24 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – ELEKTRA & All-Strauss Concert (R. Pauly, C. Boerner, E. Szánthó, J. Huehn, F. Jagel; Immortal Performances IPCD 1045-2)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - ELEKTRA (Immortal Performances IPCD 1045-2)RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): [1] Elektra [abridged]—Rose Pauly (Elektra), Charlotte Boerner (Chrysothemis), Enid Szánthó (Klytämnestra), Julius Huehn (Orest), Frederick Jagel (Aegisth), Abrasha Robovsky (Der Pfleger des Orest); Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York; Artur Rodziński, conductor; [2] Elektra [excerpts from the Metropolitan Opera première]—Gertrude Kappel (Elektra), Göta Ljungberg (Chrysothemis), Karin Branzell (Klytämnestra); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Artur Bodanzky, conductor; [3] All-Strauss Concert—Rose Pauly, soprano; New York Philharmonic; Sir John Barbirolli, conductor; [4] ‘Allerseelen’—Rose Pauly, soprano; Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, conductor; [5] Die Ägyptische Helena [selections]—Rose Pauly, soprano; Berliner Symphoniker; Fritz Busch, conductor; and LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): [6] ‘Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’ from Fidelio—Rose Pauly, soprano [Recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on 21 March 1937 (Elektra 1); Live performance, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, on 3 December 1932 (Elektra 2); Concert, Carnegie Hall, 27 February 1938 (All-Strauss Concert); Ford Hour, 20 February 1938 (‘Allerseelen’); Berlin, 1928 (Die Ägyptische Helena); 9 November 1927 (‘Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’); Immortal Performances IPCD 1045-2; 2 CDs, 150:47; Available from Immortal Performances]

There are in the hearts and minds of every opera aficionado ​fabled ​performances that true believers would trade almost anything to hear and own​ on competently-mastered recordings. For some, the elusive trove contains the complete Brünnhilde and Isolde of​ Maria Callas and the La Scala Fedora with ​la Divina​ and Franco Corelli that conventional wisdom imparts must have been recorded by someone. Others long to hear in sonics worthy of the voice the Kundry of Kirsten Flagstad. For this writer, a particular unfulfilled desire is to hear the complete 1935 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Verdi’s Aida with Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, and Carmela Ponselle. Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances are in the business of making dreams such as​ these come true. Scouring ​public and private ​collections in pursuit of the finest source material available, Mr. Caniell unites mastery of the painstaking technological restoration of deteriorating media with pervasive passion for the music that makes his exhaustive efforts worthwhile. Equal parts detective, curator, advocate, and musical ​archaeologist​, Mr. Caniell devotes to performers of the past—performers whose work dwarfed that of many of today’s interpreters but whose legacies might otherwise be neglected or forgotten—the meticulous handling that they merit. His endeavors are rightly models of their kind; models that most other individuals and labels are too greedy, hurried, or inexperienced to emulate. The present release, dedicated to the music of Richard Strauss, is nothing short of sensational. By peeling away decades of sonic grime without damaging the singular ambience of the original recordings, Mr. Caniell enables today’s listeners to appreciate not just the artistic standards of a bygone era but to contemplate the triumphs and failures of the intervening years.

The ​extraordinary raison d'ê​tre for this release is Kammersä​ngerin​ Rose Pauly.​ Born in Eperjes, Hungary in 1894 [eminent writer London Green asserts in his excellent essay about the soprano accompanying this release that ​Ms. ​Pauly was born in 1895, but most sources—including the biological sketch also included in the liner notes—cite the year of her birth as 1894]​, she débuted in Vienna in 1918 as Desdemona, the first Verdi rô​le in a repertory that eventually included Lady Macbeth, Aida, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, and Eboli in Don Carlo. Otto Klemperer brought her to Berlin in 1927 to sing Leonore in a legendary production of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Kroll-Oper, where she also first sang the title rôle in Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Her gallery of Strauss portraits was gradually expanded with interpretations of the name parts of Salome and Die Ägyptische Helena—both represented in this Immortal Performances release—and both the Kaiserin and the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten, as well as the less-familiar rôle of Christine in Intermezzo, all of which she sang under the baton of Clemens Krauss. In addition to creating the rôle of Marie in the Viennese première of Berg’s Wozzeck, she cited Mozart’s Donna Anna and Janáček’s Jenůfa as two of her favorite parts and was celebrated as an unusually sympathetic Turandot. Reputed to have had an active repertory of more than sixty parts, some of which she knew in multiple languages, Ms. Pauly was an acclaimed Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, Ortrud in Lohengrin, Venus in Tannhäuser, and Kundry in Parsifal who, unlike many singers with similarly-scaled vocal endowments, possessed sufficient cognizance of her own voice and temperament to avoid Isolde and the Brünnhildes. It is known that Strauss himself regarded her as a vocal and dramatic phenomenon, and the performances on this pair of discs confirm the validity of the composer’s assessment. To an extent, Ms. Pauly might be said to have combined the best qualities of several of her successors in Strauss repertory: Varnay’s stamina, Nilsson’s security, Borkh’s crisp diction, and Schröder-Feinen’s intensity. Having settled in Palestine after the end of World War II, Ms. Pauly reminisced in 1965—a decade before her death—about both her experiences in Strauss repertory and those with the composer himself. Of Elektra she said, ‘Dissonant? Taxing? Yes! But it is a masterpiece filled with moments of sublime beauty!’ She is one of the few sopranos ever recorded in Elektra’s music whose singing of the part is also filled with moments of that sublime beauty.

Elektra was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera on 3 December 1932. Over the course of the 1932 – 1933 Season, the opera received five more performances, in which Strauss’s powerful score was partnered first with Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino and then with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci! The first-night cast featured conductor Artur Bodanzky pacing Gertrude Kappel as Elektra, Göta Ljungberg as Chrysothemis, Karin Branzell as Klytämnestra, Rudolf Laubenthal as Aegisth, and Friedrich Schorr as Orest. Disappointingly, none of the recorded excerpts of the first performance preserve samples of Schorr’s singing. Elektra was not broadcasted again until 1952, when Schorr had been gone from the MET for nearly a decade. The brief selections from the MET’s inaugural Elektra suggest that the performance, while well-prepared and undeniably exciting, paled in comparison with the performances in Carnegie Hall slightly more than four years later. Ms. Kappel, whose MET début in 1928 was as Isolde, is an Elektra of granitic solidity but little flexibility. The finest singing is contributed by Ms. Ljungberg, who also sang Sieglinde to Ms. Kappel’s Walküre Brünnhilde, and Ms. Branzell, who was a stalwart of the MET’s German wing for a quarter-century.

The 1937 Carnegie Hall Elektra with Artur Rodziński leading the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York is as legendary as any performance in the modern era, its significance not only to the Strauss canon but to the broader history of music in the Twentieth Century rivaled only by the premières of Strauss’s operas and the débuts of standard-setting Strauss interpretations like Maria Cebotari’s Salomé, Irmgard Seefried’s Komponist, and Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin. First heard at the Metropolitan Opera in 1932 (as represented above), Elektra was still an infrequent, controversial visitor to New York at the time of the abridged concert performance preserved here. Assessing contemporary press response to the concert, some of the most insightful of which is reproduced in Immortal Performances’ liner notes, it is no exaggeration to state that this and the two further performance​s with the same forces​ provided American audiences with the proper introduction that the MET performances did not manage to achieve.

It was as Elektra​ that Ms. Pauly débuted at the MET, where she went on to sing Ortrud and Venus. At Carnegie Hall, the performing edition proceeded from the crashing opening statement of the Agamemnon motif directly to Elektra’s monologue, ‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein.’ Allying verbal clarity with a piercing but unfailingly beautiful timbre in a stupendous account of the music, she succeeds as almost no other soprano recorded as Elektra in making the cumulative impact of Hofmannsthal’s words as great as that of Strauss’s music. She rises to the top B♭ at the zenith of the phrase ‘die beiden Augen weit offen und ein königlicher Reif von Purpur ist um deine Stirn’ with silk-clad steel, and her top C on ‘die um sein hohes Grab so königliches Siegestänze tanzen’ is unforgettable, an expression of the character’s insurmountable anguish in a single note. Responding to Ms. Pauly’s fiery singing, soprano Charlotte Boerner (1900 – ?) proves a memorable Chrysothemis, following Ms. Pauly’s scorching singing of Elektra’s monologue with a soaring, womanly performance of ‘Ich kann nicht sitzen,’ the security of her top A♭s propelling her performance to a deeply-felt delivery of ‘Mit Messern gräbt Tag.’ The chilling Klytämnestra of mezzo-soprano Enid Szánthó (1907 – ?) is introduced by an aptly exasperated ‘Was willst du? Seht doch, dort!’ Ms. Szánthó’s three appearances at the MET were as Fricka in Die Walküre and Klytämnestra opposite Ms. Pauly—a performance in which Elektra was paired with the MET première of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amelia al ballo—in 1938 and Erda in a tour performance of Das Rheingold at Philadelphia’s American Academy of Music in 1939. Whether her Fricka and Erda equaled her Klytämnestra cannot now be ascertained, but the stinging irony of her articulation of ‘Ich habe keine guten Nä​chte’ in this performance, her low A♭ a primal groan, assures her place among the greatest interpreters of Strauss’s music. The Recognition Scene reunites Ms. Pauly’s Elektra, whose declamation of ‘Doch ich! doch ich! da liegen, und zu wissen, dass das Kind nie wieder kommt’ gleams, with the Orest of Julius Huehn (1904 – 1971), the Massachusetts-born baritone whose MET performances of Jochanaan in Salome and Fanninal in Der Rosenkavalier were admired both in New York and in stops on the national tours. Though he sang the title rôle in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi on evenings when Ms. Pauly sang Elektra opposite Friedrich Schorr, MET audiences never heard Mr. Huehn’s Orest. His interactions with Ms. Pauly in this Carnegie Hall performance are breathtaking. His aristocratic phrasing of ‘Lass zittern diesen Leib!’ and ‘Der ist selig, der tun darf!’ makes an indelible effect. He, the little-known Abrasha Robovsky as der Fleger des Orest, and the excellent, now underappreciated American tenor Frederick Jagel (1897 – 1982) as Aegisth hold their own in competition with their female colleagues, but this was—and, thanks to this release, is—Ms. Pauly’s show. In the final minutes of the performance, her singing of ‘Ich habe ihm das Beil nicht geben Können!’ and the bracing ‘Agamemnon hört dich!’ is wondrous. The opera’s apotheosis has rarely been more cathartic. Mention must be made of the fine playing of the Philharmonic musicians and the poetry of Maestro Rodziński’s conducting: none of the score’s violence is neglected, but the waltz rhythms that dance throughout the opera are gracefully sprung.

The New York Philharmonic performance of Strauss’s symphonic poem​ Don Juan from the Carnegie Hall concert of 27 February 1938, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, should be required listening for all of today's conductors who ​sacrifice passion in pursuit of perfection. Maestro Barbirolli was a demanding conductor, of course, but also one whose goals were founded upon a desire for complete realization of a score rather clinically flawless execution of the notes. His reading of Don Juan is truly a character portrait as Strauss intended it to be, the contrasting passions of the music more apparent than in most performances in digital studio sound. Similarly, his performances of the Lieder ‘​Verfü​​hrung’ (Op. 33, No. 1)​ and ‘Gesang der Apollopriesterin’ (Op. 33, No. 2) and the thrillingly lurid final scene from Salome with Ms. Pauly are true collaborations. Bolstered by the fine playing of the Philharmonic and Maestro Barbirolli’s intuitive mastery of Strauss’s multi-textured orchestrations and lush harmonies, Ms. Paul’s singing bridges the distance of time compellingly. Indeed, as remastered by Mr. Caniell, the only real indication of the vintage of these performances is the fact that they are sung so unaffectedly. Even when impersonating the legendarily wanton Salome, Ms. Pauly finds the voluptuous allure in the music and wraps her voice around it: she is an impetuous but intelligent and surprisingly sexy Salome. Having every note of the music in her voice, she draws the listener into her obsession, transforming the girl’s unfulfilled lust into a deeply human desire for connection. Though Classically-poised in the tradition of the great Eastern European singers of the Nineteenth Century, Ms. Pauly’s is, from a psychological perspective, an unexpectedly modern Salome: vocally, not even Cebotari and Welitsch sang the opera’s final scene more impressively. The programme of the Carnegie Hall concert of 27 February also included Till Eulenspiegel, a recording of which sadly has not been unearthed. With glories such as those on Immortal Performances’ disc restored so devotedly, this is truly a case of beggars having no right to be choosers.

Ms. Pauly’s performance of the orchestrated version of ‘Allerseelen’ with the Detroit Symphony and Fritz Reiner, taken from a Ford Hour broadcast of 20 February 1938, is a marvel of phrasing and the now-endangered art of coloring the voice without distorting vowels. Even more remarkable are the excerpts from Die Ä​gyptische Helena recorded in conjunction with the opera's première in 1928. The opera’s first performance was sung by Elisabeth Rethberg, but subsequent performances and the première recording were entrusted to Ms. Pauly. She, the Berliner Symphoniker, and Fritz Busch reach considerable heights of eloquence in ‘Bei jener Nacht’ and Helena’s awakening from Act One. Ms. Pauly’s singing of the passionate ‘Zweite Brautnacht!’ from Act Two is magnificent, the eruption of erotic energy introducing an electric charge into her vocalism without upsetting the placement of tones. Maestro Busch paces the Funeral music with obvious understanding of the music’s structure. Recorded on 9 November 1927, Ms. Pauly’s account of Leonore’s aria ‘​Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’ from Beethoven’s Fidelio is an apt companion to her Strauss performances: the fluidity of her singing reminds the listener that former generations of great dramatic voices were often nourished on diets of music of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Flagstad sang Händel and Gluck; Nilsson sang Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber. Ms. Pauly was an accomplished Mozartean and Rezia in Weber’s Oberon. Her singing of ‘Abscheulicher’ is the work of a singer who clearly recognized that, musically, Leonore and Elektra are sisters, not mere distant relations.

There are defects in the original recordings that even Mr. Caniell’s near-miraculous work could not completely eliminate, but the selections on this release are laudably clear, free from distortion, and correctly-pitched. The performances deserve nothing less. With well-written, genuinely informative liner notes by bona fide connoisseurs whose knowledge of the performers, the composer, and the music is drawn from experience and careful research rather than from hasty perusal of Wikipedia articles, these Immortal Performances discs offer today’s listeners an unparalleled opportunity to hear Elektra and other works by Richard Strauss as though for the first time. Each listener must ultimately form his own opinions of Rose Pauly’s Elektra, but this release enables Twenty-First-Century ears to hear both the singer and the character as Strauss himself knew them.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ROSE PAULY, Elektra at Carnegie Hall in 1937 [Photo by World Wide Studio, © The Metropolitan Opera]Rose ever blooming: Soprano Rose Pauly, Elektra at Carnegie Hall in 1937 [Photographed as Elektra at the time of her Metropolitan Opera début in 1938 by World Wide Studio, © The Metropolitan Opera]

This review is dedicated to the memories of contralto Maria Radner and bass-baritone Oleg Bryjak, tragically lost in the Germanwings airline crash whilst en route to Düsseldorf following engagements as Erda and Alberich in Wagner’s Siegfried at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.