Each disc is marked with a large “50“ and the words “Golden Jubilee.“ The cause of all this richly tasteful celebration is, so far as I could see, tactfully not mentioned in the album booklet. And so one is rather loftily being assumed simply to know—or, more likely, to figure out and then pretend that one knew all along—that this is some sort of big anniversary for Solti. Abandoning all pretense, I will simply confess that a quick look at the New Grove told me that Solti did indeed make his first records in 1947. So there we are.
But how is the performance? Looking back at my review of Solti's 1975 recording (Fanfare 12:6), which I believe is still available, I find that while I liked many things about it (notably the SachsRead more of Norman Bailey), I found it often rather rushed. Since this new performance, totaling up the disc-lengths, takes almost exactly ten minutes less than the earlier one, I ought to have found it very rushed indeed. Yet this was true in only a few places. And often, giving the matter a little more consideration, I could see why—or thought I could see why—Solti had done it his way.
For example, the famous Prelude to act III, always represented as a portrait of Sachs, thoughtful and even grieving the morning after the street riot that ends act II, is usually played very slowly and expressively throughout. I was therefore jarred to find Solti, on this new recording, beginning it in what seemed like a very businesslike manner. “Aha,“ I thought to myself, “the bad old side of Solti surfacing once again!“ But then, as I listened, I heard the tempo broaden and the whole tone grow deeper, more serious, yet also more relaxed, with the entry of the brass at bar 16. The gradual ascent of the music into the higher strings seemed to take forever, and the equally slow descent back into the winds very effectively delayed and yet prepared the anguished reentry of the full string section at bar 51. And then I noticed that Wagner's initial tempo direction is only Etwas gedehnt, that he marks bar 16 Sehr feierlich, and bar 51 Sehr breit. So what we are presented with is not a fait accompli:
Sachs as reflective, private man—in contrast to the public Sachs of earlier scenes. Wagner gives us the process of Sachs working himself into his thoughts, growing increasingly absorbed from the rather straightforward opening to the anguish of bar 51 and the graceful resignation of the close. And Solti saw all this.
I have bothered to go into such detail because I think Solti is seriously undervalued as a conductor—as I have said before in these pages. He has done much to project the image of himself as the Compleat Professional, the rather cool perfectionist who loves push and volume and excitement. And sometimes his performances come out that way. But he is also an extremely thoughtful and sensitive musician. To be as concerned as he obviously is with perfection of the musical surface is not necessarily to be superficial in the derogatory sense.
This new Meistersinger seems to me largely a success. Solti has a better cast than on his earlier one: Ben Heppner is a splendid Walther, as against the flaccid Kollo; and while I can't always figure out just what Mattila is trying to make of Eva, she sings far more beautifully and steadily than did Hannelore Bode on the earlier recording. Opie, Pape, and Dohmen are all generally excellent— though occasionally they fail to sound like the public men, the self-appointed pillars of the community, that earlier singers always, and rightly, took the Masters to be. Vermillion is a sure and deft Magdalene, and Lippert has the perfect David voice, light and agile—unlike his counterpart on Solti's earlier recording, Adolf Dallapozza, who often sounded more heroic than Kollo. The Chicago Orchestra & Chorus, it hardly needs saying, are above reproach, indeed almost beyond praise.
In his little preface to the album booklet, Solti tells us that he wanted to do Meistersinger again because in the intervening years he had performed a great deal of Mozart and Verdi, and as a result had come to see Meistersinger as “above all a conversation piece“ that “should be approached almost like chamber music.... It was this aspect of Die Meistersinger, Wagner's wonderful lightness of touch, that I wanted to recapture.“ I did not read this preface until I had finished listening and taking notes on the recording; therefore I was amused to see that of the first scene of act I, the exchanges among Walther, Eva, Magdalene, and David, I had written: “Conversation good—Heppner light, easy— Solti also easy-going, no pressure—Mozart!“ So Solti had made his point so far as I was concerned.
One can see, then, how this Meistersinger could be comparatively fast and yet not seem rushed: it all depends on the conversational scenes. Heppner especially is most adept at moving from conversation to song and back again, with all the shades in between. In the scene where David is instructing Walther about the rules, Heppner lightens his voice, so as almost to match Lippert's, when he is asking for information and feeling insecure. But his frustrated outbursts—e.g., “Hilf Himmel!“—are taken in full heroic voice.
Similarly, Heppner begins “I'm stillen Herd,“ which Solti takes at a good clip, in a rather light voice—intimate, warm, almost conversational—but then, as he gathers self-assurance, the voice fills out grandly. It is therefore no surprise that Walther has the confidence to do a rather extraordinary thing: to improvise his trial song, picking up the Merker's stock phrase “Fanget an!“ and twisting its meaning so as to make it the basis of his entire lyric. And we can also believe that this Walther, unlike so many others, would respond to Beckmesser's interruption—“Seid Ihr nun fertig?“—not merely with puzzlement but with aristocratic outrage: “Wie fraget Ihr?“
Van Dam stands in quite a different relation to Solti's new, conversational approach to Die Meistersinger. It seems to suit him far less well than it does Heppner—but then Sachs is a far more complex character than Walther. I think van Dam first came to my attention sixteen years ago, as the Amfortas on Karajan's Parsifal. I was bowled over by the absolute inevitable Tightness with which each syllable, each fusion of verbal sense and musical sound, fell into place, creating musical unity in the line and dramatic unity in the characterization of Amfortas. While his Sachs is very fine, it is not so fine as that earlier Amfortas.
Van Dam has more than enough inwardness and sensitivity for the private Sachs, the one we hear portrayed—as Wagner never quite allows him to portray himself—in the Prelude to act III, but he is not yet at home with Sachs, the authoritative public figure. Yet the way that van Dam interprets Sachs, while not quite on target, yields its insights. At the beginning of act II he is very commanding with David, but seems oddly touchy and irritable in a way that was new to me. Why? The answer comes in the vivid dramatization of Sach's conflicts that immediately follows in the Flieder-Monolog. But in the scene with Eva, van Dam is oddly forceless, lacking in just the authority that Sachs should be exterting—along with several other qualities. Van Dam's Sachs is too easily angered, too mercurial, too thin-skinned.
When the music (and Solti's brisk tempo) push van Dam to be forthright and hearty, as in “Jerum, Jerum,“ he can do it splendidly. Yet he makes Sachs's greeting to Beckmesser—“Herr Stadtschreiber!“—oddly mannered, not at all genial and familiar. The Wahn-Monolog is fine and sober at the beginning, but as Sachs decides how to take command of the whole situation brought on by Walther's presence and the riot of the preceding night—from about “'s ist halt der alte Wahn“ on—van Dam stays inward instead of coming out, taking control, seizing the reins. Yet in the scene with Walther, Solti's brisk tempos again push him outside of himself, and the results are splendid. Unless he is prodded by Solti, van Dam's instinct is to play Sachs close to the chest—in effect to transform him, though not nearly so thoroughly as he has been in some recent Meistersingers, into a character more like Amfortas.
So this is, on the whole, a fine performance. The only other commercial recording of Die Meistersinger to come along in the last couple of decades has been Sawallisch's (for my review see Fanfare 18:3). And that one, despite its many virtues, is seriously disfigured by Weikl's Sachs. So if you want a Meistersinger in up-to-the-minute digital sound, you would do better with Solti. I must add, however, that while the sound on this new recording is very full and clear, it lacks warmth. At points where the full orchestra is in play, as at the end of act II, everything comes marvelously alive; but with thinner orchestration, one is a little too aware of the treble end, and the instruments sound naked.
Finally, Solti and his magnificent orchestra are perhaps the real stars here. Only at one point did I find him pushing unduly, in way for which I could find no justifiable dramatic explanation: the music that accompanies the gathering of the various guilds for the final scene. He rushes through everything, allowing no time for fun or festivity—and, one senses, just dying to get to the complexities of “Euch macht ihr's leicht,“ which he and van Dam of course do beautifully.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnbergby Richard Wagner Performer:
José van Dam (Bass Baritone),
Ben Heppner (Tenor),
Herbert Lippert (Tenor),
René Pape (Bass),
Karita Mattila (Soprano),
Iris Vermillion (Mezzo Soprano),
Alberto Dohmen (Baritone),
Roberto Saccà (Tenor),
John Horton Murray (Baritone),
Gary Martin (Bass),
Richard Byrne (Tenor),
Steven Tharp (Tenor),
Kevin Deas (Bass),
Stephen Morscheck (Bass),
Kelly Anderson (Bass),
Alan Opie (Baritone)
Sir Georg Solti
Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Period: Romantic Written: 1862-1867; Germany Date of Recording: 09/1995 Venue: Live Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois Length: 259 Minutes 0 Secs. Language: German
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Great Meister let down by inadequate Sachs.......January 20, 2012By Peter Rossetti (Lakewood, CA)See All My Reviews"Everything is great here and there is much to enjoy, but Van Dam's Sachs is too light voiced and too thin sounding. Irritating to me. Otherwise a great set. mho I recommend Solti's first, Barenboim's or Jochum IF you like Fischer-Dieskau. Janowski's on its way here, so I'll include if need be."Report Abuse