The outstanding production of Verdi’s Masked Ball at the Salzburg Festivals 1989 and 1990 was Herbert von Karajan’s legacy to the Festival. Supported by a cast of superlative actor-singers in opulent scenery, Sir George Solti agreed to conduct the opera at short notice after Karajan’s unexpected death in 1989. The production had been expected to be a highlight in Karajan’s series of Verdi operas at Salzburg. Karajan’s celebrated ability to unite a cultivated sound with dramatic effects was known to create extraordinary and highly acclaimed opera events. For Un ballo in maschera Karajan planned something unusual: He would not set the opera in colonial Massachusetts, as the censors had forced Verdi to do when he was composing the work, but in Stockholm in the 1790s at the court of King Gustav III of Sweden, as Verdi had originally conceived his work. Together with the film director John Schlesinger and his stage team, Karajan developed a concept that promised theatrical splendour equal to the musical excellence that the conductor and the handpicked cast of singers would surely provide in collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
It’s interesting that Georg Solti’s recordings of Strauss tone poems seem never to have gotten the attention that they deserve. True, he did not program them with the same frequency and comprehensiveness that he did Strauss’ contemporary Mahler, but Solti’s credentials as an exciting and idiomatic conductor of the operas have never been questioned. He knew and worked with the composer personally from his days at the helm of the Munich opera after the Second World War, and more to the point, he plays this music with just the kind of directness and virtuosity that it demands.
Solti's interpretations held more than surface excitement. In conducting Beethoven, for example, he long held that the symphonies should be played with all their repeats to maintain their structural integrity, and he carefully rethought his approach to tempo, rhythm, and balance in those works toward the end of his life. Solti began as a pianist, commencing his studies at age six and making his first public appearance at 12. When he was 13 he enrolled at Budapest's Franz Liszt Academy of Music, studying piano mainly with Dohnányi and, for a very short time, Bartók. He also took composition courses with Kodály.
Au moment de cet enregistrement, au début des années quatre-vingt, Sir Georg Solti était encore tout auréolé du prestige d'une précédente interprétation du Bal masqué réalisée en 33 tours. Plus encore que dans la première mouture, le chef d'origine hongroise exacerbe ici la violence du drame, poussant tous les personnages vers leur destin, dans un souffle épique d'une rare intensité. Une distribution quasiment idéale fait face au chef : un Pavarotti de la grande époque, un Bruson idiomatique et une Christa Ludwig d'une ardeur insoupçonnée.
After more than forty years this remains the best recording of "Tannhäuser" for a number of reasons. Good recordings have never been thick on the ground and while this one is by no means perfect, it pretty much kicks everything else into touch by virtue of the extraordinary vibrancy and erotic ambiance of Solti's direction - I believe this to be his finest achievement in terms of pure conducting.
So this is, on the whole, a fine performance. The only other commercial recording of Die Meistersinger to come along in the last couple of decades has been Sawallisch's (for my review see Fanfare 18:3). And that one, despite its many virtues, is seriously disfigured by Weikl's Sachs. So if you want a Meistersinger in up-to-the-minute digital sound, you would do better with Solti. I must add, however, that while the sound on this new recording is very full and clear, it lacks warmth.
Georg Philipp Telemann is one of the composers whose cause Ricercar has always championed with fervour. To commemorate the 250th anniversary of his death, Ricercar now presents a reissue of its vast repertory, which makes up a complete portrait of the output of this inspired contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach: his sonatas, trios, fantasias, concertos and suites written for all sorts of instruments are accompanied by several sacred compositions, cantatas, and a St Matthew Passion which, like a number of other works in the set, is released on disc for the first time.