Wagner The Flying Dutchman (Silja, Adam, Talvela. Kozub, Unger, Burmeister/BBC Chorus, NPO/Klemperer)

HMV Angel


According to the Heine source-book, the moral is that women can reduce us to wrecks. In the same spirit, one might say that Wagner’s opera shows how a solemn bourgeoise can be redeemed by falling in love with a man with a bit of devil in him. For the hero, as the text repeatedly suggests, is possessed not just by a daemon but by a demon; he is as haunted an allegorical figure as Faust or Manfred or indeed Wagner, who found in the Flying Dutchman his true self. No wonder this music is so personal and novel; it was his own story, and in fact as well as in fiction he found his feet by going to sea. The splendid score is soused in the spray of that vile voyage in 1839 which lasted nearly a month and was “fraught with mishap”, as Wagner tells us: “the captain had to seek harbour in Norway, and the passage through the fjords made an extraordinary impression on my imagination. The legend of the Flying Dutchman. as it was confirmed to me by the sailors, took on in my mind a vivid and strange colouring which only my adventures at sea could have given it”.

     From that moment all his music and much of his life was to become legendary. Nor will it be coinci­dence that Senta had the first name of Minna, like the actress he had married seven years before. At that interval thereafter he surfaced from the ever-increasing depths of his art and looked around for a soul-mate. Next time it would be Jessie; then Mathilde; then Cosima. No wonder his Dutchman can sweep Senta off her feet literally, securing first her assent and then her ascent in a bare two acts: a lone wolf in ship’s clothing.

     On this interpretation the seaman's natural element, and his chief characteristic, would be fire; and perhaps the hero here is not quite a match for it. But obviously Adam is an excellent choice for a captain seeking a first mate: and his portrayal has a noble and restrained dignity well worth hearing for its own sake. Anja Silja has passion in plenty; her performance (sometimes her voice) is vibrant with it. This may not suit those for whom the plot revolves round the gravity of Senta. as a main source of attraction. But again the interpretation is worth hearing for its own sake; and with the tire goes a real dramatic flair as well as some brightly burnished singing. Talvela too is in line voice as Daland. The others are good in solos, and the BBC Chorus in parts.

     The most accomplished actor of all is the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Dr Klemperer. The music is made fluently expressive of mood and movement, stance and gesture, men speech and secret thought, with the true Wagnerian vein running gold in many a bar. Though mightily effective, the playing is not just for effect. Indeed. to some ears it may not seem studied enough. Quite apart from the stormy sea-music there are some rough passages: and more characters are drowned than the script requires. Conversely, the frequent orchestral polish sometimes appears to work against the grain of the drama. Thus the violins in “Mögst du, mein Kind” have a suave and silken elegance which seems un­fitting for Daland even at his most insinuating. There are other surprises too, eg the Dresden version here used has brass replacing strings fur the dramatic interpolations in the Dutchmans Act 3 monologue (a variant appended to the Eulenburg score). But these details are subordinate to an integral con­ception of evident sincerity, involvement and mastery. and therefore of surpassing excellence.

     A more subjective and puzzling question is whether music-drama should go on record as music with drama tacked on. Here the insatiable engineers load every rift with auditory effect. The great wheel of sound that Wagner set spinning in second violins and violas gets a new twist; an extra-musical whirring noise is stitched on to the chorus, as if by some free association between singers and sewing-machines. Similarly the exhilarating rhythm of the sailors’ dance, superbly performed here, may be felt authentic enough without a special stamp stuck on. Again, it may sound disconcerting to hear Daland’s vessel start tip the creak in Act I, as if the approach of a ghost ship had shivered its timbers. An un­imaginative listener might simply infer that some performer’s arm was sorely in need of embrocation.

     Whether these and like effects can he described as sound ideas is a matter of taste. They certainly have the advantage of conveying, often brilliantly, the illusion of actual stage performance; and this dazz­ling gloss tends to hide any flaws. Otherwise one might have caught oneself wishing now and then that the principals sounded a little more at home and the chorus a little less at sea.

     But nothing can really detract from what is surely the best performance on record. Among available competitors, the HMV discs (now World Record Club) are only partially eclipsed; and in my view Fischer-Dieskau, Frick and Wunderlich remain en­tirely undiminished. So I wouldn’t trade that set ill for this Dutchman, sterling though it is. But in every other imaginable circumstance the Flying Dutchman has at last achieved his final apotheosis with the appearance of this new Angel.


The Musical Times, Mar. 1969 (pp. 271-272) © the estate of eric sams