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Richard WAGNER
Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman)

Theo Adam, Anja Silja, Martti Talvela, Ernst Kozub,
Anneliese Burmesiter, Gerhard Unger, BBC Chorus,
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Conducted by Otto Klemperer
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CMS5 67408 2 [152.11]

At the height of his spell in charge of Berlin's Kroll Opera in 1928 Otto Klemperer conducted a production of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" that went into legend. It was so good that in 1938 the Nazis featured it in their Dusseldorf exhibition of "degenerate" art. Austere and socially aware it was an early precursor of the more concentrated style that would emerge in post-war Bayreuth where traditional ways of presenting Wagner were deconstructed. Appropriate therefore that this should be the only complete Wagner opera Klemperer recorded in the studio. It was late in his life, however. He was 82 by then but such is the intensity of some of the passages, from the middle of the final act to the end for example, you would hardly know. True, this is not a performance you would go to for the kind of edge-of-seat drama to be found in recordings conducted by Nelsson on Philips or Keilberth on Decca which steam along at full tilt. But both of these were taken from the Bayreuth Festival stage, the latter in real "live" performance, and so have a moment-to-moment sense of danger all their own. As so often with Klemperer the drama is to be heard in the cumulative way he builds the whole structure rather than the individual parts. For example his Sailors perform a more heavy-footed dance prior to wakening their phantom counterparts, but by the end of their performance they have managed to instil their steps into our head in a way other recordings don't. Though the stamping on the floor by the studio chorus are not a patch on Willhelm Pitz's men crashing on the sacred Bayreuth boards on a number of recordings official and not.

Unique to Klemperer also is the sound of his orchestra that has that distinctive "primary colours" feel familiar to all his admirers. An echo of one reason why the 1928 production so outraged conservative Wagnerites? At the start of Act III, for example, the woodwinds especially have a "Bruegelesque" tone that makes you sit up and take notice. Right through there is a feeling Klemperer has brought a musical microscope to every facet of the score that further marks this recording out. Apparent from the start of the overture where the sea is not so much boiling cauldron as massive psychological threat. In many respects this is an approach that is only appropriate in the studio and for listening at home which is, I believe, a different experience from listening in a hall or theatre. Generally, therefore, this is not a first choice but one of those recordings which elbows its way to the head of any list by virtue of individual qualities to be heard nowhere else.

The cast assembled is a further and very important case in point. Klemperer had visited Bayreuth in 1967 after an absence of nearly forty years. Whilst there he saw and heard for the first time the remarkable Anja Silja, a Bayreuth favourite who was then at the peak of her fame. Though she was not singing Senta that season her interpretation of that role was already celebrated and Klemperer immediately told EMI to engage her for the Dutchman recording he would make the following year. It's easy to see why he was so taken with her. Here was a "singing actress" who gave as much to the character she was playing as any surface beauty in the singing tone she produced. In that latter sense she was a real artistic soul mate for Klemperer for whom tonal beauty as an end in itself had never been a goal. The Dutchman in this recording, Theo Adam, is quoted as saying that the rapport Silja came to have with Klemperer was "unconventional and saucy" and we must use our imaginations to fill in any gaps that remark might open up. Consequently her account of the Act II ballad is riveting. For me she conveys the pathos of the lost and obsessed girl Senta is and you can almost see the look in her eyes at the repeated "Bettet Zumm Himmel…." Then hear how in the third stanza at "Erfreite alle sieben Jahr" how a shadow is cast over her words. Lastly, in the final scene of all, it is as though she and Klemperer have been aiming all the time for her final, thrilling "Hier steh' ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!" ("Here I stand, true to you until death!"). Not to everyone's taste on account of her vibrato, but I think there is room for such an idiomatic Senta in the catalogue.

In the Dutchman's Act I monologue Theo Adam conveys the tragic weight of the character admirably. Klemperer remarked he hadn't heard that passage sung better since the days of Schorr. Notice also how Adam gives the pent-up horror of his plight that doesn't find release until the moment he finally reveals who he really is in Act III. This is another good example of Klemperer's structural sense and his ability to convey it to his singers. In their duet in Act II Adam and Silja add the dimension of an older man's experience matched against a young girl's innocence, and this opera is after all as much allegory of that life experience as it is about a sailor cursed by the Devil. In bringing out that aspect here is excellent and clever casting. Adam is also matched well in his exchange in Act I with the Daland of Martti Talvela where the latter's hypocrisy is exposed well. Talvela is superb throughout pretending to be the good father but selling his daughter to this stranger in exchange for treasure. He is also given plenty of room by Klemperer in his long Act II narration which Talvela makes full use of. So here are two very rounded interpretations of men out for their own ends, convincing themselves they have noble intentions even though, in the Dutchman's case, there are mitigating circumstances. Klemperer had wanted James King for Erik but contract problems prevented this and Ernst Kozub was cast. He is not a weak link even though for me he comes over as rather too breezy.

In his notes Richard Osborne draws attention to the fact that for this recording EMI abandoned its usual "house style" of allowing few sound effects in their opera recordings. However, apart from the gentle sound of spinning wheels in Act II and the stamp of dancing sailors' feet in Act III, you would hardly be aware of that. My memory of the original LP issue was of some really "timber shivering" winds at times but this seems to be absent. In general sound terms everything is very clear if lacking in atmosphere. That has an advantage in Act II where a sense of claustrophobia is appropriate but those with experience of Bayreuth Festival recordings will miss a sense of distance when the Dutchman's crew finally awakes and the real panorama that can be conveyed in the final act.

For a more general recommendation go for Nelsson on Phillips though be aware there is a lot of stage noise among the drama. Then there is Pinchas Steinberg, challenging and biting on a super-bargain Naxos studio recording where no such noise problems intrude, even though the cast, though good, is not quite top notch. My own favourite remains the old Keilberth Bayreuth set on Decca, mono sound and all.

For Klemperer's austere, concentrated and spacious conducting, Anja Silja's unique, controversial Senta and Theo Adam's noble, tortured Dutchman, this recording is not to be missed. Not a first recommendation, but fully deserving its appearance in this livery.


Tony Duggan



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