Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer

The Gramophone Choice

Theo Adam (bass-bar) Holländer Anja Silja (sop) Senta Martti Talvela (bass) Daland James King (ten) Erik Annelies Burmeister (mez) Mary Kenneth MacDonald (ten) Steuermann BBC Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer

Testament SBT2 1423 (151’ · ADD · T/t) Recorded live 1968. Buy from Amazon

Thanks to Testament, we now have the Royal Festival Hall performance, as broadcast by the BBC, to put alongside the Abbey Road recording (below – made by EMI at the same period) which might be justifiably deemed one of two or three great readings of the score on CD.

The two main characters are taken by the same singers, Theo Adam and Anja Silja. Martti Talvela and Annelies Burmeister can also be heard on both sets. The main difference is in the tenor department. James King, rather than Ernst Kozub, would probably have sung Erik in the studio if Decca had been willing to release him, and although this is a notoriously unrewarding part – especially when it has to be acted as well as sung – King’s distinctive tonal combination of purity and weight was certainly a bonus in the Festival Hall, just as Kenneth MacDonald makes a fine Steersman. The most remarkable aspect of the performance nevertheless remains the empathy between Klemperer, Silja and Adam. Adam’s Act  1 monologue seizes the dramatic high ground but Silja raises the stakes still further with an electrifying account of Senta’s Ballad, and the long duet which ends Act 2 has rarely been as intense and eloquent as it is here.

Live performance always brings risks: there is a split brass note early in Act 1, and Talvela loses his way briefly a little later on. But Klemperer’s love of the music’s raw edges and robust rhythms is evident throughout. Even at the stately tempo he adopts, the Act 3 sailor’s dance is so strongly projected that the tension never sags for a moment, and Klemperer’s eccentric devotion to the three-act version of the score is far less damaging than it would be in a performance of lower voltage.

The recorded sound also comes up pretty well in this remastering. This extraordinarily ‘live’ reading of Wagner’s windswept score now has the edge, even over the admirable studio alternative.


Additional Recommendations

Theo Adam (bass-bar) Holländer Anja Silja (sop) Senta Martti Talvela (bass) Daland Ernst Kozub (ten) Erik Annelies Burmeister (mez) Mary Gerhard Unger (ten) Steuermann BBC Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer

EMI Great Recordings of the Century 567408-2 (152‘ · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1968. Buy from Amazon

Klemperer’s magisterial interpretation of this work was unavailable in any form for far too long so its reissue was most welcome. As ever, Klemperer by and large justifies some moderate tempi by the way in which he sustains line and emphasises detail. Only once or twice – in the Spinning and Sailors’ choruses – do you sense a lack of propulsion. Otherwise throughout there’s a blazing intensity to the reading that brooks no denial. The storm and sea music in the Overture and thereafter is given stunning power, and the Dutchman’s torture and passion is evoked in the orchestra. Indeed, the playing of the New Philharmonia is a bonus throughout. Klemperer catches as convincingly as anyone the elemental feeling of the work – the sense of the sea, basic passions and the interplay of character unerringly adumbrated. 

There have been few baritones before or since Theo Adam who have sustained the line of the Dutchman so well and so intelligently reached the heart of the matter where the text is concerned. Silja’s bright, sometimes piercing timbre isn’t to everyone’s taste but hers is a most moving portrayal of trust, loyalty and love unto death, the interpretation of an outstanding singing actress. Martti Talvela, singing magnificently and suggesting a formidable presence, is a bluff, burly Daland. Ernst Kozub’s Erik has its clumsy moments but one admires the shining tone. Gerhard Unger offers an ardent, cleanly articulated Sailor. Annelies Burmeister is a ripe Mary. The overall sound is a shade on the dry side but doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. 


Hotter Holländer Varnay Senta Nilsson Daland Svanholm Erik Glaz Mary Haysward Steuermann Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, New York / Reiner 

Naxos Historical mono 8 110189/90 (133. · ADD · S) Recorded live 1950. Buy from Amazon

This performance marked the Met house debut of Hans Hotter, and what a debut! Varnay and Hotter seem to inspire each other to astonishing feats of musical and dramatic truth. Among historic recordings, this deserves a place up there with the Clemens Krauss. 

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014