Richard Strauss's Salome: which recording is best?
Alex Ross chooses his favourite recording (Gramophone Collection, May 2008)
Richard Strauss liked to pretend that Salome was a woman of no importance. When the Dresden Court Opera began rehearsing for the premiere of the composer's Oscar Wilde provocation, in 1905, Strauss spoke a few reassuring words to the orchestra. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘there are no difficulties or problems. This is a scherzo with a fatal conclusion.’ After the dress rehearsal, Strauss turned to an audience dumbfounded by what it had just witnessed Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist – and placidly remarked, ‘Well, I enjoyed that.’
Many have taken Strauss at his word, treating Salome as a gruesome middlebrow entertainment. For all its alien timbres, its chaotic prose rhythms, its Expressionist dissonances, its vertiginous aloofness from consistency of style, its virtuoso manipulation of expectations – in short, for all its colossal originality – Salome is still routinely filed away as kitsch. Yet few works of the fin de siècle exerted so broad an influence on the century that followed, from the writhing dissonances of Schoenberg's Erwartung to the neo-Romantic ironies of John Adams's Nixon in China. Accusations of vulgarity still shadow the piece; at the same time, the tinge of scandal makes it perpetually interesting. Salome will never become a mere museum object.
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