The discography of Strauss’s last opera is not exactly crowded, but the two existing accounts provide formidable competition for any newcomer. First there was Sawallisch, conducting the Philharmonia for EMI in 1957 (unfortunately in mono) and a cast led by Schwarzkopf, Ludwig and Fischer-Dieskau. Then, in 1971, came that other supreme Straussian, Karl Böhm, with Janowitz, Troyanos and (again) Fischer-Dieskau, recorded in Munich for DG. The new Decca set brings together many of today’s leading exponents of Strauss’s roles, dominated, for me, by the unsurpassed Clairon of Brigitte Fassbaender, now alas, never to be heard on stage again following her retirement. Heilmann and Bär make an ardent pair of rival suitors, Hagegård an admirable Count and Halem a sonorous, characterful La Roche. (There is a delightful link with the past history of the opera in the person of Hans Hotter: he sang Olivier in the 1942 premiere, La Roche in the 1957 Sawallisch set, and here, at 84 when recorded in December 1993, a one-line cameo as a servant.) For many, though, the set’s desirability will rest on Te Kanawa’s Countess.
Skip Sempé is a world-renowned virtuoso harpsichord player, ensemble conductor, and the founder of the early music group Capriccio Stravagante. He has won acclaim as a solo harpsichord player with a striking control over the often inflexible tone of the instrument and as an authoritative and stylish interpreter of Baroque-era continuo realizations from figured bass.
This disc is really something special. Collectors are so spoiled for choice in the baroque repertoire at present, particularly on period instruments, but even in a glutted market this disc stands out for imaginative repertoire selection and outstanding interpretation. Its particularly gratifying, in these days of complete editions of everything, to see a discerning artist like Giuliano Carmignola choose four remarkably diverse works by three different composers, and simply play the living daylights out of them. The result roundly disproves the notion that Italian baroque violin concertos all sound the same, a point made even more forcefully by imaginative continuo work (on harpsichord, lute, and organ) by the Venice Baroque Orchestra that helps to emphasize each pieces individual character. The two Vivaldi concertos, for example, couldnt be more different.