Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867)
Hans Sachs - Theo Adam (baritone)
Veit Pogner- Karl Ridderbusch (bass)
Sixtus Beckmesser - Geraint Evans (baritone)
Walther von Stolzing - René Kollo (tenor)
David - Peter Schreier (tenor)
Eva - Helen Donath (soprano)
Magdelene - Ruth Hesse (mezzo)
Eberhard Büchner (tenor), Horst Lunow (bass), Zoltan Kélémén (bass), Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (tenor), Peter Bindszus (tenor), Horst Hiestermann (tenor), Hermann-Christian Polster (bass), Heinz Reeh (bass), Siegfried Vogel (bass), Kurt Moll (bass)
Choirs of Staatsoper Dresden and Leipzig Radio
Dresden Staatskapelle/Herbert von Karajan
rec. November and December 1970, Lukaskirche, Dresden. ADD. 1999 digital remaster
EMI CLASSICS 6407882 [4 CDs: 70:21 + 72:14 + 70:45 + 52:22 + CD ROM]
Two recordings of The Mastersingers dominated the catalogue when this magnificent performance was released in 1971, both of them, as this one, on the EMI label. An earlier Karajan and a reading by Rudolf Kempe are both still available, but this one from Dresden was in stereo, which rather clinched the matter for many collectors. The present release is not its first CD reincarnation, having previously been included in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. It is now available at an absurdly low price, for which we must be grateful. Yet texts and translations are available only on a “bonus” CD; this is a poor solution. Reading Richard Osborne’s excellent background article poses no problems, but if you want to follow the words you’ll need to sit in front of a screen, or, of course, print them out, all 111 pages of them.
The Dresden sound is glorious, and perfectly suited to the work. All the same, not having heard this performance since the LP era, I found it less sumptuous than I expected, a sign of the wonders we have become used to. The recording is magnificent, nonetheless, in a gently reverberant acoustic and with every thread of orchestral and vocal detail audible. There is an intimacy about it too, which matches the performance. One would not go so far as to call it small-scale Wagner, but neither does the word ‘monumental’ come to mind. There is a certain mercurial lightness about Karajan’s vision of the work that comes over very successfully in the performance and which is perfectly preserved by the recorded sound.
Helen Donath is totally successful, young and eager: hers is, in my view, a near-perfect realisation of Eva. I very much enjoyed Ruth Hesse’s portrayal of Magdalene too. Peter Schreier as David might seem like luxury casting, and so it is, his voice, that of a lieder singer rather than an operatic tenor, perfectly suited to the character. As to the mastersingers themselves, there is not a weak link amongst them, and in particular, Karl Ridderbusch as Eva’s father, Pogner, is absolutely outstanding. The voice itself is one of remarkable beauty, rock-steady, and he assumes the role with a noble authority which is very convincing and affecting. The tenderness with which he conducts his Act 2 dialogue with his daughter is most moving. I wanted to like Geraint Evans’ Beckmesser more than I did. There is no doubt that the character is very vivid and entertaining, but others have found more humanity there, and I do wish he had tempered the tendency to near-speech, and actually sung more of the notes. René Kollo as von Stolzing is very successful indeed. His singing of the Prize Song is very beautiful, and he is in slightly better voice there, perhaps understandably, than in the singing lesson with Sachs, delightfully deft and comical from both artists, in Act 2. It is known that Karajan deliberately sought out younger voices for these roles, and this pays off in Kollo’s case, particularly in those long conversations earlier in the work, where he is excitable and ardent, his sudden, overpowering love for Eva very well caught and acted. When the set was released it was Theo Adam as Sachs who garnered the least support amongst the different critics, and so it proves for me too. The main problem is that this marvellous singer’s voice is simply not right for Sachs. There is not enough gravity or richness about it, nor warmth of tone. Sachs is not simply a wise, old father-figure. He is a philosopher and visionary, but also a cobbler, a fixer, a schemer; he is even allowed a little flirting. In many of these scenes Adam is excellent, but Sachs’ wisdom and force of character provoke the crowd to a final hymn of praise, and in this performance one can’t quite see why. The chorus is excellent, the orchestra remarkable, and Karajan, as previously noted, leads a performance quite different in character from much of his work in Berlin, with unexceptional but convincing tempi and not one hint of indulgence.
If an ideal Mastersingers exists on record, I haven’t heard it. There is hardly a weakness in the marvellous Rudolf Kempe’s cast, but this opera does need modern sound. This Karajan performance was followed in quick succession by two others, Solti on Decca and Jochum on DG. Solti’s performance has what is for me the finest Sachs of all in the great Norman Bailey, but others in the cast are less successful, and not everybody warms to Solti’s rather excitable and foursquare conducting. Jochum, on the other hand, is marvellous, with Fischer-Dieskau as Sachs, self-recommending, though the voice itself is so characteristic that one can never forget it is Fischer-Dieskau. The Knight is played by Placido Domingo, a surprising choice, but highly successful, leaving nobody in any doubt that he will win the Prize! I haven’t heard Solti’s later recording from Chicago (Decca), but it was well received, the conductor apparently better attuned to the work this time around. I think I should enjoy José van Dam as Sachs, and I know I should appreciate Ben Heppner as von Stolzing, as he is excellent in the Sawallisch recording on EMI, a very good all-round recommendation despite, to my ears, a certain lack of intensity and character.
No ideal Mastersingers, then, but this one will do very well for those untroubled by a less than sympathetic Sachs. For this listener, the crucial factor in this life-enhancing opera is the conductor. He must lead the performance as if in one breath, allowing Wagner’s great paragraphs to pass almost in an instant. For this, masterly control of pace and phrasing is required. Of the performances I have heard, Eugen Jochum comes closest to this near-unattainable ideal.
William Hedley 

A fresh, young-sounding Meistersinger from Dresden, with Karajan at his finest.