We have here the second instalment - though the third recorded
- of the great adventure that Pentatone have undertaken with
Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
As with the first
part, it has a lot of good things going for it but, for
me, it misses out on being a top choice.
The first, and perhaps greatest, asset of this set is the glorious
quality of the sound. The engineers have done an outstanding
job of capturing the acoustic of the Philharmonie and recreating
it on disc. The acoustics are justifiably famous, but I have
rarely heard them so successfully reproduced on disc as here.
The balance of soloists to orchestra is exceptionally well done
and the characters appear very convincingly in the stereo soundscape
- all the more so in SACD surround. For example, during the
cobbling song of Act 2 the listener can easily pick out Sachs
and Beckmesser on the left while Eva and Walther whisper on
the right, and each line of the riot scene stands out with admirable
clarity. It helps, too, that the Berlin Orchestra play so exceptionally
well. The clarity and sheen of the sound hits the listener right
from the opening bars and creates a texture that Wagnerians
can wallow in. In my view, in fact, there’s a case for
arguing that this is the best sounding Meistersinger
of them all; better even than Solti in Chicago (Decca) or Karajan
in Dresden (EMI).
Great sound is one thing but it matters little if it doesn’t
reproduce a great performance. It does, in places. The key role
of Sachs is in safe hands with Albert Dohmen. As with his Dutchman
in this same series, he sings with gravitas and authority. The
voice carries just the right amount of weight for the role,
sounding paternal without being too heavy. He injects just the
right amount of humour for the second act. In the third he sounds
valedictory but not self-pitying and the monologues never drag,
a key test for any Sachs. However, he runs out of steam at the
end, breaking up the line with poor breath control so that the
final paean to Holy German Art sounds effortful and awkward.
It’s a natural consequence of this being a live performance
and, I’m pleased to say, the only serious example I noticed
of a singer tiring as the evening draws on. None of this makes
the final scene any easier on repeated listenings, and it’s
a black mark any listener should be aware of. Robert Dean Smith’s
Walther is good, sounding heroic and exciting and never showing
signs of tiring; however, he shows much less of the golden,
burnished quality that he once had. For both excitement and
vocal beauty he yields to other recorded Walthers, notably Ben
Heppner (for Sawallisch and Solti), James King (for Schippers)
and Sandor Konya (for Kubelik). Edith Haller is a good Eva,
leading the Quintet very capably, but lacking the complete security
to carry off the great moments such as the end of her Act 2
duet with Sachs; O Sachs, mein Freund! is good without
ringing ecstatically as it should.
The other parts are taken well but not remarkably. Peter Sonn
is a passable David and he sings all the right notes, but he
doesn’t evoke the character’s energy or boyishness
enough. Michelle Breedt is a pretty anonymous Magdalene. The
most serious gap comes with a disappointingly workaday Bekmesser.
Dietrich Henschel, normally such an exciting and involving artist,
sings the role with an almost complete lack of engagement. He
sings in one single tone throughout the whole opera: true, it’s
a very pleasant tone and it’s easy on the ear, but there
is no vocal acting to speak of and Henschel might as well be
singing the phone book for all the attention he seems to pay
the text. The other Masters are well taken, however, and Matti
Salminen is in his element as the Nightwatchman.
Janowski himself directs the score very capably, though not
everyone will enjoy his preference for fast tempi. He takes
the whole score at such a lick that, uniquely on record (I believe)
the whole first act fits onto a single disc. My ear got more
attuned to this as the performance developed so that the later
scenes didn’t feel too rushed, though the Quintet was
rather too pacy for my taste. The chorus are outstanding, injecting
life as well as majesty into their contributions, and the big
crowd scenes in the festival are great, even if (again) Wach
Auf could have done with a little more room to breathe.
So where does this sit in the panoply of recorded Meistersingers?
Its sound and the quality of the orchestral playing are enough
for it to gain the attention of most Wagnerians. That said,
the flaws in the vocal performances knock it down the league
compared to some of the other classics, most notably Solti (from
Chicago), Karajan (from Dresden) and Sawallisch and Kubelik
(both from Munich).
Janowski and Pentatone’s epic Wagner venture continues
apace and both releases so far have been perfectly acceptable
in many ways. However, I hope that future instalments produce
performances that are more rounded and more consistently strong.
Hats off to all involved for undertaking the project, but in
light of the great competition the game needs to be upped if
it’s going to attract listeners to invest. We shall see.