested that Strauss should compose a prologue to perform before the opera, that would explain why the opera involves a serious classical story and a comedy. In this new shape it was premiered at the Hofoper in Vienna in 1916. His revision also involved some modification of the opera proper. This is the version that is performed on this recording.
It may be of some interest to see who sang at the premieres. In Stuttgart Strauss himself conducted and Ariadne was sung by Maria Jeritza, Zerbinetta by Margarethe Siems, Bacchus by Hermann Jadlowker; in Vienna Franz Schalk conducted, Jeritz was again Ariadne (and Prima Donna), Selma Kurz was Zerbinetta and the Composer was sung by Lotte Lehmann. All of them were great names in their time and they are well remembered to this very day.
The line-up for the EMI recording under review is also star-studded and so is the more recent (1988) Philips recording, which has been my comparison.
Orchestra Staatskapelle Dresden Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Conductor Rudolf Kempe Kurt Masur
Prima Donna/Ariadne Gundula Janowitz Jessye Norman
Zerbinetta Sylvia Geszty Edita Gruberova
Composer Teresa Zylis-Gara Julia Varady
Tenor/Bacchus James King Paul Franz
Major-Domo  Erich-Alexander Wings Rudolf Asmus
Music Master Theo Adam Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Dancing Master/Scaramuccio Peter Schreier Martin Finke
Harlekin Hermann Prey Olaf Bär

Both casts are mouth-watering, aren’t they? Let me start with some common features or parallels. Both sets were recorded in GDR, as it then was, by VEB Deutsche Schallplatten and licensed for distribution in the West. They employed the two most prestigious orchestras in East Germany, both with long Strauss traditions, especially Staatskapelle Dresden, which premiered several of his works under his direction and later Karl Böhm, renowned Strauss interpreter, worked there.                     
Both conductors are renowned Strauss experts. Kempe recorded the complete orchestral works for EMI and Masur also has a long Strauss discography. Their readings of Ariadne auf Naxos are not dissimilar and truly idiomatic and the playing of the orchestras can’t be faulted. Few other orchestras are in their class in German music. I have no complaints about the recording of the EMI set but the Philips, digitally recorded twenty years later has somewhat wider dynamics and more details, so on technical grounds that set may have an advantage.
As far as the singers are concerned there are no doubt differences, but not necessarily differences in quality. Gundula Janowitz, who also recorded a wonderful Countess in Capriccio some years later – and of course with Karajan one of the most recommendable versions of Vier letzte Lieder – is a superb Ariadne, singing with creamy, steady tone and great warmth. Jessye Norman’s is a grander, more majestic reading, full of nuances and insight. Both are great but Norman’s characteristic vibrato may not be to all tastes. Sylvia Geszty, born in Budapest in 1934, may not be as famous as Edita Gruberova, born in Bratislava in 1946, but she was one of the foremost coloratura sopranos during the 1960s and -70s, a frequent guest at the Salzburg and Munich festivals, and her bell-like agile voice and sure technique made her an ideal Zerbinetta. Gruberova may have a tendency to slide up to some notes, otherwise there is very little to choose between them and both manage to enunciate the text, which is a feat in itself. Teresa Zylis-Gara is another of the important singers of some decades back who has come somewhat out of view. She is a glittering Composer, slightly anonymous initially but deeply expressive later on. Julia Varady does not necessarily sing better but she has more face. Like Zerbinetta the leading tenor role Bacchus is a hell of a part. He needs to be a dramatic-heroic singer but also a lyrical one. James King has the required power and stamina but seems satisfied with that, whereas Paul Franz is younger-sounding and has much more ebb and flow in his singing. His is a more lyrical voice but he also has heroic ring in reserve. His reading is definitely the more interesting but it can’t be denied that King can scale down as he does in Wie? Kennst du mich denn? And So willst du mit mir gehen auf mein Schiff, where there is warmth and sympathy that Franz can’t quite muster. Theo Adam’s Music Master is characteristically keen with words and expressive though the actual sounds he produces are not ingratiating. But Fischer-Dieskau, rather late in his career, hasn’t got much bloom left either and can be hectoring. Both singers are naturally in their element. Two great Lieder singers are entrusted the role of Harlekin: Hermann Prey in mid-career is wonderfully expressive and charming; Olaf Bär, rather early in his career, is more lyrical, more genial and Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen has probably never been so beautifully sung. There is luxury casting in some of the minor roles, Peter Schreier as a fine Scaramuccio for example on the EMI set, while Philips have the young Eva Lind as Najade.
I am hard pressed to choose between these two sets and personally I wouldn’t want to part from either of them. A search on for the Masur set gave no hits, so it may be out of circulation at the moment. When it returns, which I hope it will, it will be a top contender but so is the Kempe set and at its new price it is definitely a recommendable buy.
Göran Forsling


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