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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome, Op.54 [101.10]
Inge Borkh (soprano) – Salome; Hans Hotter (bass) – Jokanaan; Max Lorenz (tenor) – Herod; Irmgard Barth (mezzo) – Herodias; Lorenz Fehenberger (tenor) – Narraboth; Katja Sabo (mezzo) – Page; Karl Ostentag, Peter Kaussen, Georg Binder, Walther Camuth (tenors) – 1st-4th Jews; Rudolf Wünzer (bass) – 5th Jew; Max Proebstl (baritone) – 1st Nazarene; Albrecht Peter (tenor) – 2nd Nazarene; Adolf Keil, Fritz Friedrich (basses) – Soldiers; Karl Hoppe (bass) – Cappadochian
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
rec. Munich Festival Hall, 21 July 1951
Aus Italien, Op.16 [41.04]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Clemens Krauss
rec. Grosse Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, December 1953
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO111 [68.22 + 71.07]

Salome has generally been a very lucky opera on record. It was chosen by Decca as long ago as 1962 to launch their ‘Sonicstage’ series of LP sets. This was with the intention of highlighting the then state-of-the-art recording techniques introduced by John Culshaw and his Vienna team. They not only aimed to reveal every orchestral detail through the medium of stereo recording but also to intensify the drama of their opera recordings through the use of multi-studio and other microphone techniques to convey a greater sense of atmosphere. In fact the ‘Sonicstage’ process was, to a considerable extent, a purely marketing exercise, as Culshaw acknowledges in his autobiography Putting the record straight. That said, it inaugurated a series of Salome studio recordings in which the title role was assumed in turn by Birgit Nilsson (Decca), Montserrat Caballé (RCA), Hildegard Behrens (EMI), Cheryl Studer (DG), Inga Nielsen (Chandos) and many others. These all aimed to display Strauss’s intricately worked scoring to the best possible advantage. The opera has been less happily served on video – the very nature of the plot tends to bring out the worst excesses of many producers but there have been at least two DVDs which set about capturing in visual terms the Wildean decadence of the music, featuring Teresa Stratas and Maria Ewing, neither of whom had the greatest voices per se but nevertheless presented dramatic performances of stunning virtuosity.

The reason for anyone to acquire this 1951 live recording of Salome must therefore reside for the most part in the contributions of the individual performers. Of the principal singers here, Inge Borkh never recorded the title role complete; and Hans Hotter and Max Lorenz are only to be encountered in other pirated live recordings which have been available from time to time. Borkh did record the final scene from the opera some years later with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the audio sound of that disc is considerably superior to that offered here. Borkh’s rendition of the complete part may well attract the interest of listeners. She offers a controversial, but clearly deliberately chosen, interpretation of Salome as an archetypical spoilt teenager. She scythes back her natural steely tones — familiar from her recordings of Elektra and Turandot — to produce an almost child-like effect in the opening scenes. Unfortunately this also involves her in a quite considerable freedom of pitch, verging in places on Sprechstimme. This gives the impression of an unpleasantly demanding brat rather than that of a virgin teetering on the brink of womanhood – which characterisation alone makes her actions understandable if hardly sympathetic. It is only during the climax of her scene with Jokanaan and in the final scene that she employs her full tone and resonance. This brings the unfortunate result that she seems at these points to be in the process of becoming more mentally assured rather than more desperately unhinged. She also adopts an unpleasant vocal mannerism during her demands for the head of the Baptist, pecking at the fast descending scales. The effect is really quite ugly to hear and seems to be more suited to the Witch in Hansel and Gretel than an erotically driven young girl. Although all this is interesting, it will inevitably be more attractive to Borkh admirers than to the general listener, who may decide that her assumption of the role is better represented by the Reiner recording. Even as a characterisation of the role her use of Sprechstimme is far less seductive than in the otherwise somewhat similar approach of Maria Ewing in the Covent Garden video.

In an extract from a 1994 Gramophone review quoted in the booklet notes, Alan Blyth ignores the contribution of Borkh altogether. He chooses instead to highlight the appearance of Hans Hotter in the role of John the Baptist – which he states is not otherwise ‘officially’ available, although Hotter does also appear in a 1952 pirated set from the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Reiner. Blyth claims that Hotter’s Jokanaan was “one of the most famous roles in the early part of his long career”. To my ears his bass-orientated voice sounds much too nobly self-assured and serene for a character who is, in his own way, nearly as fanatically unhinged as Salome herself. It is certainly significant that he adopts the lower option rather than Strauss’s alternative high F sharps in the phrase “die Geissel des Herrn” (CD 1, track 7, 4.50). When his voice is heard from offstage — which is for most of the time — it is too distantly placed and recorded to make its proper impact.

Max Lorenz as Herod also appears in an atrociously recorded pirate recording from the Metropolitan made in 1934 under Artur Bodansky but the intervening years had clearly been far from kind to his voice. By 1951 there was little left of the solid Heldentenor tone which had given him such a successful career in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. His voice is often weak, frequently all but covered by the orchestra, and given a singer of his experience he makes a royal mess of his scene just before Salome kisses the head. He fails to come in at all at one point and then indulges in some panic-stricken improvisation to get the text in during the music that remains (CD 2, track 7). As the other principal tenor in the cast, Lorenz Fehenberger is similarly weak in tone and Irmgard Barth makes little impression. The smaller parts are taken by singers of varying degrees of ability and strength.

Alan Blyth’s review remarks that Keilberth was “one of the last conductors to work with Strauss” — overlooking it would appear the later career of Karl Böhm. Keilberth’s bad habit of savagely cutting Strauss’s scores — as in his available recordings of Die Frau ohne Schatten and Arabella —does little to inspire confidence. In fact Mark Obert-Thorn notes that “there was no available Keilberth recording” to act as a filler, so we have here instead Clemens Krauss’s commercial recording of Aus Italien. This has a most unfortunate side-effect in that the break between discs during the opera has to come during the final bars of Salome’s Dance. This makes for a quite barbarous interruption to the score at one of its dramatic and musical climaxes. Obert-Thorn rightly notes the excellent quality of the original recording for its date, with only the questionably forward percussion balance in the orchestral mix causing concern. Keilberth does obtain a remarkable degree of clarity in his reading of the score, with many details clearly delineated which can sometimes degenerate into a mush.
 
The early Aus Italien, described by the composer as a ‘symphonic fantasy’, is in essence a four-movement symphony. The second movement even adopts traditional classical sonata-form, although the other movements could perhaps be regarded as miniature symphonic poems anticipating the greater masterworks to come. In the final movement Strauss foolishly quoted extensively from Denza’s song Funiculi funicula, which he thought was a Neapolitan folksong. He describes it as such in a superscription to its first appearance in the score. It was in fact a popular air designed to celebrate the opening of the railway running up the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Denza was still alive at the time (he died in 1920), and Strauss was promptly faced with a bill for royalties. The sound on this new transfer of the Clemens Krauss recording is a vast improvement on the rather papery tone, especially in the violins, which I recall from the original LP which I heard many years ago. As a performance the later stereo Kempe version has much more of the Mediterranean warmth that this score ideally demands.

Not therefore quite such an eye-opener as some other recent Pristine releases, then. None of the performances here bring much in the way of unexpected revelation. For those interested in the evolution of the Straussian tradition in the years immediately following the composer’s death this release will have a unique documentary value even if it could hardly be considered as the sole representation of Salome in any collection. Keilberth did record Salome commercially at about the same time, and presumably his delineation of the score would be better represented in a studio recording. I have not heard this version (Berlin Classics), but observe that the title role in that set was taken by the then ruling Salome in the form of Christel Goltz, whose curdled tones in her recordings which I have heard give little pleasure.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey



 

 




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