STRAUSS Ariadne auf Naxos
A Karl Böhm Ariadne is not news. There are four predecessor competitors currently still available (a 1969 DG LP set from Munich with much the same cast – Hillebrecht, Thomas, Grist – as a 1965 Salzburg DVD has not, as far as I know, reached CD yet). They range from historic broadcast mono (now Myto, once DG, 1944) to reasonably modern on-DVD stereo (DG, 1978). The first of these, despite the occasion – a Nazi grandee-led celebration of Strauss’s 80th birthday in wartime Vienna – is one of the great performances of any opera, led by Max Lorenz’s unstinting Bacchus, Maria Reining’s stylish Ariadne and Alda Noni’s Zerbinetta.
Böhm’s way of handling the score is already established here. He lets the rather modern-sounding components of Strauss’s around-40 chamber orchestra sound; you can always, for example, hear the harmonium, the piano and the percussionists clearly, whereas Karajan and Levine (and even Masur and Kempe a little) almost try aurally to pretend they’re not there. Even at the climax of the opera, with Bacchus and Ariadne going vocally full tilt, Strauss never sought to make this opera’s sonorities resemble those of a big late-Romantic orchestra. Böhm respects this in 1976 as much as in 1944.
The cast combines the new with the mature. Agnes Baltsa is a pert, ultra-stylish Composer, her passion for her music (and a little for Zerbinetta) evident but well reined in. Janowitz is not in as free and unpressured a vocal state as she was for Kempe (EMI) in 1968 but certainly sounds committed. Gruberová (replacing Böhm’s once-favoured Reri Grist) does not tease her text out in the aria as some (Sylvia Geszty for Kempe), is not always as sexy as some (Geszty again) but she is both genuinely virtuoso and funny – though Orfeo has opted to keep far too much untracked applause at the end of ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’. Trusting in his fine male cast, Böhm (in what one may call ‘late style’) allows the Harlequin accompaniments to become very bar-room – apt, and he’s always there to pick them up after showtime. Finally, there’s James King’s Bacchus, in good form and seeming to have gone even further with his personal investigation of how best to vocalise this not always grateful role.
This old newcomer rates highly. There can’t be one ‘best’ Ariadne in such a wide market as today. I’d want the 1944 Böhm, the 1935 Clemens Krauss (but it’s only the opera), the 1968 Kempe (wonderful conducting of the Dresdeners in his first-ever performance of the score), the Sinopoli (DG, 2000 – good all-round cast and interesting ‘modern’ reading from the conductor, like Böhm but a stage further) – and this new release, too, in good-ish, most ‘live’ sound.