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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome, Op 54 (1907)
Birgit Nilsson (Salome); Eberhard Wächter (Jochanaan); Gerhard Stolze (Herod); Grace Hoffman (Herodias);Waldemar Kmentt (Narraboth); Josephine Veasey (Herodias’ Page); Liselotte Maikl (A Slave); Paul Kuen (1st Jew); Stefan Schwer (2nd Jew); Kurt Equiluz (3rd Jew); Aron Gestner (4th Jew); Max Proebstl (5th Hew); Tom Krause (1st Nazarene); Nigel Douglas (2nd Nazarene); Zenon Kosnowski (1st Soldier); Heinz Holecek (2nd Soldier); Theodor Kirschbichler (A Cappadocian)
Wiener Philharmoniker / Sir Georg Solti
rec. 1961, Sofiensaal, Vienna
German libretto and English & French translations included
DECCA 483 1498 CD/BD-A [100:36]

This famous set is one of those that can be said with some justice to be a ‘Classic of the Gramophone’. It is famous not only for the calibre of the cast and the quality of the performance but also for the daring of John Culshaw’s audio production. It was Decca’s first ‘Sonicstage’ production. The technique was not without controversy but, as Culshaw comments in a note reproduced in the booklet, the technique “offered a new kind of personal involvement to the listener by placing him closer to the score, and thus to the drama than had previously been possible,” Of course, it is nearly fifty-six years since this recording was made and recording techniques have not stood still, so does this 1961 Salome still have the capacity to thrill – indeed shock – the listener in 2017?

Before attempting to answer that question let’s consider the performance. In a word, it is magnificent. Solti was sometimes criticised for a driven, excitable style of conducting. This is a score that suits him down to the ground. At times, he conducts like a man possessed, generating considerable electricity. However, this isn’t just a frenetic performance: far from it. There are many subtleties and nuances in the score and the fact that these come through is just as much a tribute to Solti as to the Decca recording technicians. On many occasions, the VPO delivers quite staggering power but the vast orchestra (115-strong) also plays with great refinement whenever Strauss demands it. Strauss’s mastery of the modern orchestra arguably reached its zenith in this score and the amazingly imaginative orchestral writing is stunningly realised by the VPO. Solti’s direction is electrifying; there’s great tension in the air from the first downbeat and he never allows that tension to dissipate.

Of course, it helps that Solti has a terrific cast at his disposal as well as the potent resource of the VPO. There really isn’t a weak link in the cast. All the subsidiary parts are well taken. Waldemar Kmentt makes a fine job of the role of Narraboth until his despairing suicide at the end of Scene 3. Josephine Veasey impresses as Herodias’ Page and it’s good to hear the firm-toned Tom Krause as the First Nazarene in Scene 4.

Grace Hoffman takes the role of Herodias very well, conveying her disgust at the conduct of her husband. She expresses satisfaction at the way Salome not only hoists Herod with his own petard but also, in requesting the death of Jochanaan, rids her mother of a thorn in her side. If I say that Gerhard Stolze is ghastly as Herod I mean that as a compliment. The Tetrarch is a thoroughly unpleasant character and whatever else determined Herodias to marry him it wasn’t his graceful charm, his consideration for others or his courtly manners. Stolze brings Herod to life before us as an insecure, lustful bully. When, after her Dance, Salome makes her dreadful request Herod flails about in desperation, then wheedles. He has made a Faustian bargain and can’t get out of it without total humiliation. Stolze portrays a despicable despot firmly on a hook of his own devising. Eberhard Wächter brings real presence to the character of Jochanaan. His singing is dignified and imposing and the recording, which I’ll discuss in a moment, really enhances the sound of his voice when he sings from the cistern in which he’s incarcerated.

Dominating everything is Birgit Nilsson in the title role. She was 43 when this recording was made. There’s no misguided attempt to portray Salome as a young girl. Instead, Nilsson concentrates on lavishing her vocal strength and skill as well as her great theatrical experience on the role. Her stamina is enviable. I don’t know over how many days the sessions were spread but perhaps Nilsson was a bit more able to husband her resources over a few days than would have been the case had she been singing the role onstage. On the other hand, one must factor in that quite possibly she had to repeat portions of the role more than once for different takes. What I’m getting at, though, is not just her vocal stamina but also her emotional stamina. Listening to the recording you get the impression of one long take. I don’t know how many sessions there were or how often Nilsson was interrupted in her portrayal but her focus and characterisation remains unrelenting.

Hers is a big voice and she can ride out the orchestral storms of Salome in truly imperious fashion, the high notes hit with complete security and then sustained unfailingly. But what is just as impressive is her approach to other, less high-profile passages. Here the nuances and range of vocal colours mark her out as the great artist she was. Listen, for example, to the capricious way in which she cajoles Narraboth in Scene 3 as she persuades him to release Jochanaan to satisfy her curiosity. Here, Nilsson is knowing and manipulative. In Scene 4 her performance reaches its zenith as she gets her way with Herod and then ecstatically embraces the severed head of Jochanaan. Nilsson’s portrayal is compelling and repelling at the same time. This is a great artist at the height of her powers.

So, the performance justifies the many plaudits that have come its way over the years. How does it sound in its 2017 reincarnation? The sound has been remastered from original analogue sources by Paschal Byrne, a former Decca Engineer. I’d say he’s done a very good job indeed. Immediately before starting detailed work for this review I had the opportunity to sample what I believe was the first transfer to CD of this recording. That was in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and my colleagues and I thought that that incarnation of the recording sounded rather aggressive. In fact, we found listening to those CDs a somewhat wearing experience. For this review, I’ve listened primarily to the BD-A but I’ve also made extensive A/B comparisons between the newly remastered CDs and the BD-A.

I think the first thing to say is that the new CDs appear to represent a very significant improvement over the previous CD issue. So, for example, the very opening (CD 1, tr 1) presents orchestral sound that is warm and well defined. Good though that is, however, the BD-A sound is much more vivid and even more present. A few minutes in we hear noises from the party that Herod is throwing and on the BD-A it sounds like a particularly bibulous, noisy affair. John Culshaw and his team were very imaginative – daring, even – in their efforts to place the voice of Jochanaan from the cistern in a very definitely different and resonant acoustic. That registers immediately when we first hear him on the CD (tr 2) but Culshaw’s strategy is even more triumphantly vindicated on the BD-A.

A little later on the performance generates amazing tension and suspense at the point where Salome peers into the cistern to catch a glimpse of Jochanaan (CD 1, tr 5 from 1:13). My goodness, this is a flesh-creeping episode but even more detail and atmosphere is transmitted on BD-A: when Salome sings ‘Wie schwarz es da drunten ist’ (How black it is down there) Strauss’s orchestration really gives you the sense of peering into a dark pit - creepy and full of foreboding - and the effect is tellingly conveyed by the Decca recording. When Jochanaan is brought out of his prison his voice is heard, rightly, in the same acoustic as the other performers. At ‘Wo ist er, dessen Sündenbecher jetzt voll ist?’ (Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full?) Eberhard Wächter delivers the Prophet’s imprecations with great presence and the orchestra is very powerful. Switch to BD-A at this point, however, and the recording has gone up to a new level of quality: Wächter sounds even more commanding and the orchestra really packs a punch, especially after he has finished singing.

I particularly appreciated the quality of the recording as the opera approaches its awful dénouement. As Salome waits in fevered anticipation for the executioner to do his dread work she looks over the edge of the cistern, apprehensive at the delay. There’s awful suspense and this comes across compellingly on CD (CD 2, tr 8). When the executioner emerges, carrying Salome’s grisly trophy it’s a huge moment on CD. However, the extra dimension that BD-A reproduction allows means that the period during which she is waiting sounds even more chilling while the sound leaps out of the loudspeakers with staggering power when we reach the moment of the executioner’s emergence. Salome’s ecstatic moments of triumph and lustful fulfilment are compellingly portrayed by Nilsson and the Decca sound is spectacular, conveying both the awful sweep of the passage but also an abundance of detail. At ‘Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan’ (CD 2, tr 11), Nilsson’s characterisation is utterly gripping. Hereabouts the CD reproduction is very fine indeed but, as so often in this performance, the BD-A sound draws the listener into the awful spectacle even more.

I’ve heard a number of Decca BD-A reissues, including the Solti ‘Ring’ (review), his Mahler Eighth (review), Maazel’s Sibelius symphony cycle (review) and Britten’s own recording of his War Requiem (review). All have been electrifying experiences in which the enhanced BD-A sound really pays great dividends. To that number must now be added this amazing re-presentation of Salome. The recording is a triumph for Nilsson and Solti but, sonically, it’s just as much of a triumph for John Culshaw, Gordon Parry and their Decca colleagues. Congratulations also to Paschal Byrne on his excellent remastering work.

Decca haven’t stinted on the presentation. The packaging takes the form of a hardback book on the front of which is reproduced the original, rather lurid LP cover. (I know, it’s not to my taste either; I suppose it’s of its time.) Inside, the two CDs are housed in pockets at the front; the BD-A is in a separate pocket right at the back. There is an excellent essay in English by Michael Kennedy and instead of just a translation of his notes there are separate essays by Jean-Claude Poyet (French) and Hans-Ulrich Fuss (German). There’s a note (English-only) by John Culshaw about the recording and the Decca ‘Sonicstage’ approach. The booklet also includes synopses and the libretto in English, French, German. I have only two very slight quibbles with the presentation. One is that there is no separate track listing for the BD-A disc. The other is that at the very end of the opera the sound cuts off pretty quickly; it would have been nice to have had a few seconds for the sound to decay naturally. But those are extremely minor details; overall the presentation is mightily impressive. Incidentally, if you’re listening on CD a change of disc is inevitable. The break comes in Scene 4, immediately before Jochanaan sings ‘Eine Menge Menschen wird sich gegen sie sammeln’; that’s probably the best place for a break. With BD-A, of course, you can experience the opera in one unbroken span.

This performance of Salome is a shattering experience; there’s no let-up and by the end one is left feeling drained. To hear it in such vivid sound as is available on this transfer to BD-A makes it an especially intense experience. Based on what I’ve heard I’d say that if you have the original CD pressings it’s worth trading up to this new remastered version, even if you can only play CDs. If you have a Blu-ray player it’s no contest; put this BD-A disc into your player and be prepared for Strauss’s astonishing opera to seize you in a grip that won’t relent until the final explosive chord has sounded 100 minutes later.

So, I can now answer the question I posed at the start of this review: this 1961 Salome does still have the capacity to thrill – indeed shock – the listener in 2017 and especially as presented on these discs. Surely, the performance can never have sounded more vivid since the days when those electrifying recording sessions took place in the Sofiensaal.

John Quinn

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