Notes and Editorial Reviews
This violent performance is one-of-a kind. Erna Schlüter’s name is not as well known as her contemporaries—Nilsson, Varnay, Mödl—and this is probably because she opted to stay in Germany and sing for the Nazi regime. She sang at the Met after the war but her contract was cut short, mostly for political reasons. This performance—a studio recording—was made in Hamburg in June, 1944, and you can only imagine the mania, the desperation, the dedication (albeit appalling) that it took to get to the studio and record an opera about insanity, revenge, matricide, and a generally grotesque situation knowing full well what was going on outside your windows.
But here it is, a performance of utter abandon by Schlüter
(apparently a fine Leonore in Fidelio, as well as Brünnhilde and Isolde), singing the title role as if it were her first and last time. She recorded it under Thomas Beecham three years later (I’ve not heard that performance), but this one, flaws and all, is startling. The large, plush voice—as full in mid-range as at the top and bottom—is one to be reckoned with. She flies sharp occasionally and ducks a high-C or two, but sings with the type of abandon that we must associate with the character: what has Elektra to lose after years of horror and turmoil? That having been said, the sadness that enters her voice when she recalls her tender moments with Agamemnon, and her brief respite from hatred with Orest are brilliantly underscored, and the orchestra and Eugen Jochum are with her 100 percent.
Her scenes with the excellent Annelies Kupper as Chrysothemis are, by turns, snide and cajoling, becoming more and more desperate as the opera moves ahead. Her loathing for Klytemnestra is abundantly clear—she hates her for who she is and what she stands for. She accents the dance moments at the opera’s close with such thrust that you begin to worry for her health. I’ve actually never heard such unbridled rage in this role. Gusta Hammer, a mezzo I’ve never heard outside of this performance, is a peculiarly calm and warm Klytemnestra until Elektra openly turns on her, at which time her groans of fear are audible; and when she hears of Orestes’ (false) death, her laughter is so horrible that it could scare the most placid of us. Robert Hager is a fine, manly, and a bit gruff Orest and Peter Markwort’s Aegisth is well-drawn. Listen for the Tutor’s two or three lines—it’s the soon-to-be-great Gustav Neidlinger.
I’ve never particularly associated Eugen Jochum with Richard Strauss, but this is an amazing reading: brutal, brilliantly held together, and unrelenting—a study in controlled hysteria. You get no sense of one scene ending and another beginning; it’s 98 minutes of toxicity. (Jochum had become director of the Hamburg Opera in 1934, and to the end he refused to join the Nazi party; he conducted Bartók and Hindemith there as well but somehow steered clear of the authorities.)
The sound on this 1944 performance is amazingly clear—there’s no depth to the recording, but everything is audible, and whatever remastering has been done is impressive. Of course you’ll want a full stereo recording of this opera, and that choice remains the Solti/Nilsson/Decca. A 1950s set under Richard Kraus starring Astrid Varnay and Leonie Rysanek (on several labels) is remarkable as well, and don’t forget Seiji Ozawa’s maniacal reading on Philips with the most human (if not vocally heroic) Elektra of them all, Hildegard Behrens. But I would not want to be without this one and neither should you.
-- Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Elektra, Op. 58 by Richard Strauss
Annelies Kupper (Soprano),
Erna Schlüter (Soprano),
Peter Markwort (Tenor)
Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra,
Hamburg State Philharmonic Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1906-1908; Germany
Date of Recording: 6/1944
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