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Recordings

Richard Strauss: Opernszenen
15 May 2008

STRAUSS: Opernszenen | Scenes of Operas.

Recorded between 1938 and 1942, the excerpts from performances of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Arabella, and Daphne at the Dresden Staatsoper are all conducted by Karl Böhm.

Richard Strauss: Opernszenen | Scenes of Operas
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 27.

Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm (cond.)

Profil Medien PH07039 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

As such, the recordings provide a snapshot of Strauss performance during the latter part of the composer’s career, and also offer a glimpse at Böhm’s efforts as a young conductor. While Böhm first conducted at the Dresden Staatsoper in 1933, he was offered the position of conductor at this important house in 1934 and remained there for nine years. During that time he worked with some of the most important German singers of the day, and also came to know Strauss well. Böhm’s association with Strauss contributed to the special status of Dresden as a house that specialized in the composer’s operas, and various iconography associated with those performances are reproduced in the extremely fine booklet that accompanies this release.

The recordings themselves derive from two sources: the Stiftung Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv and the private collection of Jens Uwe Völnecke. While the selections reflect some of the more familiar, if not important, music from the operas they represent, they also preserve the interpretations of singers who were involved with the Dresden performances of the time. They include Margarete Teschemacher, Christel Goltz, Esther Rethy, Elisabeth Höngen, Josef Herrmann, Toster Ralf, and Mathieu Ahlersmeyer and while only some of the names may be familiar today, those singers were among the outstanding interpreters of opera in their day. The quality of the voices is immediately apparent in the first and third tracks, who excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier that involve Höngen and Rethy, In the vocal excepts from that opera on the first and third tracks, from the second and third acts respectively, the voices intersect well in conveying Strauss’s writing for sopranos voices.

Böhm’s tempos support the performance in fitting both the musical lines and the sung text so that both elements emerge clearly. In both cases, the voices seem close to the microphone, but not entirely at the expense of the accompaniment. It is possible to sample the fuller sound of the orchestra in the second track, one of the famous waltz passages from the third act. Böhm played the waltz music without introducing affections that stylize it, and this kind of approach characterizes much of his conducting in these selections.

Likewise, Barak’s aria “Sie haben es mir gesagt” from the first act of Die Frau ohne Schatten benefits from a discrete orchestral accompaniment. In this excerpt the baritone Joseph Herrmann is particularly clear, and the choral passages contain a resonance that sometimes escapes earlier recordings. This excerpt also shows a subtle shift in the dynamics of the accompaniment that emerges well in this transfer. It is a poignant moment in the opera, and Herrmann’s final phrase sets up the final orchestral gesture.

Similarly, Torsten Ralf’s recording of the “Falke” scene from the first act of Die Frau ohne Schatten is essentially an extended scene for his character of the Kaiser. In this recording the orchestral colors are distinctive, with the interplay between the upper woodwinds and the solo cello. Again, Böhm offers a fine pacing of the music, such that its lingering quality underscores the meditative nature of the scene in which the Emperor invokes the falcon-spirit and reveals to the audience more details of the plot. Ralf’s tenor sound is appropriate to the character both in terms of range and strength. His upper range is nicely rich and, again, works well with the cello music that crosses the vocal line in the same register.

The other two operas sampled in these recordings include Arabella, another work in which Strauss draws on Viennese culture for his setting and plot. Margarete Teschemacher and Christel Goltz play, respectively, the title character and Zdenka, and their interpretations are worth hearing. As with the music from Der Rosenkavalier, the voices seem quite close to the microphone and while that alters the kind of balance found in modern recordings that capture more the sense of the ensemble from farther away in the room, the acoustic allows modern audiences to hear the timbres of the voices clearly. With Daphne, these recordings brought to a wide audience music from a relatively recent Strauss opera. Represented by three excerpts, it is, perhaps, the last, the transformation scene of the title character, which conveys the style of work well. In that one, Teschemacher offers a touching vocal characterization of Daphne, with Böhm’s leadership allowing the orchestra to emerge subtly as the accompaniment depicts her metamorphosis into the shrub that bears her name.

In general, the sound transfer is quite good, with minimal hiss or distortion. Some extraneous sounds emerge from time to time, with the most prominent in the seventh track. Those unfamiliar with some of the recordings of his works that exist from Strauss’s lifetime may wish to hear this fine selection. Beyond the choice of music, the singers represent some of the finest of their generation and give evidence of the quality of singing found in German opera houses in the 1930s and 1940s, voices that Strauss also had in mind as he composed his late works.

James L. Zychowicz

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