This recording reminds me of those architectural structures where no expense was spared in every aspect of the design and production of the structure. That is, right up to the point where they ran out of money and tried to do sad patch job to finish or fix it without acheiving satisfying results. Both stunning and sad.
This recording appears to have just such contradictions. Conducting that is both exceptional and at times oddly slowed down as if to fill a time slot rather than playing all of the music. Of all of Strauss' opera's this is my favorite and I've attended every performance that I could possibly get to. It seems that the most popular recording is the Solti. While several others come higher on other lists, I've noticed that the Solti is most frequently rated 'best'. This is not without cause. I have three favorite recordings of this. Sawallisch conducting the Symphonieorchester Bayerischen Rundfunks with Cheryl Studer, René Kollo et al. is my favorite for several reasons. For one, it's the only truly complete recording I know of and also it's orchestrally accurate in using an actual glass harmonica, which Sinopoli does, in fact, use as well for the appearance of the shadow rather than a vibraphone or some other substitution. The first recording I'd ever hear was the Christal Goltz recording with Bohm at the helm. Flawed but dear to me for simply being the first I heard (and therefor 3rd place.) Solti comes in second with probably the best overall vocal performances but the orchestra which is rich and big and precise, still lacks the detail of Symphonieorchester Bayerischen Rundfunks under Sawallisch, particularly in the numerous lightly orchestrated sections though-out the work. I should point out that this opera (not this recording) is one of my favorites in all of the opera canon so my familiarity with it is extensive.
Sinopoli often audibly hums along. Not painful or truly destructive, it just occasionally sounds distracting, and originally, I thought there was something wrong with the recording. The places where Sinopoli slows the pace almost painfully is really annoying. The reveal of the Kaiser turned to stone should build tension rather than make you feel like saying "Good Lord, just get on with it!" The cuts throughout are at times the ones one expects in live performances, but really shouldn't have been done with a recording like this. A personal favorite moment of mine is the 2nd act "O Tag des Glucks" ensemble and that is often cut as, sadly, it is here. The cuts towards the end are really unnecessary. Perhaps there was a gun to Sinopoli's head. Perhaps someone at Teldec said "If he keeps up this pace we're going to have to make this a 4 disc set." Voigt performed this differently when I saw her, so I don't know if she changed her performance dramatically for Sinopoli or grew into it. Musically, she's great as is most of the ensemble, but the vocal acting leaves something to be desired. Heppner is just as good as I hoped he'd be.
This is a recording that I will listen to occasionally, because each time I listen to it, I get my hopes up because of a beautiful moment only to have them dashed a moment later.
One last note about the cuts. There I times when the cuts are so poorly chosen, it almost sounds as if the cut was done in the editing room and not by the orchestra. They are that musically jarring at times.