R. Strauss Der Rosenkavalier
A landmark in the history of the gramophone, Karajan’s 1956 EMI recording of Der Rosenkavalier featured an unrivalled cast, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, Christa Ludwig as Octavian, Teresa Stich-Randall as Sophie and Otto Edelmann as Baron Ochs. Stereo recording was new to the commercial recording world and, unwilling to gamble everything on the new medium, producer Walter Legge arranged for the sessions to be captured in both mono and stereo, using quite separate microphone layouts and separate balance engineers – Douglas Larter for the mono and Christopher Parker for the stereo. The mono version was issued on LP but for the transfer to Compact Disc in 1987 the stereo tapes were used. The mono recording has never before been issued on CD and for the remastering sessions Dame Elisabeth herself joined re-engineering consultant Professor Johann-Nikolaus Matthes and Senior EMI balance engineer Andrew Walter. This process is said to have amounted “less to a transcription than to a recreation of the performance and atmosphere of the Kingsway Hall 40 years ago”.
It is not my brief here to reassess the issue in terms of the performance. That has already been expertly covered – by Alec Robertson in the original November 1959 review and by Hilary Finch writing in January 1988 of the stereo recording’s appearance on CD, where she said as much as really needs to be said in that “It really does triumph over them all – even the outstanding 1969 Solti/Decca – and the triumph is, almost entirely, Schwarzkopf’s own.” The Philharmonia do indeed play like angels and Schwarzkopf gives one of her greatest performances.
The recorded balances do, however, present us with something of a challenge because they are so very different. At the ‘root’ level a helpful A-B test can be made by summing the stereo channels to provide a double-mono signal, and listening to this against the new release of the mono recording – comparing to an extent like with like. One is immediately struck by the mono recording’s warmer, closer balance: Schwarzkopf, for example, a significantly more rounded, fuller and essentially dominant presence, never in danger of being overwhelmed by the orchestra. The stereo recording (heard, as I’ve said, for the moment in mono) puts the voice into the sort of proportion one would expect to hear in the opera house itself, on a more equal footing with the orchestra, the result inevitably a little less analytically clear but on the other hand arguably more realistic.
Listening in stereo I personally find the detail and transparency of the overall canvas more naturally convincing, some hiss from the original tapes notwithstanding. This is a very good balance of its time, an impressive three-dimensional portrayal of the studio event with everything in its place and the voices nicely ‘staged’. The remastered mono will make a special appeal to those who prefer intimate access to these great singers; it has a compelling immediacy in which every vocal nuance is conveyed with a drawing-room-like clarity. The dilemma is that each recording is impressive in its way and yet so very different. Students of the voice will almost certainly favour this new mono release; devotees of the opera itself may well prefer the stereo. '