Elektra / Starlight Express / Mendelssohn String Quartets Op. 44

STRAUSS: Elektra
Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra). Camila Nylund (Chrysothemis). Michaela Schuster (Klytämnestra). Hubert Delamboye (Aegisth). Gerd Grochowski (Orest); Netherlands Philharmonic Orch/Marc Albrecht, cond.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS SACD CC72565 (2 disks) TT: 62:30 & 40:29

ELGAR: The Starlight Express, Op. 78. Suite from The Starlight Express (arr. Sir Andrew Davis). CAREY: Three Songs from The Starlight Express
Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano (Laugher / Jane Anne). Roderick Williams, baritone (Organ-grinder / Gardener). Simon Callow, narrator; Scottish Chamber Orch/Sir Andrew Davis, cond.
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5111 (2 disks) TT: 58:03 & 80:03

MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet in D, Op. 44 No. 1. String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44 No. 2. String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80
Mandelring Quartet
AUDITE SACD 92.657 TT: 76:32

This Elektra from the Netherlands Opera is a knock-out in every way. Apparently this production by Willy Decker was so successful that it has been revived several times. Although no performance date is given, probably what we hear is a presentation from this past season. German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius has been singing major Wagner and Strauss roles.for about a decade in Dresden as well as other opera houses including Vienna, Berlin and La Scala, As Elektra she is quite remarkable, giving 110% right from her opening monologue. She has the power to accommodate conductor Marc Albrecht's leisurely tempi, and dramatically she is totally convincing. She might not have the sheer power of Nilsson at her best, but. there is no question that Herlitzius is among the finest singer of this demanding role of our time. Equally impressive is Michaela Schuster's Klytämnestra, firmly projected with a vulnerable quality usually not conveyed, and Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who herself has sung much Strauss and Wagner, is a perfect foil as the younger sister. Here she has controlled the vibrato that marred her recent solo disk (REVIEW).. Gerd Grochowski is a strong Orest, as is Hubert Delamboye as the doomed Aegisth. Although Marc Albrecht is sensitive to the tender moments of the score, he maintains tension throughout, and the orchestra is magnificent. Engineering captures rich orchestral textures to perfection. Perhaps this outstanding performance eventually will be issued on DVD; I surely hope so.

The Starlight Express is a children's play by Violet Pearn based on the novel A Prisoner in Fairyland by Algemon Blackwood. The "Starlight Express" actually is a 'train' of thought, a portal into the star world. Elgar was asked to write incidental music for it, and he was enthusiastic about the project composing a great deal of original music for it as well as utilizing a number of his own pieces, particularly from The Wand of Youth. The whimsical plot concerns a group of children living in the mountains and forests of Switzerland, a secret "Star Society" in which each child identifies with a familiar constellation. The concept is that adults were confused and disoriented, "wumbled" (a combination of "worried" and "jumbled"), and the children with their innocent wisdom solve problems. It had an unsuccessful premiere in December 1915, and is considered to one of Elgar's lesser works, although it does have its own charm with his numerous songs and interludes. The new Chandos issue is first-class in every way, offering a new score adapted by Sir Andrew Davis who conducts. The story is narrated by Simon Callow. Numerous tracks let you select just what you want, and you also can hear three songs from Starlight Express orchestrated by Sir Andrew David, and an extended orchestral suite orchestrated by Sir Andrew Davis. No texts are provided, but enunciation is so clear they are not needed. This music seems a rather odd choice for SACD, but here it is in wonderful sound, and the two disks are sold at a reduced price.

The Manderling Quartet (Sebastian Schmidt/Nanette Schmidt, violins; Roland Glassl, viola; Bernhard Schmidt, cello)has been around since 1988. Three of the members are related and the quartet takes its name from the street on which the Schmidt family lived. They have won many prizes and given countless concerts, all to the highest acclaim. Perhaps their familial relationship contributes to their remarkably precise playing and approach to music. Their recordings of the Shostakovich quartets are considered among the finest, and they also have recorded Brahms, Schubert and Schumann as well as music by more contemporary composers. Now they have turned their attention to the complete chamber music for strings by Mendelssohn —this is the second volume in the series, offering the two quartets from Op. 44 and the Quartet, Op. 80. All receive dazzling performances, light-textured and solid, and the quartet has been recorded in fine, if not particularly "surround" sound. Audite, a label for which I have the great admiration, has resisted the temptation to have each player in a corner, although this approach can be mightily impressive as it is in the Tacet series of Beethoven symphonies (REVIEW).

R.E.B. (December 2012)