Erna Schlüter (Elektra), Annelies Kupper (Chrysothemis), Elisabeth Schwier (Confidante), Käthe Lange (Trainbearer), Claire Autenrieth (Overseer), Maria von Ilosvay, Hedy Gura, Martina Wulf, Lisa Bischof, Senta Mirtsch (Five Maids), Gusta Hammer (Klytemnestra), Peter Markwort (Aegisth), Fritz Göllnitz (A Young Servant), Robert Hager (Orest), Gustav Niedlinger (Orest’s Tutor), Hermann Siegel (An Old Servant), Chorus of the Hamburg Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, c. Eugen Jochum. Acanta 233494 (two CDs)
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (Elektra), Angela Denoke (Chrysothemis), Ekaterina Popova (Confidante and Overseer), Ekaterina Sergeeva (Trainbearer), Lia Shevtsova, Tatiana Kravtsova, Varvara Solovieva, Ekaterina Sergeeva, Olga Legkova (Five Maids), Felicity Palmer (Klytemnestra), Ian Storey (Aegisth), Andrey Popov (A young Servant), Matthias Goerne (Orest), Vuyani Mlinde (Orest’s Tutor and An Old Servant), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, c. Valery Gergiev. LSO Live LSO0701 (two CDs)
By Hugo Shirley
What a contrast these two Elektras make. The musicality and dramatic commitment Eugen Jochum’s Hamburg set (studio recorded in June 1944 under what, to put it mildly, can’t have been the easiest circumstances) shine through the limitations of war-time technology to blazing effect. Valery Gergiev’s LSO account, recorded live in January 2010 in London’s Barbican Hall, strikes me as having little right to enter the catalogue. In the concert hall the performances had a certain edge-of-the-seat excitement, with a frantic Gergiev managing to hold things together with his head buried in the score. On disc, however, the results are blunt, unsubtle and unedifying—the performance brings to mind the famous contemporary caricature showing Strauss as ‘Elektracutioner’ (administering ‘Die Elektrische Hinrichtung’), as purveyor of senseless cacophony. Rarely does one get any sense of Gergiev being terribly familiar with or enamoured of the score, of understanding the ebb and flow of the drama or of having much concern for the words his poor cast is trying to get across. The LSO is to be commended for its corporate virtuosity in getting through unscathed, I suppose, even if the trumpets might have exercised a little more restraint.
Even a top-notch cast would have struggled in such circumstances, let alone Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s weak, vibrato-laden Elektra and Angela Denoke’s miscast Chrysothemis. Charbonnet (who was a late replacement for Eva Johansson) might be effective enough on stage, where dramatic commitment can make up for vocal shortcomings, but here her inadequacies are cruelly exposed. Similarly, Denoke sounds wan and weedy—and too often marginally flat—when she needs to be fiery and full-toned. Felicity Palmer at least has the authority for Klytemnestra. Matthias Goerne, interestingly cast as Orest, brings earnest lyricism to the role, and Ian Storey is a decent Aegisth; the Maryinsky singers imported for the smaller roles are not a good advertisement for that company’s German coaches, and are forced, even more than everyone else, to garble at Gergiev’s pushed tempos. The sound is bright and hard, and favours the overloud orchestra.The sturdy virtues of Jochum’s performance make it seem like Straussian perfection in comparison. Here’s a cast of German singers, all of whom have the means—vocal and dramatic—to get on with their jobs authoritatively and musically. Erna Schlüter’s voice comes across neither as terribly individual nor particularly beautiful, but she sings Elektra’s music with absolute command, projecting power when necessary and managing some disarming tenderness in a beautifully-realized Recognition Scene. Annelies Kupper’s Chrysothemis is soaring and invigorating; the marvellously-named Gusta Hammer is supremely expressive as Klytemnestra, no caricature, but a singer nevertheless projecting every ounce of hand-wringing anguish and insecurity across the decades. And, importantly, they and the rest of the cast—a vivid Aegisth from Peter Markwort, a sturdy Orest from Robert Hager, a telling cameo from the young Gustav Neidlinger as his Tutor—make Hofmannsthal’s words count. They are helped, admittedly, by the backward balancing of the orchestra, but also by the conducting, which is naturally paced, wants nothing for excitement but never overwhelms the singers. (Some doubt, incidentally, seems to have existed previously as to who exactly was conducting, but Acanta credit Jochum unequivocally.) The recorded sound inevitably has its limitations, and there are the usual cuts (unlike Gergiev’s performance, which is textually complete), but it’s a set well worth seeking out.