28 July 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Johann Strauss: “Die Fledermaus”

“What could I say about Johann Strauss? We all have him in our blood. Musicians really don’t need to talk about him.”
Herbert von Karajan

Karajan’s affinity to the operetta is not generally well-known but its elegance, wit and pure melodical quality was something he couldn’t resist. Of course, his preference in this genre was the best-loved operetta in the German repertoire, Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus (The Bat)”.

Apart from “The Merry Widow” it is the only work in this genre that he recorded (twice). At the beginning of his career as “Kapellmeister” in Ulm, he was already keen on conducting “Die Fledermaus” but he couldn’t because his colleague Eugen Neff was the specialist operetta conductor. Karajan asked Neff if he would allow him to conduct the overture at the premiere. Neff agreed but only if Karajan would let Neff conduct the Vorspiel in his next “Lohengrin” production. Karajan refused brusquely…

In 1955, at the peak of Karajan’s collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra, he recorded “Die Fledermaus” with Nicolai Gedda, Rita Streich and Erich Kunz. His Rosalinde, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recalled what Karajan and producer Walter Legge wanted:

“It was the opposite of ‘routine’. They wanted grit, dash, pep. Nothing vulgar or sleazy. Karajan wanted the merest hint of rubato – freedom, yes, but a freedom that was so subtle it was impossible to talk about. In a word, he wanted ‘style’.”

His second studio recording was quite close to the first, only five years later. The Viennese cast (Vienna Philharmonic, Kmentt, Waechter, Güden, Köth, Berry) was extended by a number of star cameos at the ball in Act 2: Nilsson, del Monaco, Berganza, Sutherland, Björling, Price, Simionato, Welitsch, Corena and Tebaldi sang solos and duets ranging from “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” to “Summertime”.

Six months later, on New Year’s Eve 1960, Karajan conducted the premiere of a new production at the Vienna State Opera. Eight more performances were to come in 1961.

The “Fledermaus” overture as a concert piece was performed and recorded by Karajan many times from the 1940s up to his last years, for example in his only Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert in 1987.

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