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 excellent 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.