If the new Philips recordings of "Der Rosenkavalier," Richard Strauss' noble yet bewitchingly comic testament to human love and self-sacrifice, were the only one we had, we certainly wouldn't be that bad off. But given the exceptional success with which this long and taxing work's challenge is met in each of its four other complete recordings (plus the historic abridged version by Lotte Lehmann), why was this version (Philips 6737 030, four records) needed? Of the other versions you may have your preference, Schwarzkopf-Karajan is marginally mine, though maybe that's because I once saw that resplendent production. Any of them, though is first-rate (a rare happening in the recording business).
This new recording from the Netherlands, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and a predominately American cast, is lovely - so lovely, in fact, that one hates to declare for the competition.But at too many major spots in this huge tableau of an opera, that is this version's undeserved misfortune. Why, one wonders, did this splendid group of performers not instead choose to shower distinction upon themselves by recording a less familiar Strauss opera - a work where they would not face such excellent recorded competition? One is tempted to think that one or more of the Philips' singers wanted very much to record "Rosenkavalier" and that perhaps the company reasoned that rendering this favor now might entail a reciprocal favor for another recording. And if the singer, or one of them, was Frederica von Stade, who glowingly performs Octavian, the Cavalier of the opera's title, one can hardly blame her. Her Octavian is marvelously passionate, with golden-hued high tones and a fetchingly nubile ripeness throughout the whole range.
Frankly, one can't blame any singer for wanting to do "Rosenkavalier"; everything about this drama of imperial life in 18th-century Vienna functions on the highest esthetic level. Thus, as Beverly Sills was emceeing a gala at Wolf Trap recently and a member of the audience inquired about her favorite opera, it wasn't really so surprising to hear her answer: "I'm afraid it's one I've never done. "Rosenkavalier.'" She said, though, that before she stops, she will sing the opera's central character, the Marschallin, a grand eminence of a princess with a young lover, Octavian (by the way, in case you're confused, the young man, in 18th-century style, is sung by a mezzo-soprano). The Marschallin realizes that soon, because of her age, the affair will have to end. She determines that if such be the case it must end with dignity. She helps guide Octavian away from her and into the arms of Sophie, a young girl, and the opera ends with the Marschallin straightening out some unanticipated complications and giving her blessing to the marriage.
On the Philips recording, the Marschallin is sung by another distinguished American singer, Evelyn Lear, a person with the musical and dramatic gifts for the part, but whose voice in this performance is curiously frayed and cautious, particularly the critical high notes. It must just have been an off day for Lear, for in recent appearances here her voice has been in fine form. In terms of pure tonal quality, there is some ravishing singing from the young Jose Carreras, as the unnamed Italian tenor with the single, soaring aria; if his style were a little less sobby, he would be right up there on top with von Stade.
The rest of the cast is thoroughly professional, as is the orchestra. But the orchestra must complete with the Vienna Philharmonic in other recordings of a score - perhaps the most formidable of all dramatic evocations of Vienna - that the Vienna orchestra could probably execute perfectly in inversion.
An adequate analysis of the other versions would require one to take an extended leave for listening and writing (this is no simple opera). Instead, here's a list: Heger (the abridged version with Lehmann) - Seraphim 6041; Karajan - Angel S-3563; Bernstein - Columbia D4X-30652; Solti - London 1435; and Kleiber - Richmond 64001. They are listed in no particular order of preference. All are excellent. So too, though, are the highlights of the new recording. If you have been found to exhibit a "vinyl recovery" effect where this version as a supplemental set. Or perhaps wait for the single disc of excerpts which will surely appear next year.