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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
(1862-1868)

Theo Adam (bar) - Hans Sachs
Karl Ridderbusch (bass) - Veit Pogner
Geraint Evans (bar) - Sixtus Beckmesser
Rene Kollo (ten) - Walther von Stolzing
Peter Schreier (ten) - David
Helen Donath (sop) - Eva
Ruth Hesse (mz) - Magdelene
Choirs of Staatsoper Dresden and Leipzig Radio
Dresden Staatskapelle/Herbert von Karajan
Rec: November and December 1970 - Lukaskirche, Dresden
EMI Great Recordings of The Century CMS5 67086 2
[4 CDs: 4.25.50]

Crotchet  £34 AmazonUK £36   AmazonUS $44.62  Amazon recommendations

EMI have been good to this particular opera down the years. In 1951 ace producer Walter Legge taped performances at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival where the conductor was also Herbert von Karajan. That wonderful set with its fabulous cast dominated the catalogue for years, appearing on 78s, LPs and CDs (EMI 63500-2). Then just five years later EMI's German wing, Electrola, recorded a great studio version with Berlin Opera forces under Rudolf Kempe. Many people, myself included, count that as one of the best versions ever made (EMI 64154-2). However, like the Karajan Bayreuth version, that was made in mono and by the late 1960s, with people demanding stereo, EMI were ready for another version and the present recording was made. Even then they were not finished because they would make a fourth recording, in Munich in 1993, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI 55142-2).

When it first came out in 1971 this Dresden recording commanded enormous attention, including cover stories on the record magazines, articles and features in the press, as well as detailed and learned reviews that took in the performance as well as the nature and importance of the work itself. Those were the days. Remember the cold war was at its height and the Berlin Wall had been dividing Germany's old capital just nine years, so it's hard to overestimate the significance of a British company journeying to East Germany to record that most German of operas in association with the state recording company. Not only that, to take with them to conduct it West Germany's most famous musical personality, Herbert von Karajan, the one musician who more than any other stood for the enclave of West Berlin, was the stuff of front page news. But why not just record in Berlin with Karajan's own Berlin Philharmonic? The principal reason was the availability of the Dresden Staatskapelle, one of the world's greatest orchestras, who had maintained their special sound almost as a phoenix after the destruction of their city in 1945 and for whom this work was meat and drink. Their predecessors had played in the premiere in 1869. Karajan knew how good they were and he was happy to work with them. When he finally stood before them he told them that their sound had been described to him as "like old gold" and he was absolutely right as the first few minutes of the Act I Prelude prove straight away. Listen to the exposed, tumbling strings just before the music depicting the Masters and then the sweet but solid winds projecting burnished warmth behind the bourgeois splendour. So it continues with string playing that is warm and humane matched to wind solos of rare eloquence from start to finish. Especially lovely is the Prelude to Act III, a portrait in music of Hans Sachs, surely the most sympathetic character Wagner ever created, rendered here with strength and lyricism. So don't expect the kind of polished surfaces you may be used to with Karajan in Berlin. Rather he seems to enhance what is there already, building on the tradition.

When Karajan was waved through Checkpoint Charlie in November 1970 without formality and driven into the GDR in a government car as though a Kremlin Politburo member, it was clear the regime was itself behind this project all the way. However there are more politics behind this recording than many people know and another story revealing that it might have sounded rather different, at least in interpretation. Buried in the, now out of print, biography of Sir John Barbirolli by Michael Kennedy is the amazing revelation that Karajan had not been first choice for the project. None other than Barbirolli himself was supposed to have conducted it two years before in 1968 but he cancelled after responding to an appeal by Rafael Kubelik following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that western musicians boycott Warsaw Pact countries. By 1970 the world of international politics had moved on. Barbirolli was dead and so Karajan was more than happy to step into the breach. But notice that the EMI producer on this recording is Ronald Kinloch Anderson, Barbirolli's producer rather than one of Karajan's usual collaborators.

In Wagner Karajan generally preferred casting lighter voices than was usual. That along with the "chamber music" approach to his orchestra was one of his lasting legacies in Wagner. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not, as we saw in his recording of The Ring. In this Meistersinger you can hear his preference for lighter voices; most strongly in the two lovers where Helen Donath and René Kollo as Eva and Walther really do sound at the correct age. I well remember how welcomed this was by many critics in 1971 more used to middle-aged 'young lovers'. In the first two acts Kollo sounds admirable as a slightly bumptious youth, ardent and romantic. Perhaps in Act III he falls short of the power needed for the Prize Song but his phrasing and tone carry him through. You really need to be a Domingo for this passage and Placido Domingo is indeed excellent in the Jochum recording on DG here, but even he cannot hold a candle to Kollo elsewhere in the opera. Helen Donath was reluctant to take the part of Eva but Karajan persuaded her. She is less impressive overall than Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in Karajan's Bayreuth recording, especially in the way her older colleague seems to appreciate the fact that Sachs fancies her, though this Eva does flirt with the old boy beautifully. Theo Adam sings Hans Sachs memorably. Maybe Karajan was forced to accept him by the fact that he was an East German artist but even then Adam's is the kind of voice you would expect Karajan to cast anyway. He delivers the monologues with the simplicity of a lieder singer. Different from some predecessors who bring more heft and heat to those passages, but Sachs is the greatest of all the Mastersingers. He is a man who, if called on, could sing them all off the stage with the rules that so obsess Beckmesser coming naturally to him. Therefore a quiet and subtle presence, an assurance, is an aspect of the part that works very well and that is what you get with Adam. The "Wahn" monologue in Act III, for example, emerges with nobility rather than declamation and that impresses me each time I hear it. For a traditional rendition, and with the weight of history bearing down on it, try to hear Paul Schöffler at Bayreuth in 1943 under Abendroth (Preiser 90174) especially when, looking out over the nightscape of Nuremberg, he sings the words: "Why, till they draw blood, do people torment and flay each other in useless, foolish anger".

Moving to the rest of the cast Geraint Evans is marvellous as Beckmesser. Though I am aware some find his grating, "sing-speech" delivery a problem. I don't think he ever caricatures this villain of the piece, which can be a danger with this kind of delivery. Rather he conveys perfectly the pettiness and nastiness in the man and that's all you could ask. It's a brilliant piece of balance, musical and dramatic, and when Sachs gets the better of him there is even an opportunity for us to feel an iota of pity for the stupid man. Contrasting Evans as Beckmesser is Karl Ridderbusch as Pogner with a quiet dignity and the feeling of the nervous father seeing his lovely daughter the centre of attention coming over well. Some find Peter Schreier a shallow David. I suppose I can see what they mean but as this was early in this great artist's career and David is a small part we can surely live with him perfectly well.

The sound balance achieved between voices and orchestra in a generous, though never over-generous, acoustic is well nigh perfect. The excellent choruses too are always in believable perspective and tailored to the requirements of the drama. This is especially impressive when considering recorded sound and musical performance work altogether in the riot scene at the end of Act II after David attacks Beckmesser for apparently wooing Magdalene. You can follow every strand and contour in a miracle of planning and execution. Karajan and the producers must have plotted this so carefully and yet they still manage to make it all sound spontaneous. In fact spontaneity is the principal quality that always seems to come from this set and for a studio recording, albeit one made in long takes, that is most unusual. Most of the opera is recitative and to keep all that bowling along, maintaining our interest, is the conductor's greatest challenge. Karajan brings this off with great aplomb and much wit: one of his finest achievements on record, aided by a hand-picked cast.

On balance I think this Dresden recording of "Die Meistersinger" is the finest of them all, especially for those who do not own a recording of this work already. There isn't a weak link in it. Recorded sound, orchestral playing, conducting and singing are all exceptional. True the 1951 Bayreuth recording under Karajan has marginally better casting, wonderful theatre atmosphere and a greater sense of urgency in the execution. But the second time around Karajan's slightly more spacious unfolding allows us to hear even more detail of this perfect score. I will always love the earlier version but the mono sound shows its age, it is victim to the vagaries of theatre recording and there are inevitable fluffs in playing and singing.

Other companies have weighed in over the years with recordings of this work, of course. There is a fine studio version conducted by Eugen Jochum on DG (415-278-2) that boasts Fischer-Dieskau as Hans Sachs but, as I indicated above, I simply cannot take Placido Domingo as Walther, finding him too overtly operatic. Kempe on EMI must always be considered as well. But the one version myself and many others are demanding is a "live" BBC recording of Reginald Goodall conducting Sadlers Wells forces in English from 1968. I have only heard extracts from this but even they have convinced me the reputation of this fabled recording are true. How about it BBC Legends?

This is the reference recording for this opera and the first choice.

Tony Duggan


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