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Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009) on Record

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Strauss, Salome, Karajan / WPh
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Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, Bernstein / BRSO
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Berg, Wozzeck, Abbado / WPh

As reported by every opera fan with a keyboard and internet access, Hildegard Behrens died Tuesday night in a hospital in Tokyo. (Blog post in the NYT, for example; Tommasini’s obituary here.) Behrens leapt into the limelight at age 40, when Herbert von Karajan pronounced to have found his Salome. “Ten years I have waited for a Salome; now I think I have found her” he allgedly proclaimed after watching her in Düsseldorf (1974) in another of her signature roles, that of Marie in Wozzeck. He took her to the Salzburg Festival, and from that moment on she was one of the great dramatic Strauss and Wagner sopranos—with hailed stops at Shostakovich (Lady Macbeth) and Janáček (Jenůfa)—until her voice left her in the early 90s.

Behrens can’t and wouldn’t be appreciated solely from her recordings. There are not that many to begin with, and only a hand full come close to showing why she was so highly thought of. Her famous early Bayreuth Brünnhildes were not caught on tape (or in any case haven’t been released yet). When she recorded it with Levine, she was in good voice but past her peak by a couple years. In any case, it is questionable whether sitting through Levine’s unremittingly broad, ostentatiously luxuriating Ring (if ever “glorious moments connected by dreadful quarter hours” was true…), just for her performance. The DVDs are no better; the Schenk production seems to aim at recreating the faded Ring-memory of an unimaginative Wagner Society member. I’d rather listen to Sawallisch’s fleet Ring with Behrens (EMI), even though by now her voice is really taking a toll on our ears and she isn't alone in exercises of pitch-ambiguity. For Wagner, her Isolde in Bernstein’s Tristan (Philips)—a much more lovable celebration of slowness than Levine’s Ring—is the best choice.

Let’s leave Wagner thus behind and focus on Strauss. Her Salome recorded with Karajan just after her Salzburg premiere (EMI) is perhaps the best recording to have, because neither failing ability nor modest or quirky conducting distracts the listener. Even if her Salome is not the most petulant teenager (at 40…) or the most fatally seductive creature, the singing is wonderful and the shimmering Vienna Philharmonic even better. I prefer Sawallisch’s “Frau ohne Schatten” over Solti’s (Decca), but Behrens’ third act performance of the Färberin, the Dyer’s Wife, is outstanding.

Her Fidelio remains a high point to those who have seen it; on record it is best preserved on a live recording on Orfeo with Böhm conducting, less so with Solti (Decca). Her Elektra under Ozawa (Decca) can’t be said to beat out the competition, but for the purposes of remembering Behrens it’s a fine document all the same. But none of these latter recordings can touch the one most un-controversially great one (next to Salome), and that’s her Marie (Wozzeck) under Claudio Abbado (DG)—which remains the first, although not only, choice among Wozzeck recordings on the market. Not the easiest music to wrap your ears around, but well worth the investment of time and effort, if Berg isn’t yet on your list of favorites.

Photo © Salzburger Festspiele: Hildegard Behrens as Salome, Salzburg Festival 1977

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