Der Rosenkavalier – Szell / Heger (Andante)

0 of 5 stars

Der Rosenkavalier


The Marschallin – Maria Reining
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Jaro Prohaska
Octavian – Jarmila Novotná
Faninal – Georg Hann
Sophie – Hilde Gueden
Marianne – Stefanie Holeschofsky
Valzacchi – Peter Klein
Annina – Dagmar Hermann
The Marschallin’s Major-Domo – William Wernigk
Faninal’s Major-Domo – Georg Monthy
A Notary – Alfred Muzzarelli
An Italian Singer – Helge Rosvaenge
Police Inspector – Georg Monthy
Innkeeper – William Wernigk

Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
George Szell

Recorded on 29 August 1949 at the Festspielhaus, Salzburg


The Marschallin – Lotte Lehmann
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Richard Mayr
Octavian – Maria Olszewska
Faninal – Victor Madin
Sophie – Elisabeth Schumann
Valzacchi – Hermann Gallos
Annina – Bella Paalen

Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Robert Heger

Recorded in September 1933 in Vienna’s Konzerthaus

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: July 2003
CD No: ANDANTE 3985 (4 CDs)

Andante has, I rather fear, shot itself in the foot with this set. The weakest of its operatic issues to date, it contains the radio broadcast of George Szell’s 1949 Salzburg Festival performance of Der Rosenkavalier – billed as complete, though Szell observes the standard theatre cuts – together with a selection of extracts from Robert Heger’s famous abridged recording made in Vienna in 1933. Both, it should be said at the outset, are important achievements in their own right, and Heger’s version, in particular, has, despite its incompleteness, come to assume the status of the benchmark performance by which all others should be judged.

Yet the coupling seems strange and intransigent when placed beside Andante’s other issues. We are not, as with Faust and Pelléas et Mélisande, asked to scrutinise a retrospective survey of the work’s performance history. Nor, as with Bruno Walter’s 1937 Salzburg version of Le nozze di Figaro, are we required to compare a performance often cited as mythic with the reality behind it.

Szell’s Rosenkavalier, whatever its virtues and faults, doesn’t carry anything like the same legendary clout. Presenting us with Heger incomplete, so that what we experience is an abridgement of an abridgement, is both perverse and maddening, particularly given that the re-mastering is excellent. The issue is also an expensive superfluity. Both recordings have a wide circulation with Szell’s version already available on not one, but three labels (Arioso, most recently). Heger’s recording, meanwhile, has never been out of the catalogue, and its most recent issue, on Naxos Historical, comes not only uncut, but with the kind of appendix of historically-related material one might have expected Andante to produce. If you buy them separately, you will end up spending considerably less than the price Andante is demanding. For less cash you could get the Naxos Heger issue alongside one of the three important versions from the 1950s – Erich Kleiber (Decca), Karajan (EMI) or Böhm (recently re-issued by DG). All of them are available at a comfortable mid-price – and all three, in very different ways, serve the work somewhat better than Szell.

His conducting of the opera was deemed odd in 1949, provoking one critic to describe it as “a bit too clinical, too proper”. The adjectives might now strike us as somewhat severe. “Proper” has no place in the context of this performance, particularly given that Szell’s account of the Act One Prelude, taken at one hell of a lick and well nigh gurgling with erotic frenzy, comes closer to pornography than any other extant version in sound. What is certain, however, is that Szell, radical as always, was determined to rid Der Rosenkavalier of any connotations of schmaltz or sentimentality. As a result, however, he tends to overstate his case, and becomes at times emotionally detached rather than “clinical” as a result. The performance is far from undramatic, and is often characterised by a fluid, nervous urgency, an unflinching, typically Szell emphasis on clarity, and a hefty stress on the parodic. The mock Baroque curlicues are all extravagantly emphasised. The Singer (Helge Rosvaenge) belts and bleats his aria with deliberately overdone Italianate lachrymosity. Szell turns unexpectedly severe and very classical when Strauss dips into chamber music in the wind quartet that accompanies the Marschallin’s and Octavian’s breakfast or the string quintet that tracks the Marschallin’s meditations on her encroaching age.

Sometimes the dividends are enormous – you hear far more detail in the Act Three Prelude than you do elsewhere – and the Vienna Philharmonic’s playing is at once volatile and transparent. Yet there are also huge drawbacks. Szell’s handling of the waltzes is often metronomically rigid and unyielding, and the emphasis on parody and pastiche comes dangerously close to turning the score into a series of almost Brechtian alienation effects. Avoiding self-indulgence in Rosenkavalier is one thing, but here we’re all too frequently kept at arms-length, which means that the great emotional outpourings, when they come, don’talways bite.

The cast, meanwhile, similarly arouses mixed feelings. At the time, the critics raved above all about Jarmila Novotná’s Octavian, so much so that one is left wondering whether she was having an ’off night’ for this broadcast. Her impulsive characterisation and boyish tone, closer to a treble than the more usual mezzo, are increasingly undermined by intimations of fatigue as a flutter creeps into her voice in Act Two. Thereafter intonation problems begin to proliferate, culminating in a painfully adrift high G at the close of the final duet with Sophie.

Maria Reining and Hilde Gueden, the Marschallin and Sophie respectively, both also feature in Kleiber’s famous 1953 recording. Gueden, rapturous and very erotic, is marginally preferable here, where you get a sense of her voice’s expansiveness in a theatre, which her studio recordings, marvellous though they are, didn’t always capture. Though Reining is in fresher voice for Szell, you’re more conscious of the flaws in her methodology, most notably her habit of breaking sustained lyrical phrases in two, where most singers manage them in a single breath. This gets very worrying towards the climax of the Trio, where she awkwardly stops and re-starts the long, sustained A flat on “glucklich”, which nearly breaks the momentum. On both recordings, she’s a touching Marschallin, poised and aristocratic, mercifully avoiding the over-enunciatory approach of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, though nowhere approaching Lehmann in spontaneity.

Szell’s Ochs, meanwhile, is Jaro Prohaska, who gives another flawed performance, though one, in some respects, ahead of its time. He’s very modern in his presentation of the Baron as a serious, dangerous figure with more than a touch of the sadist about him, rather than a slightly ridiculous, countrified bumpkin. His tone is gritty and assertive throughout, though the cavernous low notes aren’t always in place. Those he attempts are often out of tune, and he transposes a couple of phrases up an octave.

Prohaska is the antithesis here of Richard Mayr, who sings the role for Heger and turns him into almost an endearing creature, fat voiced, alluring, genuinely aristocratic (a fact most interpreters tend to forget, nowadays) and wonderfully funny throughout. You don’t get much of him here, though, I’m afraid, since it’s Ochs’s music that has predominantly wound up on Andante’s cutting-room floor. What you’re left with, as far as this great recording is concerned, are the three women – Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann and Maria Olszewska. Olszewska was a boomy, if appropriately butch Octavian and her achievement has been surpassed elsewhere, most notably by Irmgard Seefried in Böhm’s recording.

Schumann’s Sophie, with that devastating sheen on those high notes and her erotically yielding, swooping portamenti, is the embodiment of Lolita-ish, nymphet sexuality (it’s no wonder Strauss was besotted), and only Gueden (here for Szell) and Rita Streich (for Böhm) run her close. Strauss, meanwhile, called Lehmann “the ideal interpreter of my operas,” and her Marschallin remains incomparable, though attempts to describe it somehow manage to misfire. All those comments about ’emotional truth’ and ’warmth of personality’ are at once accurate and inadequate. Suffice it to say that she achieves such a unique integration of text and music that you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, while every flicker and shift of emotion is registered with both force and perfect restraint. One of the greatest achievements in operatic history, which you can also hear, complete, in all its glory in Artur Bodanzky’s live 1939 Met recording (also from Naxos Historical) albeit in much more restricted sound.

Some – I am not among them – may prefer Robert Heger’s spacious, gracious conducting to Bodanzky’s strenuous whirling – his Rosenkavalier is a real waltz on the edge of an abyss as though time itself were running out, which, of course, in 1939, it was. No serious lover of Rosenkavalier can afford, however, to be without either. You can, however, afford to be without this Andante issue. If you want both performances – and Szell’s is worth hearing for Gueden in my opinion – then get them separately, otherwise you’re simply burning a needless hole in your pocket.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content