Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Elektra (1909) [108:46]
Erna Schlüter (soprano) - Elektra; Annelies Kupper (soprano) - Chrysothemis; Gusta Hammer (contralto) - Klytämnestra; Peter Markwort (tenor) - Aegisth; Robert Hager (baritone) - Orest; Gustav Neidlinger (bass) - Tutor; Käthe Lange (soprano) - Trainbearer; Fritz Göllnitz (tenor) - Young servant; Hermann Siegel (bass) - Old servant; Claire Autenreith (soprano) - Overseer; Maria von Ilosvay (contralto) - First maid; Hedy Gura (mezzo) - Second maid; Martina Wulf, Lisa Bischof, Senta Mirsch (sopranos) - Third, Fourth, Fifth maids
Hamburg State Opera Chorus/Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
rec. June 1944
ACANTA 233494 [54:10 + 54:37]
When Acanta first issued this transfer in 1984 the recording was attributed to Hamburg in 1943 and the conductor was identified as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. The documentation has now been corrected to show the conductor as Eugen Jochum and the performance date is amended to June 1944 - at the height of the Second World War, and just before the Hamburg Opera was destroyed by bombing. That makes it the very first recording of Elektra. As such it has considerable historical significance particularly as the composer himself congratulated Erna Schlüter on her performance in the title role.
Like most live performances to this day, and like nearly all recordings of Elektra, this performance is not quite complete. There are a number of ‘standard’ cuts, some at least of which were approved by the composer, to lighten the role of the heroine and make it more practicable. There are two during the scene between Elektra and her mother, two during the following scene between Elektra and her sister, and one towards the end of the Recognition Scene. Only two of these cuts are made here, the second and fourth. Several later recordings - including Böhm’s otherwise marvellous video recording - have employed all five. However much one might tolerate cuts in live performances they are most regrettable in a recording. For that reason anyone who wants a single complete recording of Strauss’s most harmonically adventurous operatic score must choose between those by Solti for Decca and Sawallisch for EMI. I have ignored the cut recordings in the course of comparisons for this review. All that said, as a supplementary recording of great historical interest, this set will remain valuable.
The recording quality is not great, but it is more than acceptable. There are no signs of 78 side joins, and one suspects the recording was made on early tape. Nor does it sound like a ‘live’ recording from an operatic performance - was it made in a studio? The voices are considerably closer than the orchestra, but the latter is generally clear and well in the aural picture. Indeed the balance is not conspicuously worse than in the 1960s Böhm stereo recording for DG. There are signs of some distortion in the more climactic voice passages and what sounds like some tape ‘pulsing’. The fact is that there are many broadcast relays from the post-war era which sound much worse than this. The performance is really well worth preservation.
One can realise why Strauss congratulated Schlüter on her performance in the title role. She has the required volume and most of the top notes although she ducks the top C at the end of her scene with Klytämnaestra. She also has a rich voice which well encompasses all the facets of this most demanding of writing. Birgit Nilsson (for Solti) is colder and more steely-brilliant, and Eva Marton (for Sawallisch) shows signs of the unsteadiness on sustained notes which was soon to develop into a positive wobble in her later recordings. Schlüter is more than just a good voice - she inflects the text superbly, and is aware of every nuance in Hoffmansthal’s text. The delivery of her opening monologue is simply stunning, despite the occasional recording distortion. In the Recognition Scene she allows the direction “very softly, trembling” to extend to allowing a degree of unsteadiness into her voice. She seems to have difficulty fining down her tone to the extent ideally required - and she cuts her phrase short at the end of the word “seliger”. This passage is always hard for heroic sopranos to encompass, and Nilsson and Marton both have similar problems. Schlüter recorded the role again for a broadcast with Beecham three years later. She then appears to have more or less disappeared from the scene, at least so far as commercial recordings of opera are concerned. She appears in an old pirate recording from the early 1950s of Stephan’s Die erste Menschen which has been intermittently available. However at the time of this recording she was 47 and clearly in her prime.
Annelies Kupper as her sister did have a recording career after the war, performing Senta and Elsa for DG sets in the early 1950s. She has a richer voice than either Marie Collier (for Solti) or Cheryl Studer (for Sawallisch) and gives an uncommonly impassioned reading of what can be a somewhat milksop role. She also is alive to every nuance of the text. Her cry of “Ich bin ein Weib” is delivered with an energy that makes her a force to be reckoned with but she brings a proper sense of mystery to “Sie hat getraumt”. When she returns to the stage at the beginning of the second CD, one is extremely grateful that (unlike Collier) she does not attempt to comply with Strauss’s instruction that she should “howl like a wounded beast”.
Gusta Hammer as the murderous mother is also a force to be reckoned with, displaying a real contralto voice in the lower passages. She does not inflect the text as much as one might ideally wish, and as Regina Resnik (for Solti) and Marjana Lipovšek (for Sawallisch) both do. There is plenty of light and shade, but no real sense of desperation caused by an uneasy conscience. The phrase “Es ist kein Wort, es ist kein Schmerz” - marked strascicando in the score - are straightforwardly delivered. She injects sighs and groans into pauses in the music, and clearly feels the need to display emotion, but the emotion does not extend to her vocal colouring. When she gets into dialogue with Elektra, a greater sense of dramatic urgency is injected into their exchanges. She does not deliver the spoken commands “Lichter!...Mehr Lichter!” at the end of the scene where indicated in the score but her laughter afterwards is of a villainy to rival Resnik’s.
Robert Hager is a very bass-orientated brother, sounding more like a Sarastro than a Wotan. He does not convince at all as he describes his own reported death, declaiming the text rather than inflecting it. He has to reach for his notes above the stave, and resorts almost to Sprechstimme in the phrase “und meine Schwester nicht?”, getting the Recognition Scene off to a rather unfortunate start. Later he alters a note - changing an E down to a C at 9:15 - in the phrase which launches his duet with Elektra although he has no trouble with the high G flat shortly thereafter (at 10:19) - maybe it was a simple mistake.
The booklet describes Peter Markwort’s major roles as being for ‘heroic tenor’ but his main claim to fame nowadays would appear to be his performances as Mime. He is not in the ‘character tenor’ mould of Aegisths, unlike Gerhard Stolze (for Solti), and this makes him a more threatening villain than usual even at the cost of some loss in characterisation. Both he and Fritz Göllnitz - here creditable in the short role of the Young Servant - emerged in the post-war period as part of the cast for the Lenya recording of Weill’s Mahagonny.
Gustav Neidlinger had a major career in the post-war period, culminating in his Alberich for the Solti Ring. Here he make much of little in his brief scene as “an old man with fiery eyes”. It is strange that a man who was apparently so genuinely nice a character was such a convincing villain in his many such recorded roles. The maids in the opening scene are a lively and personable bunch who put their lines across with great malice where needed. The other smaller roles are capably taken, but the hard-working offstage chorus at the end are practically drowned out by the orchestra. The distortion in the recording is particularly annoying here.
Jochum’s conducting is very well controlled but has plenty of emotion and passion where required, and passages like the entry of Klytemnaetra are really exciting. The orchestral balances are well managed, even if the woodwind is sometimes backward and softer passages are occasionally lost in the overall sound-picture; strings, brass and percussion are all well to the fore. Clearly the definition which one needs fully to appreciate the originality of the score - and which we get in the Decca and EMI recordings - is here lacking. There is no sign of any audience, but there are some stage effects: Klytämnaestra’s panting and laughter, for example, quite apart from the whip strokes and other effects notated in the score. In the final scene Jochum rises to the occasion, helped by impassioned singing from the well-matched Schlüter and Kupper. His delivery of the final dance begins really pesante as marked in the score. The rushing string passages at 5:13 are for once clearly audible, and he gets his tam-tam player to really lay into the metallic tremolo at 5:25 in a passage where percussionists are usually prone to hold back for understandable fear of damage to their valuable instruments. The final two chords are a bit underweight, though, and cut off very abruptly.
The booklet contains no text or translation and only a very brief synopsis of the plot. One would imagine that these would already be in the possession of those acquiring this set, who will presumably own another more modern recording in any event. It does contain a substantial if not very relevant essay on the history of the Hamburg Opera by Wolf-Eberhard von Lewinski, but this does contain a couple of errors. He states that Hamburg gave the “German premières” of Elektra and Salome “straight after the world premières” - but since these were given in Dresden, it leaves one in some doubt as to what country the writer believes Dresden is in. He also talks about Strauss’s use of motifs in the score, stating that “there are no leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense”. Leaving aside the matter of what a “Wagnerian sense” may be, the symphonic development of these motifs used by Strauss in Elektra surely reflects exactly the procedures that Wagner adopted. To regard the Wagnerian leitmotifs as simply ‘tags’ to identify characters is not correct even as regards the Ring - as Deryck Cooke so conclusively demonstrated - and bears no resemblance at all to their use in Tristan or Parsifal.
On the subject of historical performances, can one possibly hope for a transfer of the Welsh National Opera production from the 1970s as part of Chandos’s Opera in English series? It contains performances by Pauline Tinsley and Anne Evans as the two sisters, with Willard White as Orest and John Mitchinson as Aegisth. These are among the best ever given. It was given a broadcast relay by the BBC; I still possess tapes, to which I listened again for the purposes of this review. While they’re at it, could we have the slightly later broadcast relay (also in English) of Die Frau ohne Schatten with a cast including not only the fabulous Tinsley and Evans but also Norman Bailey as the best and most human Barak ever?
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Very well controlled but with plenty of emotion and passion.