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Richard Strauss: Elektra [Hybrid SACD]
Richard [1] Strauss, Semyon Bychkov, WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln
Richard Strauss: Elektra [Hybrid SACD]
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (21) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (15) - Disc #2


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An Above-Average Performance of Strauss' Dangerously Hypnoti
Joseph Newsome | NC, USA | 02/01/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"First, it seems that this is being marketed as a 'live' recording drawn from concert performances. The limited technical information provided in the booklet which accompanies the set rather evasively notes the time and place of recording as merely '2004, Philharmonie Köln.' The comments from Maestro Bychkov reproduced in the booklet imply studio conditions, however. Whatever the circumstances of the recording of this set, I find the balance excellent and the overall sound to be of demonstration quality. There are occasional moments in which the soloists, all of them, are temporarily lost within the fabric of the sound, but that is not uncommon in recordings (to say nothing of staged performances) of this score. In short, I hope that no audiophiles such as myself will be put off from acquiring or listening to this set owing to the questionable provenance of the recording sessions.

The WDR Rundfunkchor and Sinfonieorchester Köln are on splendid form, playing and singing better than on Bychkov's recording of DAPHNE for Decca. Their performances on that set, tailored to the abilities and disabilities of its leading lady, are conscientious and quite capable without challenging the conventional wisdom that for musically superior playing of Strauss one must look to Dresden or Vienna (though, in my oft-expressed opinion, the Vienna forces have been in decline during the past decade). In ELEKTRA, however, Bychkov's Köln forces are altogether in their element, so to speak, and provide playing and singing worthy of comparison with the greatest of their rivals past and present. The great climaxes are explosive and hair-raising without being garish, and the final scene is both pulse-quickening and cathartic without descending to pageantry. It is an impressive achievement, and praise is due to Hänssler for capturing it so faithfully.

Personally, I have found Bychkov's operatic work inconsistent. His celebrated YEVGENY ONEGIN recording is, to me, far more valuable for its wonderful singing (Foccile, Hvorostovsky, and Shicoff) than for its conducting, which in my opinion lacks shape and propulsion. The aforementioned DAPHNE suffers from a seeming failure to see the score as an immense, scintillating paragraph rather than as beautiful but disjointed phrases (a comment which I make being mindful of having recently listened to Böhm's 1964 Wiener Festwochen recording with Güden, King, Wunderlich, et. al.), but in fairness one must concede that Decca's DAPHNE was in both inception and execution inherently a 'diva record' and that Bychkov's work was secondary. There is much is his conducting of this ELEKTRA that I like, though. This is very much 'Bayreuth bel canto,' owing perhaps as much to the specific abilities of the cast at hand as to Bychkov's personal interpretation, with the vocal lines shaped in a manner which invites verbally-inflected, accurate singing. Bychkov manages to convey every emotional peak and valley of the work, however, and I find his subtle approach both refreshing and completely effective.

Of Deborah Polaski it must be said that the voice, as recorded at least, is no longer an especially ingratiating instrument, but it is secure and equal to the role. Certainly, this Elektra lacks the power of Nilsson or Borkh, but Polaski compensates with very careful attention to note values and the dynamic indications in the score. There are not many efforts at coloring the voice, but the vital emotions are all there: rage, insurmountable anxiety, utter loss, vulnerability, dissociation, alienation, and ultimately exuberance. There is not a great deal of power or easy resonance in the extreme upper register, but at least in passages such as the great opening monologue ('Allein! Weh ganz allein.') one does not fear that the notes will not be there. In the end, I find Polaski's performance a considerable success and a worthy addition to a sparse discography stretching back to her wonderful Dolly in Wolf-Ferrari's SLY from Hannover.

I recalled when listening to this performance the frequent criticism of Felicity Palmer during her tenure with Harnoncourt's early 'period practice' experiments owing to her whitened tone. Such criticism seems altogether confounding when one hears this Klytämnestra. Palmer's voice is unquestionably smaller than what one associates with the role, but she brings the performance off smashingly. As she reminded audiences with her smoldering Countess in the MET's PIKOVAYA DAMA a couple of seasons ago (quite the most vocally impressive performance of the production despite the presence of Domingo and Dalayman), hers remains a very potent voice, and she provides a Klytämnestra of epoch proportions, all the more menacing for having a smaller sound. It is a memorable performance that, like the sound in which it is preserved, is on an order to be played as a guide to the written letter of the part, both vocally and dramatically.

Considering her past engagements and one production with the Royal Opera in particular, Anne Schwanewilms' Chrysothemis likely cannot avoid comparisons with Deborah Voigt's famous interpretation as given at the MET (one of her first great triumphs, both in the house and on a telecast) and recorded for Sinopoli and Deutsche Grammophon. Schwanewilms' is a leaner sound (pun intended, but apt), less obviously bulky in tone but equally sizable and refulgent on top. Having the advantage of native German, she does not miss even the slightest of verbal felicities. She occasionally disappears -- more so than either Polaski or Palmer -- into the cacophony, but she retains a firm line throughout and sings with very dignified passion rather than the sort of hormonally overwrought desperation that often passes for stylish interpretation of Chrysothemis' situation (she is keen to get on with things as far as her love-life is concerned, but I hardly think that she is writhing in sexual frustration). Schwanewilm's voice as recorded has a brilliant cutting edge and she displays an innate intelligence as a performer that cause me to liken her to the young Silja, though more secure and far more beautiful in tone.

Neither of the principal male singers is up to much vocally. Graham Clark's Aegisth is pale but, after all these years at Bayreuth and anywhere else that gives DER RING, he sounds to the manner born. Franz Grundheber is miscast as Orest. He proved himself capable of fine singing even at this late stage with his Jupiter on cpo's LIEBE DER DANAE from Kiel, but he no longer commands the firmness of both line and utterance required for Orest. Nonetheless, it is not an altogether embarrassing or disfiguring performance, and in the end it does not impede enjoyment of the dénouement. Smaller roles are uniformly entrusted to very capable throats, the five maids especially having lovely voices.

In summary, this ELEKTRA is neither so blatantly powerful as Solti's Decca performance or so wholly right in shape and structure as Böhm's DGG recording, but I find very much to enjoy and think it a great achievement, significantly better than I had expected from a latter-day ELEKTRA."