For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to Herbert Von Karajan’s EMI recording of Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, an opera we shall hear soon at the Metropolitan Opera.
Karajan conducted only ten performances of “Salome” in his entire career, and the EMI studio recording—made decades after Karajan’s early encounters with the work—was taped in preparation for Karajan’s final eight performances of the opera, presented at the Salzburg Festival in the summers of 1977 and 1978.
Karajan first conducted “Salome” in 1929, when he gave a single performance of the opera in Salzburg. The orchestra for that performance was the Mozarteum Orchestra Of Salzburg, an orchestra not generally associated with the music of Richard Strauss (and certainly not associated with Strauss’s works for large orchestra). The cast members for that initial Karajan “Salome” were singers whose names are unknown to me.
Karajan’s second performance of “Salome” was in 1956, when he conducted a single performance of the work at Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. Christl Goltz was the Salome of the La Scala performance. Max Lorenz sang Herod and Hans Hotter portrayed John The Baptist. The Karajan Zentrum, the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information on all matters related to Karajan, is unclear about the identity of the La Scala Herodias, listing only “Kenney” as the singer of the part. I assume the Kenney in question was Margareta Kenney, the Argentine mezzo-soprano who sang Herodias in the 1950’s throughout Central Europe, most famously under Clemens Krauss.
Karajan planned a Salzburg production of “Salome” in the mid-1970’s, but only after locating a singer he believed to be the singer of his dreams for the title role.
The role of Salome is one that makes impossible demands on the singer. Karajan had long despaired of ever identifying a singer who could offer a satisfactory performance of the role’s vocal requirements as well as offer a convincing physical portrayal of the character.
The role of Salome requires a sizable voice capable of riding Strauss’s gargantuan orchestra (and penetrating Strauss’s dense string writing), but such a voice is seldom housed in anything but the sturdiest, if not stoutest, of bodies. A mature, matronly Salome requires a significant suspension of disbelief for audience members, since Salome is supposed to be a lithe, 16-year-old Judean princess on the cusp of early womanhood. A singer with the voice to handle Salome’s vocal challenges cannot, as a general rule, be expected to look like the character whose story the opera tells.
The singer Karajan identified as ideal for the role of Salome was the then-little-known Hildegard Behrens, a former attorney who had taken up singing only in her very late twenties. Behrens was almost 34 years old before she even made her official debut (as Mozart’s Countess). Karajan first encountered Behrens in 1974, at an orchestral rehearsal of “Wozzeck” in Dusseldorf, and he immediately requested an audition.
At the time, Behrens’s career had been confined primarily to small German theaters. In fact, she was known not at all beyond Dusseldorf, her home theater, and Frankfurt, where she had made a couple of guest appearances. Her career, at that point, had been purely a provincial one.
Karajan’s selection of Behrens as his Salome changed all that overnight. As soon as it was announced that Behrens would be Karajan’s Salome in Salzburg in 1977, Behrens began receiving offers from major theaters everywhere. Even before her Salome was unveiled to the world, Behrens had made her Covent Garden and Metropolitan Opera debuts, singing Beethoven’s Leonore in London in 1976 and singing Giorgetta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” in New York the same year (the latter to little effect, understandably, since Behrens lacked an Italianate voice and a deep understanding of Italian vocal style).
What Karajan liked about Behrens was her light, flexible yet sizable voice, precisely the type of voice he thought perfect for the role. He also appreciated her physical attributes. Behrens was thin and mobile, and moved well on stage (but Karajan, rightly, never called upon Behrens to do her own dancing in his “Salome” production, a professional dancer being engaged for that aspect of the role in Salzburg).
In short, Karajan was looking for a Salome who would be “the anti-Birgit Nilsson”, one of the reigning Salomes of the day (but a singer Karajan never cared for, on an artistic or on a personal level). In Behrens, he had found one.
By this time in his career, Karajan had a unique way of working in the theater. For his Salzburg projects, he would generally first assemble his cast in the recording studio and make a commercial recording of the opera, after which he would prepare its stage presentation for one of the Salzburg festivals, whether Whitsun, Easter or the main summer affair. The completed recording would be used during the production process, piped into the theater during technical rehearsals and even during preliminary stage rehearsals with cast members. Karajan believed this method of preparing a stage production to be very efficient.
His “Salome” recording, consequently, was made in May 1977 in Vienna (there was a single make-up session in May 1978). The recording venue was the Sofiensaal and the engineering team was from Decca, not from EMI. Although the commercial EMI recording was not released until late 1978, the session tapes were used during the Salzburg rehearsals leading up to the four “Salome” performances in August 1977 at the Grosses Festspielhaus. Karajan himself served as stage director for Salzburg’s “Salome”; the stage designer was Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. The primary cast members—the roles of Salome, Herod, Herodias, Jochanaan and Narraboth—remained unchanged for the duration of the project, beginning with the 1977 Vienna recording sessions, continuing with the four 1977 Salzburg performances, and ending with the four 1978 Salzburg performances.
The cast is one of the best on disc. In addition to Behrens as Salome, the Herod is Karl-Walter Bohm, the Herodias Agnes Baltsa, the Jochanaan Jose Van Dam, and the Narraboth Wieslaw Ochmann. Though this classic recording belongs—among the singers—to Behrens, all her fellow cast members reveal themselves to be among the finest exponents of their roles on disc, Bohm and Baltsa making a particularly fine (and unusually subtle) pair of decadents. Only Jose Van Dam offers slight disappointment—his voice lacks the richness, youth and glamour necessary to convey fully John The Baptist’s chasteness and religious fervor, the very qualities that fascinate Salome and propel the drama forward.
“Salome” is a great psychological drama, with a great psychological text (Oscar Wilde, adapted from the French) and a great psychological score. Both text and score explore the interior worlds of its main characters, often in remarkable if not frightening detail. The score may be Strauss’s most profound creation. It is surely his most subtle, and the sole Strauss opera in which the composer operated at peak inspiration from first bar to last.
Karajan understood the psychological requirements of the drama and the score better than any other conductor who made a commercial recording of the work. He first creates and then builds an intolerable dramatic and musical tension as the interweaving melodic fragments unfold, develop and transform themselves, all happening in the first thirty minutes of the opera as the characters are introduced and the dramatic situation is established. Once the drama is under way and the great multi-level, multi-party psychological battles between Salome, her mother, her stepfather and John The Baptist are in play, Karajan maintains a most powerful concentration, alternately tightening and relaxing musical tension but never once losing grip on the drama.
One of the greatest strengths of his reading is that Karajan knew where the “rest moments” are in the score, moments built into the work so that listeners may sit back and take a breath while they digest—briefly—what has just occurred in the drama. When these “rest moments” are not observed, “Salome” becomes little more than a grim, one-dimensional journey into grotesquery—but when these “rest moments” are handled properly, as they are here, they become an essential element of the drama, enriching and heightening listeners’ fascination with the various psychological maneuverings unfolding and playing out as the work progresses.
One problem common with most “Salome” performances and recordings is that the “rest moments” often result in musical and dramatic tension grinding to a halt. When this is allowed to happen, the musical argument becomes fragmented and the drama becomes disjointed. The work loses its focus and its irresistible allure. “Salome” becomes episodic, even piecemeal, in which case audience members generally stop taking the work seriously as drama and instead simply sit back and wait for the big musical moments to occur.
To work, “Salome” must be all of one piece, swallowed whole. The work must grab the attention of audience members in the opening bars and not allow that attention to wane until the work’s final resolution. If tension is allowed to dissipate in any “Salome” performance, even for a moment, rationality is allowed to intervene into the proceedings in the minds of audience members. Any intrusion of rationality allows audience members to reflect upon what is happening onstage, and to cease to take the work seriously—even to dismiss everything as sheer foolishness. This is inevitably the ultimate outcome in any unsatisfactory “Salome” performance. In such circumstances, the work fails, and there has been no point in performing the opera in the first place.
Rationality kills “Salome”, as the composer well knew. Strauss built the score very, very carefully, constructing it so as to prevent audience members from relaxing and distancing themselves from the drama’s tightening screws. “Salome” is intentionally shaped to prevent listeners from disengaging from the drama while the work is in progress (this is one of the reasons the work was written to be given without intermission). No one knew this better than Karajan.
Karajan is helped immeasurably by the members of the Vienna Philharmonic. He obtains remarkable work from the orchestra, hardly a surprise, since the orchestra had maintained “Salome” in its active repertory for decades and, further, had performed the work annually under Karl Bohm’s baton at the Wiener Staatsoper the preceding several seasons.
Nevertheless, there is a freshness in Karajan’s “Salome”, as well as a concentration and a sense of purpose, that simply was not within the realm of Bohm’s talents. There is more drama and more emotional involvement from Karajan—and much more control—than Bohm was ever able to muster, at least in the music of Wagner or Strauss (the music of Mozart well may have been another matter). The Vienna Philharmonic in this recording does not even sound like the same orchestra heard in tapes of contemporaneous performances of “Salome” under Bohm at the Staatsoper. (In the late 1970’s, around the very time of this “Salome” recording, the Staatsoper finally convinced Bohm, on account of age, to give up exclusivity to this score in the theater and to allow Zubin Mehta to take over some “Salome” performances in Vienna.)
Great Strauss conductors may be divided into two categories: those who emphasize the homophonic quality of Strauss’s writing (Furtwangler, Ormandy) and those who emphasize the polyphonic quality of Strauss’s writing (Reiner, Szell). Karajan was unique in giving equal consideration and weight to Strauss’s homophonic and polyphonic requirements, a quality that comes to the fore in his “Salome” recording. Every musical strand is perfectly clear, precisely balanced so as to emerge from and then disappear back into the overall orchestral fabric. At the same time, Karajan knew as much about Schenkerian harmonic analysis as anyone, and was surely the greatest of all masters of Strauss’s elaborate chromatic vocabulary.
“Salome” is the perfect score for Karajan to display his mastery of the many facets of Strauss interpretation. Much of the writing is a sequence of diatonic linear motives, whether in the voice parts or in the orchestral leitmotifs, all of which are also susceptible to purely chromatic analysis and treatment. At the same time, even when polychords and chromatic motion form the basis of the music’s progression, the shape of individual musical phrases generally admits a purely diatonic analysis and treatment, too. This dichotomy, for Karajan, was no dichotomy at all. He was able to give full voice to the score’s linear and harmonic facets in equal measure, and simultaneously. No other conductor has ever been able to do this (other than the composer himself). The music of Strauss had become innate to Karajan sometime in the 1930’s, and he never was to lose his profound understanding of Strauss’s music, and its ingredients, for the rest of his life.
Karajan’s recorded “Salome” is an overwhelming performance, a performance of utter genius. It is one of the very finest of Karajan’s many, many fine opera recordings. His work here makes otherwise respectable efforts of “Salome” conductors (such as Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf and Giuseppe Sinopoli) seem incompetent in comparison.
Karajan is aided in his work by a Salome who, in audio, offers what most be the most convincing portrayal of the role ever recorded. Behrens offers the insights of a great actress, capturing subtleties in the text and music that other interpreters have never managed to locate, let alone convey. Her handling of the text is superb—almost every word may be understood; many of her utterances are unforgettable—and she gives her lines and musical phrasings a specificity and an intelligence lacking in other recorded accounts of the role. She displays a voice capable of convincing the listener that she truly is a 16-year-old girl, even though the voice easily rides over the waves of orchestral sound. By any standard, this is a great performance for the microphone.
(I have no idea whether Behrens’s youthful voice, in the theater, had the power necessary to cut through Strauss’s orchestral writing as easily as it does in the recording studio. I know no one who heard Behrens’s “Salome” at Salzburg—and when Behrens, many years later, was to return to the role, her voice had changed.)
I never heard Behrens. I regret that.
Behrens was a very individual artist. Many knowledgeable music-lovers liked her immensely.
Of course, many did not.
My parents heard Behrens a few times at the Metropolitan Opera, but never in “Salome”. They recall Behrens as a gifted performer, with a magnetic stage presence. They contend that she generously gave of herself in inhabiting a character and that she had a remarkable ability to shape and to elucidate a text. They insist that Behrens was a compelling stage figure.
However, my parents generally hedge when discussing the actual quality of Behrens’s voice.
The most acute assessment of Behrens’s vocal skills comes from my father, who once had the opportunity to hear Behrens in concert, free from the accoutrements of the theater, singing Beethoven’s “Ah, Perfido” and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. My father says that Behrens’s concert appearance (in the mid-1980’s, before her voice had deteriorated beyond repair) revealed her to be a mostly inadequate vocalist.
My father says that Behrens had six or seven truly “good notes”—notes in which the voice demonstrated richness, clarity, power, beauty of timbre and ease of production (as well as accuracy of pitch, apparently never one of Behrens’s strong points)—and that Behrens relentlessly emphasized that handful of good notes at the expense of musical line and musical sense, more or less turning Beethoven and Wagner into hash.
My father says that Behrens’s “Ah, Perfido” was simply embarrassing. However, he says that her Wesendonck Lieder was fascinating, but perversely so. Behrens emphasized her few “good notes” mercilessly, contorting Wagner’s musical lines into all sorts of weird fragments and shapes in order to showcase her limited vocal strengths. My father says her performance was like hearing a non-English speaker offer a purely phonetic account of The Gettysburg Address, full of bizarre emphases and phrasings—a fascinating, even riveting experience, but surely not what was required.
That concert was the one occasion on which my father saw Behrens from a few feet away, and was able to observe her vocal production at close proximity.
He had had to fly to New York on a Sunday afternoon for a Monday business meeting. After he had arrived in New York and had checked into his hotel, he had had just enough time to walk over to Carnegie Hall to hear a Sunday evening concert by the Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s, with which Behrens was appearing that evening (the conductor was Michael Tilson Thomas). Prime orchestra seating was no longer available from the ticket window, but front-row seats were still available. It was just a few minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, so my father bought a front-row seat, planning to move upstairs at intermission.
However, he had such a good view of Behrens during the first half of the concert—which included “Ah, Perfido”—that he decided to remain in the same seat for the second half of the concert, too, in order to observe Behrens’s Wesendonck Lieder from close range.
My father says that, when singing her six or seven good notes, Behrens was relaxed and free, with a natural singer’s posture. However, whenever trying to reach her other notes, Behrens inhabited an entirely different body—the muscles in her neck, shoulders and back would tighten noticeably, and she would become a different singer, one visibly under strain.
My father says that his Carnegie Hall experience with Behrens suggested to him that Behrens should have become a stage actress, and not a singer, and that Behrens’s successful opera career had had far more to do with her obvious intelligence—and Behrens’s “Salome” recording demonstrates, above all other qualities, great, great intelligence—than the quality of her voice.
Behrens made a good number of commercial recordings in her heyday, but her EMI “Salome” is the recording for which she will always be remembered. Her other complete opera recordings—“Fidelio”, “Freischutz”, “Tristan”, “Elektra”—are largely forgotten today, known mostly by devoted Behrens fans.
“Salome” is always a great listening experience. In a fine recording, the opera is just as enjoyable at home as it ever is in the theater—and it is unlikely that I shall ever encounter a musical performance of “Salome” of the same high quality as the one available in the EMI recording.
The music of Richard Strauss is not to everyone’s taste. My mother, for instance, loathes the music of Strauss. In the case of my father, he can take or leave Strauss.
My middle brother hates Strauss. He has a hatred for Strauss for which I am supposed to be solely responsible, since I “dragged” him to a performance of "Salome" at Opera Bastille in 2003. After the passage of five years, I am still fielding complaints from him about that “agonizing” evening.
Myself, there are many Strauss works I love, and many Strauss works that leave me cold. Even the Strauss works I love most, such as “Salome”, took me some time first to learn to admire and later to learn to love. Strauss is a composer whose music is not always congenial to music-lovers, and I understand and respect that.
Josh does not like the music of Strauss. In fact, Karajan’s “Salome” is only the second Strauss album Josh and I have listened to together (the first was Felicity Lott’s Strauss lieder recital on ASV). Josh and I have purposefully avoided listening to Strauss discs owing to Josh’s dislike for the composer.
The first couple of times we listened to “Salome”, Josh absolutely hated the piece. By the third listen, he began to appreciate some qualities of the work—first and foremost, Strauss’s staggering mastery of orchestration—but it cannot be denied that Josh is definitely not yet a fan of “Salome”. I wonder what Josh will make of the work when he hears it in the theater.
To spell us from a nonstop dose of music from the greatest exponent of Late Romanticism/Early Modernism, we have been cleansing our ears with a disc of music from The Classical Period: Daniel Barenboim’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Numbers 14-16 on the Teldec label, with Barenboim playing and leading the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Mozart disc is not distinguished, even though Barenboim’s Teldec Mozart cycle was his second recorded go-around with the Mozart concertos. Barenboim has never been much of a Mozartean, as pianist or as conductor, and he has never been much of a Classicist. Everything Barenboim plays and conducts is done in a highly Romantic style. This approach may be apt for the music of Wagner and Bruckner, but this approach cannot be carried over successfully to music of other composers from other eras—unless the musician in question is an absolute genius, or at least a musician operating on a far higher plane than Barenboim.
The disc has one interesting feature, and that is the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. The playing is interesting mostly for the sound that Barenboim draws (or rather does not draw) from the orchestra. The strings are far too bass-heavy, and offer playing devoid of color and transparency. This recording was made in 1997, only eight years after Herbert Von Karajan’s death, and yet the orchestra is barely recognizable as Karajan’s orchestra. Karajan would never have allowed such muddy, featureless string playing. The thousands of colors Karajan could summon at will from his string section are nowhere to be heard on this disc.
Further, this orchestra is not even recognizable as the Berlin Philharmonic of Claudio Abbado. By 1997, Abbado had worked extensively with the orchestra for eight years, further developing its transparency of sound and lending an Italianate warmth and elegance to the orchestra’s music-making. There is no evidence on this disc of Abbado’s excellent work in refining the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Were it not for the exquisite wind playing, the orchestra on this particular Barenboim recording would be identified by most listeners as The Radio Orchestra Of The Saarland.