Salome, Emily Magee, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Emily Magee s, Wolfgang Koch bar, Peter Bronder t,
Michaela Schuster ms, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Pentatone PTC5186602 (2CD)

Recordings of Salome used to be almost ten-a-penny back in the good old days. Labels would line up to capture a leading Wagnerian soprano’s heady plunge into the musical psyche of Richard Strauss’s twisted princess. But that was then, and though this most visual of operas gets regular outings on DVD, the financial risk of large-scale studio recordings has put paid to a lot of that, at least from the majors. This Pentatone release, therefore, recorded live at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper Frankfurt (but so beautifully engineered that you’d never guess the the singers were emoting in front of an audience), is a reason to be cheerful indeed.

At the helm is the Colombian conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Music Director of the Houston Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic. He’s a maestro on the rise and this beautifully crafted, deeply felt recording is another feather in his cap. Only an intimate knowledge of the complexities of Strauss’s highly-strung blend of the frenetic and the sensual allows a conductor to triumph at the sometimes expansive pace Orozco-Estrada adopts here.

A keen ear for orchestral detail brings out a wealth of colours that other recordings leave buried, and yet he can be massive when called for. Just listen to the crushing weight he summons as Jokanaan is forced back into the cistern. This is also one of the most dissonant versions of the score you’ll hear, making it a true second cousin to Elektra. The final chords as Salome caresses the severed head of the Baptist are utterly blood-curdling.

American soprano Emily Magee is the leading lady in a performance of total conviction and enormous reserves. Intensely knowing and totally engaged with the text, Magee’s princess comes across as damaged goods from the start. No ingénue she, there’s a guttural quality at the bottom that is frequently terrifying. Snapping out the consonants, she clearly gets the sexual undercurrent in a line like “Er ist schrecklich. Er ist wirklich schrecklich” (He is awful. He is really awful). But listen to the following piano top note and prepare to be amazed. Occasionally it seems risk-taking will derail the train, but time and again Magee bounces back like a laser beam.

Her Jokanaan is Wolfgang Koch, a Helden baritone with plenty of ping at the top. He’s a good foil for Magee, quivering with disgust by the end of their confrontation. Peter Bronder is a fine Herod, his insightful voice dripping with lust – listen to his creepy interest in the dead Narraboth (a lovely lyrical performance from Benjamin Bruns) before moving on to his next passing fancy. Michaela Schuster’s firm mezzo makes Herodias less of a battle-axe than is often the case, and the small roles are generally well taken.

With its frequently histrionic edge, this is a performance very much on the verge of a nervous breakdown and may not appeal to all tastes, but for sheer
grisly operatic horror, it’s pretty hard to beat.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s recording of Salome with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony is Limelight’s Record of the Month in January/February. Read our interview with Emily Magee here.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine