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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)

Paul Schoeffler (bass-baritone) – Hans Sachs, cobbler; Otto Edelmann (bass) – Veit Pogner, goldsmith; Hugo Meyer-Welfing (tenor) – Kunz Vogelgesang, furrier; Wilhelm Felden (bass) – Konrad Nachtigall, tinsmith; Karl Dönch (baritone) – Sixtus Beckmesser, town clerk; Alfred Poell (baritone) – Fritz Kothner, baker; Erich Majkut (tenor) – Balthasar Zorn, pewterer; William Wergnick (tenor) – Ulrich Eisslinger, grocer; Hermann Gallos (tenor) – Augustin Moser, tailor; Harald Pröglhof (bass) – Hermann Ortel, soapmaker & A Night Watchman; Franz Bierback (bass) – Hans Schwarz, stocking-weaver; Ljubomir Pantscheff (bass) – Hans Folz, coppersmith; Gunther Treptow (tenor) – Walther von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight; Anton Dermota (tenor) – David, Sachs’ apprentice; Hilde Gueden (soprano) – Eva, Pogner’s daughter; Else Schürhoff (soprano) – Magdalena, her nurse
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. 2–9 September 1950 (Act 2), 11–22 September 1951 (Acts 1 and 3) in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
NAXOS 8.111128-31 [4 CDs: 71:34 + 73:28 + 68:27 + 52:02]
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There are certain musical works that are so noble and human that, after having finished listening, one has the same feeling as when stepping out of Finnish sauna, rosy-cheeked and devoid of all misery. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is such a work. Every time I sit down to consume it I have very high expectations – and I am rarely let down. I can have objections to this and that but the power and the beauty of the music and the built-in message - forget any references to the Nazis - have such dignity that I can overlook what deficiencies there are. Truth to tell though, it is practically impossible to find a recording of it where everything works out one hundred per cent. The present set – the first ever studio recording of Die Meistersinger – is no exception, but this has very little to do with the execution of the music.

Decca less than a decade later were more or less outstanding when it came to recording big forces (Solti’s Rheingold, Karajan’s Aida and Otello). However at the beginning of the LP era they were in great trouble getting good reproduction of the orchestra, especially the strings, which sound thin and wiry. One eventually gets used to it and mentally starts to imagine what it probably sounded like in the recording venue, but one can never get the impact of a good stereo recording and the final outcome is smaller, more congested, than one would wish. In this particular case, as Mark Obert-Thorn points out, there were other problems as well: the beginning of some notes were clipped and in some places some bars were incorrectly repeated, faults that obviously were inherent in the original tapes. He has done what was possible to adjust and we have to be grateful for that. Warts and all, this is so important a document that one could have accepted even worse defects.

It was recorded in Vienna with an Austro-German cast under one of the legendary Wagnerians of the era. With the Vienna Philharmonic and the State Opera Chorus, we are in for a performance in the old tradition, with singers and musicians who knew the score inside-out and for whom the text had a meaning. For any large-scale operatic production like this the conductor is the pivot around whom everything turns. Hans Knappertsbusch has often been accused of over-indulgence and controversial tempos – but not so here. Myth has it that "Kna" could be slow, bordering on the lethargic, but here he is actually faster than many others and there is a lightness and a rhythmic spring in the step that makes this one of the most youthful versions I have heard. True, he can be very affectionate, as in the prelude to Act III, where he moulds the music lovingly in long phrases, but as soon as David appears we can literally see the apprentice boy scurrying about. The famous quintet in the same act is another moment of stillness – it’s almost like a movie sequence where the director freezes the picture at a magical moment. As I have already implied the big public scenes can’t make the same impact as on later recordings, but still the final scene is excellent with the Vienna Phil enjoying themselves in the apprentices’ jolly dance, the fanfares and the grave solemnity when the masters arrive with flying banners and the devotional Wach auf! chorus.

And "Kna" has a near-ideal cast at his disposal, down to the minor roles among the masters. Here are legendary names aplenty from the Golden Days of the Vienna State Opera: Meyer-Welfing, Majkut, Pröglhof, Pantscheff. When we come to the big roles it is at once obvious that there is very little four-square plodding and speech-singing. This is Wagnerian bel canto at its best. Head and shoulders above the rest stands Paul Schoeffler’s warm and human Hans Sachs, beautiful of tone, natural sounding, manly, authoritative and unaffected. Rarely has Am Jordan Sankt Johannes stand (CD3 tr. 2) been sung so well and the great monologues are hard to imagine better done. Just before the quintet he delivers Ein Kind ward hier geboren (CD4 tr.1) so lyrically and with such focus on the text that I draw parallels to his marginally older compatriot Heinrich Schlusnus, a more lyrical singer but with a similar voice and approach. Norman Bailey on the Solti set may have the same insight but has a duller voice and a more wooden delivery, Bernt Weikl (Sawallisch) sings well but is more generalised and Theo Adam (Karajan II) has an unattractive voice – he sounds mean when he should be fatherly.

Otto Edelmann as Pogner also radiates warmth and challenges even Kurt Moll for beauty of tone and Alfred Poell as Kothner also sings, not only recites. Karl Dönch presents Beckmesser as a fairly ridiculous person, an approach I believe Wagner would have liked, but he also sings very well, without a trace of parody in the final scene (CD4 tr. 9). As David Anton Dermota with his mellifluous voice is ideal and besides the beauty of tone he also characterises well. His Lene, Else Schürhoff, is indicated as soprano in the cast list but hers is definitely a contralto voice. She sounds rather matronly and a bit unwieldy. The problem with her is that she is Eva’s nurse and consequently has to be rather mature; at the same time she has an affair with David, who is supposed to be young … Hilde Gueden’s Eva is possibly the most lovely on records, displaying the same silvery voice as in her legendary recordings of Susanna, Zerlina and Pamina. She is at her very finest in O Sach! Mein Freund! (CD3 tr. 9).

There remains the Walther of Gunther Treptow to be assessed, and he is the stumbling-block of this set. He is fairly good in Act I without rising to the heights of, say, Sandor Konya, the young René Kollo or Ben Heppner. In Act II he is sorely strained in his long solo and we have to be grateful that he has little else of importance to sing in this act. In the third act his first attempt at Morgenlich leuchtend (CD3 tr. 5) has pinched, almost strangulated tone, but luckily when it comes to the "real" Prize Song in the final scene (CD4 tr.11) he seems to have gone through a metamorphosis and the whole aria is sung with bold, steady, heroic tone, maybe not lyrical enough but a great improvement on his singing earlier. This is after all the real highlight and what will remain in our memories.

For a good modern recording I would so far opt for Sawallisch as a middle-of-the-road reading with top-notch singers, Kubelik and Karajan II are also contenders but it seems that DG have a trump card up the sleeve in the forthcoming recording with Thielemann conducting and with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. Whichever version you own or plan to acquire, this old Knappertsbusch may be the most authentic for both conducting and singing – as long as you can accept the ageing sound and disregard the less than ingratiating singing of Treptow. Most of all it is a wonderful tribute to the art of Paul Schoeffler and his deeply moving human portrayal of Hans Sachs. In that respect it is a desert-island-set.

Göran Forsling


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