Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Fliegende Holländer (1843)
Senta – Astrid Varnay (soprano)
The Dutchman – Hermann Uhde (bass-baritone)
Erik – Rudolf Lustig (tenor)
Daland – Ludwig Weber (bass)
Mary – Elisabeth Schärtel (contralto)
The Steersman – Josef Traxel (tenor)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
rec. live, stereo, assembled from rehearsals, 14, 21 July and performances, 30 July and 3, 6, 15, 19 August 1955, Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

Despite the plethora of recordings available, a really good, satisfying recording of Wagner's first true masterpiece is hard to find. Many sets have great virtues but also concomitant flaws. The greatest Dutchman on record would perhaps be Hans Hotter in his prime in a 1944 Munich studio broadcast. However Viorica Ursuleac's treacly soprano is not to all tastes and the sound, while perfectly tolerable for its age and provenance, is primitive.

I have always considered this Keilberth edition to be the best available even when I owned it only on mono CDs rather than the three stereo LPs issued in 1976. Previously, if you had to have a stereo recording, the choice was trickier, as none really leapt out as the best option. I discount two that some swear by as I am no great fan of either Fischer-Dieskau or Theo Adam, but I do very much like Anja Silja's febrile Senta which is heard to advantage in what I consider to be one of the two best stereo recordings: the 1960 studio set from Decca, which has two great stage animals in George London and Leonie Rysanek but suffers from Dorati’s rather tame conducting, and the live Bayreuth recording from 1961 under a youthful, more energised Wolfgang Sawallisch with the rich-voiced Franz Crass, aging, but characterful, Josef Greindl as Daland and an otherwise indifferent cast.

However, now that this 1955 Keilberth performance, assembled from various rehearsals and performances at Bayreuth in July and August in 1955, has been made available in stereo by Pristine, it takes its place at the head of the field. It is self-recommending in that it features the superbly vocalised, deeply anguished Dutchman of the great Hermann Uhde and a tour de force from Astrid Varnay. Uhde is able to sound almost demented without losing tonal beauty and Varnay, despite a little trademark scooping, manages to rein in her Brünnhilde soprano to give us a mystical Senta who really does sound as if she already has one foot in another world. Some of the supporting cast are less impressive; the ungrateful role of Erik seems to be cursed on recordings but Rudolf Lustig is at least tolerable. Ludwig Weber is a bit woolly but aptly bluff and venal as Daland. Josef Traxel’s light, flexible tenor is very attractive as the Steersman. The Festival Chorus under Wilhelm Pitz is terrific. There is nothing in the least of the Kapellmeister in Joseph Keilberth’s assault on this marvellous score; he cranks up the tension relentlessly and inspires his performers. As a bonus and to emulate the original LP issue, engineer Andrew Rose has added an “Introductory Fanfare and Bells” in Ambient Stereo, derived from the LPs he used to prepare this CD remastering. I have run out of superlatives to praise his revitalisation of venerable recordings; you have only to listen to the first ten seconds of that stirring overture to realise what a difference his XR remastering process makes. This performance was always arresting even in mono but now it veritably leaps out of the speakers.

Some may wonder why I do not favour a more modern recording. Apart from a personal antipathy to the two Dutchmen I name above, I do not enjoy Karajan's weirdly low-key, "symphonic" treatment of the score; it is severely undercast, with Van Dam singing beautifully but having essentially the wrong voice and in any case being kept under wraps by Karajan's restrained approach. Clearly any sense of dramatic tension was compromised but its being recorded over two years and Karajan's insistence upon Van Dam playing the Dutchman as an introvert rather compromises the drama. Both Dunja Vejzovic and Peter Hoffmann are vocally embarrassed by the demands made upon them. She is thin and unsteady with weak top notes. He bleats and slides with an exceptionally unattractive, strangulated tone. Neither does Böhm's 1971 recording click and Solti's 1976 version in Chicago manages to be simultaneously sonically overblown and interpretatively rather dull - although I think it the best of the recordings in reasonably modern sound. Norman Bailey, Janis Martin and Martti Talvela all have the right voices - although Kollo is plain horrible, I'm afraid. Since then, as far as I'm concerned, despite a number of new recordings, it has been downhill all the way with nary a voice to challenge the post-war generation of Wagnerians. This live Bayreuth set is now clearly top of the heap.

Ralph Moore

This live Bayreuth set is now clearly top of the heap.