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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Sachs – Josef Greindl (bass)
Walther von Stolzing – Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor)
Eva – Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano)
David – Gerhard Stolze (tenor)
Magdalena – Elisabeth Schärtel (soprano)
Pogner – Theo Adam (bass)
Beckmesser – Karl Schmitt-Walter (baritone)
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. live, mono, Bayreuth Festival, 23 July 1960
ORFEO C917154L [4 CDs: 78:15 + 77:53 + 48:19 + 76:02]

This recording captures the opening night of the 1960 Bayreuth Festival in Wieland's (in)famous "Mastersingers without Nuremberg" production. The staging demands of this opera seem to have eluded even him, and there are several production photographs in Orfeo's booklet to illustrate it, though you only rarely get a glimpse of Wieland's big picture. The big draw, however, was not on the stage but in the pit. Orfeo have released this performance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary Wagner conductor Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965). "Kna", as he was known, was never comfortable in the recording studio, and all of his finest opera recordings were made live, most famously the Parsifals of 1951 and 1962, also at Bayreuth. In Ring Resounding, Decca's (equally legendary) record producer, John Culshaw, talks of how difficult it was to get Knappertsbusch to accept the conditions of the studio - when recording excerpts from Tristan, for example, he refused to listen to the playbacks - and the spontaneity of the live occasion suited him much better. You can hear that here. He repeatedly gets caught up in the excitement of the moment, lingering lovingly on a phrase or pushing ahead as the mood takes him. It's right there in the Overture, which tends to slow down as it progresses, so that the final pages are perhaps a little too stately. Anyone who were to follow him with a metronome would be thoroughly upset, and the ensemble regularly, albeit briefly, falls apart; but there is magic aplenty on display in, for example, Pogner's Act 1 narration, or the expansive depiction of Midsummer's Night in Act 2.

The Sachs of Josef Greindl is the highlight of the singing cast. Even in his Act 1 moments, particularly when he urges giving due consideration to Walther's song, he manages a magnificent combination of worldly wisdom, weariness and warm humanity, all the while managing to sound about as lyrical and beautiful as you could hope for in this part. His Fliedermonolog is deeply reflective and enormously moving, and there is a glint of mischief in his voice during the Act 2 skirmish the Beckmesser. The great monologues of the third act are all superb, be it the weariness of Wahn, the deeply moving quality of his address to the people after Wach Auf, or the slightly finger-wagging final pages. Hearing this performance makes you regret that Greindl never set down the role in the more friendly conditions of the studio.

Wolfgang Windgassen is a surprisingly wonderful Walther. The voice is warm and lyrical, honeyed even, without a hint of Heldentenor strain, and if you didn't already know that he was the finest Siegfried of his day then you wouldn't be able to guess from this performance. The voice begins to take flight even as he describes his training, and during his Trial Song he gets caught up in wave upon wave of emotion. He is impetuous and hot-blooded during the second act and, even if he is not the final word in lyricism, his Prize Song should win over any sceptics. Equally surprisingly, Gerhard Stolze, the finest German character tenor of his generation, puts in an appearance as David. However, his voice is so distinctive that he seldom sounds like anything other than a Niebelung-in-training, and he undeniably sounds too old, with little of David's youthful innocence. Too much irony, on the whole.

Elisabeth Grümmer is a marvellous Eva. She moves from flirtatious to feisty during her Act 2 duet with Sachs, and she rings with beautiful clarity in the third act, crowning the quintet with a gorgeous top line. Likewise, Elisabeth Schärtel is an unusually characterful Magdalena, making the most of all her appearances.

Karl Schmitt-Walter is also very winning as Beckmesser. There is never a hint of unnecessary caricature: instead he really sings the part even when being thoroughly malicious, as after the Trial Song. Several little touches (such as yawning at Walther's description of his training) reveal him to have been a very fine actor. There is a recurring hint of caricature about him, though, which develops worryingly into the second and third acts. I wonder whether seeing him in Wieland’s production would have made him look like a less appealing character than he sounds?

As Pogner, Theo Adam has done nothing better on disc. His voice sounds authoritative, but also uncommonly warm and remarkably lyrical for a singer who is often criticised for having too much grit in the voice. The other masters are equally marvellous, with a great sense of cooperation and pulling together. I especially enjoyed the self-important Kothner of Ludwig Weber.

The mono sound is remarkably good for its age, though the orchestra is much too recessed compared to the forward, bright voices. However, there remains the perennial problem that the Bayreuth acoustic simply doesn't suit Meistersinger, even in stereo, so anyone who seeks out this recording will do so mainly because it captures several legends in full flow. For that, at least, we should be grateful.

Simon Thompson



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