Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Klemperer’s Wagner in Concert on Urania

courtesy of Naxos of America

Last month Urania Records continued their releases of historically significant recordings with an interpretation of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman by conductor Otto Klemperer. Because those following the hyperlink on the opera’s title to the Amazon Web page for this recording will probably see a negative review submitted by a customer identified as “Gustav Mahler,” I want to begin be clearing up what is probably a misconception. That review recommends, as an alternative, a “deluxe edition” from EMI “which finally restores all the incredible sound effects.”

The reviewer is probably referring to the 1968 recording that was made by EMI, which was remastered for the Great Recordings of the Century series and was subsequently reissued last October under the Warner Classics brand. This was a studio recording made at Abbey Road, and one can appreciate the ways in which the studio engineers enhanced the recording with those “incredible sound effects.” However, the Urania recording was taken from a concert performance that took place the same year, 1968, in the Royal Festival Hall on March 19 and was broadcast by the BBC.

It is easy to confuse the two recordings. Klemperer is conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra and the BBC Chorus on both of them. Furthermore, the vocalists for four of the six roles are identical on the two recordings: The Dutchman (bass-baritone Theo Adam), Senta (soprano Anna Silja), Daland (bass Martti Talvela), and Mary (contralto Annelies Burmeister). That leaves only two differences. Erik was sung by tenor Ernst Kozub in studio but by James King on the concert recording. The same goes for the other tenor in the cast, Daland’s steersman, sung by Gerhard Unger in studio and Kenneth Macdonand in concert.

Does this amount to a significant difference? Personally, I always opt for the concert hall over the studio when given the choice. Nevertheless, that concert recording has one disadvantage for the Wagner purists. Klemperer opted for the 1843 Dresden version, which consists of three separate acts, rather the original conception with interlude music between the acts allowing the entire opera to be performed without intermission. Whether this is a “difference that makes a difference” depends entirely on the individual taste of the listener. In my own case the balance is probably tipped by my preference for King.

Of greater importance is the personal urgency that Klemperer brings to his conducting in the concert setting. At the time of the concert recording, he was nearing the age of 83 and had endured several major physical setbacks. He also had a reputation for sluggish tempos, but that particular brand of public opinion never had much influence on me personally. The first Klemperer recordings I owned were the EMI productions of the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms, and I never had anything against any of the interpretations.

For that matter, I feel the same way about Sergiu Celibidache, who faced similar accusations during his lifetime. Celibidache claimed he would slow down the tempo because he worried that the recording equipment might blur the clarity of the performance if the tempo was too fast. He had a point, but I do not know if Klemperer felt the same way. In any event there is never a point in this Urania Wagner recording when the attentive listener might feel that things are dragging. To the contrary, Klemperer is as sensitive to the pace at which the narrative unfolds as he is about the tempos being performed by the instrumentalists and vocalists. Furthermore, one definitely cannot complaint about how the recording technology accounted for critical details in the score.

Nevertheless, I must confess that, among the Dutchman recordings, I have my own preference for the “number one” slot. That would be the 1960 recording made by Antal Dorati conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (which has also been reissued by Urania). My reason is simple enough: I welcome any recorded document of performances by George London. His account of the Dutchman definitely deserves the attention of anyone serious about listening to performances of Wagner’s music. Fate obliged him to end his singing career at the age of 46, so any document of his work prior to that time is to be treasured.

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