Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hertha Topper,
Ernst Haefliger, North German Radio Chorus, RSO Berlin / Ferenc Fricsay
(Deutsche Grammophon 'Double' 445 445-2; two CDs)
"Shackles, daggers, racks and branding irons", gruesome tools from Duke Bluebeard's torture chamber, tidily housed next to his armoury, garden and spacious kingdom. Then, along comes Judith, who spies blood among the flowers, fields and castle walls; she's sussed the truth, but pays the price when Bluebeard locks her up. Ferenc Fricsay shapes, analyses and clarifies Bartok's cinematic narrative in inimitable fashion; his is the best prepared and most beautifully phrased Bluebeard ever recorded, even if forced into German (albeit extremely well characterised, especially by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) and subject to some minor cuts. There's also a deafening tam-tam thrash added at the beginning of Track 3 - the point at which Judith asks Bluebeard why the seven doors are bolted.
DG's prize-winning 1958 recording has the lucky couple thrown virtually into your lap, whereas the 1960 Oedipus Rex - a mono relay, first issued in 1978 - is better balanced. Terror reigns yet again when Oedipus (a magnificent Ernst Haefliger) realises that he is his father's murderer. Hertha Topper's Jocasta is as distraught as her Judith is persuasive, and if Ernst Deutsche's "Cocteau en allemand" won't be to all tastes, Fricsay and his Berlin forces make amends with an urgent, well-drilled performance. No texts are provided.
For once, the cheers really are justified - certainly in the case of Sir Adrian Boult's final Prom performance of Elgar's First Symphony (1976), a lean, gripping and unexpectedly passionate account; one that's both faster and more spontaneous than his contemporaneous EMI recording. And while it's true that the best Proms recordings aren't always the oldest, who could resist Sir John Barbirolli's lavishly layered Rosenkavalier suite (1969), a high-calorie confection that has the Halle relishing every delicious bar? Then there's Dame Janet Baker's "last appearance in an operatic role" (1982) with a remarkably agile "Addio, addio, o miei sospiri" from Gluck's Orfeo.
Beecham's RPO Tannhauser "Overture and Venusberg Music" (1954, mono) - a strong vintage but with a sweet aftertaste - is the one item that's already familiar (on a Music & Arts CD), whereas Rudolf Kempe's warm-centred Janacek Sinfonietta (1974) is a real novelty. There's also a stirring "Apotheose" from Berlioz's Symphonie funebre et triomphale under Sir John Pritchard (1983), a boisterous Nutcracker suite from Sir Malcolm Sargent (1966), and then the British premiere - under Gennadi Rozhdestvenksy - of a blandly camped-up "Tea for Two" (1981). Good fun, I suppose - but would anyone have bothered had the arrangement borne a lesser name than that of Dmitri Shostakovich?
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