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Salome 1947 and 1949 | IPCD 1089-4
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Reviews for IPCD 1089-4


Bonus:Maria Cebotari sings arias by Mozart, Strauss, and Puccini, and duets by Puccini with Marcel Wittrisch; Ljuba Welitsch sings scenes by Strauss (Salome) and Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin)

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
November/December 2017

One could get into a truly silly argument as to whether the greatest Salome in the middle of the 20th century was Maria Cebotari or Ljuba Welitsch; it is as dumb as the arguments about who was “better,” Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi. This four-disc set (priced as only three, by the way) demonstrates the futility of that kind of discussion. Cebotari and Welitsch were both truly great Salomes, both deeply admired by Strauss himself, and both providing different but equally satisfying experiences with this difficult role. Both of these performances have circulated on a variety of labels; the Met itself has issued a reasonably good sounding Reiner/Welitsch Salome from 1952, but the deterioration in Welitsch’s voice makes this a much preferable version, especially now that Richard Caniell has restored it at a level infinitely superior to prior releases. The best earlier one was on the Guild label, overseen by the same Caniell, but he has improved on his own work here. The Cebotari performance is also legendary, though it must be admitted that even Caniell’s magic cannot remove compression and sonic limitations that were in the original. However, this edition is at a sonic level way beyond the predecessors with which I am familiar (Gebhardt and Legato) in terms of letting us hear the vibrancy of Cebotari’s voice. Her performance is listenable for anyone with a tolerance for historic recordings, and the Welitsch for anyone who can tolerate any good quality monaural recording. The two performances demonstrate why one should never use the word “definitive,” because both would justify that term despite their differences.

At the center of both performances are not only great sopranos, but great Strauss conductors. Both knew and worked with the composer, and both were admired by the composer. If one were to try to sum up their different approaches, one might say that Reiner is the more angular and incisive, Krauss the warmer and more richly colored. But those descriptions are inadequate to the range of both conductors. If you think of Reiner as a stern conductor who perhaps favored drive over sensuality, listen to his performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the 4:50 mark. The tempo is dramatically slowed, the string coloration is rich and luscious, and the subtle rubato is sensuality defined. As for Krauss, while he of course provides plushness and richness of color throughout, one might be surprised at the dramatic tension he builds up at the end of that dance. It is harder to appreciate Krauss’s conducting, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s gorgeous playing, because of the limitations of the original source of this recording. But Immortal Performance’s edition is in a whole other league than the Legato CD; it almost seems a different performance.

It becomes even more difficult to put into words the difference between the two sopranos, although when you hear the performances you intuitively get the differences immediately. Both at this stage of their careers were in very good voice (Welitsch’s deteriorated much too quickly), and both soar over Strauss’s orchestra with ease. Both voices have a shimmering glow at their core, and both women have remarkable abilities as vocal actresses. Listening to both of these performances critically was difficult. Both sweep you along and you start to put aside your critical faculties and become immersed in Strauss music-drama. I would say that Cebotari has the slightly lusher timbre and Welitsch the more brightly focused tone. And one would also observe that Cebotari makes her dramatic points through dynamic variety and inflection, whereas Welitsch more so through changes in vocal color. So Cebotari’s hushed “Es ist eine schreckliche Stille” (There is a terrible stillness) is a perfect example of her imaginative use of dynamic shading. And the huge range of vocal colors employed by Welitsch as she rages at Jokanaan’s head is a miracle of imagination. But if from that you would infer that Cebotari’s ability to vary her color is limited, or that Welitsch lacks subtlety in her use of dynamics, you would be wrong. Both sopranos maintain their vocal beauty and intensity through the length of the final scene, and both do it without sounding tired by the end. Quite simply these two ladies personified Strauss’s bizarre heroine in a way that no one since has managed. I have seen and heard many fine Salomes, and I certainly would not minimize for instance the vocal achievement of Nilsson in the role. But for complete ownership of this role, Cebotari and Welitsch simply provide a completeness of absorption of character that is unmatched. How wonderful that Immortal Performances has sonically restored these two performances and brought them together in one release.

One rarely purchases a Salome recording for any of the other characters; it is the soprano in the title role and the conductor who make or break the opera. But it is worth commenting on the other roles. The Covent Garden Vienna State Opera performance scores in the roles of Herod and Jokanaan. Jagel sings well as Herod in the Met performance, and provides reasonable dramatic inflection, but Patzak’s depiction of the crazed king is palpably real. He demonstrates a huge expressive range, from seductive to lustful to completely demented. Jagel cannot match this intensity, but he is more than passable. The two Jokanaans are closer; both are terrific musicians and good vocal actors. It must be admitted that Rothmüller, in the Cebotari performance, has the more sonorous voice and makes a somewhat greater impact because of that. On the other hand, Thorborg is by far the superior Heriodias. Höngen was ill and had lost her voice; no substitute being available she went on, speaking rather than singing the role. That she did so is surely to her credit, but it doesn’t make a gratifying listening experience in a recording. Thorborg is remarkable, making an impact in a role that often goes by without attention.

The bonus material is a joy. For the Cebotari Salome we hear Cebotari’s exquisite vocalism at its best in The Countess’s “Dove sono” from Il nozze di Figaro and in Donna Anna’s two arias from Don Giovanni. The coloratura in “Non mi dir” shows her pressing a bit, but the gloriously even legato and tonal beauty of the opening almost stops our breath. The two arias and duet that close the first act of La bohème with Marcel Wittrisch are classic 1932 recordings that have never sounded as rich and full as they do in this transfer. The sweetness of Wittrisch’s voice is an added pleasure. And the glorious recording that concludes the second disc in this set will long stay in the memory. Cebotari’s soars through “Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne auf Naxos, with rich, glowing tone. It is hard to believe that the recording was made seven months prior to her death in June 1949, at the age of 39, of cancer of the liver and pancreas! Cebotari was still singing staged performances 10 weeks before her death, until she collapsed during one. Only then did doctors discover the truth about her condition. She was still in what would be considered her prime years, and we should be grateful to Immortal Performances for this wonderful preservation of her art.

That sentiment applies equally to Welitsch. The bonus to her Salome is a studio recording of the final scene from that opera, made in 1944 with Lovro von Matačić conducting. As you would expect from a studio recording, Welitsch sings without the frantic intensity of the staged performance. It is beautiful and impactful singing nonetheless, and of course benefits from professional radio-studio broadcast sound. In addition, we get Welitsch’s classic recording of Tatiana’s “Letter Scene” from Evgeny Onegin. Welitsch is so closely associated with Vienna and the music of Strauss that it is easy to forget that her nationality is Bulgarian, and her comfort with the Russian idiom is complete.

The production values are up to the usual high standards of Immortal Performances. The booklet contains insightful, intelligently written essays by Dewey Faulkner and by Caniell himself. The Met Salome includes (separately tracked) opening and closing announcements with Milton Cross, bringing back lovely memories to all opera lovers of a certain generation. This is a very important release.


Bonus:Maria Cebotari sings arias by Mozart, Strauss, and Puccini, and duets by Puccini with Marcel Wittrisch; Ljuba Welitsch sings scenes by Strauss (Salome) and Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin)

Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
November/December 2017

A new release by Immortal Performances (four discs, priced as three) pairs two legendary renditions of Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Salome. First is a September 30, 1947 Covent Garden performance by the Vienna State Opera. The conductor is Clemens Krauss, not only one of the great interpreters of Strauss’s music but a man who collaborated with the German composer on many occasions, including the creation of the text for Capricci (Krauss also conducted that opera’s 1942 world premiere). We are fortunate that Krauss made several recordings of Richard Strauss’s music, including a brilliant series for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic. Decca has reissued all the Krauss-Vienna Philharmonic Strauss recordings as a five-disc set, closing with the 1954 studio version of Salome. It remains one of the preferred recordings of the opera. Both Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic are in magnificent form, offering a reading of Strauss’s orchestra score that is crystal-clear, elegant, and—on the many occasions when required—overpowering in sonic impact and intensity. The cast is a fine one, too. Cristel Goltz is somewhat past her prime, but remains a Salome to be reckoned with, both from a vocal and dramatic perspective. Two of the artists’ interpretations rank among the finest on discs—Anton Dermota’s gorgeously sung and heartfelt Narraboth, and Julius Patzak’s bone-chilling impersonation of Herod. The monophonic sound is excellent, if lacking the depth and warmth available from contemporaneous stereo recordings.

The recorded sound of the September 30, 1947 Covent Garden Salome, even in the vastly improved restoration by Richard Caniell, is markedly inferior to the 1954 studio recording. Nevertheless, it is a performance that commands attention and indeed is one of the great realizations of the work. The compressed acoustics of the 1947 performance exact the greatest price upon the Vienna Philharmonic. Much of that ensemble’s legendary sound is masked by the broadcast transmission. But even through the sonic haze, it is clear that Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic are delivering a performance of hair-raising intensity, one that from a purely visceral perspective puts the wonderful 1954 studio recording in the shade. The performance of the Dance of the Seven Veils on the 1954 recording is first-rate, glowingly played, and with the kinds of wonderful hairpin turns of tempo and phrasing that are an aural depiction of Salome’s masterful seduction of Herod. But the 1947 version of this same music occupies another world entirely. Every phrase is played with a searing intensity and relish for the music that take my breath away every time I hear it. Two of the principal singers match this exalted level of achievement. Julius Patzak is here in even finer and fresher voice than for the 1954 studio recording. Patzak applies the care for detail of a great Lieder singer (which he was) to Herod’s text and music, without ever wanting the requisite vocal power and dramatic intensity. That intensity is at its height in the scenes for Herod and his stepdaughter Salome, sung in this performance by soprano Maria Cebotari.

Although Cebotari would die just two years later, a victim of cancer at the age of 39, she is here at the height of her powers. All of the many vocal hurdles Strauss placed before his lead soprano are surmounted not only with technical ease, but also with the kind of blooming, youthful soprano the composer so desired for this role. Cebotari, an extraordinarily beautiful woman with a spell-binding stage presence, was also a first-rate vocal actor. In this performance, she embodies every aspect of Salome’s dramatic situation and personality. To offer just one example, the contrast in vocal timbres Cebotari conjures to depict the contrast between Salome’s seduction of Herod, and her subsequent demand that the Tetrarch fulfill his end of the bargain by giving her John the Baptist’s head on a silver charger, is stunning. Cebotari throws herself completely into the role from the very start, perhaps raising concerns that she will not retain the necessary resources for the great final scene. No such concern is necessary, as she remains in glowing vocal form to the very end. The remaining principal singers are all quite good, although some will be put off by Elisabeth Höngen’s Sprechstimme approach to Herodias. But the contributions of Cebotari, Patzak, Krauss, and the Vienna Philharmonic are what make this document one of the greatest performances of Salome preserved on disc. My previous familiarity with this performance was via a CD release on the Legato Classics label. In addition to the compressed sound I previously mentioned, that release also suffered from harshness and breakup, exacerbated in louder passages. Richard Caniell’s restoration for Immortal Performances is a huge improvement. The sound is still well below studio recordings of the era, but the reproduction is now far better equalized, the harshness removed, and the sonic integrity preserved, regardless of the volume level. There remains some significant pitch fluctuation in the measures immediately preceding the Jochanaan-Salome confrontation, but I suspect there was nothing that could be done to remedy that defect. But, in short, Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances have converted a recording that was previously a chore to hear into one that allows us to experience a truly great and unique performance of Salome.

The Metropolitan Opera broadcast of March 12, 1949 has been available for quite some time, and in good sound (I own two priors issues of the performance, courtesy of Melodram and Guild). This has long been one of the most famous and treasured Met broadcasts, and justifiably so. On February 4, 1949, both conductor Fritz Reiner and soprano Ljuba Welitsch made their triumphant Met debuts in Salome, the second half of a twin bill paired with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Both Welitsch and Reiner earned rave reviews, and the broadcast audience waited for the opportunity to hear these electrifying artists. When the March 12, 1949 performance arrived, neither disappointed. Although Welitsch’s Met career and vocal prime were both short-lived, she is in magnificent voice for the broadcast. And what a voice! It is probable that no other soprano has sung the role of Salome with such assurance, power, dramatic intensity, and interpretive daring, all the while couched in a timbre that actually convinces as emanating from a teenager. Although Welitsch hardly looked the part of a lithe young girl, she was by all accounts an absolutely mesmerizing stage presence as Salome. The sound document is mesmerizing in its own right. From her agitated entrance to the ecstatic final bars, Welitsch embodies the role as few have. Like Clemens Krauss, Fritz Reiner was both a friend and great champion of Strauss and his music. Reiner, at the time of the broadcast between tenures at the Pittsburgh and Chicago Symphonies, was also one of the great opera conductors of his era. The sound quality of the March 12, 1949 broadcast allows us to hear the lovely, blended sound he elicits from the Met Orchestra, and the marvelous precision of ensemble. Often, Reiner adopts a lyrical and restrained view of the score, but that only makes the climactic moments all the more powerful. The orchestral peroration following the Salome-Jochanaan scene, the Dance of the Seven Veils, and the final scene all deliver profound impact without ever descending into bombast. Such genius was hardly lost upon the Met audience. During the curtain calls, the greetings for both Welitsch and Reiner are ecstatic.

The supporting cast is a strong one. The great Wagnerian contralto Kerstin Thorborg is an imposing Herodias, singing and acting with authority and chilling grandeur. Tenor Frederick Jagel does not bring Julius Patzak’s intensity and individuality to Herod (few, if any tenors do), but he sings very well indeed, and certainly understands the role and the dramatic situation. Herbert Janssen is a noble Jochanaan, who, typical of the German bass-baritone, brings a greater deal of warmth and sympathy to the role than is the norm. Tenor Brian Sullivan’s Narraboth is both lyrical and sung with admirable vocal security, if not much individuality of characterization. The 2003 Guild Release, which includes both the 1949 Gianni Schicchi and Salome broadcasts, offers detailed, warm sound, more than adequate to allow for complete enjoyment of the performances. However, the new Immortal Performances restoration of the Salome is even better, with greater detail, a wider dynamic range, and more impact. I think those who know this performance will be grateful for what Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances have achieved. Even those who don’t typically listen to historic/in-performance recordings will, I think, find this a highly satisfying experience, perhaps even a necessary part of their library as well.

The second disc of each Salome performance concludes with studio recordings of operatic excerpts, sung by Cebotari and Welitsch. In excerpts from La bohème, performed in German, Cebotari is joined by Marcel Wittrisch, a fine tenor very much in the Richard Tauber mold, but with a freer and more extended upper register. All of these studio recordings, previously issued on other labels, offer additional, welcome insight to the artistry of Cebotari and Welitsch. Dewey Faulkner’s essays on the performances, artists, and the history of Salome are beautifully written and highly informative. Artist bios and photos and Richard Caniell’s notes on the recordings round out the booklet. The two performances of Salome featured in this set are among the finest and most electrifying preserved on recordings. The new Immortal Performances release presents both in their finest sonic reproductions to date. Anyone remotely interested in Strauss’s Salome will want to add this set to the library.

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