Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier
(1911) [203:29]
Marschallin - Renée Fleming (soprano); Octavian - Sophie Koch (mezzo); Sophie - Diana Damrau (soprano); Baron Ochs - Franz Hawlata (bass); The Italian Tenor - Jonas Kaufmann (tenor); Faninal - Franz Grundheber (baritone); Annina - Jane Henschel (mezzo); Valzacchi - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor); Marianne - Irmgard Vilsmaier (soprano).
Philharmonia Chor Wien
Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, January 2009, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. DDD stereo
DECCA 478 1507 [3 CDs: 75:19 + 62:16 + 66:04]
This most elegant and sumptuous of Grand Operas demands the finest of orchestras and the most silkily vibrant of soprano voices. There haven’t been too many recordings of note, either studio or live, in the digital era, hence this reviewer finds himself referring back to the established classics by Karajan, Solti, Bernstein and Kleiber (père et fils) to establish a benchmark against which this latest issue from Decca may be judged. 
Certainly we may gauge the quality of the Münchner Philharmoniker in such passages as the extended Prelude and Pantomime opening Act III. They do not have quite the lush, voluptuous heft of the Vienna Philharmonic under Solti but they play under Thielemann with nuance, drive and wit, and in moments such as the orchestral introduction to the Presentation of the Silver Rose they capture beautifully the requisite shimmering quality and otherworldly poise, despite the rather flat acoustic of the Festspielhaus as recorded. Thielemann’s direction is not unduly indulgent; he gave notice of his affinity with operatic Strauss in his excellent rendition of the suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” as an adjunct to a truly impressive “Ein Alpensinfonie” on DG in 2000 and here he brings out both the contrapuntal brilliance and the gorgeous, swooning harmonies of Strauss’s writing in a performance which demonstrates his mastery of the idiom. The audience is quiet and the aural picture here is clean, clear and well-balanced if rather “neutral” and lacking ambience, allowing us to hear details without being very “present”.
So already in terms of conducting, orchestral playing and recorded sound, this recording is competitive without necessarily jumping to the head of the queue. That leaves the voices … and that’s where my doubts creep in.
Yet two singers are simply glorious. Just in time, we finally have a commercial recording, albeit live rather than studio, of today’s premier Strauss soprano in her best role. To my ears there is little indication of wear in Renée Fleming’s smoky, creamy soprano and long experience as the Marschallin has lent her interpretation more depth of expression. She sounds mature but never middle-aged. The Marschallin should still be a young woman in a loveless marriage dallying with a toyboy; Fleming’s rich, long-breathed tones capture all her wry, wistful, rueful resignation without turning her into a caricature of a desperate matron. She is warm and poignant, often capitalising on the tangy resonance of her lower register to balance the floated top notes and she is especially touching at key moments such as when she narrates getting up in the night to stop all the clocks in her attempts to halt the march of time.
Just as impressive is Jonas Kaufmann’s preening Italian singer, effortlessly delivering an impassioned account of the retrospective aria in that wonderfully virile, baritonal tenor - it’s a shame about the intrusive on-stage applause which cuts across the end of his commanding command performance.
Hawlata’s Ochs is, for all its comic inventiveness, vocally a disappointment. I am glad that he doesn’t take the modern route of turning him into a menacing thug; he is essentially a risible buffoon, somewhat broadly characterised in a manner which is often coarse, whereas previous celebrated exponents such as Jungwirth, Ridderbusch and, above all, Moll, allow us to remember that he is still an aristocrat, albeit a boorish one. The heavy Viennese accent is amusing but his bass is dry, lacking the rotund low notes and either straining at or crooning his top Fs and F sharps.
Likewise, the veteran Franz Grundheber’s Faninal is amusing but vocally close to an embarrassment, his bass being so rocky and hollow. Supporting roles are adequate without being striking or especially pleasing on the ear.
However, the real problems start with the dreaded wobble which afflicts the voices of both Sophie Koch and, more intermittently, Diana Damrau. I recently reviewed Damrau’s Donna Anna in the new “Don Giovanni” from a concert performance in the same venue as this recording and by 2011 the vibrato had begun to loosen distressingly. Here, two years earlier, the tendency is merely incipient; she is true and musical but without purity and steadiness of tonal emission still cannot hold a candle to the likes of Kathleen Battle, Lucia Popp or Barbara Bonney. Similarly, the continuous, obtrusive beat in Koch’s mezzo-soprano makes her sound excessively womanly in a bosomy fashion rather than boyishly impetuous. When Octavian launches the famous concluding trio we should be swept along on a warm raft of steady sound, not bothered by lumpy tone. There is an egregious contrast between the sweet pulse of Fleming’s voice and the puttering of her soprano companions. This is not a constant issue and some may be far less sensitised to it than I; I readily admit that the great climaxes still worked their magic for me and I often forgot my objections.
Attractively packaged with a full libretto in two sections, ultimately this is not another classic set but one which will appeal primarily to the many Fleming admirers.  

Ralph Moore 

The great climaxes still worked their magic and I often forgot my objections.