It was most fortuitous that these two sets arrived at the same
time, as they make for a fascinating comparison. One is able to hear side
by side one of the great Wagnerians of the recent past with one of the
very finest of the current generation. It has to be said straightaway
that the Solti Dutchman was not generally considered as one of
his better achievements in the studio. In a recent Gramophone survey that
looked at all the (then) currently available versions of Wagner’s first
real masterpiece, Alan Blyth dismissed the Solti Chicago recording as
being "marred not only by his abrupt, blatant treatment of the score
and by unidiomatic playing from the Chicago orchestra, but also by indifferent
singers". He went on to pick fault with most of the cast, finding
praise only for Martti Talvela, whose "characterful Daland remains
as sole asset". Many other general guides also found this recording
to be probably the weakest of Solti’s entire Wagner cycle, certainly nowhere
near the achievement of his Ring or Tannhauser. It would
be interesting to hear what Blyth will make of the new Teldec Dutchman.
Barenboim’s approach in so many ways represents the antithesis of the
hard-driven Solti, and coming, as it often does with this conductor, on
the back of recently staged performances, the resulting electricity and
spontaneity are indeed impressive.
I have to confess here to a slight partiality regarding
the Solti. When I was a music student in the late 1970s, the music library
at the time held only one version of Dutchman, this very one.
I remember playing it many times, and always wondered why it had been
so poorly received. Now, after a twenty-odd year gap, I can plainly
hear the good and the bad in this performance. For a start, when one
has experienced the earlier Decca approach, masterminded by John Culshaw,
where the listener is given a truly theatrical aural production, complete
with tasteful special effects, Solti’s Dutchman does seem remarkably
studio bound. This is most obviously apparent in the ‘supernatural’
elements of the score – the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship, the ‘yo-ho’s’
from Daland’s crew across to the ghost crew at the start of Act 3, where
the two male choruses appear to be side by side. Barenboim’s engineers
have tried to at least give us a taste of the theatre, with good spatial
separation and the odd touch of reverb echo. This is, of course, a personal
thing, and would not bother some listeners one jot if the actual performances
were any good. This is where the comparisons get interesting.
The conducting of Barenboim seems to me to be virtually
ideal in all important respects. Take the Overture. The timings from
both conductors are remarkably similar, Solti taking 11’05 against Barenboim’s
10’19. Solti’s extra seconds come mainly from using the revised version,
with its extra ‘Tristanesque’ transformation cadence added to the end,
so the timings are extremely close, and yet the results are very different.
Solti maintains a fairly consistent, quick-ish pulse which is fine as
far as it goes, but seems prosaic and a tad dull beside Barenboim. In
his hands, the ‘salty sea air’ which pervades this music really comes
through, and the ebb and flow of the internal tensions in the music
is made to feel tangible. Wagner’s consistent use of diminished sevenths
(so criticised by Berlioz) is varied in Barenboim’s hands, and he adopts
the Furtwängler idea of a ‘breathing pulse’ which lets the contours
of each phrase surge and then pull back, very effective in music of
this sort. This approach is adopted throughout, with long paragraphs
of the score varied from within, the orchestra following his every twist
and turn. There is nothing wrong with Solti’s conducting, it just doesn’t
seem to bring the music alive quite as effectively.
The casts in the two recordings have their strengths
and weaknesses. Of the two title characters, I found most satisfaction
from Falk Struckmann. He is a Barenboim regular, having sung superbly
in the latter’s Lohengrin and making a memorable impression as
Kurwenal in Tristan. Here he is able to really dominate, and
his tortured Dutchman comes over as virile and masculine, yet understandably
anxious and even vulnerable. Norman Bailey is good vocally, though a
touch strained in the upper register, but appears too avuncular and
‘comfortable’ in the part. The first great monologue ‘Die Frist ist
um’ (the time is up) gives us the two basic approaches to perfection.
Struckmann (encouraged by Barenboim) makes the aria into a mini-opera
in its own right, pointing words more effectively and building climaxes
inexorably, where Bailey sounds too polite and gentlemanly. Some of
his more introspect moments are convincing, but Struckmann scores in
nearly every scene, especially as things hot up.
I have reservations about Jane Eaglen’s portrayal of
Senta. Of course she is capable of great contrast and her vocal ability
is admirable, but she doesn’t convey enough of the fiery spirit of the
girl, and consistently sounds too mature for the part. She tones the
voice down for her famous Ballad (which Barenboim transposes up to its
original key of A minor), but when things get feverish, the voice spreads
uncomfortably, approaching a squall in places. There are many good things
(her first meeting with the Dutchman is effective) but it is a little
uneven overall. In the Solti set Janis Martin, who was criticised originally
for being too girlish and one-dimensional, now sounds quite convincing.
Her dreamy idealism fits the bill, and she certainly is sweet-toned
and naive enough to be a young Wagner heroine. The voice has a slightly
quicker vibrato that sounds strained in places, but doesn’t produce
as much of a beat as Eaglen. Overall, I found much to enjoy in her performance.
Barenboim’s Erik is Peter Seiffert (a one time Steersman
for Sinopoli) who has already recorded the part for the outstanding
Naxos set under Pinchas Steinberg. Here, ten years on, his voice is
not quite as fresh, though the interpretation has matured. Seiffert
has blossomed under Barenboim (he sings a superb Lohengrin for
him) and he uses his experience to make the most of what can be a rather
wimpish, thankless role. He is certainly in better voice than Rene Kollo,
who sounds strained almost all the time for Solti. At his best (say
in the RCA Die Tote Stadt ) he is a great artist, but too often
in the big Wagner roles he doesn’t sound up to the job. It wouldn’t
surprise me to see Barenboim’s Steersman as a future Erik – and more.
The Spanish tenor Rolando Villazon sounds for all the world like a young
Domingo, and gives a touching portrayal of the virile but naïve
youth that is exciting and convincing. Old hand Werner Krenn does what
is required of him for Solti.
There is not much to choose between the two Dalands,
though on balance I think I prefer the greater variety of Martti Talvela,
also recording the part for the second time. Robert Holl, who certainly
has a magnificent voice, sounds a shade under-characterised by comparison.
So, pros and cons for both sets. The Solti is now at
mid-price, and though in re-mastered analogue sound, is full and resonantly
clear, well up to Decca’s house standards. The Teldec sound is demonstration
worthy, with voices superbly placed and the rich carpet of orchestral
tone sounding sumptuous and rich. Orchestral playing on both sets is
first-rate, though I feel the palm must go to Barenboim here, the German
orchestra producing marvellous string unanimity and wind and brass playing
that is not crude or brash, just thrilling and vital. Choruses on both
are excellent. The Teldec booklet note is by current Wagner expert Mike
Ashman, who always gives a provocatively different angle on familiar
music. The Decca booklet produces a long and wonderfully detailed account
of the opera’s genesis from much-missed Wagner scholar Deryck Cooke.
The Solti set should not be written off as one of his
Wagnerian ‘also-rans’ – there are too many good things in it, particularly
Janis Martin and Martti Talvela. But Barenboim’s set is a superb climax
to his Wagner series, by any standards one of the best of recent years.
Older collectors will have their firm favourites (Keilberth and Klemperer
come to mind) but younger music lovers coming new to this score will
find on the Teldec a sense of real discovery, of a conductor still thrilled
by the inspiration of Wagner’s ground-breaking vision.