TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 January 2014
My last purchase of Wagner recordings in the anniversary year 2013 was in some respects the most interesting if not the most enjoyable. I'm known as no fan of HIP/HAP performances of his music-I absolutely detested the Norrington/LCP recording of some years back, and Rattle's performance of Das Rheingold with the OAE (available on CD from certain sources) leaves me baffled.
What attracted me to this recording was that it is of the original 1843 Score, not the second revision of 1845 that we normally hear, when the work was set in Scotland, with Daland named Donald though Senta still retaining her most un-Scottish name.
Those unfamiliar with this version need not fear-there are no additional bagpipes or eightsome reels in the score!
Thus, in this instance, there is some validity in adopting HIP practice, for this is certainly very near to how those early Dresden performances would have sounded.
Marc Minkowski and his usual Grenoble band are renowned for their virtuosity, and they are joined by the highly acclaimed Estonian Chamber Choir, more familiar to us in the works of Arvo Part.
The orchestra is about 50 strong-the musicians are listed but I haven't counted-and the sound is punchy and surprisingly rich, with the added transparency that a more chamber like ensemble brings to any score.
We know what to expect-brisk tempi, clipped rhythms, no vibrato, short stopping, rich horns, thin trumpets, over ripe tuba and genuine wooden woodwind all played at a much lower pitch-and that's exactly what we get in this very well recorded set.
The tam-tam is the "lightening sheet" specified by Wagner-a thin rectangular sheet of metal which provides quite a startling effect.
This "urtext" one act version begins with the original version of the overture which does not end with a reprise of Senta's theme and which we hear trotted out every so often-Woldemar Nelsson utilised it in his Bayreuth version-and breezes through the work with little of the oppressive darkness that Karajan and Levine bring to the work, but there is great momentum to the drama and in this version the debts to Beethoven and especially Weber have never been more apparent.
There are differences in the text throughout-not just scoring but in the composition, notable examples being Senta's ballad and Eric's cavatina, and it is fascinating to hear the work in this form- though I would have to say that Wagner knew what he was doing when he revised it!
With these forces and at these tempi, I'm bound to observe that the choruses remind me strongly of Gilbert &Sullivan-but then Sullivan was very adept at pastiche, and all the G&S works contain send-ups of popular composers.
The recording doesn't allow for much change in ambience between the lusty Scots and the ghostly Dutchmen, and the "big reveal" doesn't have the impact of other versions, but it is all in keeping.
In 2013 both Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape opined in separate interviews that orchestras playing louder than ever and at a higher pitch was putting extra strain on singers, particularly in Wagner, but here this does not apply and this enables lighter, more bel canto voices to be cast in the leading roles with the exception of the Dutchman himself.
Mika Kares cast as Donald/Daland has a lighter more refined voice than Evgeny Nikitin, which reverses the usual position, Ingela Brimberg is a very fine Senta though she does not get the chance to convey much of the obsessive nature of the role, and the rest of the cast sing with beauty and elegance with voices we would normally expect to hear in Mozart.
Ironically, with the opportunity to cast a lighter voiced Dutchman, Minkowski has cast the familiar Nikitin who is a mainstream singer who has given us fine recorded performances of Amfortas and Fasolt for Gergiev.
His is the most conventionally familiar reading, but he struggles at the top of the stave-the voice doesn't wobble, but it fades and becomes "grey" of tone on a few occasions, most noticeably in the final peroration.
With this conception of the work overall, he was never going to be able deliver the kind of intensity that van Dam, Fischer-Dieskau or Uhde achieve but it is a good, robust performance even if it is a little incongruous among such a lighter, lyrical cast.
The other attraction of this set is the opportunity to hear Pierre-Louis Dietsch's take on the same story, "Le Vaisseau Fantȏme" of 1842 composed for the Paris Opera.
I was aware that the work existed, and also that Dietsch had conducted Wagner's revised Tannhauser in Paris during which exercise some rancour was vented by both parties regarding who copied what from whom etc., but beyond that my knowledge was nil.
It is a standard format 2 Act Opera in the style of early Gounod, Rossini, Meyerbeer or even early French Verdi and musically is as far removed from the style of Wagner as it would be possible to conceive.
The music conveys none of the sense of the story and drama being unfolded but consists of a series of prolonged cavatina leading into an aria designed to allow the singer to show off and give us some vocal fireworks, with some very high notes indeed. This is interspersed with recitative and a few lusty choruses-or as lusty as this attenuated chorus can achieve.
The music is unfailingly pleasant and melodious-and to my ears totally unmemorable. It is not difficult to guess why it is not performed more often.
Still, it is a fascinating listen with Britain's own Sally Matthews stealing the honours among an excellent cast, as Minna (Senta) (which had the timescales been different might have been seen as a dig at Wagner!)
Several members of the cast in the Wagner work reappear in this work, notably Bernard Richter whose tenor voice leaps above the scale causing me to think he had cried out in pain, but the beautifully toned Russell Braun sings this more charming Hollander with refinement and aplomb.
What this pairing of works serves to emphasise so well is just how revolutionary Wagner's opera was compared to the standard fayre of the era, and it is perhaps a little sad that the main value of hearing the Dietsch is that it serves to emphasise the revolutionary genius of Wagner.
I'm not going to pretend that this is how I want to hear Hollander in future-I prefer the revised version with as big an orchestra as possible-but I have enjoyed this performance and have returned to it several times and intend to again and not just out of academic interest.
I would suggest that all true Wagner lovers-even if they share my usual aversion to HIP practice in his works-will find this set fascinating and rewarding, and most crucially-enjoyable.
It is beautifully presented with extensive notes and libretti, and is very reasonably priced.
First choice recommendations for Hollander remain the reissued Konwitschny, the stereo Keilberth (best from Pristine Classics) and I have a warped fondness for Levine's massive, slow interpretation which equates the work with Tristan (but I accept that this is a somewhat personal and perverse choice. )
5 Stars for this set for enterprise and artistry. Stewart Crowe.