For more than fifty years now this has been the benchmark recording
of Strauss’s masterpiece – though not all critics agree wholeheartedly.
And there have been a number of other sets that have merits in
abundance. Of studio sets Robert Heger’s 1933 recording is a classic,
set down with the Vienna Philharmonic and Elisabeth Schumann,
Lotte Lehmann and Richard Mayr in leading roles. It is heavily
cut – only about 99 minutes remain of a work running, in Karajan’s
reading, for 191 minutes. The old recording can’t bring out Strauss’s
luminous orchestral colours but it is a valuable document and
the soloists belonged to the first generation of Strauss singers,
Richard Mayr taking part in the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten
in 1919. The recording is available on Naxos 8.110191-92 and has as quite substantial
than forty minutes of excerpts from the opera in other recordings
dating from the 1920s.
It was more than twenty years before there
was another studio effort and this time it was absolutely complete.
Again it was a Vienna based production with Erich Kleiber conducting
and a superb cast with Sena Jurinac, Hilde Güden, Maria Reining
and Ludwig Weber in the leading roles. This was still in mono
but as reissued in Decca’s “Legends” series it has ‘a
clarity and a transparency of textures which not many later
versions can match’ as my colleague Christopher Howells wrote
in his review
nine years ago. Musically it is also on a very high level –
and truly Viennese. The Karajan set came barely two years later
and when it appeared in stereo – and very brilliant stereo at
that – it swept the board. It was recorded in London with the
Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, but with an Austrian maestro.
Karajan knew his Strauss inside out and with a handpicked cast
from the Vienna State Opera flown over to the Kingsway Hall,
the Viennese atmosphere is tangible.
Two years later
another jaded Straussian, Karl Böhm, who had led the premieres
of Die schweigsame Frau and Daphne, went to Dresden
and recorded Der Rosenkavalier. Dresden was intimately
associated with Richard Strauss. It was where the premiere of
this opera took place. The cast was again first class with Irmgard
Seefried and Rita Streich singing Octavian and Sophie, Kurt
Böhme a boisterous Ochs and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau luxury
casting as Faninal. The only comparative weakness was Marianne
Schech as the Feldmarschallin. She lacked the beautiful creamy
tones of the aforementioned Lehmann, Reining and Schwarzkopf
but still drew a believable portrait of her many-faceted character.
The world had to
wait another eleven years before Decca decided to issue a stereo
version. The Vienna Philharmonic were again in the ‘pit’ – there
was no such thing in the Sofiensaal – with another well-versed
Straussian, Sir Georg Solti, waving the baton. Again we can
hear an all-star cast with singers drawn primarily from the
State Opera, including Manfred Jungwirth as Baron Ochs, whose
recording debut this seems to have been. The three leading ladies
were non-Austrian: Régine Crespin, possibly the reigning Marschallin
at the time, and two young singers, American Helen Donath as
Sophie and Australian Yvonne Minton as Octavian. Two singers
in minor roles are worth mentioning: Alfred Jerger in the small
role of A Notary and Luciano Pavarotti as the Italian tenor.
Jerger, born in 1889 and thus celebrating his 80th
birthday shortly after the recording was finished, had sung
his first Ochs as early as 1917. In a wide repertoire numbering
all the Mozart and Wagner roles he was regarded as a Strauss
specialist, having in 1933 sung Mandryka at the premiere of
Arabella. With spectacular Decca sound and Solti characteristically
going for knock-out this is possibly the punchiest recording.
It’s also a reading permeated by the sensual and by alluring
beauty. Whether Schwarzkopf or Crespin is the most sensual Marschallin
is open to debate. I am biased since I bought the Decca set
when it was new in the autumn of 1969 and it was my first Rosenkavalier.
There have been
later efforts: Bernstein in Vienna (CBS), Edo de Waart in Rotterdam
(Philips), Suitner live in Dresden (Denon), Karajan in Vienna
(DG) and Haitink in Dresden (EMI), of which the Karajan and
especially the Haitink are competitive. However, for a vintage
recording in excellent sound it’s a contest between Karajan
I (the present set) and Solti.
In this latest incarnation
at budget price, licensed from EMI, the sound is bright and
immediate, dynamically impressive and expertly balanced. The
original producer was Walter Legge. At times I thought it was
almost over-bright. According to the information on the box
this is a digital re-mastering from 1987. Early digital issues
could sometimes produce an edginess to the sound. By twisting
some knobs it is possible to tame the stridency after which
I had no problems enjoying the performance from a sonic point
In the 1960s, 1970s
and 1980s there were heated debates among music-lovers concerning
the pros and cons of the two maestros: Karajan and Solti. The
clearest confrontation came over their respective Ring
cycles – and the contrasts are illuminating. Solti on Decca
began his traversal in the late 1950s with Das Rheingold
and finished it with Die Walküre about eight years later.
Karajan on DG started his with Die Walküre at
about the same time that Solti finished his. It is typical that
Solti’s Sieglinde, Régine Crespin, became Karajan’s Brünnhilde.
Karajan at this time strived for clarity and a more chamber-music-like
approach where Solti, no doubt encouraged by his sound engineers,
preferred a meatier sound and more obvious thrill. A dozen years
earlier Karajan’s younger self wasn’t quite so lyrically inclined
and the differences of approach aren’t that clear-cut yet his
reading still stands out as leaner. Solti in 1969 was however
at his most lenient in the lyrical and sexually charged music
to be found at the beginning and end of act I, at the presentation
of the rose in act II and in the final twenty minutes of act
III. Rarely have the VPO strings soared so beguilingly. The
nervous eagerness that has sometimes made Solti’s readings too
hard-driven, is largely missing. There is also a warmth in the
comic scenes that makes them bearable and even casts a redeeming
light over Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau. Karajan’s reading is slightly
cooler throughout, more classical in a way as opposed to Solti’s
more romantic view. I can’t say that I prefer one over the other
– at least not hands down. My choice will depend on the mood
of the moment. Suffice to say that Karajan’s Philharmonia are
in no way second best to the VPO.
I have already touched
on the two Feldmarschallins. Crespin’s larger voice is better
suited to Solti’s grander approach and her creamy tones make
her irresistibly attractive in the first act, caressing Octavian
both physically and vocally. Maybe she was in even greater form
a few years earlier when she recorded excerpts from the opera
– also for Decca – with Silvio Varviso conducting. For that
selection, Hilde Güden, as on the Kleiber set, sang Sophie and
Elisabeth Söderström was a splendid Octavian. Both there and
on the complete set Crespin is intensely sensitive to verbal
nuance and deeply affecting in her sorrow in the last act. Her
‘Ja, ja’ in answer to Faninal’s ‘Sind halt aso, die jungen Leut’!’
(That’s how they always are, young people!) tells us
so much that cannot be put into words.
in possibly her greatest role is just as deeply involved and
hers is an even more detailed reading - every phrase, every
inflexion weighed. Hers is, as so often, a Lieder singer’s approach
to the role and I can’t imagine anyone hearing her remaining
unmoved. It happens that some of her readings stand out as slightly
too considered, too knowing, but here, just as with her two
recordings of Die lustige Witwe, everything seems to
come from within. There is nothing artificial about it. And
the vocal beauty is almost on a par with Crespin’s.
was Yvonne Minton, then just turned thirty and sporting a mezzo-soprano
voice verging on contralto; in 1961 she had won the Kathleen
Ferrier prize for best contralto in the Netherlands. Her velvety
tones made her a rather mature sounding seventeen-year-old but
she also contrasted well against both Crespin and Helen Donath.
Christa Ludwig was even younger, still twenty-eight at the time
of the recording and though she has mezzo darkness she is at
times much closer in timbre to Schwarzkopf than Minton is to
Crespin. Without the libretto I was sometimes hard pressed to
distinguish who was singing. As a reading hers is perhaps more
boyish, even though it could be argued that the voice of a boy
that age would normally have broken anyway. We have the same
situation with Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, which
was Strauss’s model. Ludwig is a lively Octavian, charming and
lovable in the scenes with the Feldmarschallin as well as with
Sophie and quite a pest in act III when disguised as Mariandel.
Helen Donath was
a lovely Sophie for Solti, not as angelic as Böhm’s Rita Streich,
not as Viennese charming as Güden (Kleiber; Varviso) but youthful
and innocent. When she effortlessly sails up high in the act
II scene with Octavian – ‘Wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie
Rosen vom hochheiligen Paradies.’ – I have never been able to
keep the tears back. Teresa Stich-Randall for all her accomplishment
and loveliness doesn’t touch me quite as much. There is a certain
hardness that robs her tone of the ultimate innocence but it
is an excellent reading even so.
If Manfred Jungwirth’s
Baron Ochs for Solti is larger than life then Otto Edelmann
for Karajan is life-size – but grand. He is a more civilized
boor, but still ‘ein grober Ding’ as Sophie says to herself.
Both are excellent singing actors and never miss a point when
there is one.
In the secondary
roles – but still important – Eberhard Wächter for Karajan is
a much stronger and characterful Faninal than Solti’s Otto Wiener
– though perhaps too young sounding for the role. Paul Kuen
is an oily Valzacchi, comparable to Solti’s Murray Dickie while
Karajan’s Kerstin Meyer is a fruitier Annina than Solti’s Anne
Howells. Karajan has a trump-card in Ljuba Welitsch as the duenna
Marianne. This Bulgarian soprano recorded very little commercially
and this is one of her few complete sets. She is a temperamental
duenna. Solti’s Emmy Loose, another long-time favourite at the
Vienna State Opera, is not far behind however. Decca chose the
hottest name on the tenor firmament for the Italian singer:
Luciano Pavarotti. He sings his short aria gloriously but stylistically
he is out of phase with the time of the play: it is supposed
to take place in the late 1700s. A tenor in those days would
probably have sung like Nicolai Gedda, and he is the one who
sings the part for Karajan. Few have sung it more stylishly.
There is starry casting of the three noble orphans, appearing
in the third act: Schwarzkopf, Ludwig and Meyer, though Solti
has the young Arleen Auger as his soprano.
It should be mentioned
that most of the issues in this Brilliant Opera Collection have
librettos downloadable but not this Rosenkavalier. Those
who haven’t got another recording with libretto can find one
but N.B.: it is only in German. No English translation.
A definitive final
verdict is hard to give. I am still deeply attached to the Solti
recording and when I want to play it I still take out the 72-page
book included with the original LPs. Besides an annotated libretto
and a thematic guide it is lavishly illustrated with Alfred
Roller’s set and costume design for the premiere in 1911. The
Karajan set is however on a comparable level and a choice between
the two is just as much a question of personal taste as any
discernible difference in interpretative accomplishment. Owning
both is a safe way of assuring complete satisfaction and for
even deeper enjoyment the Kleiber and Böhm sets are safe bets.
A cheap highlights disc from the Haitink set is available on
Classics for Pleasure (see review).
At Brilliant Classics price no one can afford to be without
Karajan’s classic recording.