Reviews

GHCD 2213/14 – ELEKTRA – R. Strauss – Varnay – Mitropoulos – 1949

New York Philharmonic Orchestra – Carnegie Hall, Dimitri Mitropoulos – Conductor, ASTRID VARNAY -Elektra , ELENA NICOLAIDI – Klytemnestra, IRENE JASSNEER – Chryusothemis, FREDERICK JAGEL – Aegisthos, HERBERT JANSSEN – Orestes, MICHAEL RHODES – Attendant of Orestes,, MIRIAM STOCKTON, EDITH EVENS, ELINOR WARREN, BEVERLY DAME – Four Handmaidens

To the CD in our Shop


Gramophone August 02

A superb souvenir of Varnay’s Elektra at her prime – and some tempting extras

Elektra was one of Astrid Varnay’s great roles, but she never recorded it commercially. Now, however, we have at least three live recordings, of which this is the earliest; among the others are a splendid German radio production from 1953 (Koch -Schwann) and a disappointing Salzburg Festival account with Karajan from 1964 (Orfeo). At Carnegie Hall on Christmas afternoon (!) 1949 she was in flawless, fearless voice and working with a conductor of towering eloquence and urgency. The result is electric and often almost unbearably tense, but by no means lacking in subtlety or tenderness (the Recognition scene is movingly expressive). Elena Nicolaidi’s Klytemnestra is one of the best-sung accounts on record: she never spits or snarls, and often persuades you that she was beautiful once, probably not long ago. Irene Jessner is an excellent Chrysothemis, much lighter-voiced than Varnay, convincingly the younger sister, but well able to hold her own in the penultimate scene.

Chrysothemis, however, is the character most affected by the cuts in this performance: two quite short, the third enormous, nearly 60 pages of orchestral score. The second scene between EIektra and Chrysothemis is entirely removed, partly in order to provide an interval! A normal recording of Elektra lasts about 100 minutes or a little more; this one runs for 88. Still, this provides room for a generous supplement of arias from Varnay’s other repertory, of which the most interesting are two substantial scenes (20 minutes in all) from Simon Boccanegra. Guild gives no details of date or conductor, but I think I can help: Metropolitan Opera, 1950, the conductor Fritz Stiedry. Tucker and Warren are both in fine voice and Varnay adds a touch of Italian warmth to her heroic gleam. This is not always true in the seven studio recordings of arias, with a not very good orchestra conducted by her husband Hermann (not Herman nor Herbert, as the booklet renames him) Weigert. As Agathe, Reiza and Senta the voice is grand, full and firm, but there is too much metal to it for Santuzza or Manon Lescaut, especially in a recording which adds a fierce glare to her tone.

Because the Koch-Schwann account is complete it should take first place among Varnay’s Elektra recordings, and Guild’s version is better at rendering singers’ voices than orchestral detail. But the chemistry between Varnay and Mitropoulos is quite extraordinary, and her voice in 1949 was at its freshest. At the price, owners of the Koch-Schwann might well spoil themselves by acquiring the Guild as well.
Michael Oliver


Classical Music on the Web June 02

Bargain price

In the recorded history of Elektra, this set would appear to represent something of a dream team, combining as it does the talents of arguably the opera’s greatest protagonist and conductor to date. Despite Birgit Nilsson’s subsequent ownership of the role for a decade from the middle of the ’60s onwards many still regard Astrid Varnay as the ultimate Elektra. This is with good reason, to judge from the several recordings left to us: under Reiner in 1952, Richard Kraus in 1953, William Steinberg in 1956 and Herbert von Karajan in 1964. This set is now our earliest available documentation of Varnay in the role, from a concert performance given on Christmas Day 15 years before that Salzburg Festival appearance with Karajan. It’s worth noting the technical infallibility and vocal stamina one would need to sing this role over a period of 15 years, let alone to do so with such terrifying confidence.

This broadcast is also the earliest account I know of the score from Dmitri Mitropoulos; though I’m acquainted with performances from Florence in 1951 (Anny Konetzni) and Vienna in 1957 (Inge Borkh), I believe there to be several others. Messy ensemble for the opera’s opening ‘Agamemnon’ motif doesn’t get the opera off to a promising start, but Elektra’s opening monologue ‘Weh, ganz allein’ finds Varnay tempering Mitropoulos’s tendency to press ahead with icily powerful blasts of tone. This broadcast catches her in excellent voice, although in later years her characterisation of the part would deepen. For Mitropoulos too, impetuosity is the dominant feature here: the opening of Klytemnestra’s scene is too fast for full menace to register. As Richard Caniell points out in some notes that are nothing if not personal (‘the legendary 1949 broadcast… Varnay has never sung better than this, before or since… Orestes is the name of her sanity’ are some of the more debatable pronouncements) Elena Nikolaidi does better than many Klytemnestras in actually singing the part rather than spitting it. Irene Jessner gets around the notes but doesn’t invest them with the womanly allure offered by Karita Mattila (in recent memory) or Leonie Rysanek for Kraus. Mind you, she doesn’t get much chance to make an impact. There is a pause after Klytemnestra’s scene, possibly occasioned by the demands of the radio broadcast or a Christmas Day audience. It resumes with Elektra catching sight of the shadow in the doorway which is eventually revealed as Orest. Poor Chrysothemis’s second scene therefore is entirely cut and with it that creepy passage where Elektra casts an insinuating eye over her sister’s voluptuous body, ripe for motherhood, as Chrysothemis laments the lack of boyfriend material around the house of Atreus (can you blame them?). The other parts are fair, nothing more, though it’s a pity Guild couldn’t find out who half of them were.

The sound and playing under Kraus in studio conditions remain preferable. The WDR orchestra sounds far more amenable to the score’s extravagant demands than the reportedly recalcitrant New York Philharmonic, which in any case never took to Mitropoulos’s driven intensity. Varnay doesn’t quite go for broke on her opening entry as she did in 1949, but she builds the role with a slow-burning vengefulness that reaches its peak as Elektra scrabbles in the ground for the axe which Orest will use to murder their mother. She frequently seems to enjoy and benefit from Kraus’s more measured tempos with greater accuracy of intonation and more surely drawn phrases. But no one quite pulls the score round like Mitropoulos. Despite the fast tempos, his knowledge of the score pays dividends at moments of otherwise bewildering complexity like the arrival and departure of Klytemnestra where he is unmatched at drawing out the music’s strands. He can also stretch the big moments to realise perfectly the score’s unsettling combination (often simultaneous) of lyricism and violence, notably at the gloriously OTT conclusion, as Elektra dances herself to death. The Vienna performance from 1957 finds Mitropoulos in far more contemplative mood, dwelling on phrases more and spotlighting motifs from within the orchestra. If only the sound were not so crumbly this would be far more recommendable. The Florence version is likewise sonically inferior, though the faults are quite different; where the voices veer in and out of recession in Vienna, the Florence version is in a disconcertingly vivid electronic stereo, the focus of which wanders across the sound stage and makes me feel seasick when listening on headphones. This is a pity, because the orchestra is again extremely incisive and gutsy. Konetzni’s overcooked Elektra also disappoints.

The bonuses on Guild (Varnay in Senta’s ballad, bits and bobs from Boccanegra, Ballo and Herodiade inter alia) and Gala (substantial chunks of an Act I of Rosenkavalier with Varnay as the Marschallin from the Met with Reiner in 1953) are both appealing. Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren partner her in the two extracts from Act I of Boccanegra to especially thrilling effect, (and Weber’s Ozean, du Ungeheuer receives as full-on a performance as I’ve ever heard). If a partial version of Elektra doesn’t bother you, this set certainly offers a white-knuckle 90 minutes and a valuable chance to hear Varnay in full flight.
Peter Quantrill


Classical Music on the Web – Thursday May 02 02

Elekra is the opera chosen for inclusion in the second tranche of this series. Even more extreme in its orchestral texture and dissonances than the composer’s Salome, the opera is very much an acquired taste. Richard Caniell, progenitor of this series, and to whom I owe an apology for misspelling his name in some of my reviews of the first four issues in the series, provides a detailed and informative essay on the opera itself and performances in the post-Second World War era. Particularly, he puts into perspective both the anticipation, and realisation, of this 1949 performance given to a packed Carnegie Hall on, of all days considering the subject matter, December 25th. Mitropoulos’s searing account of the score is the stuff of legend and can be heard in all its vitality in good sound. Regrettably it is not textually complete. With several excisions it lasts 91 minutes.

The name part of Elektra is sung by Astrid Varnay. It might be said she was to the Richard Strauss-Wagner repertoire what Callas was to the belcanto-ists and Italian romantics. Flawed vocally, in the purest terms, but one never left the theatre other than having been fully involved in her interpretation. She always gave 100% and then some. So it is here. Nicolaidi is a little stately as a Klytemnestra who, as Caniell notes, sings rather than merely declaims her lines. Janssen is imposing, if a little dry compared with his younger self. The other parts are all at least adequately taken, with some contributions inspired by the occasion and the conductor.

The recording derives from line transcription discs which, whilst having been subjected to restorative techniques, have not been filtered of grit or ticks (not that there are any particularly intrusive ones) in order that the orchestral and vocal overtones are not lost; nor is any electronic reverberation added.

There is 58 minutes of Varnay in a variety of arias ranging from the showpiece from Oberon, via Senta’s Ballad and Voi che sapete to extracts from Boccanegra featuring Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren. It is to be regretted that these 1950 Boccanegra extracts are in poor sound and the Met audiences infuriating habit of applauding at inappropriate moments disturbs the impact. However, in today’s era when singers have clearly defined fachs, It is awesome that this account of Varnay’s Amelia comes eight years after her Met debut as Sieglinde (and which she followed six days later with Brünnhilde) and whilst she was singing the heaviest dramatic roles at the Met, Bayreuth, Florence etc. For those interested in the evolution of operatic singing, these tracks alone are worth the bargain price of this issue.

Strauss lovers will already have either, or both, Solti’s or Sinopoli’s versions. They shouldn’t hesitate to add this version and then, as the examiner might say, compare and contrast. I say also enjoy!
Robert J Farr

Strauss lovers shouldn’t hesitate to add this version and then, as the examiner might say, compare and contrast. I say also enjoy! …