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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1905)
Salome – Emily Magee
Herod – Peter Bronder
Herodias – Michaela Schuster
Jochanaan – Wolfgang Koch
Narraboth – Benjamin Bruns
Page – Claude Eichenberger
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
rec. live, Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 10 September 2016
PENTATONE PTC5186602 SACD [62:40 + 50:22]

This is a beautifully bloodthirsty Salome: not, perhaps, in the same league as some of the greats of the past, but it more than holds its own in the company of more recent recordings of the work.

Let’s start with the title role. Emily Magee has form in Strauss’s heroines – her Empress in Die Frau Ohne Schatten at Covent Garden was sensational – and she turns her hand to the murderous necrophiliac princess with gleeful success. The most interesting thing about her portrayal is its hard edge. There is a real glint of steel to her early scenes, so that you never get the impression of innocence or abandon. This Salome is a vamp, out to get what she wants, and nothing can stand in her way. That means that her seduction of Narraboth isn’t entirely convincing, and it adds another reason to why Jochanaan is repulsed by her; but it’s exciting to listen to, and reaches a climax when she summons up a grisly snarl at the end of Herod’s unsuccessful attempts to convince her to choose another gift. Paradoxically, but brilliantly, the sweetest, most innocent moment of her whole portrayal is the delightfully twisted moment where she first asks Herod for Jochanaan’s head: at this point butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and you sense her using her sexuality brilliantly to achieve her twisted ends. The long monologue of the final scene goes very well, and the final moment where she kisses the head is brilliantly grotesque. She may not have the steel of Nilsson or the girlishness of Studer, but her interpretation is special in its own way.

Wolfgang Koch makes for a vigorous, virile Jochanaan, but he also sounds a little weary, as though he has been round the block a few times and hasn’t really thrown his heart into it. I missed the vigour of Bryn Terfel (for Sinopoli) or of Michael Volle on DVD, but there is a booming grandeur to Koch that carries its own appeal. That’s also true of Michaela Schuster’s wonderfully waspish Herodias, a real drama queen who carries a charisma all of her own. Against this backdrop Peter Bronder’s Herod is a bit overwhelmed. He sounds a little strained where he shouldn’t be, and the cruel tessitura gives him no hiding place. However, he is convincingly lecherous when begging Salome to dance, desperate as he begs her to change her mind, and utterly defeated during the final twenty minutes. Benjamin Bruns’s Narraboth is so lyrical and convincing that you wish he had been given more to sing.

The real stars, however, are Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra, who play out of their skins and relish every luscious chord. The splendid recorded sound helps to ensure they never overwhelm the singers, but it’s their playing that’s the star, bringing out all the sensuousness of the score (wonderful in the long duet between Salome and Jochanaan), but also revelling in the opportunities for fireworks, especially in the beginning and end of the final scene with its bombardment of fortissimos. Orozco-Estrada also shows himself to be quite a master of how to pace the tricky arch of the score. The interlude between Jochanaan’s departure and Herod’s entrance is utterly captivating, and the Dance of the Seven Veils treads a fine balance between gory melodrama and seductive allure.

Solti’s classic Decca recording still retains the palm for sheer excitement and sonic spectacle, while Sinopoli’s DG recording has, on balance, the best singing cast. However, if, ultimately, this version is not truly great, it’s nevertheless great fun. Full texts and translations are included in the booklet.

Simon Thompson


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