The Gramophone Choice
Thomas Stewart (bar) Hans Sachs Thomas Hemsley (bar) Beckmesser Sándor Kónya (ten) Walther Gundula Janowitz (sop) Eva Brigitte Fassbaender (mez) Magdalene Gerhard Unger (ten) David Franz Crass (bass) Pogner Kieth Engen (bass) Kothner Horst Wilhelm (ten) Vogelgesang Richard Kogel (bass) Nachtigall Manfred Schmidt (ten) Zorn Friedrich Lenz (ten) Eisslinger Peter Baillie (ten) Moser Anton Diakov (bass) Ortel Karl Christian Kohn (bass) Schwartz Dieter Slembeck (bass) Foltz Raimund Grumbach (bass) Nightwatchman Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelík
Arts Archives 43020-2 (4h 32' · ADD). Recorded 1967. Buy from Amazon
There could be no more fitting memorial to Kubelík than the appearance of this, probably the most all-round satisfying Meistersinger in the era of stereo. It was recorded in 1967 by Bavarian Radio to mark the work’s centenary the following year. Kubelík conducts an unforced, loving interpretation, showing a gratifying grasp of overall structure. As a whole the reading has an unobtrusive cohesion achieved within flexible tempi and dynamics. Everything proceeds at an even, well-judged pace with just the right surge of emotion at the climaxes. All this is conveyed unerringly to his own Bavarian Radio forces.
Stewart’s Sachs is certainly his most successful performance on disc. He offers a finely moulded, deeply considered reading that relies on firm, evenly produced, mostly warm tone to create a darkish, philosophical poet-cobbler. Kónya is simply the most winning Walther on any set, superseding Sawallisch’s excellent Heppner by virtue of a greater ardour in his delivery. Kónya pours out consistently warm, clear tone, his tenor hovering ideally between the lyric and the heroic. Nor are there many better Evas than the young Janowitz, certainly none with a lovelier voice. Franz Crass, a less pompous Pogner than some, sings his part effortlessly, with noble feeling. Hemsley, though singing his first Beckmesser, evinces a close affinity with the Town Clerk’s mean-mindedness, and his German is faultless. Unger is a paragon among Davids, so eager in his responses and finding just the right timbre for the role. His Magdalene, again perfect casting, is the young Fassbaender. With a characterful Kothner in Engen, the requirements for a near-ideal Meistersinger ensemble are in place. As the recording doesn’t betray its age, this would undoubtedly be the first choice among stereo versions.
John Tomlinson (bass) Hans Sachs Thomas Allen (bar) Beckmesser Gösta Winbergh (ten) Walther Nancy Gustafson (sop) Eva Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mez) Magdalene Herbert Lippert (ten) David Gwynne Howell (bass) Pogner Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Bernard Haitink Royal Opera House Heritage Series ROHS008 (4h 25’ · ADD · T/t). Recorded live 1997. Buy from Amazon
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (sung in English)
Norman Bailey (bass-bar) Hans Sachs Derek Hammond-Stroud (bar) Beckmesser Alberto Remedios (ten) Walther Margaret Curphey (sop) Eva Ann Robson (mez) Magdalene Gregory Dempsey (ten) David Noel Mangin (bass) Pogner Chorus and Orchestra of Sadler’s Wells Opera / Reginald Goodall Chandos CHAN3148 (4h 53’ · ADD · S/T/t) Recorded live 1968. Buy from Amazon
Both these new/old performances, stemming from live broadcasts at key moments in the two major London opera companies’ histories, reflect the sense of community ensemble and Shakespearean mix of sacred and profane comedy which has become our particular national gift to Wagner’s comedy.
The more recent performance is something of a coronation for Bernard Haitink’s embattled but admired music directorship of the old Covent Garden. The performance, his happiest Wagner outing to date on disc, shows him to be a listening accompanist and precise balancer of orchestral textures. The discs too provide a souvenir of a memorable British double-act: John Tomlinson’s Sachs (fully engaged as philosophical poet or virile, passionate shoemaker) and Thomas Allen’s carefully drawn assumption of Beckmesser – pomposity and pathos founded on a vocal delivery which satisfies both demands for comedy and the stature appropriate to a senior member of the Mastersingers’ Guild.
They are ably supported. Gösta Winbergh is a thinking man’s knight who, like his bright and beautiful Evchen, Nancy Gustafson, is a great user of text as well as tone. Lippert is a fluent David, Gwynne Howell and Catherine Wyn-Rogers field a Pogner and Magdalene of uncommonly rich shadings, while the Masters’ list is a veritable who’s who of subtle, musical character actors. The recording has come up with a good sense of theatrical ping – apart from an oddly forward balance for the would-be eloping lovers in their Act 2 asides.
How happy one would be with this set in a competition-less world but other recorded maestros delve more profoundly into the text and theatricality of this score than Haitink chooses to do. One such is Reginald Goodall, whose 1968 Sadler’s Wells performance(s) – legendary at least in British memory – has finally reached an official release on Chandos in Sir Peter Moores’s Opera in English series. Here is one legend which hits the light of day as brightly as it shone 40 years ago. Goodall’s understanding of what every beat of this score means, and his successful communication of that to his personally trained cast, is a thing of wonder. Climaxes (end of Act 1, the riot, the quintet etc) are immense; timers may tell us it’s slow, but the pulse never flags.
Goodall’s Walther, Alberto Remedios, once said that when he played Caruso’s records at home he forgot to go out. The same compliment might be paid to this singer when he starts ‘Am stillen Herd’, or tells Sachs his morning dream in three parts, or delivers the prize song with a dream mixture of Italianate tone and line and German lyrical weight. OK, it’s in English, and a rather quaint English – but it has to be heard. So does Norman Bailey’s Sachs. He is a noble humanist, free (even in the gulling of Beckmesser) of petty concerns and stirred as opposed merely to being moody in yielding Evchen to Walther. His seamless delivery of the ‘Flieder’ monologue, natural authority in the ‘Ein Kind war geboren’ sequence and striking of the right blend of admonishment and advice in ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ all represent work on a Friedrich Schorr/Hans Hotter level. And, together with Goodall, Margaret Curphey makes Eva’s predicaments and love always real rather than simply coy.
The plentiful laughter that can be heard is due to both the sharp theatrical pointing of Goodall’s conducting and to the Eric Morecambe-like ability of Derek Hammond-Stroud’s Beckmesser to be genuinely funny just by appearing. Hammond-Stroud’s is a masterly comic performance at the other end of the pole to Allen’s – but equally valid.
One can understand non-Anglophone readers smiling whimsically but this Chandos release genuinely becomes one of the miracles of the current Wagner discography.
James Morris (bass) Hans Sachs Sir Thomas Allen (bass) Beckmesser Ben Heppner (ten) Walther Karita Mattila (sop) Eva Jill Grove (mez) Magdalene Matthew Polenzani (ten) David René Pape (bass) Pogner Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, New York / James Levine
Stage director Otto Schenk
Video director Brian Large
DG DVD 073 0949GH2 (4h 52’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo, 5.1 & DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 2001. Buy from Amazon
This most humane and intimate of all Wagner’s operas is a natural for DVD but we haven’t yet had a wholly satisfactory version. However, this Met version, superbly recorded in widescreen, boasting a mouthwatering cast, largely fulfils the considerable expectations it raises.
Conducting and staging are solidly uncontroversial. Levine’s rich, weighty Wagner style seems to suit Meistersinger better than The Ring. There are still some unexpected gear changes, but better integrated into a fluent, warm reading. Otto Schenk’s production is almost aggressively traditional – lively enough, but one longs for some subtler spark of originality or insight, in the sets especially. A properly bustling Act 3 ‘Festweise’ is welcome, instead of dull grandstands, but the Act 2 brawl is sadly shirked.
The singers are the best on DVD. With his clear, unbaritonal lyric Heldentenor, Ben Heppner is a convincingly poetic Walther; but the bulky face and frame lose credibility in Brian Large’s vivid camera direction. Even the beautiful Karita Mattila’s girlish antics look less appropriate, but she remains a stunning Eva, dramatic in power but with reserves of crystalline lyricism.
René Pape’s Pogner looks no older than his ‘daughter’, a minor blemish on a finely resonant performance, but a blow to dramatic involvement. Sir Thomas Allen’s minutely characterised, acidulous Beckmesser is properly malevolent yet unexpectedly mellifluous, hilarious without vocal distortions.
James Morris’s Sachs is warm-hearted, quintessentially American and none the worse for that. His voice is more sinewy now and less steady, losing some of its rich tone and silken legato, but gaining in character. He’s still not ideally expressive, though, making less of the cobbler-poet’s visionary and temperamental side, and more telling as Eva and Walther’s genial mentor than in the monologues. His fellow Mastersingers are well portrayed, though John Del Carlo could make more of Kothner, but the chorus and apprentices can’t quite match Bayreuth’s.