Tchaikovsky; Eugene Onegin – Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Verdi: Aida – Ritorna vincitor
Puccini: Tosca Vissi d’arte
Puccini: La Boheme – Quando m’en vo
Weber: Der Freschütz – Wie nahthe mir der Schlummer – Leise, leise
Strauss: Salome – Closing Scene
Ljuba Welitsch shot through the operatic firmament like a comet in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unfortunately she developed nodules on her chords by 1953 and her international career was over almost before it started. In that brief time her Salome at least became the stuff of legend, and to this day is considered one of the greatest of all times, though a prodjected complete recording with Reiner conducting never materialised. There are two live perforances from the Met, from 1949 and 1952. The latter has the best all round cast, but she is in fresher voice in the former.
These recordings all date from the 1940s when her voice was at its silvery best, and the final scene from Salome, conducted by Lovro von Matacic dates from 1944, when Strauss himself chose her to sing the role at the Vienna Opera in a production, which was to celebrate his eightieth birthday. They worked on the piece for six weeks, with Strauss himself attending the rehearsals, so, from that point of view at least, we should consider her performance here as authentic. Indeed this must be exactly the voice Strauss had had in mind. It remains silvery, youthful and light, and yet cuts through the heavy orchestral textures with no apparent effort. Not only that, but her word painting and identification with the role is so vivid that at the end of the scene one literally feels Herod’s distaste when he commands his soldiers to kill her. This scene alone is indispensable, whether one has one of the complete live recordings or not.
The other arias were all recorded between 1947 and 1949, when the voice was still in fine shape, but they do expose some of her weaknesses. The best of them is Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, here sung in German, which teems with girlish impulsiveness and teen-angst longing. There is no sense of strain and the high notes ring out gloriously. Please also take note of the wonderful horn playing of Dennis Brain. This scene ranks as highly as the Strauss in the Welitsch discography.
Musetta’s Waltz makes its effect well, with loads of personality, but she misses the anguish and contrasts in Aida’s Ritorna vincitor, and her Vissi d’arte is rather penny plain. Neither scene really registers anything at all and she has a tendency to rush the beat, which can be quite annoying. The Weber is better, but she still lacks the poise and control evinced by such singers as Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
When the voice started to let her down, she did not retire, but moved to character roles, most famously singing the Duenna in Karajan’s first recording of Der Rosenkavalier. As late as 1972, she played the role of the Duchess of Crakentorp in a Fille du Régiment at the Met.
Not a recital in the true sense of the word, as all these performances were recorded for 78s, this compilaton is essential none the less for the Strauss and Tchaikovsky at least.