The Expressionist cacophonies of "Elektra" are not for everybody but even relatively conservative operaphiles like me can find themselves absorbed and fascinated by it. Alongside the shrieking excesses may be heard all kinds of subtleties when Strauss opts to forego using one of the biggest orchestras in opera and employ reduced forces. Still, you won't find yourself whistling many of the tunes apart from the three-note - or four-note, depending on how Strauss uses it - D-A-F-D motif that opens, recurs throughout and closes the opera: "A-ga-mem-non!"
The sound is so good on the re-mastered tape of this Westdeutschen Rundfunks studio recording made in Cologne in 1953 that one quickly forgets this is mono; indeed, in sonic terms alone it can compete with and surpass live stereo recordings from the 50's; there is no hiss and remarkable depth of sound for mere mono. Unfortunately, there are some cuts but what remains is compelling.
Add to this Astrid Varnay's Elektra, malevolent, huge-voiced and laser-accurate with very little of the scooping which sometimes marred her line, and you have a recording to be reckoned with. I know nothing of the conductor, Richard Kraus, but he directs a powerful, deliberate, strong-limbed account of this terrifying opera and the Cologne Radio Orchestra sounds very competent, too, although they are recorded rather distantly, the voices being very forward.
The young Leonie Rysanek, eventually no stranger to the eponymous leading role herself, gives us an intense Chrysothemis, typically slightly husky and cloudy-voiced in the middle of her range but with great thrust and power; this is not the shrinking Violet sister we sometimes hear but a desperate, hysterical woman.
Res Fischer is a dark-voiced, tortured, slightly matronly Klytämnestra who does not exaggerate but still conveys the character's paranoia through her detailed enunciation of the text; her "sleepless nights" monologue is eerily haunting. All three leading ladies have big, juicy, penetrating voices able to pierce Strauss's denser orchestration - although much of the time there is that chamber-music quality which Kraus's clear, unmannered presentation renders as oddly and perversely beautiful.
Smaller roles are very persuasively sung; Hotter as Orestes is wonderfully sepulchral, although having one of his hoarse-hay-fever days; he presents a really imposing presence whose arrival and gnomic pronouncements intensify the pall of foreboding hanging over one of opera's most dysfunctional households.
Obviously the classic analogue stereo version by Nilsson and Solti, and the two digital recordings by Sinopoli and Sawallisch, will provide more aural thrills but admirers of Varnay and Rysanek in particular will want this.