WWRR Feature

Ljuba Welitsch

Record of the Week: 9th April, 2000

Ljuba Welitsch Compilation

HMV Treasury HLM 7006

Recorded: 1944 - 48

Originating Company: HMV Treasury from Columbia 78s and German steel tapes (?)

Performers: Welitsch, Philharmonia, Susskind, Krips; Vienna Radio Orchestra, von Matacic


Running Time: 51 mins total

Presentation: Textured card sleeve with b & w artist portrait and green floral design.

Leaflet with texts and translations, though sung German text of Tatiana scene was untraced.

Sleevenotes: Good. By Bryan Crimp, specific to the performances.

Provenance: 2 copies

Condition: Copy One: good playing condition, some surface marks. Copy Two: very good.

Sound quality: Good transfers by Bryan Crimp, presumably from surviving masters.

Rarity: Not uncommon, despite its apparent specialist appeal. The grapevine has ensured that Welitsch's Salome Scene is an essential library item.

Collectability: Essential listening.

Reissued on CD: EMI Réferences CDH7 61007 2, issued February 1988, now deleted? same items.

Literature: Gramophone March 1972, February 1988

Heard: 9th April 2000

Ljuba Welitsch was Bulgarian and was born in 1913. She made relatively few recordings and the disc under consideration gathers her UK-owned Columbias. Another anthology exists on US Columbia of slightly later material.

The voice is neither creamy nor shrill, possessing a small beat, to which the microphone is kind. The scale of a voice is notoriously the most difficult aspect for records to convey. We must assume, from her essaying of Salome, that the voice was very capable of riding the Straussian orchestra.

Tatiana. Reading the text of this scene, the beginning seems like a scene from Faust. All the ennui, the hesitation on the brink of selling the soul. If Tatiana sounds like Faust in drag, she is more surely Tchaikovsky himself. The identification of the composer with his creation was never more intense and the whole scene is something of a high point in 19th Century Russian opera. It succeeds in straddling the domestic and the epic, as a bourgeois young woman commits herself to a doomed love. Her hesitations are painstakingly depicted, her doubts insinuated and her growing certainty charted. It is a massive solo, longer in an uncut version than Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene. If this harping on German matters seems out of place, I should say that it is brought on by the recording, which is sung in that language.

Welitsch is an unique singer and her uniqueness is quickly established. Where others linger and milk the moment, she presses ahead, testing the ability of conductors to follow her. She conveys Tatiana's hunger for life and conveys it to the hilt.

A curious feature of her singing should be noted. For maybe twenty or thirty bars at a time, she will seem merely to sing. The performance goes forward, yet nobody seems to be at home. We know these moments, because we use them to count her failings. It does not seem an especially lovely voice in itself and the pressing ahead can seem like she is hurrying through the bits she finds dull. It is usually at the moment a doubt has formed that Welitsch confounds the listener by some sudden conversational intimacy that breaks through convention utterly. Even more astonishing is the way she achieves these moments without breaking the line for dramatic effect. Instead of the usual thing-sung we seem to get the thing itself and sung better than ever.

These dormant passages occur in her Puccini and the Ritorna Vincitor! In the latter, however I am convinced that her chosen tempo errs in the right direction. Similarly in Agathe's aria from Die Freischütz. Schwarzkopf certainly brought more cream to the prayer but Welitsch's ability to turn on a sixpence emotionally seems to me to embody the soul of real Romanticism.

The Clincher. Only one rôle, however, automatically causes her name to be evoked as a clincher in those "you should have heard so-and-so" arguments. The depraved adolescent Princess Salome. It may be that a complete recording exists somewhere in Germany. Information anyone? What we have on this EMI compilation is a 1944 recording of the final scene under Lovro von Matacic. The date and time may go some way to explaining the disappointments of the later career. Certainly this 17 minute bleeding chunk seems to have been recorded on steel tape, one of the wartime German technologies that were definitely ahead of their time.

Though the orchestra at the start and finish seem to have produced a volume that caught the recordist out, the sound of the voice is vivid throughout. It is youthful too, for this is the earliest of her recordings. Yet she seems to have sprung fully armed onto the stage. For the final kiss, Welitsch comes close to the microphone to deliver a scene of necrophilia that I should never have been allowed to hear when I was 17. Acquiring the record again, after many years, I was delighted to find it every bit as hair-raising as I had remembered.

There comes a point at which analysis gives up. Of all the Salomes I have heard, only Welitsch really convinced me that she was capable of kissing the dead. It is fashionable to dismiss the horrors of Salome as only skin-deep and Strauss as a sensation-monger whose technique could be turned to chocolate-manufacture at the turn of a switch. Yet hearing Welitsch as Salome again, the clock was turned back to a time when such music seemed to have come from the Devil himself.


© James Beswick Whitehead, 2000



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