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 Recording of the Week  Richard Strauss round-up

If I were asked to give a list of my favourite composers, Richard Strauss would undoubtedly be very near the top, and so I’ve been especially delighted by a few recent recordings of his music.

First is the latest release from LSO Live, with Valery Gergiev conducting one of Strauss’s early operatic masterpieces, Elektra. Based on Greek mythology, this unrelenting, one-act opera contains some of his most dissonant writing, and makes considerable vocal demands on its protagonists, not least upon Elektra herself, who is on stage for pretty much the entire two hours.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet

I hadn’t come across Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet before, but I loved her take on the title role. She sounds truly unhinged at times, and even in this concert performance I could feel her character’s torment. Fine support comes from Angela Denoke as Chrysothemis, and Felicity Palmer puts in a suitably malevolent turn as Elektra’s mother, Klytaemnestra.

I wasn’t present at the concerts from which this recording was taken, but by all accounts the Barbican stage was full to bursting, including such esoteric visitors as a contrabass trombone, bass trumpet, heckelphone and a pair of basset horns! If I tell you that the CD booklet lists some members of the string section as “First Violas doubling Fourth Violins” (not to mention the noble team of “Third Violas”), then you’ll get some idea of the huge forces required.

This is certainly the best-played Elektra I can think of, with blistering trumpets fearless in their high register, and much impressive detail in the woodwind. Regular readers of my newsletters (if indeed I can flatter myself that I have any) will know how fond I am of the sound of Wagner tubas, and one of my favourite moments comes as Strauss employs a quartet of these instruments to announce the appearance of Elektra’s long-lost brother, Orestes (here sung by Matthias Goerne in excellent voice). Gergiev really seems to appreciate the moment of calm that this interlude affords, taking his time and offering a welcome contrast to the tension that he brings out so well in the rest of the opera.

If all that murder and madness is a bit much for your tastes, then you may prefer a new recording of the Four Last Songs from German soprano, Anne Schwanewilms. If, like me, you have a soft spot for Jessye Norman’s recording of these songs, with her mellifluously creamy tone and expansive tempos, then Schwanewilms’s relatively steely sound may strike your ear as somewhat unusual, and I must admit it took me a while to ‘retune’ to her timbre, but once I had done so I really warmed to her approach.

Anne Schwanewilms
Anne Schwanewilms

The orchestral support from Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln is pleasingly sensitive, keeping out of the way when necessary, but also coming to the fore at appropriate moments such as the beautiful horn and violin solos in September and Beim Schlafengehen respectively. The end of the final song (Im Abendrot) – where the eighty-four year old composer quotes from a piece he had written sixty years earlier, Death and Transfiguration – is always a moving moment, and Schwanewilms’s account is no exception.

If that makes you want to hear what Schwanewilms can do with a whole Strauss role, then you’re in luck, as a production of Die Frau ohne Schatten from the 2011 Salzburg Festival, conducted by Christian Thielemann, has recently been released on DVD and Blu-Ray, in which she sings the eponymous role of the Empress.

This production doesn’t actually stage the plot of the opera as such, but rather presents it as a series of recording sessions. What this means is that the ‘action’ principally consists of technical engineers sitting at mixing desks or moving microphones and music stands around, with the singers mostly standing and singing from their vocal scores. It does make for an extremely static experience, and to be honest it didn’t really work for me. Judging from the loud booing that greeted the director, Christof Loy, at his curtain call, a fair proportion of the audience would seem to agree with me! Fortunately, though, the singing is consistently magnificent, and so you can just revel in a marvellous performance of one of Strauss’s most colourful scores. The opera is hardly ever performed, so if you don’t know it I hope that you’ll give it a try, as musically this is a ravishing account from start to finish, despite the staging!

Strauss, R: Elektra

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (Elektra), Angela Denoke (Chrysothemis), Dame Felicity Palmer (Clytemnestra), Matthias Goerne (Orestes), Ian Storey (Aegisthus), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Strauss, R: Four Last Songs

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Markus Stenz

Available Format: CD

Strauss, R: Die Frau ohne Schatten - DVD

Stephen Gould (The Emperor), Anne Schwanewilms (The Empress), Michaela Schuster (The Nurse), Wolfgang Koch (Barak, the Dyer) & Evelyn Herlitzius (Barak’s Wife), Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Salzburg Festival Children's Choir & Vienna Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann (conductor) & Christof Loy (stage director)

Available Format: DVD Video

Strauss, R: Die Frau ohne Schatten - Blu-ray

Stephen Gould (The Emperor), Anne Schwanewilms (The Empress), Michaela Schuster (The Nurse), Wolfgang Koch (Barak, the Dyer) & Evelyn Herlitzius (Barak’s Wife), Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Salzburg Festival Children's Choir & Vienna Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann (conductor) & Christof Loy (stage director)

Available Format: Blu-ray