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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (opera in three acts) Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert von Karajan EMI 5 67086 2 4CDs [4hrs 26mins]




Walter von Stolzing………………René Kollo
Eva……………………………… .Helen Donath
Hans Sachs………………………..Theo Adam
Sixtus Beckmesser……………… .Geraint Evans
Veit Pogner………………………..Karl Riddersbusch
David………………………………Peter Schreier
Magdalene…………………………Ruth Hesse

Choir of the Staatsoper Dresden
Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert von Karajan

If I were cast-away on a desert island and could only take ten recordings, then this glorious set would have to be one of them. I remember rushing home with the five- LP set in the early 1970s and listening non-stop, in rapt attention, right through their four hours duration. Now, I am not a confirmed Wagnerite; vast tracts of the music leave me unmoved; but to quote an often-used phrase in the context of this work, it has great humanity for it deals with universal emotions and issues. The Victor Gollancz quote, published in the CD booklet, from Journey Towards Music, sums up my attitude. Gollancz says: "There is no "too-muchness" about Die Meistersinger, nothing cloying, nothing overripe: on the contrary, it is forever fresh and happy…I must find a word to sum it up, this work, for all my anti-Wagnerism, I have never ceased to love: let me call it heavenly."

Wagner leisurely portrays the citizens of 16th Century Nuremburg - their warts as well as their finer characteristics. All the major characters have rounded characters and the events of the simple plot proceed easily and logically towards the grand climax of the song contest.

The Gramophone critic lavished praise on the album: "An amazing, heartwarming, glorious achievement! Karajan's interpretation is exceptional only in its superlative quality; and, under his direction, the Dresden Staatskapelle is the ideal orchestra for the work. The choirs are magnificent and the recorded sound is luminous." Desmond Shaw Taylor added: "I don't think I have ever heard even at Bayreuth, such fresh youthful natural sounding Apprentices or such brilliant clarity in the street riot at the end of Act II. The determination that everything shall sound as clear and beautiful as possible is characteristic of Karajan's approach." These are sentiments I enthusiastically endorse.

The production team included Ronald Kinloch Anderson and Christopher Parker. The former had expressed doubts about Karajan's determination to have genuinely young singers in the principal roles of Walther and Eva (Helen Donath was very much an eleventh hour choice). But in the event, Kinloch Anderson was entirely won over: "Karajan's decision to use Donath and Kollo was absolutely right. For the first time in my experience of the opera (going back 40 years) Eva and Walther sound really young and make thereby a splendid contrast to the heavier side of the cast: Sachs, Pogner and the other masters." Yes, indeed. René Kollo as Walther is magnificent, ardently heroic and romantic in expression; a very pleasant-timbered, light tenor voice with impeccable delivery and articulation. Helen Donath (Eva) impresses strongly too. She is a most pleasant lyric soprano but with a knowing expressive capability which adds the proper dimension to her role, especially in her flirtings with Hans Sachs.

The renowned Staatskapelle, Dresden play the opening Prelude with real fervour and it emerges so fresh and powerful - and how beautifully it segues into the church choir's singing as Act I opens. Act I is mainly concerned with Walter's trial song before the Masters who are bemused at his radical performance - especially the sly spiteful marker, Beckmesser. Karl Riddersbusch makes a fine dignified, sincere Pogner willing to demonstrate his commitment to the ideals of the Masters by offering his daughter Eve in marriage to the winner of the song contest (provided she is willing). Geraint Evans is a superb Beckmesser. Evans manages to avoid the trap of overbalancing the character's blacker side and therefore pitching the opera over into satire and polemic. Evans', in-character, nasally grating delivery, graphically portrays Beckmesser as the oily and scheming wretch that he is, yet, at the same time, Evans actually makes us feel sorry for the silly man when he is duped by Sachs. The exchanges between these two in Act II when Beckmesser rehearses his song in front of Sachs' cobblers workshop is hilarious; Sachs hammering at his last with increasing ferocity an frequency for each of Beckmesser's faults. The riot scene which ensues when David (again spiritedly sung by Peter Schreirer) attacks Beckmesser seeing him serenading his Magdalene (Beckmesser thinking she is Eva) is vividly staged with a most enthusiastically raucous chorus.

But it is Act III that always impresses most. Here is glorious music from beginning to end. The opening orchestral Prelude is a loving portrait of the quiet strength of middle-aged Hans Sachs - noble, wise, honourable and shrewdly self-sacrificing knowing he cannot compete with Walther for the hand of Eva. Theo Adam cast as Sachs, at Karajan's insistence, entirely proves himself in a wonderfully rounded portrayal. His monologue "Illusion, everywhere illusion", is a cynical tirade against man's capacity to damage himself and others. Yet it turns into a reflection on the peacefulness of the Nuremburg night and the possibility of a noble outcome to the morrow's song contest dilemma. Then we have the scene between Sachs and Walther where the knight is encouraged by the older man to work on his song despite Walther's animosity towards the Masters. Bechmesser peeping into Sach's shop espies the manuscript of the song and tries to steal it but Sachs notices him but allows the sly fellow to go away with it warning him he must know how to sing it. Sachs recognises and blesses the union of Walther and Eva and promotes David to journeyman thus enabling him to marry Magdalene. There follows the rapturous quintet "morning-dream" in which all five bless their good fortune and look forward to future happiness.

The scene shifts to the meadows where the song contest is to take place. The well-known grand march of the Masters follows and the lovely, lilting Dance of the Apprentices. This performance has great theatrical presence. Beckmesser jumps in with both feet and makes a complete ass of himself and totally botches the prize song. Then before the angry crowd banishes him, he accuses Sachs of having set him up and betrayed him. In self-defence Sachs calls Walther as witness to sing the song as it should be delivered proving it is a valid entry. This Walther does and the beautiful song blossoms into full flower building climax on climax with the comments of the crowd boosting the emotional crescendo. Of course Walther wins the contest and the hand of Eva but declines accession to the guild of Mastersingers. Sachs gently admonishes him in his final grand aria in which he defends the noble purpose of Masters and their great artistic tradition. The opera ends jubilantly as the people cheer Eva when she puts Walther's wreath on Sachs head who, in turn, places the gold chain of the guild around a now willing Walther's neck.

I superficially compared the sound of the LPs to the new CD set. The LPs sounded very good in their day and I honestly could not detect any great improvement in quality. Of course, one could argue that the surface noise of the LPs is absent and there are just 4 CDs as opposed to 10 LP sides. I must say, however, that the book that came with the original set was very sumptuous. It contained many illustrations that are not included in the nearly 400-page booklet that comes with the CDs (most of which are devoted to the libretto). In the LP-set book there were many illustrations of the original production's sets designed by Max Brückner; plus drawings of some of the actors in scenes from the opera; and some half dozen pictures of the leading actors' costumes.

A classic recording indeed, and one to prize.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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