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.

The Schwarzkopf/Karajan Rosenkavalier

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This recent re-mastering of Karajan’s famous 1956 recording of Der Rosenkavaier, overseen by the producer of the original stereo version, Christopher Parker, really is the best you are ever likely to hear. Parker has slightly adjusted the balance in the big trio and it really makes a big difference, Stich-Randall now not so shrill and blending better with Schwarzkopf and Ludwig.

What a performance it is, with a cast that could hardly be bettered anywhere, Schwarzkopf’s warmly feminine, noble Marschallin dominating the opera, as she should. Her singing is wonderfully detailed, Hofmannsthal’s text superbly brought to life, and at this point it is good to remember the excellence of the libretto, which could almost stand as a straight play. Though the opera is filled with gorgeously soaring melodides, it is also quite wordy in places and it is important that the text is understood. Schwarzkopf is everything a Marschallin should be, tenderly playful with Octavian in the opening scene and philosophically reflective at the end of the act. In the last act, she is respectfully authoratative with the Police Commisioner, imperiously commanding in her dealings with Ochs, all tender solicitude with Sophie and magnanimously forgiving with Octacvian. Even just listening to her you can see every fleeting facial expression, and I smply cannot understand those who bandy about the usual criticisms of over-artfulness and mannerism, especially when the lyrical moments are also filled with such gloriously refulgent tone. This might just be Schwarzkopf’s greatest achievement on disc and is one of the greatest operatic characterisations ever committed to disc.

Ludwig’s ardently impetuous Octavian is the perfect foil for this Marschallin, and if she doesn’t have quite the same matchless control over her resources as Schwarzkopf, the extroverted outpouring of tone suits the character of Octavian to a nicety. Stich-Randall is a  slightly white-voiced Sophie, suitably innocent and naïve, sailing up to those stratospheric notes with a silvery purity second to none, and Edelmann remembers that Ochs may be a boor, but that he is also a nobleman and he too is excellent at putting across the text.

Wonderful support from the likes of Gedda as the Italian tenor, Wächter, a wonderfully fussy Faninal and Welitsch as the Duenna, with a plethora of well known names amongst the supporting cast.

Karajan’s direction is just right in every phrase, beautifully managing the dance elements of the score, whilst giving the many lyrical moments their due. He always knows just how to build to the climaxes and his sense of the structure of the opera is spot on, his pacing both quicksilver and expansive. Just to make our cup runneth over we have the Philharmonia on top form.

The recording may have been made in 1956, but sounds absolutely splendid in this latest remastering. My top recommendation for the opera, as it was for Richard Osborne on a fairly recent BBC Building a Library episode, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Böhm’s classic Così fan tutte

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Così fan tutte is a difficult opera for me these days. The music is sublime, but I find it hard to take the evident misogyny. Consequently I find the best way to listen to it is to ignore as much as possible the plot and listen instead to the emotions the plot provokes, and this is where Mozart’s genius lifts the opera above his subject matter, especially in a great performance such as this one.

Schwarzkopf and Ludwig are a wonderfully contrasted pair of sisters, the latter capturing Dorabella’s more flighty, open hearted nature to perfection. Schwarzkopf is superb as her more haughty, serious sister, imperious in Come scoglio, truly troubled and emotionally shattered in Per pieta, a performance both beautiful and heart-breaking.  Between them, she and Alfredo Kraus make their duet Fra gli’amplessi into a thing of quivering sighs and eroticism. In no other version does that moment of capitulation make quite the effect it does here. Hanny Steffek is just right as Depina, not too sparkily soubrettish, and enjoys herself enormously with Walter Berry’s genially scheming Don Alfonso.

The male lovers are also wonderfully cast, Kraus ardent and poised as the more romantic Ferrando and Taddei a mercurial and vibrant Guglielmo.

Böhm’s experience shines through in every bar and the Philharmonia play sublimely.

I’ve had this recording (originally on LP) in my collection now for almost 50 years now and, though I’ve acquired and heard others since, as a total performance, this one remains my first choice.

Callas’s 1960 Studio Norma

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Recorded 5-12 September 1960, Teatra alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellineck, Balance Engineer: Robert Gooch

This was actually the first opera set I ever owned, and, so it comes with a host of memories. I was only 18. Why Norma for a first opera, you might ask. Well I had recently discovered Callas, and at that time very little of her recorded repertoire was available. I knew that Norma was considered her greatest role, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Collecting opera was expensive in those days, and my older brother, who was working by this time, bought the set for me for Christmas. I was unbelievably excited, my excitement only slightly tempered by the discovery that no libretto was included, only a synopsis, and that I would have to send off for it, not of course that I waited for its arrival before sampling the set.

It being my one and only opera set for a good few months, I got to know the opera pretty well, and of course Callas’s unique inflections will for ever be part of that knowledge. Since then of course, I have heard a fair amount of other Normas, Sutherland, Caballe, Eaglen, Bartoli (please, never again), Sass live at Covent Garden (disastrous) and plenty more by Callas herself; the live 1952 Covent Garden, the 1954 studio, the 1955 Rome broadcast and, best of all, the live 1955 La Scala, as well as excerpts from many others, right up to her final performances in the role in Paris in 1964.

So how does it hold up? Well, pretty well actually. True, notes above the stave have taken on a metallic edge, and they don’t always fall easily on the ear, but the middle and lower timbres have a new found beauty, and a characterisation that was always complex and multi-faceted has taken on an even greater depth, parts of it voiced more movingly here than anywhere else.

There are other gains too. The cast here is a vast improvement on the earlier studio one, Corelli in particular being a shining presence. Fillipeschi was a liability on the earlier set, but, whilst not quite a paragon, and chary of some of the coloratura in his role (Serafin making a further cut in the great In mia man duet to accommodate his lack of flexibility), Corelli’s is a noble presence, and his clarion voice is ample compensation. Zaccaria may be less authoritative than the woolly voiced Rossi-Lemeni, but his tones are distinctly more buttery. Ludwig is an unexpected piece of casting, but she too is an improvement on Stignani, who, great singer though she was, was beginning to sound a bit over the hill by the time of the first Callas recording (she was 50 to Callas’s 30). Ludwig sounds, as she should, like the younger woman. Her coloratura isn’t always as accurate as one would like, certainly no match for Callas, but she sings most sympathetically in duet with her older colleague, and Mira o Norma is, for me, one of the greatest performances on disc. After Ludwig states the main theme, Callas comes in quietly almost imperceptibly and at a slightly slower tempo with an unbearably moving Ah perche, perche, her voice taking on a disembodied pathetic beauty. When Ludwig joins her for the section in thirds, she perfectly matches Callas’s tone on her first note, before Callas joins her in harmony, a real example of artists listening to each other in a sense of true collaboration.

One should I suppose mention the losses from the earlier recording. Yes, some of Callas’s top notes are shrill, and we lose some of the barnstorming heroics that were a part of Callas’s Norma right up to 1955. This Norma is more feminine, more vulnerable, if you like. How much this had to do with interpretive development, and how much with declining vocal resources is a moot point, but there is no doubt Callas is still a great singer, doing the best she can with what she has. Some sections are more moving here than in any of her other performances. I’ve already singled out Mira o Norma but the earlier duet is its equal, Callas wistfully recalling her own awakening to first love.

The beginning of Act II always brought out the best in her, and here she is sublime. Dormono entrambi is an unusual piece which alternates passages of recitative with arioso, rather like Rigoletto’s Pari siamo. Callas draws on all the colours in her palette to express Norma’s contrasting emotions. You can almost feel the chill that comes over her at un gel me prende e in fronte si solleva il crin followed by the choked emotion of I figli uccidi! The arioso of Teneri figli is couched in a tone of infinite, poignant sadness, but then her tone hardens with her resolve at Di Pollion son figli, before, with a cry she drops the knife (and we can almost hear the precise moment), crying out Ah no, son miei figli! Operatic singing and acting on the highest level.

Serafin’s conducting is much as it was in the first set. He has the virtue of not conducting the opera as if it were Verdi, as so many do. Sometimes I’d like him to get a move on a bit, but his pacing of the final two duets (one in public, one in private) is superb, and he perfectly judges the climaxes in the Grand Finale, one of the greatest in all opera.

I’ve always found it difficult to choose between Callas’s studio recordings of Norma. I wouldn’t want to be without either. Nor would I want to be without her 1955 live La Scala account, with Del Monaco and Simionato, which is where voice and art find their greatest equilibrium. One thing is for sure, Callas remains the quintessential Norma. No singer has yet challenged her hegemony in the role.