How can one decide between Lisa della Casa's many recordings of Strauss' Arabella? After all, she recorded the work twice for major labels -- this 1957 Decca recording with Solti conducting and a 1963 DG recording with Keilberth conducting -- and, beyond that, there are half a dozen or so extant live recordings. But of course, when you want a recording of Arabella, it has to have Lisa della Casa in the title role. With her voice of pure gold, her technique of absolute effortlessness, and her portrayal of enormous compassion, she is by common agreement the role's finest interpreter. So how does one decide?
Let's say that for reasons of sonic quality, we put aside the half dozen or so extant live recordings and stick just with the two major-label productions. What are the arguments for the Decca? Della Casa is younger, stronger, and more supple. Solti is colorful, powerful, and very dramatic. The Wiener Philharmoniker is brilliant, beautiful, and very virtuosic. The rest of the cast ranges from good to great with Otto Edelmann being the merely good and Hilde Gueden, George London, and Anton Dermota being the very great. John Culshaw's recording is deep, detailed, and very immediate. What are the arguments for the DG? Della Casa is older but wiser and deeper than ever. Keilberth is more than adequate but less than dramatic. The Bavarian State Opera Orchestra is more than adequate but less than beautiful. However, the rest of the cast, especially Fischer-Dieskau, is great to magnificent and the live sound is rich and very live. So how does one decide? Given the choice of two superlative performances, the answer is both. Forced to choose, the Decca might get the nod for conducting, but the DG might get the nod for the rest of the cast. Better to go with both.