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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Recordings Review: Shiver Me Timbers

A Guide to The Flying Dutchman on disc.
The Flying Dutchman prepares to battle the Silver Surfer.
Art by Jack Kirby from Silver Surfer Vol. 1 No. 8, © 1969 Marvel Comics

Wagner's first "hit" opera, Der Fliegende Höllander captures the imagination from its salt-soaked opening bars. A lot of conductors have committed the Dutchman to disc. Some of them opt for the harp-drenched "happy ending" version. Some break the score into three acts instead of playing it straight through with no intermission. Here's a quick buyer's guide for getting your own coal-black ship with ghostly, blood-red sails....

Bayreuth Festival 1955 cond. Hans Knappertsbusch 1955
Senta: Astrid Varnay
Dutchman: Hermann Uhde
"Kna" conducted the Dutchman for only one season at the Bayreuth Festival. This 1955 live recording captures all the power of Wagner's nautical score. The to-flight cast includes great singers of the past. Hermann Uhde is a memorable Dutchman. Ludwig Weber is Daland. In real luxury casting ,the house's Brunnhilde, Astrid Varnay, sings her guts out as Senta. Opposite her is her Siegfried, the great Wolfgang Windgassen in the tiny role of Erik. Available only as a German import on the Orfeo label.

Royal Opera House at Covent Garden cond. Antal Dorati 1961
Senta: Leonie Rysanek
Dutchman: George London
This came out almost 50 years ago and remains a benchmark. Although Antal Dorati is better known for his recordings of Haydn (the maestro was the first to record all 104 of that composer's symphonies) he is an excellent Wagnerian. It doesn't hurt that his cast includes the powerful George London (before his decline) and Leonie Rysanek as the best Senta on record. Available as a 2CD "Double Decca".

New Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Otto Klemperer (EMI/WBC 1968)
The great Klemperer did not record nearly enough Wagner, but this fine 1968 set of Dutchman shows the maestro at the peak of his powers, even in the twilight of his career. Theo Adam is an appropriately menacing captain. Anja Silja, beginning her international career after many performances at the Bayreuth Festival, gives her second recording as Senta, and her experience shows. Martti Talvela is a memorable Daland. This is finally back in print thanks to Warner Brothers Classics.

Bayreuth Festival 1971 cond. Karl Böhm (DG 1971)
Senta: Gwyneth Jones
Dutchman: Thomas Stewart
The "new jack" Bayreuth of the early '70s comes to the fore on this terrific live set. Karl Böhm knows exactly what he is doing in the pit. His cast includes Thomas Stewart (one of my favorite baritones) as the Dutchman, and Gwyneth Jones as Senta. Before you wince, remember that this was made when she was a relatively young singer, and the vocal wobble that plagued her later career does not mar this performance. Reissued as a 2CD bargain-priced set.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. James Levine (Sony, 1997)
Senta: Deborah Voigt
Dutchman: James Morris
This is the best modern recording of the opera available, and one of the last Wagner recordings made by the Met forces before budget constraints sileneced the orchestra--at least on compact disc. This recording has fine singing, but is marred by Levine's iceberg-in-motion approach to the score. Features an excellent performance from Deborah Voigt, and the preservation of James Morris' nuanced, intelligent take on the Dutchman. In more luxury casting, Ben Heppner sings Erik. Also reissued by Sony Classical as a bargain "two-fer" set.

Berlin Staatskapelle cond. Marek Janowski (PentaTone 2011)
Senta: Ricarda Market
Dutchman: Albert Dohmen
Part of a series of SuperAudio CD recordings on PentaTone, this German recording features Albert Dohmen, a leading man at Bayreuth who is still relatively unknown to American audiences. Richard Market is appropriately distraught as Senta. Matti Salminen has been singing Daland since the 1970s and nobody does the kindly but greedy Dad better than him. Janowski, a Wagner veteran, uses the composer's revised, sweeter ending with harps and woodwinds suggesting more than just a watery grave for the lovers.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats