Saturday, June 16, 2007

Böhm's Holländer

Deutsche Grammophon is, to both my pleasure and chagrin, getting back in a reissuing mood. On the one hand, I see it as an attempt to squeeze a few more dollars out of well-worn recordings. How many more issues of Herbert von Karajan's 1977 Beethoven 9th will we see? There was (at least, and off the top of my head) the DG Galleria version, the hybrid SACD (oddly enough, one of their first), the Karajan Forever issue, and now the Grand Prix disc. It's a good record, and it has Peter Schreier singing the tenor part, but how many do we need? However, the Opera House series has gotten some neglected discs back into the main. It's not all bad. Before the recording under consideration, my favorite release had been Böhm's 1977 Salzburg Giovanni. However, they've just put back out his 1971 Bayreuth Holländer.

I think I've said this before, but - to my mind - Holländer is a devilishly difficult work to bring off properly. It either works beautifully or it falls flat. Like a dead halibut. A brief list of conductors whose Holländers haven't worked: Georg Solti (CSO, 1977), James Levine (MET, 1997), and Giuseppe Sinopoli (DO, 1998). The last one was killed by Deutsche Grammophon more than Sinopoli, but it isn't convincing even notwithstanding the poor recording job. Before the release of the Keilberth set from the 1955 Festspiele, in its intended stereo, I would have said that Klemperer's 1968 account was the only really convincing version. He had experience with this piece in the theater from the artistically fertile days at the Kroll in Berlin. Still, Holländer, being - in essence - a transitional work for Wagner (it premiered, if I recall correctly, in 1843 - after Rienzi and before Tannhäuser), is a tough nut to crack. Is it among his last grand operas or is it among his first music-dramas? How a conductor and singers view it makes all the difference.

Karl Böhm is a bit controversial as a Wagner conductor. His Ring is often seen as a second-choice to Solti's, but it is fast. In fact, a brief check tells me that his times and Pierre Boulez' are usually neck-in-neck. Böhm tends to run a few minutes faster than Boulez over all the music-dramas, save Götterdämmerung, if that's a prize. Now, a few minutes over a four-day cycle don't mean a whole lot, so I'll just say Böhm and Boulez have almost identical timings. That's fast. Their orchestral textures are similarly light and fleet. If you're not into that, and I know some folks aren't, then it's probably best to steer clear of any Böhm Wagner - with one exception, Holländer.

Done in Bayreuth at the 1971 Festspiele, this set had been available until a little while ago on an import disc, sort of like Boulez' Parsifal, which Parsifal I might add has skyrocketed in price. Perhaps it's time for a DG Classics release. For a profoundly nervous and restless opera like Holländer, Böhm's tempi and style work. It's also early enough in Wagner's oeuvre to countenance such a style without rebelling or inciting rebellion on the part of the audience, most of whom are just there for Tristan, Der Ring, Meistersinger, or Parsifal. That's probably unfair and untrue, but I can't think of any die-hard Holländer aficionados. In any event, Böhm's leadership of the orchestra is solid. What would otherwise drive his ship, i.e., his tense and nervous conducting style for Wagner, on to the rocks keeps it in navigable waters.

The cast is good, but not great. Dame Gwyneth Jones is, happily, less shudder-inducing here than she will be for Boulez in 1980, but she's still Gwyneth Jones. Ridderbusch is great in pretty much anything, and - to my mind - was one of the best Wagnerian basses of his generation. His Daland is certainly in keeping with that judgment. Thomas Stewart is serviceable, but not Hermann Uhde. In other words, he lacks the really palpable pathos and torment that Uhde conveyed so simply and naturally. He's not as boring as James Morris (Levine), so that's always a plus. Harald Ek, as the Steuermann, is perhaps a bit too Helden- of a tenor for my taste, but he's competent. Hermin Esser's Erik is nice, but - you know - I've never paid much mind to Erik. Pitz' Bayreuth chorus is fabulous, just like any Wilhelm Pitz-prepared chorus.

In other words, this is a really first-rate Holländer. Keilberth and Knappertsbusch shared the 1955 performances, and those are probably still first choices, along with Klemperer's EMI studio set. Deutsche Grammophon really should start rereleasing more stuff like this, instead of churning the same twenty records in an endless cycle.

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