This recording is a joy, a friendly wave from a former age and a window onto what must have been a fantastic afternoon in the theatre. It also takes its place as an important historical document, part of the great Met tradition and an instalment of their - surely unrivalled - recorded legacy of Saturday matinee broadcasts which has been ‘raided’ by Sony for this current set of CD releases.
One glance down the cast-list is enough to know that this performance will be special. Most of these performers never recorded the opera elsewhere and in almost every case that is something to be regretted. The main attraction is the pair of young lovers. James King is an absolutely outstanding Walther, his voice glowing, burnished, radiant, heroic. Again and again you hear things in the part that you just hadn’t noticed before. King plays him as an Alpha-male so that it is clear from the outset just why Eva finds him so attractive and why Beckmesser finds him so threatening. There is a lovely sense of caution-to-the-winds in his trial song, which is exactly the way it should be, and he is also a great actor: just listen to his “O diese Meister!” in Act 2! The climax, however, comes, as it should, with his Prize Song, which is a thing to marvel at, especially in its final version at the festival: it shines with beauty while pulsating with energy and vigour. King is quite wonderful and his performance alone would justify the purchase of this set. When he is put alongside the outstanding Eva of Pilar Lorengar the decision makes itself. She is a delight, the voice clear and radiant, glowing with purity without becoming prissy. She lights up every scene in which she appears and her dialogues with Sachs are fantastic psychological portrayals, full of will-she-won’t-she suggestions. She crowns the great quintet after a radiant “O Sachs, mein freund!”
The other standout is Benno Kusche’s Beckmesser, an magnificent character singer whose singing brings Beckmesser to life with his vocal acting. Your mind’s eye can see him easily as he blusters in the Song School, serenades Eva in the street and submits to humiliation before the townsfolk. He never resorts to unpleasant mannerisms, though, and his performance is never less than fully musical. The ensemble of the other masters is very good too, and includes a young “Sachs of the future”, James Morris, as Schwarz. Ezio Flagello is perhaps a surprising choice for Pogner, but his cavernous bass adds greatly to the character’s gravitas, almost making him surpass Sachs for authority and weight. Shirley Love is a characterful and interesting Madgalene, and Loren Driscoll’s David is loveable, if a little nasal at times.
The only slight reservation is Theo Adam’s Sachs. Adam’s voice is never one I have loved: too often he can sound gritty and stretched and, to be honest, there are times when he sounds that way here. However, I expected to find this more off-putting than I eventually did, whether because my ear tuned in to him or because it suited his interpretation of the role. His voice certainly lends an extra air of world-weariness to the monologues of Act 3, and only in the address after Wach auf! does he sound a little thin and brittle. However, if you liked his assumption of the role for Karajan on EMI then you’ll enjoy him here. Speaking of Wach auf, the Met Chorus are on outstanding form throughout, and this Act 3 climax is incredibly moving, not least thanks to the intelligent conducting of Thomas Schippers. He keeps the whole work moving with a keen sense of pacing so that everything feels natural, though he wallows a bit too much in the Prelude to Act 3.
It’s a shame that the 1972 radio sound is in mono, as if not then this could have challenged some of the very best versions of this opera. The sound remains perfectly acceptable, though, and is relatively clear in some places, though it’s a shame that the on-stage drummers stood so close to the microphones in Act 3!
Only one thing stops me from recommending this whole-heartedly: there is a short but extremely bizarre cut in Sachs’ final monologue and it is the very section which tends to contribute most to the work’s bad reputation, namely the section about “false, foreign rule” and Holy German Art. It’s very odd as the cut can’t shave any more than about 2 minutes off the running time and it makes me wonder if it was done for some misguided ideological reasons. Many listeners won’t be bothered by this, though for me it smacked of dishonesty. If you’re going to perform Meistersinger then you need to accept its beauties and its faults, warts and all, as it were, and what you do with them is up to you, but you need to accept the whole work rather than picking and choosing the less unsettling aspects.
However, taking my own advice I’m going to accept this recording, warts and all, and for me there is so much good that I will happily live with it. It’s not a version for beginners due to the sound and the fact that the documentation is minimal (only an English synopsis) but if you know the opera then this is a version to acquire and to love. It is something very special, and the budget price undoubtedly helps.