This is the second of two super-bargain boxes so far issued on the Documents label. There are some ignorant and irritating low-star reviews of historical boxes from Membran by reviewers who either do not notice, fail to take into account or are simply too inexperienced as listeners to appreciate the quality and value of historical recordings packaged to allow anyone with a will to hear. In truth, the first box in this series is actually dire, but the performances here, both live and studio, represent some of the best Strauss singing from the 40's, 50's and 50's, all conducted by Karl Böhm.
Three of these four are elderly, live, mono recordings; only the stupendous "Elektra" is in decent stereo but the "Ariadne", despite being live mono, remains one of the best performed in the catalogue, the "Frau" is a mono studio recording and the earliest, 1944 "Daphne" is at least a radio broadcast - even if it would have been preferable if Documents had included the live, 1964 Salzburg Festival recording with Hilde Güden instead.
The cast of the "Ariadne" is extraordinary and headed by the wonderful Lisa Della. She is in the Janowitz mould: delicate, silvery, yet powerful when required. Irmgard Seefried is impassioned and touching as the Composer, Hilde Güden is pert and wonderfully fluid in Zerbinetta's coloratura, and Paul Schöffler suitably avuncular and rich-voiced as the Music Master. Once you have heard Ben Heppner as Bacchus in Sinopoli's modern set you are spoilt for any other tenor, but Rudolf Schock is more flexible and rounded of tone than he was for Karajan in the studio recording of the same year as this live performance and makes a very acceptable job of a difficult part with a killer tessitura; he is certainly the equal of James King for Kempe (another favourite recording). The trio of nymphs is of exceptional vocal quality; famous names here later graduated to bigger roles, including Rita Streich who sang Zerbinetta for Karajan.
Ensemble is pretty good for a live opera; not too many slips and much lovely playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. Böhm has a very attractive way of keeping up pace and tension without bombast or undue haste and he certainly has the measure of this chamber opera.
The "Elektra" is in the best sound and amongst the most compelling recordings of what has long been a remarkably successful opera on record. The Dresden orchestra is superb, responding to the drive and energy of Böhm's urgent conducting; their brass sears the ear and the rhapsodic passage "Orest! Orest!" when Elektra discovers the identity of her brother, thought dead, is stunning. The women singers form one of the best trios imaginable: the vibrant Inge Borkh sounds like an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on steroids, with a very similar timbre and absolutely secure, thrilling, laser top notes; Schech is a nervous, impassioned, powerfully-voiced Chrysothemis and Jean Madeira is wonderfully rich-voiced, her stentorian lower register easily conveying the scary, on-the-edge neurosis of Klytämnestra. The young Fischer-Dieskau is, as usual, mannered in the way he mouths the text and not ideally rotund of tone to suggest Orestes' virility - there is something old-womanish fussy in his demeanour - but he is mostly dramatically convincing. Fritz Uhl's brief cameo as Aegisth is excellent, as is Teschler in his fleeting few moments as the Tutor. Elektra's exultation after the murder of Aegisth is spine-tingling.
The FROSCH suffers from slightly fuzzy, early stereo sound and moments when the definition goes and distortion reigns; fortunately the aural landscape comes into focus for passages such as that which depicts Barak's paean to marital love in Act I, when the Vienna Philharmonic plays divinely. Despite the presence of the ever-excellent - and here young - Leonie Rysanek, this is not perhaps the strongest cast but it's still very good; veteran Paul Schöffler is warm and strong if a bit nasal as Barak, Kurt Böhme imposing but unsteady as the Spirit Messenger and Elisabeth Höngen deals more than adequately with the Nurse's hideously difficult music. Hans Hopf belies his reputation to sound better than I have ever heard him elsewhere, singing the Emperor with a good line, firm tone and even some expression! We catch Christel Goltz here before her vocal decline, intense and powerful as the Wife. Supporting roles are strongly cast, as you might expect from Vienna in the mid-fifties.
The "Daphne" is a classic wartime recording, with both Maria Reining and Anton Dermota reprising the roles they first sang two years earlier. The radio broadcast sound is a little wavery but remarkably clear and must have been made on magnetic tape. For some, Reining's piping, child-like tone will be a little shrill, although I suspect that has something to do with the recording acoustic and that timbre is, in any case, very apt for the innocent Daphne. Dermota's grainy tone and boyish manner is likewise very suitable to portraying Leukippos. Karl Friedrich's more vibrant, virile, slightly "Germanic" tone in the Tauber mode is also perfect for the proud and priapic Apollo.
The tenth bonus record allows us to hear a 1939 recording of Margarete Teschemacher as both Arabella and Daphne; she sang the premiere of the latter in 1938 and you can hear why Strauss loved her. There are various other excerpts from five more Strauss operas recorded between 1939 and 1944 and all conducted by Böhm, amounting to a very generous 76 minutes. Some famous names and voices are featured here: Torsten Ralf, Josef Herrmann, Maria Cebotari and Max Lorenz. The opening "Dance of the Seven Veils" from "Salome" is a murky affair, best passed over, but the subsequent items are lovely. Torsten Ralf shows what a fine Apollo he made - even better than Friedrich - and the extended scene from "Die Frau" reveals how good he was as the Emperor, too. Teschemacher and Goltz are very fine in the "Arabella" duet but not as pure, poised or steady as in subsequent recordings, while one Mathieu Ahlersmeyer, of whom I have not heard, is a splendid Mandryka. The sound for the "Capriccio" excerpt reverts to the poor standard of the opening track - it must have been a live performance - but the last item from "Ariadne auf Naxos" is rather better and is an extract from the 80th Birthday Concert given for the composer in 1944 and thus also of historical significance.
I am baffled by some of the churlish complaints elsewhere about a set which offers so many riches for so little outlay, although I appreciate that some listeners cannot adapt their ears to appreciate historical sound.