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Richard STRAUSS (1872-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (1911) [196:56]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Marschallin: Sena Jurinac (soprano) – Octavian: Kurt Böhme (bass) – Ochs: Hanny Steffek (soprano) – Sophie: Ronald Lewis (baritone) – Faninal: Judith Pierce (soprano) – Marianne: Raymond Nilsson (tenor) – Valzacchi: Monica Sinclair (contralto) – Annina: Kenneth MacDonald (tenor) – Italian singer: Rhydderch Davies (bass) – Police inspector, Attorney): David Tree (tenor) – Marschallin’s major-domo, Landlord: John Dobson (tenor) – Faninal’s major-domo: Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Georg Solti
rec. Covent Garden Opera, London, 7 December 1959
PRISTINE PACO142 [3 CDs: 196:59]

This transcription of a BBC broadcast performance records the first performance at London’s Covent Garden (not at the time the ‘Royal Opera’) by Georg Solti (not at the time knighted), who was, a year later, to become the musical director of the company. It is also the first of his recordings of Der Rosenkavalier. There are two later live performances from Covent Garden, one in 1966 featuring Sena Jurinac as the Marschallin, and a DVD from 1985 starring Kiri te Kanawa; and of course his famous and luxuriously cast Decca studio recording made in 1968-69, which featured many erstwhile stars of the Vienna State Opera in minor roles. It appears that the Decca set is the only one of these, which gives us the score absolutely complete without cuts, but elsewhere Solti nevertheless does restore many passages, which other conductors over the years have excised. I have not heard the 1966 relay, which was issued on CD in 2009 by the ‘Opera Lovers’ label (presumably a pirated edition); the supposed date of the performance given by the company is incorrect, and I have not been able to trace any full-length review of the issue, although comments on the ‘Opera Depot’ site are generally complimentary.

Although it is interesting to hear Solti conducting the score in his early years (he did have plenty of previous experience in Germany before he came to London), it is not only in terms of recorded sound that this set is the weakest of the three I have heard, conducted by him. Actually the recorded sound is pretty good, even if the mono BBC sound is not of the clearest; there is plenty of body, and the strings in particular come across excellently. But the sheer element of exuberance, which one finds in the Decca studio recording and the later DVD performance (when he was returning to his old house after a break of some years, to a rapturous reception) is often muted; and in many other ways his interpretation changed little over the years. What does make this recording somewhat special is his collaboration with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, her last performance at Covent Garden of a role, with which she was particularly closely associated. The sense of stillness in the passage, where she sings of stopping all the clocks, is better managed in her recording with Karajan; but then at the end of Act One Solti allows her all the time in the world for her final words of reflection, and the result is overwhelmingly moving – matching in its emotional effect the closing bars in Solti’s performance with Kiri te Kanawa, where the singer is to be seen crying real tears. Another point where Schwarzkopf springs a surprise here is in her startlingly vicious comments on Ochs during her Act One monologue; this Marschallin is not simply a generous and understanding woman, but she has teeth too.

In many ways, too, the performance of the Covent Garden stalwarts in the multitude of minor roles is every bit as good as the stellar Vienna casting on the studio set. The latter famously featured Luciano Pavarotti as the Italian Singer, but here Kenneth MacDonald (an underrated singer who died relatively young) is every bit as good as Dennis O’Neill on Solti’s video, and reveals a plangent voice, which challenges many of his rivals on disc elsewhere. A decided cut above the average, too, is Ronald Lewis as Faninal; and Monica Sinclair as Annina manages her infamous two-octave upward leap during her scene with Ochs with a sense of triumphant style which many other singers might envy. Other members of the cast include Raymond Nilsson, Rhydderch Davies and John Dobson, a testimony to the company strength available at Covent Garden in that era.

Sena Jurinac was of course the great Octavian of the 1950s, and is heard here to as great effect as in her earlier studio recording under Erich Kleiber (still available on Decca, and absolutely complete, which means that we get the full measure of her Mariandel in Act Three). As a soprano rather than the more usual mezzo, there is never any danger of her sounding too plummy or too matronly – and she understands the text with a depth born of long experience. Hanny Steffek is a surprisingly forthright Sophie – she expands into, rather than floats, her high-lying passages during the Presentation of the Rose – and she is much more of a spitfire than Helen Donath or Barbara Bonney in Solti’s later recordings. The other import into the Covent Garden roster is Kurt Böhme as Ochs. Now, I have to admit to a real problem with this casting. He has all the notes – even a muffled low C at the end of the levée scene – but a good many of those he supplies are not those that Strauss wrote, even when he is not resorting to Sprechstimme, and his sense of timing is sometimes adrift as well. We have discovered in more recent years that a singer who gives us an accurate depiction of Ochs’s music need not thereby sacrifice characterisation – think of Kurt Moll or Kurt Rydl in later studio sets, for example – and although Böhme elicits laughter from the audience with his gurgled low E natural towards the end of Act Two, it is a vulgar effect. In his later years as director at Covent Garden, Solti turned to Michael Langdon as his principal bass in the role and secured a far more musical result. Böhme would clearly have been enjoyable on stage, and has a bumptious sense of humour; but for repeated listening the closing scene of Act Two and the first part of Act Three are a decided trial. This Ochs is no gentleman, and one suspects that even the social-climbing Faninal would have quickly recognised that fact when considering him as a prospective son-in-law.

And then in the final section of Act Three, Der Rosenkavalier works its unerring enchantment, and the combination of Schwarzkopf, Jurinac, Steffek and Solti conjure up the sense of bitter-sweet heartbreak that the score demands – and indeed commands. The three CDs come packaged in a separate pair of jewel-cases, and as usual with Pristine the booklet information is limited (no texts or translations). But this set is fully worthy of reissue, especially in refurbished sound of this quality; and many will wish to acquire it as a supplement to one of the more mainstream recommendations – if not Solti’s Vienna set, then Karajan’s or Haitink’s on EMI (the latter also complete). For those specifically looking for a souvenir of Solti in the theatre, the later DVD is probably more worthy of consideration; but the casting there also has some elements of weakness. It is nice of the cast listing to credit Leonard Law as Leupold, the Baron’s body-servant, but he doesn’t of course actually make any aural contribution to the proceedings. (There are no singers credited as the Animal Seller or the Milliner during the levée scene, as the relevant passages are excised.) Audience applause drowns out the final bars of Act Two, but they remain still and silent during the suspended contemplation at the end of Act One.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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