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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Recordings Review: Karajan's 1964 Die Frau Ohne Schatten

The classic 1964 Salzburg Festival recording on Superconductor.
If any listener needs convincing regarding the transcendent podium abilities of Herbert von Karajan they need look no further than this 1964 recording of Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Made at the conclusion of Karajan's Vienna tenure, this live radio broadcast illustrate' the conductor's ability to draw the maximum amount of intensity and emotional impact from this admittedly difficult work.

It doesn't hurt that this fresh-sounding performance has a cast made up of some of the most important singers of the 1960's, caught here well before their decline. Jess Thomas is ideal as the Emperor.  His voice is the right size for this difficult part. There is a thrilling moment in his Act One aria when the orchestra swells so an enormous climax and there is applause before the music detonates in a flood of emotional rapture. This recording is full of moments like that where the inhabitants of Hofmannsthal' arcane world spring thrillingly to life.

Leonie Rysanek's Empress is ethereal, yet fully realized in a dramatic sense. She tracks the character's path to full womanhood with unerring clarity and the sweetness of tone that marks the best Strauss sopranos. She is well-matched by the Dyer's Wife, sung with characteristic intelligence by Christa Ludwig. Finally, Grace Hoffman is a cunning Nurse, delivering all facets of the most complex character in the opera.

The veteran of the cast is Walter Berry in the key role of the dyer, Barak. His baritone conveys the warmth and complex emotions of the character with nuance and respect for the text. The Vienna Philharmonic plays with intelligence and clarity, and their love for this music is obvious. Karajan intended these performances to be his farewell gift to Vienna upon his departure.

This is a live recording, and stage noises are audible, but not to the point of distraction. The only drawback is a series of major cuts to the score, which are most noticeable in the latter two acts. Act Two has an entire scene excised, a cut taken by Karajan. The third act has the standard cuts, which render the drama a little confusing. However, the singing and superb orchestral performances make this a must-have for Strauss lovers.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats