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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (1911)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Feldmarschallin; Otto Edelmann (bass) – Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau; Christa Ludwig (mezzo) – Octavian; Eberhard Wächter (baritone) – Herr von Faninal; Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano) – Sophie; Ljuba Welitsch (soprano) – Marianne; Paul Kuen (tenor) – Valzacchi; Kerstin Meyer (mezzo) – Annina; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – A Singer; Franz Bierbach (bass) – A Police Officer; Erich Majkut (tenor) – Major-Domo to the Marschallin; Gerhard Unger (tenor) – Major-Domo to Faninal; An Animal Seller; Harald Pröglhof (bass) – An Attorney; Karl Friedrich (tenor) – A Landlord; Anny Felbermayer (soprano) – A Milliner; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Kerstin Meyer – Three Noble Orphans; Gerhard Unger, Erich Majkut, Eberhard Wächter, Harald Pröglhof – Four Footmen; Gerhard Unger, Erich Majkut, Eberhard Wächter, Franz Bierbach – Four Waiters
Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 10-15, 17-22 December 1956, Kingsway Hall, London
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9085 [3 CDs: 70:02 + 59:41 + 61:35]

 

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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 bonuses more 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 of view.

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.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf 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.

Solti’s Octavian 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 here, 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.

Göran Forsling


 


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