PERFORMER: Kiri Te Kanawa, Håkan Hagegård, Uwe Heilmann, Olaf Bär, Victor von Halem, Brigitte Fassbaender, Hans Hotter; Vienna PO/Ulf Schirmer
CATALOGUE NO: 444 405-2 DDD
The discography of Strauss’s last opera is not exactly crowded, but the two existing accounts provide formidable competition for any newcomer. First there was Sawallisch, conducting the Philharmonia for EMI in 1957 (unfortunately in mono) and a cast led by Schwarzkopf, Ludwig and Fischer-Dieskau. Then, in 1971, came that other supreme Straussian, Karl Böhm, with Janowitz, Troyanos and (again) Fischer-Dieskau, recorded in Munich for DG.
The new Decca set brings together many of today’s leading exponents of Strauss’s roles, dominated, for me, by the unsurpassed Clairon of Brigitte Fassbaender, now alas, never to be heard on stage again following her retirement. Heilmann and Bär make an ardent pair of rival suitors, Hagegård an admirable Count and Halem a sonorous, characterful La Roche. (There is a delightful link with the past history of the opera in the person of Hans Hotter: he sang Olivier in the 1942 premiere, La Roche in the 1957 Sawallisch set, and here, at 84 when recorded in December 1993, a one-line cameo as a servant.)
For many, though, the set’s desirability will rest on Te Kanawa’s Countess. She may not project the words with the finesse or acuity of a Schwarzkopf, but she injects the role with the right degree of wit, vulnerability and vocal suavity. Schirmer conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of great liveliness and attention to detail. In all, a worthy addition to a select band of recordings. Matthew Rye