WAGNER Der fliegende Holländer • Hans Knappertsbusch, cond; Hermann Uhde (Holländer); Astrid Varnay (Senta); Elisabeth Schärtel (Mary); Wolfgang Windgassen (Erik); Josef Traxel (Steuermann); Ludwig Weber (Daland); Bayreuth Fest ChRead more & O • ORFEO 10561, mono (2 CDs: 153:56) Live: Bayreuth 7/22/1955
Justly famed as one of the finest performances of this opera ever recorded, this premiere postwar Bayreuth production, like its wandering protagonist, comes to shore once again after several previous appearances on LP and CD, this time in the Orfeo D’Or series of issues from the Bavarian Radio archives. Despite its imperfections, anyone who does not already have this performance should buy it immediately, and anyone who already has it will need to replace that previous version with this one. The set has been produced with Orfeo’s usual meticulous care. The booklet contains numerous photos of the staging and the artists, supported by a detailed background essay. More importantly, the excellent monaural sound is noticeably superior to that on preceding issues; an A-B comparison with the previous fine Music & Arts issue (reviewed by Lynn René Bayley in Fanfare 31:6) reveals greater clarity of instrumental detail, more depth in the bass register, and more warmth and less stridency in the upper frequencies.
The strengths and weaknesses of this performance are well known, but bear repetition for those unacquainted with it. Among the former, foremost is Hermann Uhde’s Dutchman. While his voice is brighter in timbre, and a shade lighter in weight, than that of most baritones who assay this role, he is second to none in vocal and interpretive prowess. The production is rock-steady and seamless from bottom to top; his breath control, dynamic shading, and diction, exemplary; his characterization, one of utterly haunted, centuries-weary desperation forlornly in search of his angelically promised shred of hope. After a slightly unfocused start vocally, Ludwig Weber provides a rich-voiced, secure Daland, who for once is not caricatured as a grasping gold-digger, but instead is properly presented as a sympathetic character, whose fixation on the Dutchman’s riches stems from a desire to free both himself and his beloved daughter from a life of grueling toil. Rarity of rarities, both tenor roles are well cast, with Wolfgang Windgassen a forceful (if slightly hard-voiced) Erik and Josef Traxel a sweetly winning steersman, while Elisabeth Schärtel offers an appropriately vinegary Mary. The chorus sings superbly, projecting intoxicated exhilaration, stark terror, and ghostly menace as required, while the orchestra plays with discipline and commitment.
The two problematic points are Astrid Varnay’s Senta and Hans Knappertsbusch’s conducting. In a Fanfare review (not yet in the online Archive) of a previous LP incarnation of this performance, the late William Youngren praised Varnay as “her usual powerful self” and thought that Knappertsbusch’s monumental tempi nevertheless maintained forward momentum. I, however, generally agree with Bayley’s reservations (and with much else in her review). Anyone who has heard the Met broadcast debut of Varnay as Sieglinde in Die Walküre on December 6, 1941 (overshadowed the next day by news of Pearl Harbor), and followed it with her 1943 outing as Elsa in Lohengrin, knows how quickly her voice lost its initial silvery sheen and took on a dull, opaque quality through overuse in strenuous Wagnerian parts. What is effective for Ortrud (a prime Varnay role) does not work for Senta, who should be a young maiden and not the miscast Brünnhilde so often presented instead. Still, in her favor the voice is secure and steady, which is far more than can be said for most other sopranos on record (Kupper, Schech, Rysanek, Silja, Jones, and so on), and the restored sound makes her sound marginally less taxing. As for Knappertsbusch, it is amazing that his glacial approach (which requires the set to split Senta’s ballad in order to fit the performance onto two CDs) generally works and does not sink both the Dutchman’s and Daland’s ships beneath the waves. It most noticeably bogs down at transition points in the score, rather than in the set pieces.
As for alternatives, the opera, like its doomed protagonist, seems to operate under something like a curse when it comes to recordings. Despite not requiring either a Heldentenor or a heavyweight dramatic soprano, there is not one performance without a significant limitation. By far the best sung is the 1936 Stuttgart radio broadcast issued on Preiser, with the stellar vocal cast of Margarethe Teschemacher, Torsten Ralf, Hans Hermann Nissen, and a much younger Ludwig Weber all singing with bel canto beauty and lyricism, aided by fleet conducting from Carl Leonhardt. The monaural sound is superb for its era; however, the inferior three-act division of the revised score is used, and the booklet is in German only. The 1935 Teatro Colón performance on Pearl has an equally stellar vocal cast under the great Fritz Busch, but in unlistenably bad sound. The 1985 Bayreuth performance preferred by Bayley has generally solid but not stellar singing, and it presents Wagner’s original three-act version without the later redemption music added to the overture and finale, barring recommendation as a first choice. All other performances have serious (often lethal) deficiencies in the singing or conducting, though I have a soft spot for two of them. The 1971 Bayreuth performance on DG, led by Karl Böhm, has two-thirds of a perfect Holländer (the chorus is absolutely spine-tingling), but founders whenever the vocally gruesome Gwyneth Jones and Hermin Esser appear as Senta and Erik. Preiser has issued (in its no-frills budget “Paperback Opera” line) a 1951 Hamburg radio broadcast in fine monaural sound, with Hans Hotter and the much undervalued Helene Werth as the best Dutchman-Senta pair on disc, ably conducted by the similarly underappreciated Wilhelm Schüchter, but with a mediocre supporting cast and merely acceptable chorus. (All other CD issues of this performance are defective transfers and should be avoided.) So, until the Dutchman’s curse is redeemed, this Orfeo set remains a definite first choice as a performance of the standard one-act version.
Der fliegende Holländerby Richard Wagner Performer:
Josef Traxel (Tenor),
Wolfgang Windgassen (Tenor),
Elisabeth Schärtel (Alto),
Astrid Varnay (Soprano),
Ludwig Weber (Bass),
Hermann Uhde (Baritone)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,
Bayreuth Festival Chorus
Period: Romantic Written: 1841/1852; Germany Date of Recording: Live 7/1955
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
An outstanding "Dutchman" in improved soundSeptember 2, 2012By David Mead (Austin, TX)See All My Reviews"It's exciting that Orfeo, DG, Testament and others are releasing authorized issues of radio tapes of great live performances from great venues of the world. I happen to have bought recently two of Orfeo's series of Bayreuth performances (the other being Clemens Krauss's Ring from 1953). The production of "The Flying Dutchman" introduced at Bayreuth in 1955 was staged by Wolfgang Wagner (not Wieland). I have known Decca's commercial recording of this production for a long time and have always had mixed feelings about it. Now that I know the Ring that Decca recorded at the same festival (now available on Testament), I understand more clearly this production's failings. Decca/Testament's Ring, a performance of Wieland's famous first Ring production that ran 1951-58, despite being only an audio document, has a palpable sense of a unified ensemble effort on the stage and a gifted director providing a focus that brings the drama to life. "Dutchman" has a number of fine people--the same people--giving fine performances, but there is little sense of the ensemble working toward a dramatic purpose. But it gets more complicated. The opening performance of each production at a Bayreuth Festival is broadcast by the Bavarian Radio. "Dutchman" had six performances, and Decca's master was assembled from the last three performances that were conducted by Joseph Keilberth. The first three (and therefore the broadcast) were conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. There were also two Eriks, Wolfgang Windgassen in the first three shows and Rudolf Lustig in the last three. Lustig, who is quite okay as Loge in that summer's "Rheingold," as Erik is disastrously miscast. Listening to his two performances provides a powerful demonstration of the significance of tessitura. I warn listeners away from the Decca/Testament "Dutchman" because of Lustig's Erik and Keilberth's conducting, which is enthusiastic but unrefined, with the overwritten brass relentlessly in one's face and little sense of overarching shape. Kna's performance is not only a strong preference between these two, but also one of the most successful executions of "Dutchman" that I know of. Kna's tempi are distinctly slow and definitely not what I would choose for this piece, but he controls the balances in the orchestra well and faithfully captures the dramatic moods in his phrasing and articulations. Once one adjusts to HIS pacing, Kna's performance here (like many others) reveals extraordinary richness of orchestral sound, musical architecture, and storytelling. There are numerous performances by Herrmann Uhde that I enjoy and admire, but his Dutchman isn't one of them. Despite a fine interpretive and dramatic sense, he falls short too often of the heroic delivery that Hans Hotter provides in spades. Astrid Varnay is in complete vocal and dramatic control of Senta. Her Senta is a visionary and lovesick; my one reservation is that she sounds like a woman, not a girl. Ludwig Weber is my favorite Daland, not a mere clown but a smart businessman and a loving father. Vocally a bit ragged here (he died in 1956), his interpretation is remarkably consistent with his Stuttgart Radio performance from 1936 issued by Preiser. Last but by no means least among the principals, Windgassen is one of the best Eriks ever. Always at ease vocally, he expresses his passions and fears to Senta without whining. Now, the sound. For those who know the two previous issues (at least) of this recording, the overall sound is still pretty muddy. What makes this issue worth the expense, though, is that with careful equalization (boost the consonant-carrying high frequencies as far as they'll go) the singers' diction becomes clean and clear, and the whole experience becomes far more musical. My absolute favorite "Dutchman" these days is the 1950 Met broadcast issued in Europe by Naxos: Fritz Reiner's conducting is pretty much what I want in this piece, orchestrally lighter and fleet in the pacing. Hans Hotter's Dutchman is recorded better than in that 1944 performance, and Astrid Varnay in her first performances as Senta is closer to a girl's sound than in 1955. I've already mentioned the Stuttgart Radio recording led by Carl Leonhardt. The orchestra is of the second rank, but the cast is to die for: Hans Hermann Nissen, a Dutchman almost as fine as Hotter; Margarete Teschemacher as Senta (my favorite), a voice with both power and sweetness; a younger Ludwig Weber as Daland; and a sweet-sounding Torsten Ralf as Erik. Orfeo's issue of the 1955 "Dutchman" led by Knappertsbusch is a very close, very strong third place on my list."Report Abuse