Notes and Editorial Reviews
This performance, recorded on November 14, 1955, was part of the four-week festival that took place at the Vienna State Opera celebrating its reopening after having been destroyed near the end of World War II. Meistersinger had long been a Viennese favorite and was performed 65 times between 1949 and 1955 at the interim Theater an der Wien. It enjoyed luxury casting and great conductors: Clemens Krauss, Rudolf Moralt, Hans Knappertsbusch, Karl Böhm, Rudolf Kempe, and Fritz Busch. For the return to the State Opera, director Karl Böhm invited the Hungarian-born Fritz Reiner, a perfectionist who in the previous 20 years had gained a reputation as one of America's finest conductors. Rehearsals, it was said, were grueling; but judging
from this recording it was worth the work.
You can tell much about the entire performance from Reiner's Prelude. It is precise, grand, and detailed, with frisky, playful chattering in the upper strings underpinned by a more muscular approach in the lower strings. But it never becomes aggressive or reckless enough to smash into the opening scene; it grows into it naturally. (Where else can such a complex expression end but in prayer?) Throughout the opera we're treated to spirited tempos and playing from the Vienna Philharmonic that Reiner slows down to good effect: The Fliedermonolog is relaxed and as soft as cotton; the prelude to Act 3 wafts in the air gradually and wistfully; the quintet is a moment frozen in time and is presented with great breadth. We can feel what each character is feeling, even if a couple of them don't have the breath to express it.
Beckmesser's false "prize" song is slow to start, and so is the unease and eventual laughter of the assembled crowd. And the real "Prize Song" is accompanied lyrically, with sweep up to the high points, after which Sachs' speech about German art comes as a powerful missive. What the Viennese of 1955 thought of it, with its nasty recent memories, is anyone's guess, but the opera ends with true joy erupting, and much of it has to do with Reiner's ability to balance light and heavy, upper joy with lower gravity--a great reading.
Paul Schöffler, the possessor of a voice that never sounded young, is tonally a bit dry here but nonetheless does not present Sachs as an old man; he is vital and sure of himself. Sachs is a man who prods fate a bit, just because he can, and Schöffler sings with the assurance and potency and shading of a man of wisdom, his voice gaining in strength as the opera progresses. And his pianissimo singing is always handsome, never resorting to falsetto. His is the best Sachs on CD, bettering his own performance under Knappertsbusch on Decca.
Hans Beirer's Walther is neither as sweet and ardorous as Sandor Konya's nor as simply gorgeous as Domingo's (for Jochum on DG), and in fact he sounds indisposed. But his indisposition is only vocal, and while I realize how odd that sounds, his beautiful phrasing and shading, sincerity, vigor, and musicianship make up for a lack of grand tone and some dry singing. It's a performance impossible to dislike.
I was put off by Irmgard Seefried's Eva at first--her second act is too cutesy and pert--but she grows into the part and is lovely in the third act despite lacking anything like a trill. Gottlob Frick's Pogner is important. His address to the Masters in Act 1 has real authority and he's warm and tender with Eva in the second act. Erich Kunz sings all of Beckmesser's notes (save the silly falsetto high-A that ends his monolog in Sachs' shop) and has remarkable "face"; while we don't exactly feel sorry for him at the end, he clearly is not entirely mockable either. The David of Murray Dickie also is almost visible, and he sings with an impetuous young man's certainty, his high-Bs ringing out easily and pointedly. Rosette Anday's Magdalene is stodgy and hectoring; Eberhard Waechter's Nachtigall is mellifluous; and the other Mastersingers bark just a bit too much.
The sound is Austrian Radio mono from 1955 but sounds 10 years younger--grand and able to cope with the big climaxes, clear in the ensembles, clean in quiet moments. Aside from the Kubelik version (various labels, including Myto, Calig, Arts) with Thomas Stewart, Konya, and Gundula Janowitz, and possibly Solti's second recording (Decca) with Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, and (small-scale but impressive) José van Dam, this set goes to the top of the list.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner
Hans Beirer (Tenor),
Gottlob Frick (Bass),
Eberhard Wächter (Baritone),
Erich Kunz (Baritone),
Hans Braun (Baritone),
Murray Dickie (Tenor),
Rosette Anday (Mezzo Soprano),
Paul Schöffler (Baritone),
Irmgard Seefried (Soprano)
Vienna State Opera Chorus,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1862-1867; Germany
Date of Recording: 11/14/1955
Venue: Live State Opera House, Vienna, Austria
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