Strauss: Salome

COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Salome
PERFORMER: Leonie Rysanek, Hans Hopf, Grace Hoffman, Eberhard Waechter; Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Karl Böhm
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 69430 2 ADD
Perhaps no other Strauss work inflames raw political nerves as much as his opera set at the end of the Thirty Years War, FRIEDENSTAG, written in 1936 and still thought by some to be a Fascist work. The sound-world is unique in Strauss’s output, moving from bleak depression to manic elation. The centrepiece is one of those echt-Straussian scenes where the soprano rides the orchestra in wild ecstasy. Sabine Hass doesn’t gleam and dazzle in her upper register as thrillingly as Alessandra Marc on the rival recording from Koch, but it’s a more rounded performance and her co-star, Bernd Weikl, is a big improvement on the competition, as is the conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, who carves a swathe through Strauss’s kaleidoscopic score with total conviction.

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RENÉE FLEMING produces a gorgeous wash of sound on Decca’s disc of Strauss chunks, which is no mere box of truffles. Her lustrous voice is controlled by a musical intelligence that, especially in Der Rosenkavalier, is alive to every flicker and nuance of Hofmannsthal’s quicksilver text. Christoph Eschenbach’s conducting and Decca’s engineering are superbly detailed and the luxury casting of Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney in the supporting roles make this a major Strauss release.

However, compared to the complete performance of DER ROSENKAVALIER recorded live at the Vienna State Opera in 1955 with Hans Knappertsbusch at the helm, it lacks a sense of raw theatricality. Knappertsbusch is quite slow in places and takes a deceptively relaxed approach to the score, starting each act over the applause. But, as we know from his Wagner interpretations he was first and foremost a storyteller and this performance goes right to the heart of the story. His Baron Ochs, Kurt Böhme, is not the harmless country bumpkin we are used to but a satyr on the loose, a menacing volcano under the comedy of manners; and the female trio of Maria Reining, Sena Jurinac and Hilde Gueden is the same formidable line-up Erich Kleiber used for his classic Decca recording the year before. Although Reining’s voice is quite threadbare at times, the end of Act I is by turns white hot and full of pathos pulling us right into the drama. By contrast, Fleming and Graham in the same scene are tonally flawless but also, perhaps, a little self-regarding.

The other significant Strauss offering is DIE ÄGYPTISCHE HELENA, which, for all its musically conservative outlook, contains some of the most ravishing music Strauss ever wrote. Again it was recorded live at the Vienna State Opera (in 1970). Gwyneth Jones’s slinky, sultry Helen has been available on a live Decca set for some time, but this earlier recording finds her in better vocal health, with a slightly stronger cast and magical playing under Josef Krips.

Böhm’s SALOME (live, Vienna, 1972) boasts an oiled and virile Jochanaan in Eberhard Waechter and the orchestra explodes spectacularly in the passages where the Baptist climbs in and out of his cistern. But it is severely scarred by the ragged Salome of Leonie Rysanek caught on an off night.

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CAPRICCIO under Horst Stein was another performance captured on the wing (Salzburg Festival, 1985). Despite a good ensemble that includes the La Roche of Manfred Jungwirth, it is let down by the slightly charmless Madeleine of Anna Tomowa-Sintow, who has neither Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s needle-sharp pointing of the text (EMI) nor the vocal glamour of Gundula Janowitz (DG).