I doubt that many of us have attended a performance of this work that was not cut, had reduced forces in the pit -or both.
In the Munich Strauss Festival of 1999, Sawallisch conducted it uncut as part of the anniversary celebrations during which all the operas were performed in their entirety-otherwise he too employed the "lesser cut version".
The issue of cuts in Strauss Operas is a vexed one, because Strauss himself, ever a practical man of the theatre, provided a list of possible cuts for many of his works-even Elektra which has potentially 18 cuts, some as little as 3 notes!
The complexity arises around the arbitrary way in which these cuts are applied-and other cuts which are made by producers and conductors but which are not on the Strauss list!
There are potentially over 30 cuts in FROSCH-some are whole scenes, some are 2 notes, with the result that one is never quite sure what is going to be performed.
The majority of available recordings is of live performances, and these are inevitably cut to some degree or other. One of the worst offenders in this regard is Karajan, who not only applies savage cuts but re-arranges the order of scenes to supposedly clarify the intractable plot, and both his live recordings thus fall into the curiosity bracket, for all their merits.
Another offender is Sinopoli, whose otherwise superb recording is marred by some truly damaging excisions, including the glorious cello solo before the Emperor's Act 2 scene where he confronts his "Falke."
Thus, when comparing this recording I have chosen as a comparison the only other truly complete version, also a " studio" recording, namely that conducted by Sawallisch and the BRSO to which I came belatedly, and to which I have awarded the highest praise in my review.
I do not propose to cover ground well trodden about the plot, or what the work's allegorical structure means-no-one has ever quite known, including Strauss and Hofmannsthal.
I am reminded of an interview with the late Reginald Goodall, who when asked what was the underlying meaning of Wagner's Parsifal replied that he had no idea-but when he was conducting it he understood it implicitly.
My reaction is the same when I'm listening to this work-such is the heady power of the music and text that I understand everything-in that moment!
This recording was the last great project in Vienna featuring the remaining members of the Culshaw team-indeed there was only a Zauberflote to come from Solti as a studio opera recording with the VPO.
It was a troubled project, justas its composition had been, and was made in 2 "chunks" in late 1989 and again in early 1991-not the ideal situation for producing a coherent performance. There were many reasons for the fragmentation, but surprisingly the death of Herbert von Karajan was one of them! He had asked for Solti to take over planning and musical direction of BOTH Salzburg Festivals, which Solti decided to undertake.
Himself a veteran, Solti nonetheless plunged into these tasks with his usual vigour, and this meant that his schedules had to be adjusted. This had the knock-on effect of other artists and the VPO itself becoming caught up in a crisis of unavailability which all but scuppered the project.
It would not be accurate to suggest that the performance sounds "bitty" as a result, for Solti's overall approach is such that this is not an issue-though for me it is a problem!
The recording was made in the beautiful Vienna Jugendstil building that is the Konzerthaus, Decca being deprived of its long favoured Sofiensaal which had become structurally unsound, and which subsequently burned down before restoration could take place.
The acoustic is much less " velvet" than the old venue, and the recorded sound is much more " punchy" and direct than on older recordings, an effect exaggerated by digital recording.
The effect on Solti of working with the CSO was to my ears far from a beneficial one in works like this.
With the CSO he was able to achieve the clipped, whip crack precision of the musicians playing exactly on his downbeat that he so craved, and which was a source of conflict between him and other orchestras, particularly the VPO which is arguably the "slowest" orchestra of all! As he grew older, Solti's frenetic energy came to be his interpretative default.
Solti blasts us with the opening chords, and then drives the music on relentlessly in his effort to elicit maximum energy and impact from each and every note.
There are one or two attempts at rubato-a concept otherwise unknown to Solti-but in the big one before the Emperor's Falke soliloquy it comes across as very deliberate and self-conscious. While this relentless approach works well in Elektra, and even his "straight" schmaltz-free zone of a Rosenkavalier works well on its own terms, in this work I find the relentless pounding debilitating, and I was glad to reach the end with my faculties intact.
Of course, the playing is superb-this is a different Decca sound with a heightened presence to the orchestral sound, glamourising the already glamorous to a level which is almost too over the top. The problem is that there too little light and shade, ebb and flow to bring out the true genius of Strauss's inspiration, and for this aspect I turn back to Sawallisch with relief!
Vocally, things are much better but not ideal. Varady is a sublime princess, richer toned than Studer and the equal of her and Voigt. Behrens gives us far away the best Mrs. Barak, wherein she matches the shrewish aspects with a sultry allure, a genuine erotic longing which totally escapes Nilsson!
I have read much carping about Reinhild Runkel's Nurse, and there are one or two moments of stretched resources which result in momentary wobble-but I have no complaints as she makes the character the duplicitous schemer that is intended. I like her voice.
Jose van Dam gives us the most beautifully refined Barak-almost too refined, for there is a lack of the slight gruffness that is surely part of the Dyer's character-but all is forgiven in van Dam's saintly portrayal, for even past his best his voice was a beautiful instrument.
There is luxury casting in even the small roles, with Sumi Jo an ideal Falke, a young Arnold Dohmen impeccable as the Twelfth Messenger, and Robert Gambill a fine "Young Man.
I have left the other big problem-for me at least-to the end.
Domingo's Emperor does not work for me on any level. It's not just the indecipherable German (is it German?), but more the swooning Italianate nature of the singing that seems to me misconceived.
There is a real sense of Domingo jetting in, doing his usual "Domingo sings..." act then jetting off later in the day (This is pretty much what happened by the way)
He hits all the notes without strain of course, and that is welcome, but I much prefer Kollo (who doesn't!), Heppner, King and best of all Seiffert on the Sawallisch DVD from Japan.
They are simply more idiomatic and totally inside the role.
This is not to suggest that there are not glorious elements to this recording-the final quartet is glorious for example-but Dr. Michael Tanner once wrote that Solti's Ring was the best for dipping in and out of, but was too wearing as a whole. While I don't quite agree with that assertion, I do feel it applies perfectly to THIS recording.
This review will not win me many friends on amazon I fear, and may even lose me some, but this is how I hear this recording now, after long acquaintance. The 24 Bit re-mastering, one of the earliest, heightens the forward presence and opens up more detail and the presentation is fine, still including an actual printed libretto.
If brilliant recorded sound is your main criterion, this is the set for you. If a fine recording beautifully played and which gets to the heart of the work with insightful conducting and fine characterization is your priority then I would advise the Sawallisch which is also cheaper, and has a DVD-Rom libretto.
The whole picture includes the cut versions of Bohm and Karajan, both times two, and Sinopoli- all of them are essential listening for lovers of this work. For this one-
3.5 Stars. Stewart Crowe.
on 24 October 2008
This glorious opera contains some of Strauss's very greatest, sumptuous and heart-warming music,superlativey orchestrated for a huge orchestra (too big for some orchestra pits) and fully matched by a great cast and the greatest post-war Strauss conductor.
The opera has been criticized for its obscure symbolism. I think it is enough to see its main theme as that of love, contrasting the Emperor and Empress's with that of the Dyer and his Wife, with true, self-sacrificing love winning in the end.
The sound recording is a triumph too - the balance between singers and orchestra is perfect with great depth to the orchestral sound, which is beautifully balanced and blended (Solti had his part to play in this as well, of course). Domingo sings with the most ardent, golden tone. José van Dam is another highly intelligent singer - intelligent enough, like Domingo, to be ready to learn from all Solti's experience of Strauss's music. Behrens and Varady both give deeply moving, empassioned performances, the latter's portrayal being a particular triumph.
A must-have which could never be outclassed.
For many people, FROSCH (FRau Ohne SCHatten - Strauss and Hofmannsthal's pet name for their project while writing it and meaning `frog') - is Strauss's greatest opera. It is certainly his most ambitious. He and his librettist, Hofmannsthal, thought it was their best work together and its claims are strong. At the last count, however, it must be said that it lacks the consistency of, say, the two one-acters, Salome and Elektra or the charm of Rosenkavalier. Nevertheless, it's still my favourite Strauss opera.
Hofmannsthal's libretto is dense, complex and prolix, too much so probably for an opera. Indeed, so taken was he with his work that he felt it necessary to write a prose work, known as the Erzahlung (Narration), to stand alongside the opera scenario, elaborate it and explain it - though it's questionable whether it really does add that much to our understanding. And therein, perhaps, lies the fatal flaw, for it is when the libretto is at its densest and most obtuse, when Hofmannshal starts `philosophising', that Strauss's music is at its weakest and most reduced to mere `note-spinning' as his wife, Pauline, called it. Poor old Strauss, God bless him, just couldn't keep up - or maybe he was just too much a man of the theatre to accommodate so much word-spinning.
For all that, the piece is still packed with glorious music, wondrous orchestration - with a huge orchestra often used with chamber-group delicacy - and a great sense of music-drama when called for. It is perhaps, Strauss's most Wagnerian work. Certainly the use of leitmotiven is the most complex and refined of any Strauss work. Like the Meister's own motifs, Strauss's are often very brief, just a phrase or even just a few notes in many cases. But they develop a life of their own, spawning other motifs and changing themselves to reflect the psychological development of the characters or to dramatically contradict what is being said. It is certainly a fascinating opera, both musically and dramatically.
And Solti on this recording believes the opera should stand or fall on its own merits. He is alone on disc, I think, in recording the score absolutely complete. All the cuts that are usually made in the theatre are opened out. These cuts have often been crippling, particularly to the Third Act. Here we have the crucial scene with the Amme in its entirety as she protests her self-righteousness and is eventually banished back to the world of men that she hates so much. Here also is the full melodrama as the Kaiserin reaches her father's inner sanctum with the long and sometimes awkward lines of spoken monologue, leading up to her final resigned `Ich will nicht' refusal to take up the errant shadow of the title. And Julia Varady shows herself an accomplished actor in delivering them.
Solti says in the accompanying notes, `Die Frau ohne Schatten has always been one of the greatest loves of my operatic life.' And it shows. He elicits the most glorious playing from the Vienna Philharmonic - from the weight of the Keikobad motif at the very start of the opera, the immense darkness of the `turning to stone' motif, the bold heroism of the Kaiser, the delicacy of the magical dawn that rises over the Kaiserin, the glow of the strings in the interlude depicting Barak's goodness to the quiet finale of Act 1 with the call of the Nightwatchmen. And that's just Act 1. The long cello solo before the Kaiserin's dream sequence and the solo violin as she enters the temple are both wonderfully played and the big Strauss orchestra in full cry in the final interlude is a joy to hear.
The cast, too, are very strong. Leonie Rysanek made the part of the Kaiserin so much her own for so many years that it comes as something of a surprise to hear the slightly lighter voice of Julia Varady in the part. But I'm convinced that this is more the voice that Strauss had in mind - she negotiates the coloratura passages with more delicacy and refinement but still has the range and the power for some of those hair-raising leaps. Behrens, as with everything this much lamented singer did, makes of the Farberin a highly dramatic character - not just an embittered shrew, but rising to real humanity and strength in the final act. Barak could have been the part for which Jose van Dam's ultra-smooth, light brown baritone was designed. And Domingo, needless to say, brings superb weight of tone and lyrical lift to the Kaiser - it is only the words that are at times a little vague: even he can make little sense of the Kaiser's impenetrable solo after he has been brought back to life. Reinhild Runkel is the one weak link in the chain. She has the voice for the Amme - right down to those scary low G's - but she never really penetrates the depths of this ambivalent character, perhaps the most psychologically demanding role since Kundry.
If only for its completeness, this set would be worth getting. But it is much more than that. As a labour of love from Solti's last years, it shines through as probably the most convincing and certainly the most gloriously played and recorded performance of this ever-fascinating opera.
This was one of the last big, expensive studio recordings from Decca and was beset by scheduling difficulties, hence it was stretched over several sessions in 1989 and completed in 1991. It is certainly the last studio recording made of this opera but many of the most recommendable accounts are live and this one does indeed suffer a little from that indefinable studio-bound quality which robs a performance of a sense of both drama and spontaneity and also, perhaps, the homogeneity of purpose which an on-stage cast feels and conveys to the audience. For me, the most enjoyable recordings remain the composite live one from Sinopoli in Dresden in 1996 and the 1987 studio recording from Sawallisch but this one still has many merits.
First, it is the most complete version available and in superb sound. The Barak is the noble-voiced José van Dam, beginning to sound just a little grey-voiced by this stage of his career but who sings as steadily as Walter Berry and whose still beautiful voice and seamless legato compensate for some lack of involvement. His wife is Hildegard Behrens, occasionally a little unsteady but large-voiced and deeply expressive, even if she does not erase memories of Nilsson and Ludwig in a role they both owned. I agree, however, with previous reviewer Stewart Crowe that she is able to suggest an erotic element that escapes Nilsson. The Empress is the slimmer Janowitz-Studer kind, being the unusually light, vibrant soprano Julia Varady, whose quick vibrato and penetrating tone gives her utterances real drama and urgency even if she cannot sing on the same scale as Rysanek or Voigt. It is slightly unfortunate that her sound should be so very similar to that of the lovely Sumi Jo, who is the Falcon. The Nurse is Reinhild Runkel, more than competent but hardly memorable compared with singers such as Hanna Schwarz or Grace Hoffman. Albert Dohmen makes a strong, resonant Spirit-Messenger.
For many the rub will be Domingo's Emperor. His German might not be very idiomatic with its soft consonants and the occasional Latin "e", but it is nowhere near as bad a some commentators would have you believe; he certainly encompasses the vocal demands of this killer role with some ease even if he tends to sound like Placido Domingo singing the role exteriorly rather than a singer-actor embodying it for us.
Solti clearly loves the score and has the VPO do his bidding, producing gorgeous tone and mostly playing in a very direct, precise manner, in accordance with the conductor's reputation; the recording acoustic matches his precision, being very clean and clear without much warmth but certainly conveying a sense of space. Solti's vision is one of drive, drama and momentum but the cello solo before the Empress's "Vater, bist du's?" is ravishing, as the soloist is given space. No recording of this opera can be a success unless the final temptation scene and concluding paean to marital love generate tension and it must be said that even if they do not quite emulate Sinopoli and Voigt, Solti, the VPO and Varady are superb together in the climactic "Ich will nicht" moment; Varady in particular is a riveting actress in her parlando passage which always gives me the chills when done properly. Unfortunately - and surprisingly given Solti's generally propulsive manner - the tension drops towards the end of the opera during the quartet; perhaps it was recorded in the later session after too long a gap, whereas Sinopoli just keeps cranking up to make an overwhelming impact.
Sawallisch remains the principal studio version and for me nobody beats Sinopoli's ability to create thrills in his live composite recording but I value Solti's account, especially for Varady, Behrens and van Dam and the beauty of the VPO.
on 25 July 2004
This recording is so nearly great, irritatingly so. The problem is the casting: Julia Varady is just perfect, singing like a true Empress throughout. The vulnerability is evident in the voice which the role demands, as well as the majesty that this mastersinger always brings to her work. Hildegard Behrens as the Dyer's wife is as perfect as ever, always enlightening and insightful, never just belting like Birgit Nilsson (with all due respect). Jose van Dam is simply unsurpassed as Barak, the Dyer. As the voice of the Falcon, Sumi Jo is the only exponent to sing this small part like a real role, rather than a bit part, which is so common in most performances nowadays; the voice always beautifully placed and sensitively sung.
The remaining principal cast are the problem. Reinhild Runkel as the Nurse is just to blowsy to seem menacing, not even coming close to Marjana Lipovsek at the Salzburg Festival (also for Solti, on DVD). The Emperor of Placido Domingo is awful: The once great tenor just sounds tired, his German is dreadful, unidiomatic and unstylistic. We really needed Thomas Moser here (from the same performance as Lipovsek).
As always, Sir Georg Solti is magnificent in Strauss, inspiring unequalled playing from great Vienna Philharmonic.
on 11 May 2014
A word to sum up this magnificent achievement, would have to be "superb". Many other positive superlatives would do of course. Just what Sir Georg has done is to take the reins out of the grips of Karl Bohm, dust it all down, readdress this serious opera, and to give it some welly. The orchestra here is so clear, and at appropriate times, very loud. The singers are of the top drawer. Hildegard Behrens ( never heard of her before) is brilliant. In another recording I have Birgit Nilson, but unfortunately this was 1977, and she wasn't top drawer. Domingo is like a reincarnation of James King. It all works. I am so pleased to have brought this recording as it has brought this opera to life. I can think of no reason why I might go looking for another recording of this opera when I have this one. I have tried to look for flaws, but they simply aren't there. A very enjoyable recording of one of Strauss's better operas. Though his best opera, is Daphne.
Comes well presented with a good thick libretto, and a special insert of Sir Georg on Strauss.
on 11 March 2014
THIS RECORDING IS VG APART FRM DOMINGO'S DREADFUL GERMAN .I CANNOT UNDERSTAND 80% OF WHAT HE IS SINGING WHICH IS A SHAME AS MOST OF THE OTHER CAST WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS ARE SPOT ON.I LIKE HILDEGARD BEHRENS.BUT I SAW EVA MARTON SING SEINE FRAU AND NO OTHER HAS COME CLOSE TO CAPTURING THE ESSENCE OF THE CHARCTER.I THINK THE MAIN PROB WITH THIS RECORDING IS THAT IT TOOK SUCH A LONG TIME TO COMPLETE STARTED IN MARCH 89 AND COMPLETED IN OCTOBER 1991.HOWEVER U MUST MAKE UP UR OWN MIND.
on 28 December 2016
Wonderful and inspirational. Warmly recommended.
on 9 July 2014
Good. As described.