, March 2005
"In its time Strausss Salome has attracted more than its fair share of scathing criticism. The nastiest opera in existence was the comment of a music writer for The Times of Richard Strausss Salome. Newman described it as a marvellous study of a diseased womans mind.
Controversy always seemed not far away for any work adapted from Oscar Wilde and scandal followed scandal into the opera house. However, betrayal, eroticism and a gruesome death have been an almost customary ingredient in opera since the time of Monteverdi. In this adaptation, we witness a magnificent characterisation of Herods neurasthenia; the inertia, fatigue and undue irritability throughout the opera. This is contrasted with the noble dignity of John the Baptist. The work does not derive from Schopenhaurean philosophy; sex is portrayed as a struggle of power between the eponymous Salome and her stepfather Herod. Few music-dramas generate so great an erotic sensuality as in the Dance of the Seven Veils; the finest portrayals are almost visual in their rhythmic imagery; listen to the appendix performance of Fritz Reiners Boston musicians. Yet the ultimate sensuality arrives when Salome sings to the head of John the Baptist I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan.
Naturally, controversy attached to both stage performances and record productions. Among the most legendary of historical recordings are those featuring the Bulgarian singer Ljuba Welitsch. In her 1944 Vienna rendition under Lovro von Matacics baton, she attained an unequalled degree of intensity, and in 1949 set down the complete final scene with the Metropolitan Opera under Fritz Reiner. The first commercial recording on LP appeared from a Dresden source in 1948 under Joseph Keilberth featuring Christel Goltz as Salome.
Decca produced their first setting of Salome in 1954 using Vienna forces under the great Clemens Krauss, one of the most gifted conductors of the day and an accomplished interpreter of German and Viennese classics. The Decca recording superbly engineered by the magnificent recording producer Victor Olof also featured Goltz as Salome. Her partners were amongst the leading soloists of the Vienna Staatsoper of the period. The tenor Julius Patzak proves an unequalled Herod, giving a supreme characterization of this complex, difficult role, Patzak’s ‘acting’ of the part can almost be heard on this recording and he is always musical in his interpretation. The baritone Hans Braun, always reliable and constant in his singing, sings the central part of Jokanaan. The great Yugoslav tenor Anton Dermota is Narraboth and offers a fine, passionate characterization. A great bonus to this recording taken from a Vienna Staatsoper production is that all the secondary parts are assumed by distinguished singers; bass Ludwig Weber as the First Nazarene, tenor Murray Dickie as the Fourth Jew, the bass Walter Berry as the Second Soldier. This superb production held sway until Decca decided to make a stereo re-make some eight years later under the redoubtable John Culshaw of ‘Sonicstage’ fame.
How does this reissue of the 1954 Vienna Salome match up?
First, it must be pointed out that Decca’s artistic policy followed upon successful operatic productions which had already achieved critical success in the theatre. Whilst this often produced a convincing triumph in the studio there were occasionally problems in that not all dramatic singers could readily adapt to the lengthy and tiresome recording practice. Others, particularly those in their late careers - Christel Goltz is a case in point - allowed tiredness to be discerned. It could be argued that Decca may have attained a greater success if they had resolved to hire the best singers for the leading role. Should Welitsch have been offered the part? This would have been a greater achievement .No one has characterised the leading role of Salome better. Who could portray Salome’s eroticism and passion through the microphone as could Welitsch (witness the extract from her 1949 setting with Fritz Reiner). Ljuba Welitsch makes the listener believe she is Salome. Naxos also give us several other performances of the soprano part: Emmy Destinn, 1907, Göta Ljungberg, 1929, Marjorie Lawrence, 1934.
The supreme glory of this set is the magnificent playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Krauss. He controls his ensemble with a tight grip and determination and sustains the dramatic force of the score from the deliberate beginning to its appalling conclusion. The conductor passed away just a few short months after completing this recording, a grievous loss for the music world. One is left to wonder what other great recordings he would have made had he lived into the stereo era.
This is highly recommended to anyone interested in 20th century opera, not least for the added bonus of the rare historical recordings worth the price of this Naxos set alone."