Der fliegende Holländer

Marek Janowski
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
13 November 2010
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
DalandMatti Salminen
SentaRicarda Merbeth
ErikRobert Dean Smith
MarySilvia Hablowetz
Der Steuermann DalandsSteve Davislim
Der HolländerAlbert Dohmen
Corliss Phillabaum

Marek Janowski’s recordings of Wagner’s ten major operas have been made over several years, each deriving from a single concert performance with the Orchestra and Chorus of Berlin Radio. The Flying Dutchman, recorded in 2010 in the Berlin Philharmonie, benefits from the fine acoustic of the hall and warm, clear recorded sound, especially when heard in the multchannel SACD layer of the disc. Janowski is a fine Wagner conductor whose approach is dramatic with fleet tempos, as the timing of this set attests, only the two period instrument versions and Ferenc Fricsay’s 1953 RIAS Berlin recording are comparable. Janowski’s performance never seems rushed and his energetic approach provides a supportive framework for his fresh-voiced soloists. (One of these fresh voices belongs to the indestructible Finnish bass, Matti Salminen, who was 65 at the time of the recording.) The cast is uniformly strong, with a particularly expressive Dutchman from bass-baritone Alfred Dohmen, who catches vividly the desperation of the tormented seaman. Ricarda Merbeth’s strong, mature voice as Senta is a good match for this Dutchman and their scenes together really catch fire. Robert Dean Smith is a straightforward Erik and Salminen’s Daland is a colorful and endearing scoundrel. This is a compelling performance and with Pentatone’s glowing sound is strongly recommended.

Audiophile Audition

With The Flying Dutchman, the fifth of Wagner’s operas, the composer entered his musical maturity. Wagner himself saw it as a breakthrough. In his “Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde” (“A Communication to my Friends”) written in 1851, ten years after the opera, Wagner maintained, “My course was new; it was bidden me by my inner mood, and forced upon me by the pressing need to impart this mood to others. In order to enfranchise myself from within outwards, i. e., to address myself to the understanding of like-feeling men, I was driven to strike out for myself, as artist, a path as yet not pointed me by any outward experience; and that which drives a man hereto is Necessity, deeply felt, incognizable by the practical reason, but overmastering Necessity.”

The roots of the opera lie in Wagner’s experiences after fleeing his post as conductor of the court orchestra in Riga, a job he really wasn’t fond of, but the immediate cause of his taking it on the lam was that he had run up huge debts, and his creditors were closing in.

Wagner and his wife Minna intended to make their way to Paris, but the ship they took across the North Sea ran into storms that forced them to ride out the bad weather among the fjords of Norway. When Wagner finally got to Paris weeks later, he couldn’t sell his new opera Rienzi to the Opéra and was forced to work for two years arranging and copying scores, jobs that barely kept the couple fed over the next two years.

Then he got the idea of writing a one-act opera, including the libretto, which might be more palatable to Parisians than his rejected grand opera. Wagner chose as his subject a sketch in Heinrich Heine’s satirical novel Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski (“From the Memoirs of Mr. von Schnabelewopski”). It retold the old folktale of the Flying Dutchman, who in essence sells his soul to the devil, making an oath during a storm at sea that if he can just sail around the cape he’s approaching through impassible headwinds, he’ll be content to sail forever. The devil grants his wish and claims his trophy, but being a compassionate devil, he allows the Dutchman to go ashore once every seven years to search for a mate whose commitment to him will free him. At the point where Wagner’s opera begins, the Dutchman and his ghostly crew have been sailing for ages, his once-in-seven-years sojourns ashore so far unsuccessful. But then he meets up with the Norwegian ship captain Daland, who offers him hope in the form of his beautiful daughter Senta. (Heine’s original story has the Dutchman landing in Scotland, but thinking of his misadventures in the North Sea, Wagner relocated the story to Norway.) When Wagner failed to make a deal for a performance in Paris, he decided to expand the opera, debuting this expanded version in Dresden in 1843.

The Flying Dutchman has many of the hallmarks of Wagner’s later music dramas, including the use of leitmotifs, though not to the extent he was to use them in The Ring. The characters Senta and the Dutchman both have immediately identifiable motifs, as do the Norwegian sailors, given some rollicking hornpipe-like music, and these themes reappear and undergo elaboration and variation as the opera proceeds, just as in later Wagner operas. Many of the scenes show Wagner working toward his idea of continuous melody: Auf hohem Felsen lag ich träumend (“I lay dreaming on the lofty cliff”), the duet between Erik and Senta at the end of Act 2, has a dreamlike, slow-paced unfolding, the melodic line meandering and chromatic, punctuated here and there by snatches of the leitmotifs as if to provide contrast to this melodically fluid number. However, Wagner wasn’t able to entirely overthrow the tyranny of the recitative-and-aria model. On the other hand, The Flying Dutchman is one of Wagner’s most melodious operas, the traditional set pieces such as the spinning song from the Second Act and Erik’s cavatina from the Third supplying memorably attractive music.

This Pentatone recording comes from a series of concert performances of the ten most important Wagner operas during the 2010 season. Pentatone’s intention is to roll out these performances between now and 2013, Wagner’s bicentenary year. It’s an ambitious project and with this first in the series gets off to a commendable start. Conductor Marek Janowski, a Pentatone regular, is a very good choice to helm the project. He’s long been associated with Wagner on recordings—he made the first digital recording of The Ring back in the 80s—and conducts with the right measure of passion and restraint, the passion heard right away in the exciting Overture. But Janowski also accompanies tactfully; the solo voices get “stepped” on very infrequently—which is hard to avoid, given the vicissitudes of live performance and Wagner’s often stentorian orchestra. I know Janowski’s work mostly from orchestral performances, but I hear the same command of instrumental color and sensitive shaping of phrases as I find in his Brahms, Berlioz, and Saint-Saëns.

His soloists, especially the males, are mostly very reliable as well. Swedish bass Matti Salminen has a commanding voice, of course, but he also shades Daland’s character very successfully, managing the delicate balancing act that it represents—a loving father, an able and companionable seaman, who is nonetheless seduced by the other love of his life, riches. A number of such balancing acts occur among the characters of the opera: Albert Dohmen is just as successful at presenting the world-weary Dutchman (and he’s seen many, many corners of the world) who suddenly comes passionately alive to the possibility of Senta’s redeeming love. The smaller male roles are well covered, too, by Robert Dean Smith (Erik) and silky-voiced Steve Davislim (Steurermann).

The two women project their characters convincingly: there’s a slight air of befuddlement to Silvia Hablowetz’s Mary, who fails to ride herd on her young female charges, especially the passionate Senta. And Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta is passionate, as well as conflicted and sometimes downright lost. There’s nobility in her final appearance that makes her fully a match for the larger-than-life Dutchman. But then—there’s that vibrato, wide enough you can cut it with the proverbial knife. If only she had cut it a little thinner or dispensed with it altogether. For me, this is one feature that takes some of the joy out of a powerful musical experience. So if vibrato laid down with a broad brush is one of your particular bêtes noires, be forewarned.

Pentatone’s live recording from the Berlin Philharmonie is potent. Orchestra and chorus are realistically placed, and the recording realistically adds depth to that perspective. Yet these forces are every bit as powerfully and immediately recorded as the solo voices. Since this is a concert performance, there is little of the distraction that stage business usually imposes on a recording. Surround sound is tastefully employed; for the most part, the rear speakers just give a realistic sense of the hall, except for the famous chorus Johohoe! in the last act, where the Dutch sailors are supposed to be heard from below decks (along with several strident onstage piccolos!). In 5.0 surround sound, the sailors’ voices seem to come from over your left shoulder. The voices have the properly spooky, veiled quality they’d have in the theater, which is all to the good, but they also seem to be recorded in a small, airless space, which puts something of a damper on the experience. (This isn’t true in stereo, where the voices are heard on the left side of the soundstage, in what sounds like the same acoustic space as the rest of the forces involved.) That’s my one gripe with the sonics; otherwise, the recording, in either surround sound or stereo, is first-rate.

So I have just a couple of issues to lodge and a good deal of praise to bestow on this start to Pentatone’s Wagner series. Here’s hoping the other installments are at least as fine. [Nice thick bound libretto, and this double-disc set seems to selling for the price of a single SACD…Ed.]

—Lee Passarella

This sonically splendid live recording of Der fliegende Holländer inaugurates the Dutch-based PentaTone label’s release of Wagner’s 10 later operas on CD. As noted in concert versions of the operas are being performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB). The series culminates with Götterdämmerung in 2013, the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth.

The first three operas in the RSB repertory, including this Holländer, Parsifal, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, were recorded last season with various well-known Wagner singers.
The venue, the Berlin Philharmonie, is reportedly not among Europe’s more acoustically friendly halls and of course the internet stream of this performance lacked the clarity and brilliance of this Super-Audio CD release.

Savvy Engineers

Credit the CD recording team and editor with creating such a listenable final product, for ensuring that proper balances between orchestra, chorus and the principals, and for deleting extraneous noise, including the applause that followed the opera’s overture and the performance’s conclusion.
The recording also has considerable artistic merit, especially Marek Janowski’s accomplished conducting, the RSB’s vibrant playing, and lusty singing by Rundfunk Choir. In the early 1980s Janowski conducted the first digitally recorded Ring cycle and his Wagnerian expertise has deepened in the three decades since.
The total CD playing time is a fleet, but not hectic, 2 hours and 6 minutes, and is considerably shorter than say the EMI, Herbert von Karajan-led studio recording also produced in the early 1980s.

Seasoned Leads

Finnish bass Matti Salminen first sang Daland in Bayreuth in 1978. (I heard him in this role in Bayreuth in 1979 and 1981.) Invariably, the decades have taken the edge off Salminen’s voice but long experience in the role compensates for his, at times, gruff, underpowered singing.
Bass-baritone, Albert Dohmen, the Dutchman, is about 10 years younger than the 66-year-old Salminen and Dohmen’s singing is certainly more powerful than his wan performance in the recently issued Bayreuth Die Walküre DVD. (In all fairness, Dohmen had been ailing when the Bayreuth performance was videotaped.) I do wish, however, that Dohmen’s Dutchman sounded more spectral, more menacing.
Ricarda Merbeth has sung Elsa and Elisabeth at the Wagner Festival and these characters seem better suited to her than the more rigorous role of Senta. Certainly, Merbeth lacks the passionate warmth, and the steady intonation that Catherine Naglestad demonstrates in The Netherlands Opera DVD version of the work.
Yet another Bayreuth principal, tenor Robert Dean Smith, is Erik. Given Smith’s current appearances as Tristan at the Wagner Festival, this is luxury casting for an excellent singer whose reputation is on the rise. Like other singers in this performance Smith is appearing in additional RSB Wagner concerts.
Two smaller roles, Mary and the Steersman, are sung by mezzo-soprano Silvia Hablowetz and tenor Steve Davislim. Both singers sound assured but given the brevity of their parts, it is difficult to gauge how dramatically effectively these artists would be in a stage performance.

Nicely Packaged

The attractive, hardbound Pentatone CD booklet contains Steffen Georgi’s, insightful, well-researched essay, “Ahasuerus and the Bartered Bride”. A complete libretto and cast biographies and photos are also included.
The RSB’s 2011-12 Wagner concert repertory, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Tannhäuser, features Nina Stemme, Klaus Florian Vogt, Torsten Kerl, and Kwangchul Youn in the various operas. Casting has not yet been announced for the RSB’s Ring concerts in 2012-2013.
The RSB, PentaTone, Deutschlandradio Kultur, and any unidentified sponsors are to be lauded for making this series possible. Based on this Holländer release, these recordings could be one of the most distinctive tributes during the Wagner bicentennial commemorations.

Jerry Floyd

Marek Janowski’s Wagner cycle on PentaTone gets off to an excellent start with this Flying Dutchman. All ten of Wagner’s mature operas and music-dramas will be appearing between now and 2013, the composer’s bicentenary. If they’re all as good as this, it promises to be an exceptional recording project.

Janowski has said that he now conducts Wagner exclusively in the concert hall, having abandoned staged opera in protest at the excesses of his erstwhile regietheater colleagues. His view that Wagner’s vision for his music can be preserved through concert performance is endorsed in the liner – or rather hardback book format packaging – by no less a figure than Norman Larmmert, president of the Bundestag. He even goes as far as to say that Wagner would have approved.

I’m sceptical of that. Extracting the music from the other dimensions of a staged production is hardly in the spirit of gesamtkunstwerk. Nevertheless, it is increasingly becoming the norm in the record industry, and this Dutchman is just the latest in a string of Wagner operas on CD/SACD taken from live concert performances. In general the quality bears out the approach. Elder’s continuing Ring cycle with the Hallee, and the two recent Parsifals from Gergiev and Zweden have demonstrated that a good live concert performance can be an ideal subject for a high quality recording. This PentaTone release is at least to the standard of any of those.

Part of Janowski’s justification seems to be that the music itself contains enough of the drama to compensate for the lack of staging. He practises what he preaches, and delivers a wonderfully dramatic reading. That is only one of the many qualities of this performance, and the drama is always matched and balanced by control of the textures and immaculate preparation. The main difference between this reading and most of its competitors on the market is that Janowski never lets the music, and the storm music in particular, overwhelm. There is always detail and balance to the sound, and the separate sections of the orchestra are always clearly defined.

The sheer quality of the SACD audio is enough to recommend the release. The recording team have the benefit of the excellent acoustic at the Philharmonie in Berlin. Not only is this clear and vibrant, but it is also impressively unobtrusive. The Parsifal from van Zweden, excellent as the audio is there, in comparison, is obviously a concert performance because of the distinctively resonant acoustic of the Concertgebouw. The Philharmonie, in contrast, could pass for a good opera house acoustic, adding credibility to the results.

The casting is excellent, and most of the names are familiar from Wagner performances at the world’s top house, so probably don’t need much introduction. Matti Salminen is the Daland of today, and gives a reading that has both weight and humanity. Albert Dohmen is similarly weighty, but more ethereal and emotionally distant. This has the valuable effect of distinguishing the two low voices in their various scenes together. Ricarda Merbeth puts on quite a lot of vibrato as Senta, but it is always carefully controlled and works to the benefit of her tone. She has a valuable alto-like richness to her lower register that Wagner occasionally employs. Robert Dean Smith, although rapidly becoming the Heldentenor of his generation, gives a more bel canto performance as Erik. His tone is surprisingly light and floating, which contrasts well with the predominantly heavier voices in the rest of the cast. The only slightly weak link is Steve Davislim as the Steuermann. His is the only voice that risks being subsumed by the orchestra, and his tone is occasionally unstable. But the recording team ensure that he is always at the front of the sound, so nothing is lost.

The delicacy and detail of much of this music-making is the greatest surprise on this recording. Janowski locates the music decisively in the early 1840s. He makes all those connections with Weber explicit, especially the often delicate woodwind writing and the brass interjections, which are effective because of their rarity and brevity rather than their sheer force. There are plenty of recordings out there that demonstrate that this orchestra can do force as well. In fact, the impressive track record of everybody involved here, the orchestra, choir, soloists, conductor and label, mean that the artistic success of this release should come as no surprise. It also means that future releases in the cycle are more or less guaranteed to be among the best of the many offerings in Wagner’s anniversary year.

Gavin Dixon

Not every Dutchman recording that washes ashore is introduced by the Bundestag President. This concert-based newcomer, though, is not only the first in SACD surround-sound but opens a new ten-opera Wagner cycle, to be conducted, like this, by Marek Janowski. As a young conductor he recorded the first-ever digital Ring, whose fresh reading raised it to compete with those of the greats like Karl Böhm and Georg Solti. Consequently he arouses considerable expectations, and they’re by no means disappointed.

Janowski’s conducting is crisp and fleet-footed, shaping the music naturally and fluently. But he doesn’t exert himself to underline the natural imagery and some telling phrases pass for little; nor, this being a concert, is there much action or even stage noise to bring the performance to life. SACD’s vivid sense of space is thus rather wasted, but the sound is superb and the cast well served.

Albert Dohmen, Bayreuth’s reigning bass-baritone, is a warm anti-hero, but too soft-grained to sound demonically desperate. Matti Salminen’s Daland is vocally worn but still amazing for his age. Vocal honours, though, go to Ricarda Merbeth’s keen, nervy Senta, and the two tenors, Robert Dean Smith’s youthful but sturdy Erik and Steve Davislim’s lyrical Steersman – also the clean-cut chorus, which is reasonably involved dramatically.

There are better versions on ordinary CD – Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth, among others – but this Dutchman augurs well for the coming cycle.

Michael Scott Rohan

Berliner Zeitung

Fluch ohne Risiko

Von Matthias Nöther

In die koordinatorischen Zwänge eines Opernhauses, die sich schnell zu künstlerischen Risiken auswachsen können, lässt sich Marek Janowski schon lange nicht mehr einbinden. Viele seiner treuen Anhänger im Publikum des Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchesters dürften ihm begeistert zustimmen, wenn Janowski “die moderne Opernregie” geißelt, weil sie den Opern gedanklich so oft nicht gerecht würde. Und so hatte Janowski das Publikum auch demonstrativ auf seiner Seite, als er am Sonnabend in der Philharmonie mit Wagners “Fliegendem Holländer” den Auftakt zu einem konzertanten Wagner-Zyklus gab, der die zehn von Wagner für Bayreuth autorisierten Opern bis 2013 mit dem RSB aufs Podium der Philharmonie bringen will. Dies könnte durchaus zu einer drückenden Hypothek werden. Eine radikal szenisch gedachte Opernmusik wie die zum “Fliegenden Holländer” mit ihrer durchs Orchester heulenden Sturmmotivik, ihrer gruseligen Suggestion des Bühnenraums als Meer, Schiff und Hafen, offenbart bei Substraktion der Szene gegenüber einem dicht gewebten Stück absoluter Musik doch einige kompositorische Untiefen, die der Konzertbesucher als fadenscheinigen musikalischen Theaterzauber wahrnehmen könnte. Solche Leerstellen können nicht allein durch einen Dirigenten ausgeglichen werden, sondern nur durch Wagner-Sänger, die in der Blüte ihrer stimmlichen Kraft stehen und zugleich die szenischen Anforderungen ihrer Rolle tief in ihre musikalische Auffassung dieser Rolle eingegraben haben. Von solcher Hypothek hat sich Janowski, so scheint es, nachhaltig befreit. Die entsprechenden Sänger, die man weltweit suchen muss, können dank eines privaten Mäzenaten bezahlt werden. Und nicht nur der sängerische Rang der Solisten war beeindruckend, sondern auch ausnahmslos ihre Verfassung. Robert Dean Smith kehrte als jugendlich-dramatischer Tenor Erik fulminant in den Kern seines Rollenrepertoires zurück. Smith besitzt wohl als einer der wenigen Tenöre weltweit die Fähigkeit, aus der konsonantenreichen deutschen Sprache für sein Singen eine nach vorne schnellende Energie abzuleiten, die der von Wagner geforderten Vereinigung von “dramatischem Wortakzent” und “anmutig bebendem Lächeln der Stimme” ziemlich nahe kommen dürfte. Mit seiner vorbildlichen körperlichen Präsenz beim Singen jedoch bildete Smith die Ausnahme. Dem Bariton Albert Dohmen mag die Partie des fluchbeladenen Fliegenden Holländers in die Kehle gelegt, der Bass Matti Salminen mit dem jovialen Seemann Daland in vierzig Jahren Berliner Wagnersingen fast körperlich verwachsen zu sein – ohne die Leitplanken eines konkreten Bühnengeschehens bleiben diese hochverdienten Solisten ihren Rollen etwas schuldig. Natürlich kann Salminen seinem Auftritt als bauernschlauer Brautwerber für seine Tochter Senta auf musikalische Art feine komödiantische Töne abgewinnen, die auf einer Riesenbühne nicht möglich wären. Natürlich wäre die hohe Kunst des Rundfunkchors, selbst im Fortissimo des Matrosen- und Gespensterchors noch transparent zu klingen, im Gewusel der Theateraktion zum Untergang verurteilt. Doch dann würde vielleicht der abgerundete, dunkel leuchtende Sopran von Ricarda Merbeth als Senta auch nicht durch ihre etwas peinliche Operngestik konterkariert, die durch den Dirigenten – “das Wesentliche ist die Musik” – sicherlich keine szenische Anleitung erfuhr. Marek Janowski und Richard Wagner verbindet das Interesse an musterhaften Aufführungen von Werken, deren geistiger Kern durch die Zufällig-, Unzulänglich- und Eitelkeiten alltäglicher Stadttheater-Praxis zugedeckt werden. Doch Wagner setzte ungeachtet aller finanziellen und künstlerischen Risiken damaligen Theaterlebens auf die Idee eines aus dem Geist der Musik geborenen Theaterereignisses. Janowski dagegen zieht sich mit seinem Publikum aus den Risiken einer theatergeborenen Utopie zurück. Er will seinen Hörern nicht einmal den kurzen, harten Schluss der “Holländer”-Urfassung zumuten, der mit Sentas Selbstmord endet. Stattdessen steigt nach Versinken seines Schiffs der Holländer mit der ihn erlösenden Senta verklärt gen Himmel. Eine Wagner-Gesamtaufführung, die mit einem vorzüglich differenziert spielenden RSB in der Tat zum musikalischen Maßstab gegenwärtiger Wagner-Rezeption werden könnte, findet nur konzertant statt: Auch dies ist, im Hinblick auf Kulturpolitik, unfreiwillig symbolhaft. Das RSB und sein Publikum mögen ein Recht auf diese musikalischen Musteraufführungen haben. In einer Zeit, in der von politischer Seite populistisch nach der Berechtigung von Opernhäusern gefragt wird, erweist diese Tat jedoch wahren Opernliebhabern, die sich bereitwillig den Risiken szenischen Erlebens aussetzen, einen Bärendienst. —————————— Ohne die Leitplanken eines konkreten Bühnengeschehens bleiben die hochverdienten Solisten ihren Rollen etwas schuldig.

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 289 MByte (MP3)
2.1 MBit/s VBR, 96.0 kHz, 1.9 GByte (flac SACD)
Concert performance