Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Böhm’s Richard Strauss Opera Recordings

The composer that received the most attention in the Deutsche Grammophon retrospective box set Karl Böhm: The Operas is Richard Strauss. This did not surprise me when I first saw the announcement of this release. Indeed, because, as I have already observed, it was a PBS broadcast of Böhm conducting Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera that piqued my interest in Böhm’s work, Strauss’ presence as the “strong suit” had much to do with my deciding to write about this collection.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that this is not a particularly balanced account of the Strauss canon. It is definitely not a through account of the fifteen operas that Strauss published. Furthermore, among the operas that are included, two of them get multiple treatments. There are two recordings of Rosenkavalier, made in 1958 and 1969, respectively, and three of Ariadne auf Naxos (1944, 1954, and 1969).

The two operas in this collection that tend not to receive very much attention are Die schweigsame Frau (the silent woman) and the one-act “Daphne.” Die schweigsame Frau is the sort of item that would have been popular in trivia contests, when those contests were, themselves, popular. It was Strauss’ only partnership with Stefan Zweig, who wrote the libretto as an adaptation of Ben Johnson’s play, Epicœne, or The silent woman. “Daphne” was one of two collaborations with Joseph Gregor based on Greek mythology, the other being the even less-known three-act Die Liebe der Danae (the loves of Danae).

Interior of the Vienna State Opera (photograph by Morgaledh, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As one can see from the Ariadne dates, these recordings cover a fair amount to time. The earliest is a concert recording of a performance at the Vienna State Opera on June 11, 1944, a time when Germany was slowly but surely losing ground on its Eastern Front. The latest is a studio recording made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. This is the only one of the three recorded under studio conditions, and I have to confess that it is the one I find most satisfying.

Anyone who has ever seen this opera in performance knows how much is going on up on the stage while the conductor is trying to pull everything together into a musical performance that is both coherent and compelling. The result is that, more often than not, the vocalists can only give their best account of Strauss’ demands when they do not also have to satisfy the demands of a stage director. Since the conductor must also bow to the will of the stage director, it is not that surprising that even the instrumental side sounds more coherent in a studio setting. Given how much attention Strauss paid to how he used his instrumental resources in this particular opera, appreciating the advantages of the recording studio is no small matter.

The fact is that this phenomenon generalizes beyond Ariadne. Strauss operas are at their best when the quality of the music can be appreciated through the qualities of the dramatic context. Indeed, there are going to be times when, unless one knows just what is happening up on stage, the music seems to come across as incoherent, if not senseless. (Thing of the pantomime that takes place at the beginning of the third act of Rosenkavalier.) In the context of what I have previously written about the recordings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner in this collection, some readers may deduce that, strictly on musical terms, Strauss never rose to the level of either of those two composers. As they say, if the shoe fits …!

On the other hand, for those with an opportunity to see one of Strauss’ operas performed with little experience of any of those operas, this is a useful collection. It allows the novice to get acquainted with the basic musical framework, and that almost always provides valuable orientation before one encounters what any stage director has decided to do with the libretto. Böhm’s performances tend to be consistently clear with a keen management of dynamic levels. As a result an opera like “Elektra” never sounds like an uncontrolled temper tantrum.

Also, I have to confess that this collection awakened many old memories of my own experiences in getting to know the Strauss canon. I remember seeing Tatiana Troyanos singing Octavian in Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera, as she does on the 1969 recording in this collection. Even at a distance I thought I could see the tears in her eyes when taking leave of the Feldmarschallin in the first act of Rosenkavalier. Even stronger was the memory of Birgit Nilsson singing the role of Barak’s wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow) during what I think was her final Met season (which would have been long after the performance at the Vienna State Opera documented in this collection). So, I indulge in a lot of selfish pleasures when I listen to this segment of the Böhm canon; but I also think there is much for others to enjoy as well!

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