INKPOT#85 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: STRAUSS, R. Elektra – Recordings Inktroduction and Survey
A Survey of Recordings
by Marc Bridle
Like Verdi’s La Traviata, Elektra is an opera that depends, entirely or otherwise, on the merits of the protagonist. Like Violetta, Elektra carries the opera: she must encompass a vast range of emotion with a voice that requires her to reach the depths of despair as well as the heights of ecstasy and histrionicism. For this reason, the best Elektras have often been great Wagnerians (although not exclusively).
“You must not perspire when conducting; only the public must get warm.””Direct Salome and Elektra as if they had been written by Mendelssohn: Elfin music.”– RICHARD STRAUSS, from 10 Golden Rules inscribed in the Album of a Young Conductor, c.1925
One of the earliest recordings of the opera derives from a 1937 concert performance with Rose Pauly in the role of Elektra. Pauly was the most celebrated Elektra of the 1930s and all subsequent performances rest somewhat in the shadows of this titanic and electrifying interpretation.
The voice is pure in the upper staves (important in this opera), and has marvellous power in reserve for her confrontation with Klytamnestra (a noble interpretation from Enid Sznth). Pauly’s singing at the climax of Klytamnestra’s murder is unsurpassed on record – it truly terrifies as no other interpretation has since, and her ecstatic waltz has real power (as a performance it is unmatched).
None of this would be possible without the other great protagonist in this opera – the conductor. Artur Rodzinsky was a superb Strauss conductor and he leads the New York Philharmonic through Strauss’ complex score with magnificent aplomb.
There are draw backs to this recording. Firstly, it is incomplete and heavily cut to allow for a concert performance. Secondly, the sound is at times very distorted, and at times very crackly, although the voices sound real and focused. It remains, however, an indispensable recording and is on Eklipse EKRCD17 at full-price.
Ten years later, another great interpretation was put down on tape. Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1947 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has the advantage of very good sound and another interpreter of some stature, Erna Schlter. Beecham had had a long association with this opera, conducting the British premier in 1910, the first Strauss opera to be performed in Britain.
Beecham’s mastery of the score is total – brass snarl like on few other recordings and listening to Klytamnestra’s procession in Beecham’s hands you might well think it could not be excelled so trenchant and possessed is the playing. Indeed, throughout this performance it is the orchestra that leaves the most indelible impression. Schlter could be unsteady at the top of the treble stave, and this is evident in her confrontation with Klytamnestra, but what makes this interpretation so special is her nobility and beauty of expression. It is one of the most vivid performances on record.
For sheer greatness, however, listen to Elisabeth Hngen (another superb Wagnerian) as Klytamnestra. She is unrivalled. The close of the opera is high voltage, Strauss’ great chords brought down with absolute finality, Beecham at his most exciting. The recording is on Myto 981.H004, 2 CDs, at upper mid-price.
A slightly earlier recording of Erna Schlter in the title role comes from 1944. Conducted by Eugen Jochum and the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, it is a very different interpretation from the one with Beecham. The voice is certainly more secure, partly driven by Jochum’s luminous and agile conducting. And it is certainly darker and more austere than in her later recording.
Jochum, a great conductor of Bruckner, builds Strauss’s great blocks of sound into a sumptuous canvas, one that generates considerable fervour. Elektra’s monologue, Was bluten muss?, literally stings, so compelling are Jochum and Schlter. In the Recognition Scene, one of the most lyrical passages of the opera, Schlter caresses her notes so that they equal the warmth of the Hamburg strings – a most beautiful effect. Schlter is wonderful during the drama of Klytamnestra’s murder, feverish and intense, Jochum producing climaxes of thunderous impact. Jochum’s final waltz, whilst lacking the drama of Rodzinsky or Beecham, is played with considerable textural weight, the 1944 recording more than amplifying the passion of it all. When the final chords smash down the effect seems all the more moving.
Jochum’s recording is on Lys LYS255-256, volume 3 of its Eugen Jochum edition, at full price.
Dmitri Mitropoulos was an inspirational conductor, and any one of his three recordings could make a first choice in this opera. In two of them, he has as his Elektra probably the greatest Elektra of the latter half of the century, Inge Borkh. Mitropoulos was a consistent advocate of this opera, all three of his interpretations marked by his typically illuminating and penetrating treatment of the score.
His 1951 recording, ‘live’ from Florence, has Anny Konetzni as Elektra. It is a beautiful reading of the role, and is complimented by a marvellous Klytamnestra from Martha Mdl, fully endowing her character with the riddled anxiety that haunts her last hours. It is on Fonit Cetra CD04 at bargain price.
The first Borkh/Mitropoulos Elektra comes from the 1957 Salzburg Festival. Mitropoulos’ mastery of the score is always evident, although this is a noticeably slower performance than his Florence recording. As a result, it is imbued with a power that eludes the earlier performance – rarely has the Recognition Scene appeared so dark, the Vienna Philharmonic producing glorious lower strings to highlight this. The effect is sumptuous, at once caressing the ears, only to be disturbed by the inexorable pungency of Mitropoulos’ pacing of the great climaxes. This is first and foremost as commanding a rendition of the score you will ever hear. The effect is always breathtaking, and no orchestra (bar one) plays this music with such nobility and animation.
Inge Borkh’s Elektra is a total as any, a consummate personality and sung with superb virtuosity. The recording appears at full price on Orfeo C 456 972 1.
Less than a year later, Borkh sang Elektra again with Mitropoulos, this time at a concert performance with the New York Philharmonic in March 1958. The sound is not as focused as in Salzburg, but all of those characteristics that imbue Mitropoulos’ Strauss are readily heard. Nevertheless, it remains firmly in the shadows of the great Salzburg reading. It appears on Arkadia MP 459.3 (coupled with a fine Salome) at bargain price.
Inge Borkh makes two more appearances on disc as Elektra, one ‘live’ and one studio. The ‘live’ recording comes from a 1953 Frankfurt performance conducted by Kurt Schrder. It is marked by a truly overwhelming Recognition Scene which allows Borkh to colour her voice utterly uniquely. She never surpassed this, and the effect is so creamy as to remind one of the Trio of Der Rosenkavalier. However, Schrder is not an electrifying conductor and this performance fails to ignite as a great performance of Elektra should. It is on Golden Melodram GM 30007 at full price.
Borkh’s studio performance, however, is an entirely different matter. Conducted by Karl Bhm, this is the first stereo Elektra. It also has the Dresden Staatskapelle. Even more so than the Vienna Philharmonic, this orchestra totally understands Strauss’ idiom: it premiered many of his works and plays with that unique sound only an orchestra who has worked with a composer can. It plays faultlessly, and Bhm’s tempi, very fast, add an excitement to the playing that makes the brass snarl and roar as no where else, the woodwind chatter and whisper incomparably and the strings dig in with tremendous depth.
Under Bhm the opera has intense momentum, although it is never overplayed, and in many parts Bohm makes more of the great, sweeping Romantic melodies than conductors who are more measured in this opera. Inge Borkh is almost near perfect as Elektra, her singing, as only a true actress can, illuminating the hysteria, compassion, love and determination of her creation. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is a meltingly deep toned Orest (the Recognition Scene is magical) and more than copes with the strains of the extended range of Orest’s music. All in all, a remarkable recording. It is at mid-price on Deutsche Grammophon 431 737-2.
Another Salzburg recording offers a truly titanic reading of this opera. It is conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Karajan never recorded Elektra commercially, primarily because he found the work left him totally exhausted and emotionally drained (he found Mahler’s Ninth, Sibelius’ Fourth and Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra similarly difficult). This recording is, therefore, a very important document by the finest Strauss conductor this century, and encapsulated in it is the Elektra of Astrid Varnay.
She is miraculous in many ways: she has enormous reserves of vocal stamina and she understands the role perfectly. Iciness makes way for compassion, her outbursts have volcanic potency and savagery in the voice appears when needed. She is capable of the utmost tenderness in her luminous reading of the Recognition Scene. The Klytamnestra of Martha Mdl is tinged with greatness, whilst Eberhard Waechter’s Orest is imbued with a beautifully deployed baritonal sonority.
But it is to Karajan one returns. The Vienna Philharmonic plays with great beauty under him – but in turn produces outbursts of overwhelming drama. It is all so intense, but also so very transparent. Every note comes through Karajan’s hands played with supreme balance and the effect is totally memorable. The recording appears on Orfeo C298 922 1, at full-price.
Two studio performances deserve mention. Recorded more than 30 years apart, the Elektras (Elektrae?) of Georg Solti and Guiseppe Sinopoli are both thrilling readings.
Solti’s recording, long considered one of the gramophone’s classics, is an exciting affair, and has for its Elektra, Birgit Nilsson. Nilsson’s approach to the role could be thought by some to be too overpowering, but there is no doubt the voice is in magnificent form. High Bs and Cs are met with absolute perfection, and the voice triumphantly rides above the orchestra when its needs to but one often feels that Nilsson lacks some of Borkh’s colour, her palate being all too often Wagnerian in a role that, although dramatic, also requires subtlety. The Vienna Philharmonic are in glorious form for Solti, as they are for Sinopoli 30 years later.
Sinopoli’s Elektra bears all of the hallmarks of his great recording of Salome (possibly the finest ever recorded) – great transparency, an unnerving sense of a drama unfolding and a great rapport with his singers. Alessandra Marc is very fine in the title role, and absolutely compelling in her closing scene. What makes this recording so recommendable is the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and the engineering.
From a purely sound point this recording is thrilling – totally clear and allowing one to hear Strauss’ opulence and dissonance as it might in the opera house. A wonderful experience.
Both Solti’s and Sinopoli’s recordings appear at full price on Decca and Deutsche Gramophone respectively. The catalogue numbers are: 417 345-2 (Solti) and 453 429-2 (Sinopoli).
Conclusions. Strauss’ Elektra has been lucky in its interpreters and one hopes that ‘live’ recordings by Bruno Walter, Erich and Carlos Kleiber and Sir Colin Davis might one day find their way onto disc to add to the discography of this greatest of twentieth century operas.
Any ideal performance of Elektra requires a combination of great vocal singing and a masterfully rendered score. All of the versions listed above would make an ideal choice but the one version that meets this more than any is Herbert von Karajan’s 1964 Salzburg Festival performance. Its transparency is marvellous and it has a thrillingly sung Elektra in Astrid Varnay. Inge Borkh’s 1957 Salzburg Elektra with Dmitri Mitropoulos is narrowly preferable to her studio recording with Bhm, although that performance alone is worth acquiring for the superb playing of the Dresden Staatskapelle. Sinopoli is as exciting as Solti and has wonderful engineering to support his direction of the work. Karajan, however, brings that something extra to this endlessly fascinating work.
A full catalogue of Harmonia Mundi records is now available in Singapore at HMV (The Heeren) as well as Borders (Wheelock Place).
Marc Bridle will be spending New Year’s Eve lying on a bed of nails.
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5xx: 18.8.1999 Marc Bridle
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