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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) [258.41]
Bernd Weikl (baritone) - Sachs, Ben Heppner (tenor) - Walther, Cheryl Studer (Eva), Deon van der Walt (tenor) - David, Cornelia Kalisch (mezzo) - Magdalena, Kurt Moll (bass) - Pogner, Siegfried Lorenz (baritone) - Beckmesser, René Pape (bass) - Nightwatchman, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (baritone) - Kothner, Michael Schade (tenor) - Vogelgesang, Hans Wilbrink (tenor) - Nachtigall, Ulrich Reiss (baritone) - Zorn, Hermann Sapell (baritone) - Eisslinger, Roland Wagerführer (baritone) - Moser, Rainer Buese (bass) - Ortel, Guido Gützen (bass) - Schwarz, Friedemann Kunder (bass) - Foltz
Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Bavarian State Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. Studio 1, Bavarian Radio and Herkulessaal, Munich, 19-30 April 1993
EMI CLASSICS 7390182 [4 CDs: 69.18 + 71.16 + 66.31 + 49.36]

When I reviewed the luxurious Decca reissue of the Solti Ring towards the end of last year I confined my comparisons of the performance to the other studio recordings of the work. A number of subsequent comments have regretted that I did not extend my survey to include the many live performances now available on CD. There were two main reasons for this, only one of which was my natural concern to keep an already very long review within readable bounds. The other was the simple fact that live recordings of any work as long and complicated as a Wagner opera are inevitably bound to include a fair number of imperfections both major and minor, both matters of the music itself - missed notes, inaccurate rhythms - and of the nature of the recording: unsatisfactory balances, stage noises. I recognise that live performances can often provide a dramatic frisson which may make them uniquely valuable but it seems to me that collectors should always have as a primary reference point in their collections a recording that attempts at least to give us the score in all its details as truthfully as possible to the way in which the composer wrote it. I am also aware that many ‘live’ recordings are spliced together from a series of performances, or contain amendments from ‘patching sessions’ after the original recording. This begs the question of how far this can then be considered a document of a ‘live’ performance, and in a work as complex as a Wagner opera it is unlikely that all the minor errors can be so corrected. The ideal solution may be to undertake a studio recording after a series of live performances, in the hope that the singers under those conditions may carry forward into the sessions the intensity of the stage. In fact this is surprisingly rare, especially in the case of Wagnerian opera where the cost of keeping a cast together after a stage production may be prohibitive. The Karajan set of the Ring was recorded before his stage performances at Salzburg. The Levine and Haitink sets of the cycle feature an assembly of singers some of whom never sang their roles in the conductors’ productions at the Met or Covent Garden. Reginald Goodall’s studio sets of Tristan and Parsifal were recorded in the wake of Welsh National Opera productions, but only in the former case had Goodall actually conducted theatre performances beforehand. None of the studio recordings of Meistersinger were made in this manner.
In considering this set of Meistersinger therefore I make no apology for ignoring the many sets which derive from stage performances or radio broadcasts with minimal or no facilities for subsequent editing or retakes. As a primary recording for a collection, live performances of the opera inevitably suffer not only from unsatisfactory internal balances between voices at various points but also from galumphing apprentices and marching guilds during the final scene which will inevitably detract from the music itself. I am also, with greater reluctance, setting aside the mono sets from the 1950s, because this is an opera which cries out for stereo to elucidate the many intricate strands of the music. I know that many find Rudolf Kempe’s beautifully paced 1956 recording is still the preferred version, but the forward placing of the voices sounds simply unnatural to me despite the presence of some good singers (not uniformly excellent). The mono sound with its recessed representation of the orchestral voicing cannot do justice to the detail of a Wagnerian score.
Once one has undertaken this winnowing process, there are a remarkably small number of studio-made stereo recordings of Meistersinger around: only four, in fact, of which this set is the most recent released as long ago as 1994. Of those four sets this is, by quite a long margin, the best. The other three are those conducted by Karajan (his first live recording made at Bayreuth in 1951 has poor sound), Eugen Jochum, and the first recording under Sir Georg Solti (his second was made at live performances in Chicago). I have at one stage or another owned all three in various formats. For the purposes of this review I listened to excerpts from each again. Much of the decided success of this set can be attributed to the superlative cast that Sawallisch managed to assemble.
To begin at the top, Cheryl Studer is simply magnificently right as Eva. She is not too heavy in tone unlike the ungainly Caterina Ligendza for Jochum. Nor is she too sweetly ingenuous unlike the small-voiced Helen Donath for Karajan. She is always dead in tune and unstressed by the music unlike the out-of-sorts Hannelore Bode for Solti. She floats the opening of the quintet beautifully, with a richness of sound that eludes Donath or Bode, and blends well with the other voices in a manner that the heroic-sounding Ligendza cannot begin to manage. She is always alive to the nuances of the text, and the way in which she inflects her flirtation with Sachs has the right sense of mischief without sounding coy. Her outburst O Sachs, mein Freund! is stupendous. Her singing of the final phrase of the Prize Song is floated beautifully with a real trill as specified.
As her lover Ben Heppner is also superb, one of the best on any recording and only equalled by Alberto Remedios and Sandor Konya in their broadcast performances for Reginald Goodall and Rafael Kubelik respectively. He certainly surpasses René Kollo, who was young enough to sound convincing for Karajan - it was his first ever major recording - but had already become jaded and jagged in tone by the time he came to reprise the role for Solti five years later. Plácido Domingo for Jochum is a rather different matter; the sound is absolutely right, but his German at this early stage in his development was particularly heavily accented and many listeners find this distressing. German audiences do not seem to have minded this when he sang the title role in Lohengrin in Hamburg at the outset of his international career. Heppner cannot equal the sheer thrill of Domingo’s lyricism in the big numbers, but he finds the right sense of wonder in the rehearsals for the Prize Song where Domingo is rather plainer. Throughout, Heppner’s voice has plenty of light and shade; this is no simple Heldentenor going through the motions.
In 1976 Bernd Weikl had sung Beckmesser for Solti with a lack of character. Earlier reviews of his performance of Sachs for Sawallisch complained about a certain facelessness to his interpretation here also. His voice is absolutely right for the part, a baritone with plenty of body to the lower register. Theo Adam for Karajan had the proper heroic timbre at this stage of his career, but his intelligent interpretation lacks any sense of kindliness in this most kindly of Wagnerian roles. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for Jochum brought his own special brand of interpretation. His lower notes lacked definition and like the casting of Domingo the result is rather out of the expected mould. Best of all is Norman Bailey for Solti, but given his surrounding cast his efforts go for too little. No, Weikl is fine, and often rather more than this, even though one could imagine a more beefy sound in his cobbling song. His baptism of the Prize Song is surprisingly matter-of-fact, without the sense of wonder and mystery that Bailey brings to the lines.
In recent years there has been a considerable reaction against the casting of Beckmesser with a voice of the ‘character’ type. This is all to the good; Beckmesser is, after all, regarded by his fellow Masters as a serious composer. His serenade requires really skilful singing to negotiate the elaborate roulades. The role also needs to have a degree of acidity in the mix, and Sir Geraint Evans for Karajan probably achieves the ideal level of compromise. The singers in the other sets - Roland Hermann for Jochum, Weikl for Solti and Siegfried Lorenz here - are all basically heroic baritones who have some difficulty in conveying the petty nature of the character. Lorenz is obviously trying intelligently to lighten his voice, singing often in a conspiratorial mezza voce. The result is, on occasion, somewhat disconcerting.
Among the other Masters, the singer of Kothner also needs to have a degree of flexibility to negotiate the decoration of the vocal line in his instruction to Walther in Act One about the nature of a Master-Song. None of the well-known baritones in the rival stereo sets bring this off well although Gustav Neidlinger manages it for Kempe. Here the relatively unknown Hans-Joachim Ketelsen sounds just right, given plenty of space by Sawallisch to negotiate the fiendish triplets in his final verse.
Another character who vainly attempts to instruct Walther is the young apprentice David, a role which is often taken simply by a lyric tenor but who should also have a degree of edge. Deon van der Walt has a pleasant voice, but misses the sense of underlying violence which forms part of the character - he starts the riot in Act Two, after all. Peter Schreier is more incisive for Karajan, but Horst Laubenthal for Jochum and Adolf Dallapozza for Solti are like van der Walt simply pleasant. 
As his lover Magdalena casting often presents problems. She is definitely considerably older than David - Walther describes her as “Die Alter”, after all. If she sounds too matronly the nature of their relationship becomes slightly unpleasant if she can be perceived as a predatory older woman. As the fifth voice in the quintet she needs to blend well with the other voices. Best in the role is Christa Ludwig for Jochum, singing with her characteristic expressiveness; Julia Hamari for Solti sounds no older than Bode’s Eva; Ruth Hesse for Karajan, on the contrary, sounds very matronly. Cornelia Kalisch, a less-known singer than her rivals, is just about right.
At the bottom end of the sonic spectrum comes Eva’s father Veit Pogner, which is a gift of a role for any bass. The part is well taken in all the sets here. Kurt Moll is no exception, and Wagner’s cruel demand for a high F at the end of his address in Act One does not discommode him at all. Karl Ridderbusch is similarly effective in the Karajan set, as is Hans Sotin for Solti. Peter Lagger for Jochum is rather more brusque, but not unacceptably so.
The Nightwatchman might seem like a very minor role - he has only twenty bars to sing in the whole of the lengthy opera - but he has the last word in Act Two and it has rightly been the custom to cast the part from strength. Solti in his set employs the oddly named “Werner Klumblikholt,” a pseudonym formed from an anagram of “Bernd Weikl” and “Kurt Moll”, both of whom sing at various stages. This peculiar idea means that we get good singing, but seems weird in the extreme when presumably there were alternative singers available. It would be impossible in the theatre for the singer of Beckmesser to double the role. Karajan (with Kurt Moll) and Jochum (with the resonant Victor von Halem) both avoid this mistake. Here we have the young René Pape, already recognisably a major Wagnerian singer in the making, phrasing with real sensitivity even if he does sound very young.
The remaining Masters, presumably drawn from the forces of the Bavarian State Opera, make a well-matched team with no obviously weak links. The chorus sing with clear enthusiasm and enjoyment; they raise the roof with their Wach auf! The orchestra, lineal descendants of those who gave the first performance, have the notes in the very marrow of their being. They play as though possessed, and time and again one notices delights in the felicitous scoring which simply don’t register as well in live theatrical performances. Sawallisch is regarded in some quarters as an efficient Kapellmeister rather than a conductor with original ideas, but he doesn’t put a foot wrong in this superbly paced performance. The results are often exciting in the correct sort of way, without any idiosyncrasies to draw attention to themselves. Even in the complex riot individual lines are given their proper due, and the orchestral postlude to the quintet has a real yearning intensity.
The recording is also superlative, enabling us to hear plenty of detail without highlighting individual lines in an unnatural manner. Heppner is not artificially boosted against the accompanying hubbub during the final verse of Fanget an! but still manages to make himself heard … just. We are given the sound effects which Wagner prescribes in the score - the marking of the chalk, the hammering of the shoes - but nothing extraneous is added except a little background chatter from the crowd in the final scene to justify the call for Silentium! We don’t have to endure the hearty cavortings of the apprentices, which means we are able to enjoy thoroughly the delicacy of Wagner’s scoring in their dance. The offstage brass contributions that precede this scene are set in their properly distant perspective, with atmosphere in plenty.
As a primary recommendation for a studio recording of Meistersinger this set comes with one tremendous handicap. We are provided with no text or translation of this most elaborate of operatic plots. Similar EMI issues in this series (the Kempe Lohengrin, the Karajan Tristan, the Hollreiser Rienzi, the Goodall Parsifal and even Karajan’s Meistersinger) have come with a bonus CD containing libretto and synopsis - not here. All right, it is not difficult to obtain these items elsewhere - not always the case with such omissions - but it is hard to understand why EMI should have so spoiled their excellent ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. This especially when they already had such a CD available for the Karajan reissue although William Hedley complained about the procedure in his review of that set for this site. Don’t let that put you off investigating the most consistently well-cast studio recording of Meistersinger in the catalogues. On a purely personal level, like William Hedley I retain a soft spot for the Jochum set even while recognising its quirks and deficiencies.
Paul Corfield Godfrey