Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg [253:15]
Walther - Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Eva - Edith Haller (sop)
Magdalene - Michelle Breedt (mezzo)
David - Peter Sonn (tenor)
Pogner - Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Beckmesser - Dietrich Henschel (bar)
Hans Sachs - Albert Dohmen (bass-bar)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, in concert, Berlin Philharmonie, 3 June 2011
PENTATONE PTC5186402 SACD [4 CDs: 79:54 + 67:25 + 58:34 + 47:22]
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.
Simon Thompson 
The game needs to be upped if this project is going to attract listeners to invest. We shall see.