Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: the beginning of Marek Janowski’s Historic Series of Concert Performances of the Ten Mature Operas and Music Dramas

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Marek Janowski

Marek Janowski

Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer
Matti Salminen – Bass (Daland)
Ricarda Merbeth – Soprano (Senta)
Robert Dean Smith – Tenor (Erik)
Silvia Hablowetz – Mezzo-soprano (Mary)
Steve Davislim – Tenor (Steuermann)
Albert Dohmen – Bass-baritone (Der Holländer)

Rundfunkchor Berlin
Chorus Master – Eberhard Friedrich
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
conducted by Marek Janowski

Pentatone PTC 5186400 DSD
Live recording of the concert performance in the Berlin Philharmonie on 13 November, 2010

Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl.

Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…” Janowski, like Riccardo Chailly, also became a hero among opponents of Regieoper, when, in the 1990’s, he said enough was enough and withdrew from conducting in the pit. He had hoped that Regieoper, the practice of subordinating the indications of the librettist and composer to the ideas of a stage director, to the detriment of dramatic plausibility—and musical preparation—would run its course, but it persisted then and it lives still today. Companies like the Metropolitan Opera have tried to entice Janowski to conduct in the house, but he has remained firm to this day. Admirers of his conducting, and everyone frustrated with the musical fallout of Regieoper, were thrilled to learn of the planned series of concert performances of all ten of Wagner’s mature operas conducted by Janowski with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, of which he is Artistic Director. The series began in 2010 and will continue through 2013, with only one performance of each work. After this was planned, Pentatone Classics arranged to record the entire cycle. So far Der fliegende Holländer and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been released, with Parsifal due in February. Pentatone specialize in audiophile quality multichannel recordings and are accordingly releasing the Wagner cycle on hybrid CD/SACD discs.

The superb, natural recording of what I have heard so far can sound rather different on different configurations of audio equipment. Played on a CD player over monitor headphones the discs provide spacious, clear stereo sound, with a precise sense of the location of the sound source—an important concept for Janowski, especially as regards the singers. When played on an SACD player and heard on a pair of speakers, the sound is present, but richly enveloped in ambience, suggesting the advantage of side and rear channels. I’ve always resisted surround sound, but these recordings, and Pentatone’s other outstanding multichannel recordings—for example Kurt Masur’s classic Beethoven symphonies and overtures with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra—have all but broken down my resistance. Pentatone seem to have absolutely the right idea about this kind of recording, and it sounds to me rather like the multichannel equivalent of an ORTF stereo configuration. The splendid, warm acoustics of the Berlin Philharmonie where the performances take place, are faithfully reproduced, bringing back memories of a very different kind of conductor in his glory days, Herbert von Karajan. However one plays the discs, the natural coherence of the sound and the specificity of location are just what Janowski’s meticulous approach to orchestral and vocal balance requires. You will, for example, hear many inner voices in this recording, especially in the horns, which make their point not only by being clear, but perfectly balanced in the ensemble. The audience is inaudible.

Outstanding recording is important in the Dutchman, as it is in all of Wagner’s mature music dramas, because scene-painting, from the overture to the finale, is so much a part of Wagner’s dramatic concept and compositional technique. It’s perhaps not quite fair to say that he hadn’t mastered this in Rienzi, since so much of the sonic atmosphere in this grand opera, mostly in the French style, consists of ceremonial brass. In this respect, Wagner’s key experience, his stormy crossing of the Baltic in July and August 1839, as he and his wife Minna fled the authorities in Riga, when he heard sailors calling out to each other over the water, occurred during a break in the composition of Rienzi, after he had finished the first two acts. He picked up Rienzi again in February 1840 and composed the first numbers of the Dutchman only a few months later, from early May to late July 1840, and he was not to finish Rienzi until October. These first numbers of Holländer consisted precisely of the choral dialogue between the Norwegian sailors and the Dutchman’s crew, the atmospheric effort inspired by his experience at sea, and Senta’s Ballad, which has a dramatic structure resembling to Rienzi’s Prayer. Wagner himself saw a significant gap between the two overlapping, even somewhat intertwined operas, one which marked the beginning of his mature work, and that remains the prevailing opinion. The reason for Wagner’s undeniable artistic growth is not fully understood, but, as far as Rienzi and the Holländer are concerned, it seems to lie in his choice of models—German Singspiel, i.e. Beethoven and Weber—as opposed to Donizetti and the French (In Rienzi, he was making an all-out effort to break into the Opéra de Paris.), as well as in his quasi- (or pseudo-) folkloric source for the story in Heine and the popular models of some principal numbers, the sailor’s love song, the ballad, and the spinning song. In any case the conversation among the different sections of the orchestra in the Dutchman and the effect of their timbres in space are essential, and Janowski’s precision and transparency realize them with maximum effectiveness.

Maestro Janowski has assembled a world-class cast for this recording, as he seems to have for the others: Albert Dohmen as the Holländer, who struck me as a great Wotan at Bayreuth, Matti Salminen as Daland, Robert Dean Smith as Erik, the superb Steve Davislim at the Steuermann, and Ricarda Merbeth as Senta, who was a member of the Vienna State Opera between 1999 and 2005 and is a frequent visitor to Berlin, Dresden, and Bayreuth, as well as Vienna. The entire cast was more than up to the mark in this demanding situation of a single live performance, which ruled out the luxury of retakes.

Immediately in the overture we hear the benefits of Janowski’s methods: clear textures, tight ensemble, and precise rhythms. The rhythmic shapes of the interchanges among the sections and soloists are by no means simple, either in the overture or elsewhere in the opera. Wagner is already refining and going beyond simple arpeggiated accompaniments to more varied, even emotionally erratic gestures within the orchestra, and the more one hears of these the better. Janowski focuses our attention on Wagner’s composition rather than its rhetorical and emotive affect. After listening to this performance one might think that the highly emotive performances might seem exaggerated. On the contrary, Janowski’s self-control, while a valuable quality in its own right, only increases our appreciation of differing approaches. In any case, Janowski’s attention to the inner voices, the expressive, tonally beautiful playing of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester winds, and their perfect placement in space are one of the great strengths of a performance which has really no weaknesses.

The action starts with Steve Davislim’s jaw-droppingly beautiful singing of the Steuermann’s song—far beyond any I have heard. This was a richly imagined, deeply felt, and muscular rendition from a fully-developed tenor of the highest capabilities and varied colorations. Davislim’s dark bottom, tawny middle registers, and sweet top give him a tremendous range of expression. The string accompaniment could not have been more flexible or more gentle in tone, underscoring all the tenderness of the Steuermann’s yearning. The role is not usually cast with a first-rank tenor who could just as well manage Erik. A Steuermann of this quality immediately wakes the listener up, preparing him for extraordinary singing ahead.

As Daland, Matti Salminen’s age shows itself in a marked wobble, which is still not sufficiently severe to impair his performance, especially as Senta’s aged father. Salminen turns it to advantage in his characterization of the greedy old sea captain and especially in his dialogues with Albert Dohmen’s icy-solid, cutting Dutchman. Otherwise the sumptuously napped baritonal overtones of Salminen’s bass voice are as pleasing as ever, and expressively exploited to reveal Daland’s human weakness.

From my own point of view, the Albert Dohmen who sang such a chilling Bluebeard in recent BSO performances, is pretty much ideal among the bass-baritones of today for the role of the Dutchman, a cursed figure, who has been humanly drained and frozen by his satanic ordeal. In combination with Janowski’s  exact, forceful rhythms, he expresses himself in sharp-edged phrases, supported by his opulent mid-and upper voice and lower range of onyx-like density and grit. One would not characterize Dohmen’s rich and varied instrument as hard, but his portrayal is. Whatever the girl, Senta, is seeking in this Dutchman, it is not the comfort of sympathetic humanity. His Dutchman is all about his intense bitterness and desire for annihilation. In order to accomplish this he needs and craves, vampire-like, the highest human moral quality, self-sacrifice, which he will take along with him to his destruction. In the bitterest moments of “Die Frist is um,” Dohmen receives an accompaniment from the Sinfonieorchester’s low and massed strings, of the most sensitively nuanced rubato and coloration, echoing the subtleties of Dohmen’s inflections with an almost uncanny responsiveness.

No one would mistake the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester for the Dresdener Staatskapelle, but their playing is nonetheless excellent, and they seem to relish the challenge of opera. In his Gramophone interview, Janowski observed how some of the orchestra’s players are long-time Bayreuthians, while others have had only minimal operatic experience. Clearly the combination was immensely stimulating for all. In this interview he mentioned that the Rundfunkchor Berlin he employs in these recordings is superior to most opera choruses, and indeed they are outstanding. The unanimity and clarity of the women in the Spinning Chorus is impressive, and in combination with the details in the winds and strings of the orchestra and the varied timbres they produce is astonishing.

Ricarda Merbeth’s Senta is on the same high level. Interpretatively, as it appears to me, she has studied Anna Silja’s great portrayal, which is preserved in several recordings, but she has also made it her own. Her voice is much fuller and more mezzo-like than Silja’s and projects a more mature, womanly nature than Silja’s naive, dreamy girl. On the other hand, Merbeth preserves much of Silja’s vulnerability. Her occasionally wide-ish vibrato helps convey this impression, as well as the intensity of her emotion. Her ample, resonant soprano and her long, powerfully-sustained melodic lines add a heroic quality to her Senta and hint that she must sing a fine Leonore in Fidelio as well.

Robert Dean Smith is an Erik who also sings Florestan and Siegmund, and as such he is a substantial presence—another example of the very high standards of the casting in this cycle. Of course the role should be cast as well as possible: Erik is not merely a prig or a booby. His love for Senta is genuine, deeply felt, and benevolent. He is also deeply disturbed by Senta’s morbid obsessions and its physical effect on her. Smith’s pianissimo “Du bist so bleich…” is indeed chilling, and even more, his “Auf hohem Felsen lag ich träumend…” is a richly detailed narrative of a terrifying revelation in a dreaming state. This is a particularly fascinating moment in the opera, strongly Schubertian in quality and reminiscent of Schubert’s narrative Balladen. Specifically it gives us a clue to how Wagner reached this expressive depth through the study of Schubert, whose music he deeply loved.

And Silvia Hablowetz is entirely up to this standard in the small, but important role of Mary.

I have mentioned the many excellences of this outstanding performance.  What makes it absolutely unique is Janowski’s sensitive ear not only for orchestral details, but for the hairpin flexibility of dynamics and tempo necessary in accompanying singers. The way he uses instrumental color to support the nuances of a singer’s line is almost unheard of in post-Mozartian opera. Going beyond the sophistication of a Levine or a Pappano it approaches what a crack Baroque ensemble can achieve. With Dohmen’s great Dutchman and a consistently fine cast, it should clearly be must, and it is. Yet, given the superb older performances available in recordings, even a casual collector should not have only one Holländer. One should not miss the humanity of Hotter’s interpretation or Krauss’ fiery conducting, or the intensity of Uhde and Keilberth at Bayreuth in 1955, available in a superb remastering of the stereo original by Andrew Rose from Pristine Classics. Janowski may deprive Klemperer’s 1961 commercial recording of some of its luster as the most solid, all-round recording, but that, too, remains essential, and one would also want the live recording of the Festival Hall performance from which the studio recording was derived and which many critics prefer. The 1961 Bayreuth performance under Sawallisch with Uhle, Silja, and Crass, which was once available on a 2008 Decca boxed set of all ten of Wagner’s mature operas is another outstanding performance. Janowski’s splendid concert performances ranks high in this distinguished company.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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