Richard Strauss: Salome (Opera in English)

Graham-Hall, Burgess, Bullock, Wegner; Philharmonia/Mackerras (Chandos CHAN 3157(2))

22 October 2008 4 stars

SalomeThe complicated story of Salome's libretto means that this recording of the opera in English requires a long explanation on Chandos's packaging. 'Libretto by the composer after Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, English translation of the German by Tom Hammond.'

The fact that Strauss himself was dissatisfied with the German text and spent a considerable amount of time retro-fitting his opera to the words of Wilde's play, written in French in the 1890s, means that Salome in English is an unusual case. However, since Strauss's French version never really caught on, one could argue that to hear the work in English is no more dissatisfying than to have it performed in German.

In the event, despite a couple of phrases that can't help jarring, this recording triumphs by rendering these concerns largely irrelevant. Hammond's translation is admirably clear and direct, wisely avoiding any attempts to emulate the florid, sensuous musicality of the original, but the combination of Mackerras's conducting and exemplary sound and balance from Chandos makes almost every word audible; this is a recording to demonstrate to doubters how opera in the vernacular can and, in an ideal world, should work.

It's Mackerras's account of the score, though, that remains the chief glory of this set. It's easy to dismiss Strauss's various descriptions as to how the opera should be performed – as 'Elfenmusik' and a 'scherzo with a fatal conclusion' – as throw-away, self-depracatory admissions of a heavy-handed way with the scoring, of needing to produce a self-contained leitmotivic tapestry in the orchestra whose thickness inevitably obscures the voices. This view has even led to both Salome and Elektra bring described as little more than tone-poems with obligato voice parts. Mackerras's reading shows what Strauss meant. Beautifully executed by the Philharmonia on outstanding form, it achieves some of this lightness and there are few accounts on CD that come near in terms of clarity of texture. The big climaxes, though, still pack all the punch one could wish for - the Dance is given an incandescent performance - and there's no feeling of the orchestra being held back.

Many of Strauss's deft touches of orchestration are too often obscured and only detectable with the aid of a score, yet they all seem to come across here. I suspect some credit must go to the engineers, but the greatest compliment they can be paid is that no detail sounds artificially highlighted (apart from, perhaps, when the harp seems to get a bit of a helping hand just after Salome starts to sing of Jokanaan's hair). Similarly, although the singers are no doubt helped by the engineering, they are not placed unnaturally forward in the sound picture, nor is the orchestra obscured. And the cast must also take credit for their generally clear delivery of the text.

As Salome, Susan Bullock undoubtedly veers more towards the Isolde end of the spectrum than the 'sixteen year-old princess' but it's a powerful and remarkably secure account that suggests her forthcoming Elektra at Covent Garden will be something to look forward to. She manages to surf the orchestra only getting swamped slightly in the final climax. This is not ideally seductive vocalism and her vibrato gets in the way of some of the floated phrases, yet although it broadens in some of the more expansive lines, her intonation is secure and the sound itself never curdles. It also has to be admitted that the English language does seem less suited to creating a character of potent and exotic seductiveness. The new language also affects the characterisation of Herod and Herodias: John Graham-Hall and Sally Burgess are maybe a touch over the top but wonderful in their bickering, and their exchanges are all the more amusingly spiteful and bilious when given the intimately domestic character singing in English seems to bring with it.

John Wegner's Jokanaan is perfectly respectable but he's probably the least impressive of the cast. The voice itself lacks the weight and authority that has distinguished the best singers of the role in the past, most recently Michael Volle in David McVicar's Royal Opera Production, both live and on DVD. He fails singularly to send a shiver down the spine at 'Never! Daughter of Babylon! Never! Daughter of Sodom!' and in his cursing, while his intonation is not ideally spot-on in the lyrical passages. In the other roles, Chandos has selected a group of fine singers, including Andrew Rees as Narraboth and Rebecca du Pont Davies as the page.

An excellent quintet of Anton Rich, Wynne Evans, Colin Judson, Alasdair Elliot and Jeremy White should also be commended for making most of the theological bickering of the Jews audible, another passage that's particularly successful in English.

For any who are reluctant to go near Salome in English I would recommend reconsidering. Quite apart from the fact that this recording captures one of the best readings of Strauss's wonderful score for years, the drama is also communicated with a refreshing directness. A bonus track of the concert version of the 'Dance of the Seven Veils' is less of a clincher than the fact that Chandos are offering the set at a two-for-one price. Highly recommended, then, to all but the most zealous purists.

By Hugo Shirley

UK Release Date: 27 October 2008