Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der fliegende Holländer (1843) [140.11]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) - Dutchman; Marianne Schech (soprano) - Senta; Gottlob Frick (bass) - Daland; Rudolf Schock (tenor) - Erik; Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) - : Steersman; Sieglinde Wagner - Mary
Berlin State Opera Chorus, Berlin Staatskappelle/Franz Konwitschny
rec. Grunewaldkirche, Berlin, February 1960
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94664 [73.43 + 66.28]
This recording has had a somewhat chequered history. Originally made in 1960 by Deutsches Schallplatten, it first appeared in the UK as a limited edition LP set available only through World Record Club. It then became more generally available, finally emerging as a mid-price reissue from EMI in their Everyman Opera series. However by that stage EMI already had in their catalogues later recordings conducted by Klemperer and Karajan, and the set never received a premium issue from that source. In the CD era, like a number of other recordings emanating from the former East Germany, it surfaced on Berlin Classics in 2005. It remains available in that form. Now out of copyright, it appears here in a re-mastered edition with a vastly improved cover design from the enterprising Brilliant Classics. It’s presumably drawn from the original LP pressings - as might indeed be suggested by the editing on the final CD, to which issue I shall come later.
The reason for this comparative neglect might seem surprising for a set containing performances by such top-flight artists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich and Gottlob Frick. In fact the cause is not far to seek. It lies in the absolutely awful assumption of the role of Senta by Marianne Schech. In the early 1950s she had established a substantial career in the more lyrical Wagnerian roles in German opera houses, and also sang Strauss’s Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. By 1962 her voice was in dreadful condition, with a prominent wobble and generally unpleasant and matronly tone. She also recorded Venus in Tannhäuser under Konwitschny at around the same time, with no more happy results. When reviewing this release the Penguin Guide cruelly observed that she issued “noises more reminiscent of the Flying Scotsman than the Dutchman”, and this cruel remark is unfortunately only too true. Nor is her tuning all that it should be; and her phrasing is bumpy, with hardly any legato tone to speak of. To tell the truth, she sounds like the Dutchman’s mother.
Which is a great pity, because this set is otherwise very good indeed in a field which is not overburdened with good performances of Wagner’s first mature opera. The First Act, featuring Fischer-Dieskau, Frick and Wunderlich, must still be counted among the best performances in the catalogue. Konwitschny was never among the greatest of Wagnerian conductors, but he had plenty of experience in the music. He had conducted The Ring at Covent Garden the year before this recording was made, where he gained a reputation as a drinker and was nicknamed “Konwhiskey” by the orchestra. He conjures up the right sense of excitement in the score even if he sometimes presses on too quickly, as at the end of the overture and the opera itself - given in Wagner’s later revision. By and large his interpretation and pacing is fine, and the orchestra plays extremely well for him.
Fischer-Dieskau as the Dutchman is - well, Fischer-Dieskau. That is to say, he is immediately recognisable as being the singer he is, and no amount of dramatic interpretation on his part is going to turn him into the satanically driven wanderer rather than a thinking human being. Having said which, he is absolutely marvellous in the part. At nearly every turn, he adds something to the score by way of enlightenment about either words or music. Many baritones treat the central prayer in the Dutchman’s opening monologue as a still point in a rampaging storm. Fischer-Dieskau turns it into the emotional centre of the scene, not just singing quietly but adding intensity to every phrase. There are those who will dislike this level of what they will call over-pointing of the words, but it brings even the most mundane passages - as in the long duet which closes the First Act - to three-dimensional life. The three Acts, incidentally, are run together in the modern fashion which was apparently Wagner’s original intention. There is no hint here of the later Fischer-Dieskau habit of breaking into Sprechstimme at moments of stress. This is, throughout, a thoroughly sung interpretation, and it is really something very special.
Rudolf Schock was generally known during his career as an operetta singer, but he branched out into the German lyric-heroic repertoire and was a creditable Max in Der Freischütz and Walther in Die Meistersinger, both of which he recorded with success. He is not particularly dramatic here as Erik, but he sings with poise and sympathy and manages not to make his cavatina too saccharine. Fritz Wunderlich would have been wonderful to hear in the part, but here he is confined to the smaller role of the Steersman, and sings his little song most beautifully even if he doesn’t sound in the least sleepy. Sieglinde Wagner - not so far as I know a relation of the composer - was a regular member of Wagnerian casts during the 1950s and delivers a solid account of Mary. Gottlob Frick is, as one would expect, a superb Daland; his saturnine tones never turn gritty, and his word-pointing in places is almost a match for Fischer-Dieskau. In many performances one finds oneself longing for the long duet between Daland and the Dutchman to end. It is one of Wagner’s least inspired passages in the score; not here, where the two singers strike sparks off each other without in any way twisting the music to their own ends. If only the duet between the Dutchman and Senta was similarly pleasurable to hear.
The recording is in good solid 1960s stereo sound. The solo voices are placed quite far forward in the balance, but the orchestra remains well in the picture although the chorus are pushed rather into the background which does their firm and solid singing rather an injustice. There are some small attempts at stereo production. The Steersman is set somewhat back at the beginning, and the Dutchman and Daland are at opposite sides of the sound-stage during their duet. There are, possibly thankfully, no added sound effects such as those that disfigure the near-contemporary Dorati recording on Decca with its noises of the Dutchman’s anchor clanking into what sounds like a bucket. On the other hand, the Dutchman’s crew is very obviously placed firmly onstage - coming from the left-hand rather than right-hand speaker - and they don’t sound in the slightest degree ghostly or supernatural. The gong-strokes in the orchestra at this point sound miserable too, like a badly amplified tea-tray.
I suppose one must expect that editorial decisions on the re-mastering of original LPs onto CD will be badly done nowadays, but one has again to complain - as so often before - about an unwanted interruption to the flow of the music in a Wagner opera. This time it comes just after the last call by the sailors and their girls to the Dutchman’s crew to wake up. There we get a full bar of silence after the eerie chord which follows it - and where the score clearly indicates that the orchestra should immediately enter fp. This clearly corresponds to a break between sides on the old LPs, and it should have been eliminated. One gets fed up with making the suggestion that whoever does these re-masterings should have a copy of the score in front of them, but such recommendations clearly fall on deaf ears. All record companies seem to be quite happy to go on committing the same errors time after time when re-mastering their old recordings.
Having got that off my chest, one can commend this set to fans of Fischer-Dieskau, Frick or Wunderlich, all of whose contributions are worthy of hearing. Given its major problems this will not do as a version of The flying Dutchman for the library shelf. Indeed, most of the sets in the current catalogue which I have heard - I can’t pretend to have heard all 54 of those currently listed - have quite major faults of one sort or another. It is no easier to cast early Wagner than it is his later masterworks. At the same time one does wish that conductors would respect the composer’s wishes and employ the revisions he made to the score following its first performances. Of the more modern recordings, Sinopoli on DG has the most interesting and best suited cast of all modern versions, if you can tolerate the conductor’s interventionist style and sometimes unconventional speeds. Otherwise Karajan on EMI, who takes a similarly weighty approach, has a generally good cast even if the dramatic involvement of a Fischer-Dieskau is missing from José van Dam’s approach to the title role. Norman Bailey in the Solti set is better still, but the recorded sound is disappointingly unatmospheric and the surrounding cast is less than ideal. Oddly enough one of the best sung modern versions in the catalogue which I have heard is the Chandos release conducted by David Parry, which is given in English translation.
The booklet contains the essay by Werner Wolf and the lengthy citation from Heine that were apparently included in the earlier Berlin Classics release. The libretto is available online.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
One can commend this set to fans of Fischer-Dieskau, Frick or Wunderlich but it will not do as a version for the library shelf.
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