R. Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos
This admirable and enjoyable set of what some consider Strauss's most satisfying opera all-round has been out of circulation for far too long. Beyond any other conductor who has tackled the work on disc except Bohm (neither of whose versions is at present available), Kempe understands both the lyrical and humorous aspects of the opera and hones them into a coherent whole. You can hear his attention to detail in his handling of the delicate accompaniment to the Dancing Master's little homily in the Prologue and in the recitative-like introduction to Zerbinetta's aria. His strict control of minutiae is underpinned by his unerring sense of rhythm and tempo, and in the final scene an ability to tighten the tension. Only Bohm can here surpass Kempe by virtue of an even greater sense of dramatic movement and an overview of the score, characteristics notably lacking in both the Solti (Decca) and Levine (DG) sets, though present to an extent in the Masur (Philips) and Karajan (EMI). Kempe is inestimably helped by the echt Strauss orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle.
Nobody has actually sung Ariadne with such complete control of tone and technique as that shown by Janowitz. Her aristocratic phrasing, with an ideal movement between notes and a judicious use of portamento, is exemplary. Hers is the ideal kind of voice for the part, warm, lyrical and slightly vibrant, avoiding the heaviness of Price (Solti), who recorded the role too late in her career, and Norman, the most serious drawback on the Masur. Schwarzkopf (Karajan) brings more light and shade than Janowitz to the role and she is a shade more inside the role thanks to those subtle nuances for which she is famous. I must have both readings on my shelves alongside that of the radiant Reining on the 1944 Vienna performance (12/63—nla), which DG ought to reissue. Zylis-Gara's Composer is a kind of mirror-image of Janowitz's Ariadne. Apparently a shade cool the inner fires surely burn intensely underneath the surface. Happily a soprano in the part rather than the mezzo preferred today—but not by Strauss—she marries creamy tone with a near-perfect technique, and is wonderfully radiant in the Composer's glorious outburst near the end of the Prologue. She is different from, but not superior to Seefried's marvellously impulsive assumption on the older EMI version. Zylis-Gara is especially affecting in her romantic colloquy with Zerbinetta, here sung by Geszty with tremendous brio, character and fluency. As in the theatre, as I recall, her assumption is breathtakingly accurate and vivid, superior even to Gruberova's (Solti and Masur), complementary to the softer-grained more musing Streich (Karajan).
Adam is a nicely concerned Music Master, Prey an attractive though slightly too heavy Harlequin—as he is chez Karajan and Levine. Schreier doubles ebulliently as the Dancing Master and Scaramuchio, and the smaller roles are all filled by Dresden regulars of the 1960s. Reservations concern only the Bacchus of James King, efficiently and accurately sung but dry in tone and hardly ardent enough until the concluding moments. Schock (Karajan) is more beguiling in tone, more fervent in style.
The recording, made in Dresden's Lukaskirche, tends to be a shade too reverberant, but the balance is natural and excellent between voices and instruments with both well forward. This would now be my unhesitating recommendation of a stereo version, particularly at medium price. The Karajan, recorded in 1954 in mono, remains a strong contender, with different and complementary attributes.'