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Götterdämmerung for the Sofiensaal
Götterdämmerung for the Sofiensaal
Record collectors and music lovers around the world will have been saddened on reading GMN’s news report on the fire that gutted Vienna’s Sofiensaal on 16 August and took with it one of the finest recording acoustics ever. There is no news as yet concerning the rebuilding of the hall, but recent reports suggest that the building's owners were considering turning it into a conference venue.

Situated on the Marxergasse in Vienna’s third district, a short stroll from the city's great concert halls and the State Opera, the Sofiensaal has seen a few changes in its 175 year history. It was originally not a salon at all, but a steam-bath, the idea apparently coming to the young Franz Morawetz after using bowls of steam to revive a Russian officer injured in the Napoleonic wars.

Intrigued by Morawetz’s plans, the Emperor gave the go-ahead for the daringly wide arch over the grand pool – quite a feat in its day. And the steaming Sofienbad (Sofien-bath – named after the Emperor’s mother) came into being in 1826. The Viennese, however, didn’t quite warm to the steam as much as their Austro-Hungarian cousins had in Budapest, and so some years later the pool was parqueted over and became host to cavorting couples dancing to the latest Strauss waltzes.

The legacy that the steam-bath left the dance salon was the large, vaulted ceiling and pool beneath the flooring which together gave the hall a unique acoustic. A century later, battle-scarred after a number of wars it was this same acoustic that led the Decca/London record company to adopt the building as its principal European recording venue in the mid 1950s.

The hall may have shed some of its former grandeur but gained acoustically and soon became home to a host of recordings from 1956 to the mid 1980s. Decca had secured the services of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and an inventive recording team headed by John Culshaw. Together with an array of the world's top conductors and artists, Decca and the VPO were to make a host of recordings, many of which have yet to find their match, sonically or artistically.

The list of conducting greats who recorded in the Sofiensaal range from Krips to Kleiber, Karajan and Knappertsbusch. Even a few now wielding their baton on the internet such as GMN artists Christoph von Dohnányi and Sir Charles Mackerras have paid hommage to the old steam-bath. Singers and instrumentalists too numerous to mention graced the venue - a few of them appear below in GMN's own tribute to some of the finest music played in Sophie's Salon!

Perhaps the most famous set to come out of the Sofiensaal was the first complete studio-recorded set of Wagner's Ring Cycle conducted by Georg Solti and including some amazing special effects as well as top-flight singing. Das Rheingold, in particular, is worth its weight in gold:


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CD: Out of Stock


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The dream team of Solti and soprano Birgit Nilsson don't take any prisoners in their stupendous recording of Strauss's Salomé:


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A very Viennese Figaro that, almost 50 years on, has never been surpassed - a Sofiensaal classic:


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The wonderful but short-lived voice of Elena Suliotis on full-throttle and beautifully countered by Marilyn Horne's incredible instrument:


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