Notes and Editorial Reviews
It is, surprisingly, 19 years since we had a new recording (Solti's) of Wagner's great comedy, although in the meantime several old and/or historic sets have been reissued or have appeared for the first time. As the list above confirms, two of these are also EMI versions—and the list does not even include the 1943 Bayreuth set under Furtwangler (EMI, 12/76, minus the Quintet), which must surely be reissued before long. Its counterpart is the inspiriting Abendroth version, recorded at Bayreuth the same season with an alternative cast.
For all that formidable competition we needed a new, carefully prepared performance employing modern technology, and here we have it. It is very much a version for today—profoundly musical, as it
was bound to be under Sawallisch, sung with a consistent beauty of sound perhaps encountered in no other version, and recorded truly and spaciously. So, in spite of some reservations, anybody coming to the work for the first time, and wanting a version backed by modern sound, will find it a sensible choice, a performance for the most part measuring up to the score's many demands on its interpreters.
Working, as he specifically requested from EMI, with what were then his own Bavarian State Opera forces, Sawallisch obtains singing and playing on the highest level of achievement, observant of detail, rich in texture, sure in pacing and—very important in this score—anxious to move forward where there is any danger of the music seeming over-extended, as in the recital of the tones and the Act 2 episode of Beckmesser's courting. Sawallisch's reading also catches the warmth that pervades the whole opera, yet is also successful in deftly projecting its comedy.
All that said, I seldom capitulated wholeheartedly to his interpretation. With Sawallisch the earth doesn't move, the spirit is seldom lifted as it should be—and can be, witness Karajan and Abendroth. Take four specific examples, the first two not obvious ones. The opening of Act 2 in Sawallisch's hands is shapely and properly considered; Karajan in his deleted 1970 Dresden EMI recording (7/88) makes one hear and live the music anew, see the bright shadows of Midsummer Eve through his specific insights. Then in Act 3, just before Sachs's solo ''Euch macht'', while Sawallisch and his orchestra play the string passage beautifully enough, Karajan and the Staatskapelle go further, piercing the heart as they should. In the Prize song, Sawallisch and his well-groomed Walther never succeed in getting the music to lift off. Well though the passage is performed and sung compare it to the amazingly lifelike Abendroth with Suthaus, or to Kempe with Schock. Even more crucially, the Quintet hangs fire—here the 1951 Bayreuth performance under Karajan is the benchmark. On the other hand, nobody is better than Sawallisch at characterizing the disputes between the Masters in Act 1, or the pointed humour of the Act 2 Sachs/Beckmesser scene, and much else of that nature is unobtrusively right.
Bernd Weikl's Sachs is already enshrined on a Philips video from Bayreuth (3/92). As on that occasion, it is as soundly voiced as any, long-breathed, attentive to legato and, at times, most notably the ''Wahn'' monologue, something more unerringly phrased and felt. Indeed, like his Beckmesser for Solti, his assumption is consistently well sung (although he appears tired in the Act 3 solos), but it never has been, never will be, replete with the poetry and nobility of the greatest interpreters, among them Schoeffler for Abendroth and Knappertsbusch (Decca, 2/52—nla). Theo Adam for Karajan in Dresden, although vocally not so ingratiating tonally as Weikl, finds more soul in the part—listen on both sets to the start of ''Euch macht''.
The three non-German singers bring vocal lustre to the performance. Walther has surely never been better delivered by any tenor on disc than by Ben Heppner. What about Placido Domingo (Jochum) I hear you ask? Well, yes, in terms of tone but not in understanding: Heppner's German is impeccable, Domingo's is not, and Heppner lends his experience in the role on stage to his reliable, stout-hearted singing, which combines the lyrical with the heroic. I must enter a caveat: some of us heard the live 1968 Kubelik performance on the 'unofficial' Myto label, an enthralling experience. The recording was originally scheduled for commerical release by DG but for one reason or another did not appear until last year on Myto. There Sandor Konya not only sings Walther's music as well as Heppner, but also adds a dimension of eager, youthful enthusiasm not equalled by the latter. Suthaus (Abendroth) has it too, although he is a more uneven singer. Away from comparisons Heppner will more than suffice.
Similarly, Studer pours rich, spinto tone into Eva's music and also suggests the petulance of Act 2 and much of the radiance of Act 3, but she hasn't that peculiarly fresh, girlish quality, that specifically German timbre of Lemnitz (in the 1938 Koch Schwann/Furtwangler excerpts 8/94) or—best of all—the little known Hilde Scheppan (supported by Abendroth's glowing, rich orchestra) or Grummer (Kempe). They, too, have a way with words that Studer, articulate as she is in a generalized way, can't equal. Nor is she a match for the inspired Scheppan at ''O Sachs, mein Freund''. However, she is never less than satisfying and forthcoming, and certainly preferable to Karajan's Donath, though not to Schwarzkopf on his Bayreuth set.
Deon van der Walt is an appealing, outward-going David, nimble in the modes, appropriately concerned before Sachs at the start of Act 3. His tone is perhaps a shade too bright, wanting the softness of Unger (Kempe) and he can't claim quite the idiomatic touches of the young Schreier for Karajan in Dresden. His Magdalene is the excellent Cornelia Kallisch, who recently delighted her audience at the Wigmore Hall in London. She sings in the best traditions of the role.
Siegfried Lorenz has mastered the patter and bile required for a good Beckmesser, yet I found his a one-dimensional portrayal, lacking light and shade. He is also too inclined to bark compared with, say, the long-experienced Kusche (Kempe), whose nuances are unbeatable. In the bass department, Sawallisch could not have done better than retain the services of the veteran Moll as Pogner and the newcomer Pape as the Nightwatchman: here surely is a Sachs in the making.
Where the recording itself is concerned, great care has been taken over the placing of the singers in relation to one another and the correct distancing of the voices where called for. The balance in relation to the orchestra seems just about ideal. In the modern manner, and JBS will be displeased again, the chorus is placed a little too far back. I hear more pertinent detail in the Karajan Dresden version—you feel the singers communing with each other in front of you—but the new one has greater warmth. As with Munich Herkulessaal recordings, this set is stronger on atmosphere than presence. More alive than either, the intermittently available Myto evinces a wider range of dynamics and also has a sense of real perspective in the best 1960s fashion.
In a work so long, varied and kaleidoscopic as Die Meistersinger, no version is likely to be definitive, although for years Rudolf Kempe's was considered so. Inevitably its dated sound now counts against it; indeed, it is not so immediate as that on the two mono Bayreuth acoustics. Solti's reading fails through quirky conducting and an over-resonant recording, Eugen Jochum's through variable casting. Karajan's Dresden account would present a strong challenge to the newcomer were it available, even more so the two Bayreuth versions: the dynamic Karajan (with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's poised Eva and the conductor leading an unforgettable Quintet) and the inspiriting, marvellously sincere Hermann Abendroth (what feeling in every bar here!). Then there is the brightly lit Kubelik (if you can find it), which boasts in addition to Konya's eloquent Walther, Gundula Janowitz's fresh and youthful, though not ideally communicative Eva, Thomas Stewart's warm, wise Sachs and the best of Magdalenes in Brigitte Fassbaender, not to forget Kubelik's elating direction (I recall with pleasure his account of this score at Covent Garden in the late 1950s).
None of these is so note perfect, so exact or well-considered as the Sawallisch, but they all suggest that frisson of a live performance occasionally missing in the new set. Even so, Sawallisch takes an honoured place in this company and context. His reading is full of thoughtful aperçus and natural flow, and displays a sensible overview of the score in the Kempe manner. Vocally it will satisfy all but those with the most demanding tastes in, and/or long experience in, Wagnerian interpretation.
– Alan Blyth, Gramophone [8/1994], reviewing EMI 55142 Read less
Works on This Recording
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner
Hans Wilbrink (Bass),
Ulrich Ress (Tenor),
Friedemann Kunder (Bass),
Cheryl Studer (Soprano),
René Pape (Bass),
Ben Heppner (Tenor),
Michael Schade (Tenor),
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (Bass),
Cornelia Kallisch (Alto),
Deon Van der Walt (Tenor),
Siegfried Lorenz (Baritone),
Kurt Moll (Bass),
Guido Götzen (Bass),
Rainer Büse (Bass),
Roland Wagenführer (Tenor),
Hermann Sapell (Tenor),
Bernd Weikl (Baritone)
Bavarian State Orchestra,
Bavarian State Opera Chorus
Written: 1862-1867; Germany
Date of Recording: 1993
Length: 256 Minutes 42 Secs.
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