This memorable live recording of Strauss’ bittersweet masterpiece was taken from live performances at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 and shows the company at maximum strength with an outstanding trio of female voices, some superbly idiomatic conducting and a fine supporting cast.

Cheryl Barker is Strauss’ Die Marschallin, a married woman trying to come to terms with the march of time who proves wise enough to let her younger lover move on to girl of his own age. The role sits well for her and plays to her natural strengths for vocal characterisation and attention to text. The odd shrill note aside, this is a deeply felt performance, possibly her finest on record. Emma Pearson is a delicious Sophie (the aforementioned younger woman), her pure voice managing the exposed high notes with greater ease than many a starrier name. Catherine Carby is equally distinguished as Octavian, ardent and youthful sounding, vocally able to compliment both Barker and Pearson. The various love duets are ravishing and the famous trio a genuine highlight.

The young Austrian bass Manfred Hemm makes a ripe and resonant Ochs with bags of character and genuine Viennese accent.  If his top is a little pushed, his resonant low notes are a compensatory delight. Warwick Fyfe is a firm voiced Faninal while Jacqueline Darke in excellent voice makes a great deal of the mercenary Annina, ably supported by Andrew Brunsdon as her accomplice, Valzacchi. Most of the smaller roles are excellently taken, the only let down being Henry Choo’s strained Italian tenor.

A great deal of the success is due to Andrew Litton’s masterly shaping of Strauss’ score. Again and again he is instinctively right in his pacing of the key moments in what can appear a fiendish test of conductor and orchestra. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra revel in the Viennese romanticism of it all and despite the occasional “live” instrumental accident this is a first-rate reading. The only drawback is the overall sound quality. The Opera House has a notorious acoustic and although the voices are generally well caught, some of the orchestral detail gets lost along the way. That would matter less if the overall engineering were better, but the recording sounds shallow, a fact more cruelly exposed via higher-end speakers. If that doesn’t bother you, however, (and I advise you not to let it) this is a recording to cherish.

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