Der fliegende Holländer

Heinrich Steiner
Chor und Orchester des Reichssenders Berlin
24 January 1937
Radio Studio Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandKurt Böhme
SentaElisabeth Friedrich
ErikMarius Andersen
MaryMargarethe Arndt-Ober
Der Steuermann DalandsHeinz Marten
Der HolländerHerbert Janssen
Fanfare (I)

In the period 1937–38, Reichssender Berlin produced a number of operas for broadcast, including this Dutchman. While most of the singers used remained in Germany throughout the war years, Herbert Janssen did not. In 1938, a year after this broadcast, he fled Germany, having been warned by Toscanini that he was now on a “hit list” of the Nazis because the baritone had rebuffed a dinner invitation at Bayreuth from Hitler. He traveled to Buenos Aires, and eventually, with Toscanini’s help, settled in New York and never returned to Germany again. Although his repertoire was quite broad, the Met’s general manager Edward Johnson liked pigeon-holing his artists, and Janssen was mostly limited to Wagner and a few other Germanic roles. He never quite achieved the stardom of Friedrich Schorr; his less rich voice was perhaps responsible for that, but Janssen was a great artist. He was known to state that he sang opera to build up an audience for his Lieder recitals, an art form he evidently preferred.

It is that aspect of Janssen’s singing that makes this broadcast, never before available, unique and worth hearing. Because this was a broadcast meant for radio, with the singers all singing directly into microphones (though there was an audience present, as we can tell from applause between acts in this three-act version of the opera), Janssen could apply a degree of coloration and subtle inflection that would be lost in the opera house. His big monologue, “Die Frist ist um,” seems related as much to Schubert’s Winterreise in its sense of desolation and loneliness as to operatic models from Weber or Marschner. Instead of the thunderingly heroic climaxes that we get with singers such as George London (whose Dutchman I adore, by the way), this is much more of an internal monologue. The character sounds beaten down by his despair, rather than raging against it. This is an extremely valid and intriguing interpretation, one that is not often encountered with as much interpretive detail as we get here, and Janssen is consistent throughout the opera. We know that Wagner admired Bellini, and in this early opera there is still a bel canto influence at work, and the way Janssen sings the opening of the duet with Senta, “Wie aus der Ferne,” makes that clear.

It is interesting to compare Janssen here with Janssen in a live Covent Garden performance conducted by Reiner (also issued on Immortal Performances). That is of course quite impressive because of the presence of Reiner and Kirsten Flagstad as Senta. But what is fascinating is the interpretive and coloristic differences applied by Janssen in a staged setting vs. a broadcast studio. There is much that is more stentorian in the Covent Garden performance, some of which even stretches is vocal resources a bit. But in this broadcast he can bring a subtlety of coloration and inflection that humanizes the character in a more detailed way. You can hear it at all points—in the big opening monologue, the duet with Senta, and in particular in the opera’s final scene. The anguish and desperation of the character is made stunningly real when he sings “Vom Fluch ein Weib allein mich kann erlösen, ein Weib, das Treu’ bis in den Tod mir hält” (From the curse, a woman alone can free me, a woman true to me till death). In this broadcast setting, singing to a microphone, he can create an emptier, more hollow tone reflective of the Dutchman’s fate.

Elisabeth Friedrich, the Senta, is a soprano previously unknown to me. According to Dewey Faulkner’s superb notes she was a member of the Berlin State Opera and was quite popular. She made very few actual recordings, and this is her only complete role known to exist in recorded form. She is lovely throughout. Her Ballade is beautifully sung, the tone having a real luster to it, if not necessarily the distinctiveness of timbre that identifies a star. It is rather monochromatic, lacking tonal variety.

Distinctiveness of timbre does, in fact, mark the deep bass of Kurt Böhme, heard here in his younger days. This singer, who contributed to many performances and recordings into the 1960s, is a powerful Daland, but he too catches the overall mood of a more inward-looking style of Wagner singing than would be appropriate in an opera house. His Daland is a complex character, father and greedy villain all wrapped up in one.

The remaining singers are quite good, and they too catch the highly musical, lyrical atmosphere of this broadcast. At the core of this is conductor Heinrich Steiner, apparently one of the regulars in the Berlin Radio’s series of opera broadcasts. There is nothing really special about his leadership, but neither is there anything distressingly wrong-headed. The chorus is, in fact, excellent in terms of ensemble and intonation, and except for some occasional roughness from the brass the orchestra too plays well. Steiner works well with his singers, and when Janssen sets a particularly rapt, quiet mood (the opening of “Wie aus der Ferne” for example) Steiner captures it well in the orchestra.

The value in this recording, and it is considerable, is in Janssen’s inward looking, complex, and very convincing Dutchman. It is a performance unlike any other of which I am aware (in some ways close to Fischer-Dieskau, but frankly more spontaneous and natural in its flow and its interaction with other characters). It is a performance that adds to one’s knowledge and understanding of the opera, and that is not something that can often be said.

Henry Fogel | Issue September/October 2017

Fanfare (II)

According to Immortal Performances, this release of a January 24, 1937 Berlin radio broadcast of Wagner’s Der fliegende Höllander is a “world premiere” issue. I am not aware of any previous issues of the broadcast, one that has considerable strengths. The recorded sound is quite remarkable for its vintage, comparable to studio recordings of the same era. The broadcast also documents two outstanding performances, one of them unique in my experience with The Flying Dutchman. The German-born baritone Herbert Janssen had a distinguished career, both in Europe and the United States. This broadcast was, in fact, Janssen’s final performance in Germany. An opponent of Hitler, Janssen was soon forced to escape Germany, which he accomplished in part thanks to assistance by the Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini. Janssen ultimately became a regular presence at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he was, with a few exceptions, limited to Wagnerian roles.

Among Janssen’s 204 Met performances, he sang the Dutchman only twice. And in truth, the Dutchman is not a role one would naturally associate with Janssen and his vocal and artistic gifts. Herbert Janssen had a warm and arrestingly beautiful voice. He was also a sensitive interpreter, one who seemed to excel most in such human, sympathetic roles as Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Kurvenal (Tristan und Isolde), and Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger). The character of the Dutchman is a much darker, tortured soul, traits embodied in Wagner’s challenging music. Perhaps the Dutchman was not the most congenial role for Janssen in the opera house. But in the 1937 Berlin Dutchman, Janssen was singing in the far more intimate venue of a broadcast studio. As a result, on this occasion Janssen was able to apply a Lieder singer’s sensitivity and variety to Wagner’s text and music. In addition, the performance took place before a studio audience and as such, has the kind of immediacy and electricity so much harder to achieve when making a commercial studio recording. The end result is a Dutchman who is not a mythical, archetypal otherworldly character, but very much a flesh and blood human being, and a most compelling one at that. And Herbert Janssen is in absolutely glorious, secure voice throughout. I don’t think it is at all hyperbolic to suggest that this set is worth acquiring for Janssen’s Dutchman alone.

The fine German bass Kurt Böhme was 28 at the time of this broadcast, and he is in glorious, fresh vocal form as Daland. Here, Böhme does not begin to approach Janssen in subtlety, and variety of dynamics and inflection. Of course, Daland is not nearly as complex a character as the Dutchman. But, like Janssen’s Dutchman, Böhme does create a very sympathetic and human Daland, a role that is often caricatured as a buffoonish, greedy person. The remaining singers are all more than competent, the type you’d be happy to encounter in a performance. On the other hand, none of them matches either the interpretive genius of Janssen, or the vocal individuality and glory he and Böhme bring to the proceedings. Elisabeth Friedrich, while vocally taxed at times, is a passionate and feminine Senta. Marius Andersen handles the rather thankless role of Erik quite well, but without a particularly endearing vocal quality. The Orchestra of the Reichssenders Radio plays quite well under Heinrich Steiner’s direction, and the performance moves along at an unflagging pace. Still, Steiner’s approach is more dutiful than inspired, lacking the magic someone such as Hans Knappertsbusch conjured in his legendary 1955 Bayreuth performance.

Ken Meltzer | Issue September/October 2017

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Media Type/Label
Immortal Performances
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Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 179 MByte (MP3)
Recorded for broadcast in front of a studio audience
Elisabeth Friedrich’s only complete opera recording