For anyone wanting to try the operas of Richard Strauss, one need not look much further than this compilation of excerpts from several of his operas. As critics and academics have begun to take Strauss more seriously over the past decade or so (and been less likely to engage in politically-charged character assassination), even his formerly-neglected later works have received more performances and been recorded with greater frequency.
This compilation includes excerpts from some of those lesser-known operas, including "Arabella" (1933) and the increasingly better-known "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" (1919). Ironically, these are the oldest excerpts on the recording, including a crisp "Arabella" from 1957 with supreme Straussian conductor Georg Solti and supreme Straussian singer Lisa Della Casa, as well as a rough-sounding "Frau Ohne Schatten" excerpt from 1955 (but then, it's conducted by Strauss' friend Karl Bohm, which makes up for it). Solti also makes an appearance on this album for a 1979 recording of "Es Gibt ein Reich" from "Ariadne auf Naxos," which seems to have hovered for years in limbo between the three major Strauss operas and "lesser" Strauss works.
Although I like the other excerpts, my greatest affection is still reserved for those three major operas: Rosenkavalier, Elektra, and Salome. Solti returns to this recording for a third appearance (this time armed with Birgit Nilsson) for a thundering interpretation of Elektra's soliloquy over her father's grave, fantasizing about vengeance against her mother and her mother's love-toy for his murder. This excerpt comes from Solti's complete 1967 recording, for some reason no longer available in the States. Although there are other wonderful interpretations of Strauss' 1909 shocker (especially Wolfgang Sawallisch's 1990 recording, also unavailable in the States), none match Solti's for sheer horror and brutality. This little nibble gives just a taste of its acidity.
Preceding the brutality of the "Elektra," one can swoon to the dreamy, "himmlisch" trio from "Der Rosenkavalier." It begins after the humiliation of the boorish character Baron Ochs, then builds to what's become known as the trio. Prior to this recording, I had never heard of the conductor Silvio Varviso, but he leads one of the most beautiful trios I've ever heard. The horns whoop in something that comes close to Liebestod-like ecstasy at the climax, with the three singers flowing naturally with the music. For me, this version (as well as the Renee Fleming/Susan Graham/Barbara Bonney trio under Christoph Eschenbach) comes very close to the listening experience Sam Abel describes in "Opera in the Flesh"; an aural "menage-a-quatre," culminating in a sweet and sad feeling of ecstatic release.
For those seeking a less sentimental and more dangerous form of ecstatic release, two (Yes... two!) excerpts from "Salome" round out the recording. Strauss "meister" Herbert von Karajan conducts a savagely silky "Dance of the Seven Veils" from 1960, culminating in a sensually feline climax during the waltz-like portion of Salome's striptease for her stepfather. After the dance pounds away to its conclusion, Salome awaits her reward: the head of the holy man Jokanaan on a silver platter. The recording of this excerpt of the final scene comes from 1974, with Christoph von Dohnanyi (who also works wonders with his insightful performances of Strauss) conducting future wife Anja Silja in a performance that transforms the horror of the scene into an object of beauty. Silja's voice pierces the orchestra like a silver bullet in this night of moonlit madness, with its nightmarish phantasms of a fin de siecle Vienna, of obsessive lust consuming all in its path, of sexual (and perhaps spiritual) transfiguration proclaimed by the cosmic ascension of horns at the final scene's climax.
For anyone wanting to try Richard Strauss' operas, this mid-priced compilation of excerpts provides an excellent starting point. Even for Straussians (or at least those who don't have the complete operas from which many of these excerpts derive), this compilation includes some wonderful highlights. In short... highly recommended for anyone who likes mind-blowing music.