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Strauss: Elektra / Wolfgang Sawallisch, Cheryl Studer, Et Al

Release Date: 02/26/2008 
Label:  Emi Classics   Catalog #: 09190   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Richard Strauss
Performer:  Caroline Maria PetrigEva MartónBirgit CalmShirley Close,   ... 
Conductor:  Wolfgang Sawallisch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony OrchestraBavarian Radio Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 52 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Review of EMI 54067

Such is its power to inspire its interpreters, all performances of Elektra remain in the memory. Without referring to any of my reviews or programmes, I recall with pleasure and remembered excitement, from the theatre or disc, the conductors Beecham, Kleiber (Erich and Carlos), Leitner, Mitropoulos, Kempe, Schippers, Bohm, Solti, Ozawa, Albrecht, sopranos Schluter, Borkh, Lammers, Shuard, Nilsson, Behrens, Jones, Marton.... And so we come to the latest recording where that last soprano repeats the overwhelming performance she recently gave in the new staging at Covent Garden, then in the company of Solti. Although she has told me and others that she tailors her reading to the style and emotions of the
Read more conductor with whom she is working, I find her singing and acting with the voice very similar to what I vividly recall from the Royal Opera performances. Marton's reading is delivered straight at you, no holds barred. At her very first entry we meet a woman totally at the end of her tether, distraught, obsessed, single-minded in her thoughts of revenge, a powerful, tragic presence. And she continues as she has begun. The drama is unfolded in her voice in bold, vibrant tone and phrasing. Nothing is shirked and if an occasional ungainly sound emerges at high climaxes, well, that is a price willingly paid for such dedicated concentration, such a determination to bring to the disc the frisson of performing in the opera house. There are subtleties, too, as in the veiled comments to her hated mother—''Bist doch selber ein Gottin'' and in the baiting of Aegisthus, a scene played by Marton with a nice irony and an unexpected lightening of the tone.

How then does she compare with two highly distinguished and equally individual interpreters? The two passages I studied most closely were the menacing attack on Klytemnestra at the end of their colloquy and the start of the Recognition scene from ''Orest! Orest!'' onwards. In both cases the same differences were to be observed. In the first extract my immediate reaction on hearing Solti's Nilsson (Decca) after Marton was that her tone is steadier and more incisive, her diction clearer, her involvement not quite as deep. Behrens for Ozawa (Philips) is the least successful of the three here because, in a passage where weight is essential, her lyrical voice is at some disadvantage. But in the second comparison Behrens comes into her own as the artist who, even more than her colleagues, conveys the woman's sudden accession of vulnerability and her unleashing of suppressed feelings, just as a few minutes earlier it is Behrens who most compellingly finds the inner torment at the thought that Orestes is dead. Of course, both Marton and Nilsson are equal to expressing many of the same emotions; it's simply that Behrens has something in her voice that makes one feel she is Elektra.

Lipovsek gives us probably the best sung Klytemnestra to date on disc, thus scoring a formidable double following her Witch in EMI's Hansel und Gretel (reviewed last month). As in her performance opposite Marton's Elektra at Covent Garden, she more than suggests the woman's debauched, febrile state, and conveys particularly well her inner evil. Even more than Ludwig (Ozawa) and Resnik (Solti), we gain the impression of a spiteful, hallucinating creature, but also a very real person, not a caricature. If you compare the three mezzos in the passage beginning ''Ich habe keinen guten Nachte'' (disc 1, track 8 on the new set), you'll find Lipovsek the most incisive and the firmest in tone, Ludwig the more regal and dangerous, Resnik the more seedy, fantastic and horrifying—a fair summary of their respective qualities. All three interpretations are stunningly successful. On the new set, Lipovsek and Marton certainly create the sense of a pair locked into mortal and inevitable combat—very convincing.

Where Chrysothemis and Orestes are concerned, the new version scores strongly. In the former role, Studer's absolutely steady, soaring voice and gleaming high notes, combined with the feeling of pentup frustration she conveys, gives her the edge over her rivals. This is another triumph for the rising diva. Weikl suggests the steely resolve of Orestes through his incisive tone and pointed phrasing: with the limited material and time Strauss allows him this Orestes creates more character than either Krause (Solti) or Hynninen (Ozawa). On the other hand Winkler's Aegisthus is comparatively straight and better sung as compared with Stolze's vocal cavorting on the Decca set. Perhaps Ulfung on the Philips is here the happy medium. All the smaller roles have been carefully cast on the new EMI with the shrill, screaming customary in the Maids' parts mostly avoided, as it is on the Decca set. It proves worthwhile to have cast the eminent Kurt Moll in the tiny part of the Tutor because he conveys that character's intended authority in a few significant phrases.

I have not heard Sawallisch conduct the work in the theatre. Attending the sessions in Munich, I found his total command of every aspect of the score heartening as was his concern that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, not familiar with the work in the opera house, should share his intimate knowledge of its workings. That has resulted in the most accurate and rhythmically secure account of the piece to date on disc, also one that is authoritatively paced to make sure certain climaxes are properly prepared and integrated into the whole. Sawallisch generally favours speeds on the fast side (his overall timing is quicker than Solti's, no laggard himself). Similarly, care is taken over internal balance and the playing is sturdy and often virtuoso. Without odious comparisons I found this a profoundly satisfying experience—as indeed it is. But setting Sawallisch beside Solti and Ozawa inevitably points up contrasts. Solti's is the more frenetic reading and I don't mean that pejoratively—the score can take any amount of high tension—and the more viscerally exciting. Ozawa, as I suggested in my review of his version last year, is perhaps the most keenly 'heard'; by that I mean that he seems to uncover sonorities and balances the others seem unaware of. Within, the score seems just as harrowing and immediate but with more relief in terms of diaphanous sound.

The recordings also evince differences in approach. The new one tends slightly to favour the voices at the expense of the orchestra and is on the whole more recessed. It has a greater dynamic range than either the Decca or the Philips which underlines a preference on the part of the engineers and the conductor for playing a shade safe. Decca—and Solti—take risks and in consequence the effect is more immediate, highlighting the superb playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. Even more detail is to be discerned on the Philips but this time I found the voices there too far back in relation to the instruments.

Any recommendation is made in the acknowledgement that each of these sets offers a thrilling experience and one worthy of the work (with the sole proviso that the Philips adopts the Strauss-approved 'theatre' cuts). Solti's performance, with Nilsson still vocally supreme in the title-role, will always remain a recording classic, but if I wanted another, wholly consistent view I would look to the authoritative Sawallisch and his excellently chosen cast, headed by Marton's strong Elektra. If I felt like hearing the most eloquent, moving interpreter of the title-role I would turn to Behrens, and also find, in several ways, the most revelatory conducting from Ozawa. In such a many-faceted and inspired piece, no way is the absolute, but pressed finally to state a preference I would have to stay with Solti.

-- Alan Blyth, Gramophone [12/1990]
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Works on This Recording

Elektra, Op. 58 by Richard Strauss
Performer:  Caroline Maria Petrig (Soprano), Eva Martón (Soprano), Birgit Calm (Mezzo Soprano),
Shirley Close (Mezzo Soprano), Daphne Evangelatos (Alto), Carmen Anhorn (Mezzo Soprano),
Alfred Kuhn (Baritone), Ulrich Ress (Tenor), Dorothea Giepel (Soprano),
Kurt Moll (Bass), Victoria Wheeler (Mezzo Soprano), Bernd Weikl (Baritone),
Hermann Winkler (Tenor), Cheryl Studer (Soprano), Julia Faulkner (Soprano),
Marjana Lipovsek (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Wolfgang Sawallisch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Bavarian Radio Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1906-1908; Germany 
Date of Recording: 01/1990 
Venue:  Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich 
Length: 112 Minutes 7 Secs. 
Language: German 

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