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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hans Sachs - Otto Edelmann (bass)
Veit Pogner - Frederick Dalberg (bass)
Kunz Vogelgesang - Erich Majkut (tenor)
Konrad Nachtigall - Hans Berg (bass)
Sixtus Beckmesser - Erich Kunz (baritone)
Fritz Kothner - Heinrich Pflanzl (bass)
Balthasar Zorn - Josef Janko (tenor)
Ulrich Eisslinger - Karl Mikorey (tenor)
Augustin Moser - Gerhard Stolze (tenor)
Hermann Ortel - Heinz Tandler (bass)
Hans Schwarz - Heinz Borst (bass)
Hans Foltz - Arnold van Mill (bass)
Walther von Stolzing - Hans Hopf (tenor)
David - Gerhard Unger (tenor)
Eva - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Magdalena - Ira Mlaniuk (soprano)
A Night Watchmann - Werner Faulhaber (bass)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Wilhelm Pitz)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded 27th July and 5th, 16th, 19th, 21st, 24th August 1951, Festspielhaus Bayreuth
First Issued on Columbia LX 1465 through 1498 (78 rpm) and 33CX 1021 through 1025 (LP)
NAXOS 8.110872-75 [4CDs: 70.09, 73.19, 68.56, 55.13]
The 1951 performances of 'Die Meistersinger' had great significance at Bayreuth. The first performances of the opera there since the War, Wieland Wagner's production was designed to purge the work of its Nazi associations. With the publication of the recent biography of his mother, Winifred, we are coming to understand that her enthusiasm for the Nazis was not as total as it first appeared and that Wieland's own Nazi associations may have been rather greater than we have been led to believe. But whatever its political associations, these performances were tremendous with a fine cast led by the Viennese bass-baritone Otto Edelmann as Sachs. Nowadays we do not always associate Schwarzkopf with Wagner, but she made her debut at the Berlin State Opera in 1938 as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal. Besides Eva, Elisabeth and Elsa were also in her repertoire. Hans Hopf, the Walter, started out as a lyric tenor but in the early 1940s he re-trained as a helden-tenor and appeared frequently at Bayreuth. As Beckmesser, Erich Kunz is an artist now more associated with Mozart and with operetta. Gerhard Unger, who plays David, was the leading German character tenor of his generation.

Regarding speeds, both Karajan recordings are remarkably consistent in their running time (this one 268 minutes, his later Dresden one 266 minutes). In fact, there is a remarkably consistency amongst conductors regarding the running time of the opera. The longest I came across was Knappertsbusch (at 295 minutes), but he also turned in a recording lasting 266 minutes. The shortest running time being Solti's Chicago performance (259 minutes). Of course, this takes no account of the recordings I have missed and the fact that some of these performances may have been cut.

The performance opens with an overture that is lively and theatrical. Aurally, it sounds as if we are almost in the midst of the orchestra. I found the sound quality of this recording one of its most unsatisfactory points. It is not bad, but sounds rather flat and lacks atmosphere.

Despite its liveliness, the overture is very sober and serious. It rather lacks smile. When all is said and done, this is a comedy albeit a rather long and serious one. Even the opening scenes with David have a thoroughgoing seriousness about them.

But Kunz's David rightly dominates the second scene of Act 1. With his bright, forward tone he is a fine, lively David with just an occasional hint of steeliness in the upper register.

Frederick Dalberg's noble, upstanding Pogner is at his best in the lovely St. Johannestag speech in Act 1. His tone, though, does yield under pressure and displays too much vibrato for my comfort. This is a real ensemble production, so that the Mastersingers scene shows a fine interplay between equals. Karajan makes a good accompanist here and the orchestra rarely tries to dominate.

Edelmann's Sachs is at first rather dry toned, though his tones are warmer in Act 2 but still lack poetry. His approach is too emphatic and lacks a feeling for legato and a sense of line. These problems notwithstanding, he gives a powerful account of the "Wahn" monologue, but I could not help feeling that it could have been far finer.

As Walter, Hans Hopf is a bit of a dull stick, though one with a fabulous voice, but he does come alive during his Act 2 outburst. And both he and Sachs are heard at their best in Scene 3 of Act 2, the forging of the prize song. Hopf's tone here is sheerly beautiful (or as beautiful as a true helden-tenor can ever be) and Edelmann finds a vein of lyrical beauty that is lacking in much of the rest of the work

Schwarzkopf is covered by the orchestra at climactic moments, the role stretches her to her limits but her Eva is always beautiful, she never makes an ugly sound. Her usual care over words and phrases creates a rather mature, knowing Eva, but then virginal radiance is not really a quality we associated with Schwarzkopf's operatic portrayals.

Kunz's Beckmesser is a traditional characterful portrayal. He does find sufficient vocal resources to make his serenades credible and in the important Scene 5 of Act 2 his fine singing takes the edge off the caricature, rounding out the portrait of Beckmesser.

The final scene in Act 3, has the same rather sober, serious atmosphere of the overture and the apprentices scene is desperately unamusing. But the recording comes into its own once the serious singing starts. The aural picture, here, is rather confused in the big ensembles.

But this is true of the whole recording, where the big ensembles are too much. The voices are caught rather closely, which does not help the aural atmosphere, and it renders them rather harshly at times. In his notes on the recording the transfer engineer comments that this recording does not capture the special acoustic of the Festspielhaus. (That this was possible is shown by the Decca's recording of the Knappertsbusch 'Parsifal' which was made at about the same time).

Undoubtedly, Karajan enthusiasts will want to have his later Dresden recording of this opera. It received a huge review from Andrew Porter in the Gramophone when it first appeared and it is certainly a very great recording. But this recording is greater than the sum of its parts and it is of interest, not only for its fine cast but as a tangible record of a very historic occasion.

Robert Hugill

see also review by John Portwood

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