Strauss: Elektra

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: Koch Schwann
WORKS: Elektra
PERFORMER: Astrid Varnay, Leonie Rysanek, Res Fischer, Hans Hotter, Helmut Melchert; Cologne RSO & Chorus/Richard Kraus
CATALOGUE NO: 3-1643-2 ADD mono
In 1953, when both these recordings were made, Varnay reigned supreme as Brünnhilde at Bayreuth. Younger generations will always picture her as a formidable Herodias and Clytemnestra in Götz Friedrich’s Seventies films of Strauss’s two one-act terrors, and therein lies the problem of her Salome. It was always a secure voice of mezzo-ish colour – not exactly right for the 16-year-old princess who becomes a monster through thwarted love; this Salome, her opening phrases announce, eats prophets for breakfast. Given that she has no opposition to speak of from Hans Braun’s solid but fangless Jokanaan or Patzak’s cipher of a Herod, and that the orchestral playing under Hermann Weigert is dim, compressed and often messy, only Varnay fans need concern themselves with this one.

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The Elektra is a totally different matter – all of a piece, with every performance projecting the drama of the text while letting us take vocal security for granted and Richard Kraus doing the exact equivalent with orchestral texture and backbone; no dutiful Kapellmeister he, but a dedicated modernist able to drive an incandescent line through Elektra’s final dance of death. Varnay’s flamethrowing act is underpinned by vivid inflection, tonally midway between the revelatory Clytemnestra of Res Fischer and Rysanek’s warmer sister. There are the usual cuts, and again the sound is better for the voices than the instruments, but this is the only Elektra I know without a weak link; it is bound to wear well on repeated listening. David Nice