Now available in a super-bargain "Brilliant" label, this is the earliest of seven recordings of this titanic - some would say overblown - opera with which I am familiar and by no means the least, despite a few drawbacks.
Although it is a live performance from 1963, it is in excellent stereo sound with an occasionally audible prompter, some slight crackle and pre-echo here and there, not too much coughing until Act II and the singers only occasionally going off mike or crowding to the left of the aural picture. The sound of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, in particular, emerges as warm and detailed. Keilberth's masterful conducting, close to Karajan's for sheer beauty, is apparent from the extended orchestral interludes; they play Barak's love theme with ineffable tenderness and passages such as the long cello and violin solos (the former inexcusably cut from Sinopoli's otherwise superb account) are intensely moving. True, the horns tire towards the end but this is live, after all.
There are cuts, pretty much standard practice in most performances as this work proves unwieldy and prone to longueurs on stage. In principle, I can tolerate this, especially if I appreciate that I am listening not to a studio recording but to the record of an entertainment devised for the pleasure of a live audience; however, after a few permissible snips mostly to the Nurse's role, the excisions in the last Act are savage, losing nearly a quarter of an hour's music compared with the full score that Solti and Sawallisch give us in their studio recordings. The confusions and misdirections of Act III are considerably simplified to allow the production to concentrate on the main focus of the drama: the Empress's epiphany - although her spoken passage and even the Emperor's song on awakening from petrifaction are heavily cut. Furthermore, most of the cuts help Martha Mödl to get through her role as Nurse; despite her dramatic intensity and ability to suggest that character's innate depravity, by this stage of her career she is struggling with a pronounced beat in her voice which worsens as the evening proceeds.
Hans Hotter, too, has a touch of wobble but brings great, hieratic authority to his role - again cut - as the Spirit Messenger and the cast in general consists of first -rate singers, although, as ever, I have my reservations about Fischer-Dieskau simply having enough voice to fulfil the demands of the part. Still, he is in his best period before greyness crept into his tone and although he is no Walter Berry or José van Dam he avoids sounding too windy up top and creates a really human Barak. The two soprano leads are stupendous: Bjoner starts quietly and delicately but grows in stature and she rises nobly to find enormous intensity and power for her last great scene, her voice becoming increasingly penetrating and powerful; Borkh is similarly vibrant and intense; using her quick vibrato to colour her tone and permit her to encompass both the biting scorn and the anguished penitence required of the Dyer's Wife. In many ways, she reminds me of Deborah Voigt's equally convincing performance for Sinopoli. Jess Thomas is in finest voice as the Emperor, only the merest hint of bleat occasionally creeping in to disrupt his line; he is exceptionally powerful and tormented in his "Falke, Falke" outburst when he believes he has been betrayed by his wife.
For a recording over fifty years old, cuts and all, this remains a splendid introduction to an opera which requires some forbearance for its length and convolutedness but remains enormously rewarding as long as one buys into the underlying philosophy regarding the fulfilment of marital love in fecundity - and although this might not be a first recommendation, at Brilliant's prices anyone can afford to experiment.
This is a great recording of a very well represented opera. Warm and transparent, Maestro Keilberth lets the singers breath with an understated accompaniment. Sits well with my other versions, but if this is your first it can stand alone in your collection, it is that good. Might look for the one on DG if you need the libretto.
This recording is thankfully available at super budget price on the Brilliant label. However even at full price it would constitute a "must buy" for fans of either the tenor Jess Thomas or dramatic soprano Inge Borkh. They sing their hearts out (an English reviewer on the night, and what an evening it must have been at this official inaugeration of the refurbished and rebuilt Munich Bayerischer Staatsoper, making it the most up-to-date and flexible opera house in the world at the time, wrote that Thomas seemed ill at ease in his costume but nevertheless completely filled the house with his youthful strong voice) and all the set piece arias and duets are totally convincing and thrilling. Thomas, Borkh, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Ingrid Bjoner sing with clarity and project their roles with an emotional intelligence simply not present in other dvd and cd versions. In fact, the Gramophone judged Borkh's performance as the Dyer's Wife the best on record both vocally and in terms of her intense commitment to the role. To my mind this opera demands four great soloists who blend both vocally and dramatically, yet each singer must be a super star in their own right: in this recording you have that perfect ensemble! And with Hotter and Modl also in the cast...how cool is that!
Keilberth was by this time in his prime as far as musical theatre and his supervision of the cuts to this performance was in my opinion well judged and the results totally logical. The original finale is long winded and dilutes the dramatic climax of the work. Keilberth therefore speeds this great performance to an entirely satisfactory conclusion.
Sound quality is very good, and if you are familiar with the Bayreuth live recording of Jess Thomas in Parsifal, it's about the same. In other words there is a good sound with the singers playing their parts and moving about between and front and rear of the loudspeakers. Audience noise is completely absent. --were they spell bound by this great performance? I always am when relistening to it. You will be too. Unreservedly recommended by somebody who has listened to most if not all of the rest.
If this is the live recording from the re-opening of the Munich Opera House in 1963, this is my favourite recording of my favourite Strauss opera. Of course I also consider Böhm's version great, especially because of Nilsson, King and Berry, but I find Rysanek's Empress not very pleasing to the ear...
However in Keilberth's version the Empress is Ingrid Bjoner in her prime, with great sense of drama and soaring high notes. Also Fischer-Dieskau is a wonderful Barak, as well as Inge Borkh and Jess Thomas as die Färberin and the Emperor. An extra bonus in this recording is Martha Mödl as die Amme, a very dramatic and at times almost grotesque interpretation of this suspicious character.
Sound wise it's one of the better live recordings, full stereo, and not too much of a cold epidemic in the theatre...
And the opera in itself? As close to Wagner as Strauss ever came, this is GRAND opera, only for grand singers and grand conductors!
I bought this on a whim as I love the piece and didn't know the recording other than by repute. It is the one made at the 1963 re-opening of the Munich State Theatre.
It's a really good buy. Yes, the orchestra is a little behind the singers who are favoured in this 'live' recording but that 'live' quality creates an energy and commitment that sweeps you along - Keilberth is certainly no slouch, although he allows some some exquisitely refined solo playing by the violin before the Empress Act 111 Scena. There are some pretty severe cuts I believe (I'm working without a score but even I noticed that the end of the opera is severly curtailed and I noticed other passages, such as the Solomon passage, to be missing) which will probably offend the purist more than the general listener. Even so the performance runs to over three hours.
I grew up on Inge Borkh's Turandot so it is an especial thrill to hear here in a core Strauss role here. She rises effortlessly to the terrifying demands of this role on a solid core of silvery, thrillingly projected sound and catches a terrific range of moods too. It's an over-worked adjective, but "stunning" comes to mind. Opposite her, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings with sensitivity and beauty as Barak, with all the inherent simple nobility of this lovely character, the only one in the piece to have a name rather than a character description.
Those Wagnerian veterans Martha Mödl and Hans Hotter aren't easy on the ear as The Nurse and Spirit Messenger (indeed, much of Mödl's singing especially on high is really ugly) but there's authority and projection of text to spare.
Neither Ingrid Bjoner nor Jess Thomas has a voice of ideal quality, she is inclined to unsteadiness, he to bleakness of tone, but they have authority and commitment as well as the necessary stamina to confront the murderous tessitura.
I'm sure there are greater audio thrills out there and, if you haven't heard her, do try to hear Leonie Rysanek as the Empress especially in one of her 1950's performances before the tone became too thick as she had a rare identification with this role, but anyone wanting to get to know the work could do a lot worse than this (as long as they can track down a libretto elsewhere) whilst for the lover of historical performances there is much to enjoy too.
Above all, the majesty and thrill of Strauss' and von Hofmannstahl's most elaborate project comes across very clearly.