Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Salome (1905) Dance of the Seven Veils [8:58]; Final scene [15:54]
Elekta (1908) Recognition scene [20:48]
Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) Imprisonment scene [10:12]
Capriccio (1942) Moonlight interlude [3:02]
Christine Brewer (soprano); Eric Owens (bass-baritone)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec. Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta GA, 6 and 9 February 2009. DDD
TELARC 31755-02 [59:10]
Capriccio - Interlude and final scene
Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (Chandos)
Vienna Philharmonic/Sinopoli (Brilliant Classics)
Frau ohne schatten
Vienna Philharmonic/Böhm (DG)
Salome - complete opera
Metropolitan Opera/Reiner (Walhall)
Deutsche Opera Berlin/Sinopoli (DG)
Vienna Philharmonic/Solti (Decca)
Salome - final scene
NDRSO Hamburg/Runnicles (Apex)
The 'front' of Christine Brewer’s voice is focused so that words are clear; just as you would hear from a lyric soprano. Behind this there is a rich resonance, almost like a sound chamber, that refracts the most extraordinary colours. It weaves burnished metals with warm mahoganies, and imparts all the dramatic soprano power required. This distinctive sound is allied to a keen dramatic intelligence. So what about these Strauss opera excerpts? In short, we have a triumph, a hit and a contrived mismatch.
Brewer sang Chrysothemis in concert performances with the Cleveland Orchestra several years ago. You’d expect the feminine beauties of that part to be a better fit than Elektra’s desperation and madness. Indeed Electra’s ecstatic “Dann sterb’ ich seliger als ich gelebt” is ravishingly floated. However, Brewer really darkens her palette for “… Num denn, allein” and brings an edginess beyond even her fine Act I Isolde on Warner Classics. Brewer’s main success here is to evoke Elektra’s brief transition from mental anguish to hope. She accomplishes this with total security and tonal beauty, even as she digs into the darkest colours. And her Dyer’s Wife, from Strauss’s problematic Die Frau ohne Schatten, is preferable to Nilsson (DG); Brewer’s tone is warmer, less penetrating, soaring on golden wings.
There is plenty of dramatic characterisation in this Salome final scene, unfortunately little of it is Salome. In this, Brewer joins the ranks of great sopranos like Nilsson, Norman and Alessandra Marc whose singing is impressive on its own terms but listeners would need to take a huge mental leap to believe they are listening to a teenage princess. Brewer’s soprano is now too mature, large and rich as if Salome is channelled via Brünnhilde. I listened to Cheryl Studer’s Salome straight afterwards and was immediately struck by how much better her warm silver tones match the part. And whilst Ljuba Welitsch may not enjoy Telarc’s Direct Stream Digital soundstage, her Salome leaps from the speakers, through sheer force of characterisation. I wonder why Runnicles chose to start the excerpt with the orgasmic orchestral crescendo as Salome finally gets her mits on Jochanaan’s severed head? His earlier recording with Alessandra Marc (Warner Apex) begins with the chilling parlando as Salome anticipates success and then effectively extends her voice to open over the resulting orchestral roar.
Runnicles’ Capriccio interlude is more transparent than Neeme Järvi’s (Chandos) but the Scottish recording is more warmly phrased and, crucially, has the advantage of Felicity Lott singing the final scene. There was room on this Telarc CD, if Brewer wished, to sing this too. The Atlanta musicians are superlative in Salome’s dance, the liquid woodwinds add to the delicate textures as the first veils are lightly tossed aside, almost all hints of kitsch eschewed. Turn to Sinopoli for added sleaze. At first I wondered if Salome was teasing Herod a mite too long so the patriarch risked losing interest, but the dance heats up for the striptease climax. Runnicles, as in the final scene, is expert at keeping the violence simmering and, when needed, exploding.
Exactly who is Telarc tempting with this CD of disparate Straussian chunks? Brewer’s many fans will definitely want to buy and Atlantans must also invest to hear and support their impressive local band. Kudos to engineer Michael Bishop who delivers a natural soundstage for the orchestra with plenty of punch. The low brass and basses in particular, have thrilling presence. Eric Owens’ Orestes is also a must. Here is one of those rich, deep bass-baritone voices that sends shivers up the spine. Why has Owens not recorded more? However, I wish Telarc had given us a complete Elektra. As it stands, most buyers must first consider Sinopoli’s set which is about half the price, reissued on Brilliant Classics. Sound, orchestra and conducting are even more vivid. Brewer has advantages of tone and textual clarity, but Alessandra Marc’s controversial, voluptuous Elektra is a force of nature. Sinopoli’s Salome set may be full price on DG but I’d pay for the extra disc to ear the opera complete, with Cheryl Studer’s sweet psychopath and Sinopoli’s dramatic imagination let loose. Welitsch’s 1952 live Salome from the old Metropolitan Opera, with an outstanding cast directed by Fritz Reiner, is easy to find for the same price, and sometimes less, of this Telarc CD.
The booklet contains libretti in English and German, biographies and scant introductory information to Strauss and the operas. This is supplemented by the link: http://www.telarc.com/brewerstrauss/index.html. Quite properly, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players are individually named.
Brewer’s main success here is to evoke Elektra’s brief transition from mental anguish to hope. This she does with total security and tonal beauty, even as she digs into the darkest colours.