Khaikin’s Eugene Onegin

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Khaikin’s wonderful 1956 recording of Eugene Onegin may not have the best sound but in all other respects it’s as close to ideal as you can get. There is something so intrinsically right about Khaikin’s handling of the score, his pacing absolutely perfect, his control of his forces absolutely stunning. He brings out so much detail in the score but the result nevertheless sounds completely spontaneous.

His cast is also pretty much unbeatable, its chief asset being the young Galina Vishneskaya, whose girlishly impulsive and totally adorable Tatyana, almost passionately erotic in the Letter Scene ( a young girl alone giving in to the passion in her heart) grows to full maturity in the final scene.  Belov is suitably reserved and sardonic in the opening scenes but despairingly intense in the finale. Lemeshev is caught a little late in his career as Lensky (he would have been 54 at the time of the recording) but sings with finesse and style and Petrov makes a strong impression in Gremin’s beautiful aria.

Had the recording always been more readily available in the West, I have no doubt that it would enjoy the same elevated status as De Sabata’s Tosca as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

Sawallisch’s Capriccio

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Richard Strauss’ final opera can sometimes seem wordy and long-winded, but in a performance such as this it is anything but boring.

This luxury cast is just about as perfect as any you are likely to hear, all the singers giving due attention to the words. The Countess Madeleine was always one of Schwarzkopf’s best roles, and she steers a perfect course between sophistication and elegance, between playfulness and tender affection. It is one of her greatest achievements for the gramophone, her radiant singing of the gorgeous closing scene a perfect rounding up of the whole opera. If the opera asks the question, “which should come first, words or music,” there is no doubt which side Strauss himself comes down on. The male voices – Gedda as the dreaming composer Flamand, Fischer-Dieskau as the more impulsive poet Olivier, Wächter as the flirtatious Count, and, last but not least, Hotter as the harassed theatre director La Roche are all wonderfully characterised. Ludwig is a superb Clairon and we even have the young Moffo as the Italian Singer. Sawallisch is a marvellously experienced Strauss conductor and presides over a recording that has become a classic of the gramophone.

The recording was apparently planned in stereo, but technical problems meant it ended up being recorded in mono, which no doubt pleased Walter Legge, as he mistrusted stereo.  Nonetheless it is wonderfully well balanced with the voices as they should be, especially in a conversational piece like this, firmly in the foreground.

Karajan’s Ariadne auf Naxos

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My first encounter with Ariadne auf Naxos was a scenically splendid Glyndebourne Touring Opera production, which I saw in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1971. I’d never heard a note of the music before, but enjoyed it immensely.

However it was quite some time before I bought a recording, and this classic brilliantly cast 1954 recording was my choice. The years haven’t dimmed its lustre and I simply cannot imagine a better all round performance.

Has there ever been a more impetuously ardent Composer than Seefried? I doubt it; and it’s good to hear a soprano in the role, as Strauss indicated. Schwarzkopf’s Ariadne is not only gloriously sung, but, as always with this artist, with due attention to the words, and she does a fine parody of herself in the prologue. Streich’s adorable Zerbinetta manages to be both sparkily flirtatious and sympathetic, and the accuracy of her coloratura is stunning. Rudolf Schock’s dryish tenor might not offer quite the same sensual delights, but he also sings with intelligence and attention to the text.

The supporting roles are all superb too, especially Karl Dönch’s Musicmaster, Hugues Cuénod’s Dancing Master and the young Hermann Prey’s Harlequin. One should also mention Alfred Neugebauer’s laconic Major-Domo.

Karajan has the full measure of the score and the Philharmonia play brilliantly for him. Mono of course, but wonderfully well balanced recording. I’ve never felt the need to look elsewhere.

The Sawallisch Arabella

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Arabella is one of Strauss’s most performed operas and there are quite a few complete recordings available, the most famous probably being the Decca set with Lisa Della Casa, who, for many years, was renowned for her portrayal of the leading role.

The main problem with that studio recording, though, is Solti’s hard driven, perfunctory conducting. I think I read somewhere it was his first complete opera recording for Decca, and even his greatest fans admit that he sounds as if he had little sympathy for his task, whereas Sawallisch’s conducting on this set is one of its principal glories, as is the wonderfully warm digital sound.

There are other reasons to treasure the performance here however, not least the performances of Julia Varady as Arabella and Helen Donath as Zdenka. Varady’s husband, Fischer-Dieskau was in his mid 50s at the time of the recording, and it has to be admitted that he does sound a bit over the hill at times, with an occasional tendency to bark. Nonetheless he makes a sympathetic Mandryka, without exactly eclipsing memories of Josef Metternich, who sings Mandryka on a superb excerpts disc with Schwarzkopf as Arabella, which I reviewed as part of the Schwarzkopf Recital box in May last year (what a shame they didn’t record the full opera).

The opera still has its problems, it seems to me. Invariably Zdenka emerges as the more sympathetic character, as she does here, despite Varady’s gorgeous, creamy Arabella. I remember that  my first encounter with the opera was the film with Janowitz as Arabella, and my sympathies were all with Matteo! The Fiakermilli music always seems pointless and empty to me too, and there are quite a few places where my attention wanders. Maybe Schwarzkopf was right just to record excerpts.

Still, if you enjoy the opera, this is a very fine recording.

A Merry Widow for all time

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Oh what bliss! From the first moment of the orchestral introduction, which captures brilliantly that sense of expectation when sitting in a darkened theatre before the curtain rises, this famous recording is pure joy. Brilliantly cast and produced, it has a real whiff of the theatre, and yet you would be hard pressed to ever hear a performance of such class there. Principal among its delights is Schwarzkopf’s gloriously sung Hanna Glawari, singing with the same sort of care she lavishes on Mozart and Strauss. Indeed the moment she realises that Danilo is still in love with her (Allein liebt er mich, nur allein! ) in the finale of the second act is sung with such gloriously refulgent tone that it would hardly sound out of place in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.

This was Schwarzkopf’s second recording of the opera, and, as in the first, Legge chooses a baritone for Danilo, rather than the usual tenor. However Wächter’s high baritone has no problems with the higher lying passages that Kunz (on the first recording) had to transpose down. Furthermore he sounds younger and more dashing. Gedda and Steffek make an excellent pair of lovers, the Pavillion duet in the second act a properly erotic affair, and the rest of the cast could hardly be bettererd with excellent contributions from Josef Knapp and Kurt Equiluz. Fabulous playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Lovro von Matacic.

Yes, there are fuller versions of the score around, but, frankly I couldn’t care less. I doubt this wonderfully stylish, fun packed recording will ever be bettered.

Scwharzkopf sings Johann Strauss

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These two Strauss operettas in Legge’s Champagne Operetta series make an apt couple of bedfellows, neither being quite what Strauss himself  wrote.

Strauss never in fact wrote an operetta called Wiener Blut, but, towards the end of his life, he did give Adolf Müller permission to adapt some of his existing dance music to a text by Victor Léon and Leo Stein. The result is a charming confection of familiar tunes, brilliantly performed here by Legge’s house operetta team of Schwarzkopf, Gedda and Kunz, alongside Emmy Loose, Erika Köth and Karl Dönch, with the Philharmonia under Otto Ackermann. However heavily cut (and this one probably suffers more cuts than the other operettas they recorded), there is no denying the echt-Viennese style in this sparkling performance. No more perfect example could exist than Schwarzkopf and Gedda’s swooning phrasing in the duet Wiener Blut.

Eine Nacht in Venedig has had a somewhat complicated history. The original Strauss operetta enjoyed only a limited success, and was massively revised (by Korngold and Ernst Marischka) for a 1923 production, which is, with one or two re-arrangements, additions and omissions) the version used for this 1954 recording.

Regardless of editions, though, this performance, like the other operettas in this series, is an absolute joy, with superb performances from the house team of Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Loose and Kunz.

Both operettas are absolute joy and thoroughly enjoyable.

Karajan’s 1955 Die Fledermaus

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Oddly enough, my previous post referred to an opera (Massenet’s Cendrillon) where a female breeches role was given to a tenor and the same thing happens here, though not quite to such detrimental effect. Where Gedda’s Prince Charming sounds all wrong, Rudolf Christ’s languidly effete Orlovsky almost reconciles me to the change and this  is my only slight quibble about a superb, classic recording, which I happen to prefer to Karajan’s later effort for Decca.

Though recorded in London with the Philharmonia, cast and conductor bring an echt Viennese quality to the whole enterprise, the judicially edited dialogue delivered in sparkling fashion. You don’t really need to speak German to understand what’s going on.

Schwarzkopf is a superb Rosalinde, none better, singing her Czardas with appropriate dash and swagger, the voice gloriously rich and firm; Streich a delightfully pert and flirtatious Adele; Gedda a properly tenor Eisenstein, with a fine line in comedy, especially when impersonating Blind in the final scene; Kunz a genially scheming Falke. Excellent contributions also from Krebs as Alfred, Dönch as Frank and Majkut as Blind. This really is a fabulous cast and Legge’s superb production ensures that the recording sounds like a real performance.

Karajan’s conducting is perhaps on the swift side, but the whole performance fizzes and pops like the very best brut champagne that the operetta celebrates and is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Massenet’s Cendrillon

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A lovely recording of a gorgeous score, which is all but ruined by a monumental piece of miscasting. Massenet wrote the role of Le Prince Charmant for a mezzo-soprano (performed at the premiere by Marie-Louise van Émelen), but here it is given to the tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Stylishly though he sings, he cannot disguise the fact that he is singing in the wrong octave and the substitution seriously damages the sound of the duets. The booklet actually states,

In order to suggest the prince’s youth and grace, and to enhance the tender, ethereal quality of his love scenes with Cendrillon, Massenet composed the part for a falcon, …. Moreover, to prevent fashionable prime donne of the buxom kind from being miscast in the part, Massenet also stipulated in the score that the falcon should possess an appropriate physique du costume.

This makes the substitution doubly puzzling.

On the other hand the role of Cendrillon might almost have been written with Frederica Von Stade in mind, radiant of voice and charming of manner. Her performance is reason enough to have the set, but Ruth Welting makes a delightful Fairy and there are characterful performances from Jane Berbié as Madame de la Haltière and Jules Bastin as Pandolfe, as well as Teresa Cahill and Elizabeth Bainbridge as the step sisters.

Julius Rudel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus.

De Los Angeles as Manon

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Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped, 

I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manonand would think that I had profited by the exchange

He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer. 

This classic  1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better. 

Werther with Gedda and De Los Angeles

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Werther is an opera I like more each time I hear it. I first saw it back in 1970, in a lovely production by Sir Michael Redgrave, when it toured to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Werther was sung by David Hughes, who had enjoyed quite a success as a pop singer before retraining as an opera singer. He suffered from heart problems and sadly died from heart failure the day after collapsing on stage during a performance of Madama Butterfly at the London Coliseum. He was only 47. Looking at the Glyndeboure archives for 1970, I see the role of Charlotte was sung by Yvonne Fuller, who looks absolutely ideal in photographs. I wonder what happened to her.

To be honest I can’t remember all that much about the performance other than that I enjoyed it immensely and it has remiained one of my favourite operas ever since. These days I often hear people berating the character of Werther for being so “wet”, for want of a better word, but surely that is a rather glib reaction, which betrays a lack of understanding of the whole Romantic movement, and especically the Sturm und Drang movement that the original Goethe novel partly inspired. Musically, it is one of Massenet’s best operas and I like it a lot more than some of his crowd pleaser operas, like Esclarmonde and Le roi de Lahore.

Werther has been extraordinarliy lucky on disc, right from its first recording, made in 1931 and featuring Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin under Elie Cohen. Other strong contenders include Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos under Michel Plasson, José Carreras and Frederica Von Stade under Colin Davis and, possibly best of all, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu under Antonio Pappano.

Though the title role has been sung by lyric tenors such as Tito Schipa and Ferrucio Tagliavini, it still needs a fair amount of heft, as was demonstrated when I saw the opera not long ago at Covent Garden. Both musically and dramatically Juan Diego Florez was underpowered and the opera consequently failed to make its usual effect. Gedda was also a lyric tenor, but his essentially lyric voice had a great deal more carrying power than that of Florez and he is an effective Werther, his singing, as always, musical and involved.

By his side is one of the best Charlottes on disc, maybe even the best. Though a soprano, De Los Angeles’s lower and middle voice has the richness the role demands and her characterisation is spot on. Only Von Stade on the Davis recording approaches her for charm and vulnerability. This is a great performance. There is also excellent support from Mady Mesplé as a delightful Sophie and Roger Soyer as Albert.

Prêtre tends to overdo the histrionics and the Cohen, Davis and Pappano are all much better conducted, with the Davis and Pappano also enjoying better sound. Nonetheless this is one of the best recordings of the opera around, and absolutely essential for De Los Angeles’s superb Charlotte.