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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome (1905) – Final Scene; Dance of the Seven Veils
Cäcilie, Op. 27 No. 1 (1894) [1:58];
Wiegenlied, Op. 41 No. 1 (1899) [4:18]
Ich liebe dich, Op. 37 No. 2 (1896-8) [2:13]
Morgen! Op. 27 No. 2 (1894) [3:45]
Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1 (1885, orch. 1940) [1:35]
Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)
Mefistofele (1868) – Prologo in cielo [25:22]
Montserrat Caballé (soprano: Strauss)
Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass: Boito)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Gumpoldskirchner Spatzen
Orchestre National de France (Strauss), Wiener Philharmoniker (Boito)/Leonard Bernstein
rec. May, 1977, Maison de la Radio, Paris (Strauss); April 1977, Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (Boito) ADD
Track listing & notes; no libretto
ELOQUENCE 476 2467 [66:32]

Given that we have just recently lost Montserrat Caballé and this year is the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, it seemed appropriate to revisit these two collaborative projects recorded over forty years ago and first favourably reviewed on this site in 2005.

These recordings with two star singers were made within a month or so of each other but in different locations; they make a pleasing coupling, even if there is nothing particular to link them beyond the presence of a great conductor. Caballé had made a superb, complete recording of Salome with Erich Leinsdorf ten years earlier and Ghiaurov was to record Mefistofele successfully with De Fabritiis a few years after this, but the scenes here are also highly attractive, as the extreme theatricality of both Salome and Mefistofele ideally suited Bernstein’s histrionic gifts. Furthermore, as he made no more than a handful of studio opera recordings, these excerpts become all the more valuable. The five orchestrated songs by Strauss are a welcome bonus, even if the absence of texts compromises the listener’s enjoyment.

Caballé’s early experience singing in German opera houses helped her to cope with the language even if she is not entirely idiomatic and the slight edge in her tone under pressure helps convey the hysteria of the teenage Salome and Bernstein secures riveting playing from the French orchestra, alternately spiky and lyrical, as Salome veers between erotic ecstasy and shrieking despair. She is able to draw upon a surprisingly trenchant lower register as well as launch laser-bright top notes – and of course some lovely, floated pianissimi of eerie beauty. The crescendo accompanied by timpani at around thirteen minutes in, just before Salome dreamily muses upon the bitter taste of Jokanaan’s kiss is certificate X horror; then the sweeping grandeur of the passage depicting her triumph before her precipitate death showcases the emotionalism and impact of Bernstein’s conducting style. I wish a tenor could have been drafted in to exclaim Herod’s ""Man töte dieses Weib!", too.

Salome’s Dance is taken slowly and languidly; Bernstein milks its slinky, swooning three-quarter-time measures then builds to an electrifying climax underpinned by the conductor’s exhortative grunts.

The luxuriance of Strauss’ orchestration is carried over into the introduction of Cäcilie and the grand scale of Caballé’s vocalism matches it, contrasting with the delicacy of her manner in the ensuing song, Wiegenlied. The brief Ich liebe dich could not be more extroverted or grandiose in its delivery; it’s pure Wagner; Morgen is sung in a completely different, simple, straightforward manner. Finally, Caballé sings Zueignung, in a shining, full-throated voice, putting the cap on a lovely sequence of favourite songs.

The Heavenly Prologue from Mefistofele is always overwhelming when well performed, and the excellence of the combined choirs and orchestra operating under Bernstein’s unerring sense of the dramatic ensures that it makes its mark. Ghiaurov’s bass is perhaps intrinsically too noble a sound to portray Mefistofele ideally; we need something of Siepi’s growl and snarl, but he is in majestic voice and relishes the sardonic humour of the demon’s observations.

The cherubic choir is especially winning but the choral singing in general is thrilling; the sopranos’ final top B rings out splendidly, reinforced by thunderous timpani, a shrieking piccolo and actual recorded thunder.

The analogue sound in both locations is first-rate, although I would say that the Strauss is closer, stronger on detail and more obviously multi-miked, whereas the Boito is fuller and more resonant, as perhaps fits the music concerned – although elements such as the harp’s arpeggios still emerge cleanly and the distancing of the celestial brass choir is perfectly judged.

This issue will have a general, wide appeal to admirers of Bernstein, the singer soloists and the two operas in general; it is wonderfully satisfying and entertaining.

Ralph Moore

Survey of recordings of Mefistofele

Previous review: Colin Clarke



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