As war began to rage in Europe, the Met’s German wing staged an imperishably vital performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In the cast was - very much primus inter pares - the magnificent figure of Friedrich Schorr. The recording equipment captured the impersonation in excellent sound for the time, one for which no real allowances need to be made. Fortunately - because I like them - Milton Cross’s scene-setting introductions and commentaries have been retained. Collectors will know that this performance has been released before, on LP by Edward Smith on a limited issue basis, and subsequently by Discocorp to a more general audience.
As for the production itself those familiar with conductor Arthur Bodanzky’s work, previously auditioned in many Guild transfers of Met performances, will be aware that he imposed sometimes drastic cuts. Leinsdorf frequently had to take these over, as here. But for this Immortal Performances restoration we need also to note that there have been some minor interpolations and editorial revisions. Schorr’s Act III passage Euch macht ihr’s leicht was truncated on the night, for whatever reason; here an interpolation from a commercial Victor by Schorr from 1931 has ‘restored’ it. There were also some instances of brusque side joins, where the engineers left no overlaps, so these have been modified. Certain unspecified ‘problems in vocal or orchestral phrases’ have also been corrected. There are two sides to this argument, but IP’s éminence grise Richard Caniell has always been straightforward about his belief in the ‘higher fidelity’ of a performance, and it’s a view one can respect even if one doesn’t happen to side with it. For what it’s worth I tend to the latter position.
And so to the performance. The casting is invariably uneven. Some outstanding performances stand alongside sub-par ones. But the truth is that the performance emerges, notwithstanding some local difficulties, as an ensemble of deep humanity and vitality. At its apex stands Schorr, whose nobility, dignity, humour and multi-faceted impersonation is as complete as anyone’s on record. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine his Act I Scene II passage, Vielleicht schon ginget being better done - but I doubt it. His is a performance of artistry, theatrical power, and subtlety - of phrasing, of timbral weight, of timing. There are, to my ears, simply no serious intimations that he was nearing the end of his career. And when he mines the deep expressive potential of the reflective Act II Was duftet doch der Flieder we have the sensation of, if it’s not too fanciful, hearing something like the wisdom of the ages. It’s a performance that inevitably overshadows the ensemble by virtue of its sense of accumulated sensibility, but it is not alone in parading excellence.
Prominent amongst the other cast members who does just that, for example, is Charles Kullman, who is pure pleasure throughout. His Walther starts as he means to go on; lithe, masculine, ardent, vocally exceptional throughout his compass, and theatrically utterly convincing. His Am stillen Herd has youthful fluency as well as panache. Irene Jessner is Eva, somewhat uneven and technically compromised in the faster passages but singing with equally youthful tone as Kullman, though his is by far the finer voice. Walter Olitzki sings Beckmesser in a way that must surely now strike us as excessively hectoring, stereotypical and lacking in suggestive subtlety. And Emanuel List’s old, tired-sounding Pogner is a study in vocal immobility. Far better to turn instead to the marvellous Herbert Janssen whose Kothner is sung in exemplary fashion. So too is Karin Branzell’s Magdalene, a gleeful and truly involving spirit. Karl Laufkoetter’s David brings a bright confidence to his role; I’m not sure I agree with the magisterial Paul Jackson who, in his book on Met performances, called his singing here a ‘bleat’. Surveying all is the young Erich Leinsdorf, whose bright clarity is a force for good in this work. He marshals the forces with enviable control, ensures that sectional balances are apt, and is never businesslike.
So this realisation is a tremendously impressive, though inevitably partial, triumph. The booklet has synopses, analytical and biographical material and photographs; altogether a classy product, with notes really worth reading and digesting. This often inspiring 1939 performance comes, as I said, in truly first class sound as well.