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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Georg Zeppenfeld - Hans Sachs
Klaus Florian Vogt - Walther von Stolzing
Jacquelyn Wagner - Eva
Adrian Eröd - Sixtus Beckmesser
Christa Mayer - Magdalene
Sebastian Kohlhepp - David
Vitalij Kowaljow - Veit Pogner
Iurie Ciobanu - Kunz Vogelsang
Gunter Haumer - Konrad Nachtigall
Levente Pall - Fritz Kothner
Markus Miesenberger - Balthasar Zorn
Patrick Vogel - Ulrich Eisslinger
Adam Frandsen - Augustin Moser
Rupert Grossinger - Hermann Ortel
Christian Hubner - Hans Schwarz
Roman Astakhov - Hans Foltz
Jongmin Park - A Nightwatchman
Sachsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Live recording from the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 13 & 22 April 2019
PROFIL PH20059 [4 CDs: 274:20]

It is really quite surprising that it has taken until now for a performance of Meistersinger from the man who is arguably the today’s finest Wagner conductor to make it onto CD. A DVD of a 2008 performance from the Vienna State Opera has been available for ten years, but I think many collectors do not always want to watch a performance. This is especially the case if, like me, you are no great lover of “high concept” productions, which this one certainly was from what I have gleaned from reviews and the lavishly illustrated booklet that comes with these CDs. The present performance is, of course, taken from two live performances - studio recordings of pieces of this size have been fabulous creatures since before the millennium. On the whole, I think this a good thing. However much easier a studio recording may make micro-managing every aspect of a performance, I think that, generally speaking, far more is gained than lost by recording live performances.

As I have intimated, the production was certainly very much of the Zeitgeist with its “theatre within a theatre” conceit, but I would also say that musically this is a very modern performance. This may surprise some of you - it certainly surprised me. Thielemann is a conductor who wages a rearguard battle against much of what has now become the accepted way of doing things, with performances which clearly have their roots in those of the great German conductors whose careers were at their peaks in the inter-war period. And, indeed, this is exactly what we have on an orchestral level here. However, the singers’ whole approach is imbued with a modernist aesthetic, and for me this is where the problems lie. I think my point can be most easily explained by a theatrical reference: the difference between the singers here and those of most other sets (certainly those dating from before this century) is like the difference between Shakespeare as performed by Ian McKellen and by John Gielgud. The singers’ performances are incredibly detailed and thought-through; the emotional and intellectual import of every word has been chewed over, and the diction has remarkable clarity. However I can’t help but be reminded of Peter Brook’s famous instruction when directing Gielgud in a Shakespeare play - “Stop singing!”. It’s almost as though the singers have been instructed that a semblance of natural speech must be attained at all cost. The sustained tone, the legato which so upset Brook, is just what is missing here. Three quarters of every singer’s performance in this set is sung in a sort of semi-staccato; there is almost always at least a chink, and sometimes a veritable summer’s-day’s-worth, of light between each word. Everything, however emotionally significant, however public a pronouncement, is delivered in “chat” mode. This approach is entirely suited to the style of the production. In the booklet are photos of Sachs seated behind a desk in an open neck shirt and others with him in a sports jacket, and David wears jeans and a checked shirt over a black tee shirt. But for me it seriously short-changes the work’s lyricism and diminishes its heft. This reversal of the traditional priority in opera - “Prima la musica, dopo le parole” - would certainly have pleased Wagner’s wife Cosima and Julius Kniese, her henchman at Bayreuth after Wagner’s death, who made clarity of diction the priority which superseded all others (resulting in what George Bernard Shaw called the “Bayreuth bark”), but I’m not at all convinced that Wagner himself would have been so enthusiastic. He loved Italian singing, admiring, for example, Battistini, whose records display very little of what might be characterised as a “chatty”, naturalistic style.

Zeppenfeld’s Sachs has a lighter voice than is often the case in this role; though he sings many true bass roles (including Sarastro), tonally, here he sounds to be at the baritone end of bass-baritone. This has the advantage that he is not tired out by the tessitura at end of the opera, and the high notes in “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht” ring out superbly and in a way that is very rare. It does, though, somewhat militate against the success of the darker aspects of Sachs’ role, most obviously at the start of Act 3. The start of the Wahnmonolog would be a perfect example of the semi staccato that I mentioned earlier, except that there is no “semi” about it - he pecks each word of “Wohin ich forschend blick’ in Stadt- und Welt-chronick” in a way that I do not find either musically or interpretatively convincing. He convinces much more in the description of the previous night’s brawl, but the succeeding section about the Kobold lacks magic (the orchestra is marked dolcissimo here, and surely that also applies to the voice). He is able to do a very nice job of the piano top E flat on “Johannisnacht” which defeats many a Sachs, but overall the performance lacks emotional depth.

Jacquelyn Wagner’s Eva is a very successful performance. She doesn’t quite have the ability to float the tone that is needed for a great Eva, but she is consistently pleasing to listen to and even makes a reasonable stab at a trill at the end of the quintet. Nor does she quite have the resources for the glorious outpouring which “Oh Sachs! Mein Freund!” should be, but generally the Act 3 dialogue with Sachs plays to both their strengths and works very well. Though in the section where Sachs refuses to be a second King Marke, again I find Zeppenfeld lacking in depth.

Klaus Florian Vogt is a singer who divides opinion. Some consider him a Mozart (or even Lehar) singer with ideas above his station, and certainly he does not have a rich voice, but on the other hand he is never reduced to strained, toneless huffing and puffing. His voice is light and young-sounding, which is appropriate, but at times it sounds positively adolescent and not quite up to the job - I don’t really believe in a Walter who seems only just to have left the 6th form. He fits in exactly with the prevailing approach of the whole cast, but his almost casual singing in both the Trial Song and try out of the Prize Song make it difficult to understand just what Sachs was able to see in Walther. He is better in the Prize Song proper, but even here there is a lack of real legato and of momentum. The song should carry everyone except Beckmesser along with its sense of rising melodic ecstasy, but in Vogt’s performance it just doesn’t.

Adrian Eröd’s Beckmesser is admirably free of funny voices and exaggeration, and it could well have worked in the theatre, but on CD it comes across as a little bland. This is Beckmesser as dull middle-manager, which is a perfectly reasonable approach to the character, but doesn’t make for memorability, especially without any visual boost. Much more successful is Sebastian Kohlhepp’s David. This is a lovely, lively performance by a voice both full of character and technically excellent. Vitalij Kowaljow’s Pogner is well sung, and his short dialogue with Eva in Act 2 scene 2 is beautiful tender. The voice is rich and resonant, but he is very much infected by the “chatty” style. In “Das schöne Fest, Johannistag” Pogner is giving the masters one of biggest pieces of news of his life - that he is giving his only child as the prize for the next contest, but he sounds as though he is just offering them a good deal on their next car service. To be fair, at the climax he makes a splendid job of “Eva mein einzig Kind”, but then blows the end by just throwing “zur Eh’” away. There is a realistic dramatic case to be made for this (he suddenly becomes embarrassed, or even suddenly doubtful of the wisdom of what he has just proposed), but I don’t think it works musically. All the other parts are well taken, with Jongmin Park particularly good as the Nightwatchman.

The principal reason for buying this set, however, is without doubt Thielemann. He may sometimes disappoint in the concert hall, but in the late romantic operatic repertoire, I don’t think there is anyone to beat him today. His were the greatest Elektras I’ve ever attended, at Covent Garden in 1994 and 1997, where he managed to find the perfect balance between lyricism and violence, short-changing neither aspect. I will also be eternally grateful to him for allowing me to see Pfitzner’s Palestrina there in two runs (1997 and 2001). It is a huge pity that he so rarely conducts in Britain. His performance here is quite swift, as is shown right from the start in a tremendously forward-moving prelude which lasts just 9½ minutes (not quite the 8½ that Wagner suggested, but a lot quicker than many). The conducting is full of exquisite detailing, every semiquaver is characterised in such a way that it reflects and reinforces the meaning of the text at that point. But unlike the singers, the line is never lacking in legato or momentum. In all this he is completely at one with his glorious orchestra. The Dresdeners, both orchestral and choral, are simply faultless in every respect.

The recording is very fine, with great presence, a wide dynamic range and excellent clarity. I said at the beginning of this review that I thought that far more is gained than lost by recording actual performances, but it is only fair to point out that, despite the great majority of the performance having no problems, in the first part of Act 2 there is some horrendously intrusive stage noise. Things are being dropped on the stage which have the volume and impact of gunshots.

The accompanying booklet at first sight seems to be outstanding, its 183 pages reminiscent of the glory days of the LP boxed set. It is full of excellent quality photographs of the production (many double page) and seven fine essays in German and English. On a closer look, however, it is a little more of a curate’s egg. The track listing has some careless mistakes. The first act is supposedly complete on the first CD and the second on the second CD. As a result, apparently Act 2 begins at “Fanget an”, the start of the Trial Song. In fact, Act 2 begins at track 4 of CD 2.This is, clearly, not an important matter once one has realised what has happened, but the track listing is probably the part of the booklet which will be most often consulted, so it should have been checked. A far more important thing is the (unfortunately all too standard) failure to include a libretto of any sort, let alone one with a translation. At first I kept flicking through, convinced I must be being stupid and have missed it, but no. I’m very tempted to start a new campaigning group - the Society for the Re-Introduction of Libretti with Translations for All Vocal Issues (SRILTAVI). This is a real loss, especially in rare repertoire, and having a libretto online (and this issue does not even provide that) is a very inconvenient substitute.

So, to sum up, this is an entirely consistent performance. If it were to be given a subtitle, it might be “Die Meistersinger - A Lieder Singer’s Approach”. Personally, it fails to meet one of the main criteria for a satisfying Meistersinger, but then I’m an old fogey. This is a performance which absolutely ties in with so many social trends of the present day - for fiction to deal with characters who are essentially “just like us”, naturalism, minimalism, a distrust of authority and anything that smacks of bombast, grandeur or excess. If I were to be facetious, I might call it a vegan Meistersinger. If this approach sounds like it may appeal to you, then you need not hesitate, it is accomplished very well here.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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