Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
When this set first appeared Andrew Porter wrote one of the longest reviews of a single opera ever to appear in these pages, an extended encomium to the work and to its performance. His praise was highest, as is mine, for the marvellous recording, surely one of the most natural and evenly balanced made in the post-Legge era, and for the contribution of the Staatskapelle, Dresden. I don't recall any other co-operation between Karajan and this orchestra, but they obviously established a quick rapport that produced results of the most positive kind: string playing of the utmost warmth and eloquence, wind and brass solos of tender beauty. All were caught in ideal sound in that paragon of a 'studio', the Lukas Kirche in Dresden. Indeed, in the original booklet Peter Andry pointed out that the recording had been completed in half the sessions allocated for it, which speaks volumes for the happy nature of the results. I think I still marginally prefer Karajan's more energetic and purely theatrical 1951 Bayreuth reading (EMI RLS7708, 2/83), but of course the recording has much less presence and detail than this later one, and in any case Karajan is here at once at his most concentrated and relaxed. What a pity the EMI sets from later in the 1970s, which have recently appeared on CD, were not made under similar circumstances, for now this one seems the culmination of all those fine opera readings made in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than a harbinger of what was to come.
As was his wont, Karajan favoured lighter voices for Wagner than we had been accustomed to, or perhaps he was merely making a virtue of necessity. This has its advantages and its drawbacks. For instance Adam's Lieder-like treatment of Sachs's monologues and duologues have to be set against a tone that wants the warmth and breadth of a Hotter, Frantz or Schoeffler, being more akin to Bailey on the Solti/Decca set. But Adam is wholly believable none the less as poet and cobbler. Rene Kollo, in youthful voice back in 1970, presents a wonderfully fresh, eager slightly arrogant Walther in Acts 1 and 2, just right but—as AP pointed out—lacks the ultimate in breadth and tonal refulgence for the Trial and Prize songs, just Domingo's strength on the Jochum/DG version. However, Kollo is preferable here to his older self with Solti.
Helen Donath's girlish tones depict a young impetuous girl but the radiance of a Reining or a Schwarzkopf in ''O Sachs, mein Freund'' and the lead into the Quintet is missing; indeed, the portrayal is a little shallow. Schreier is a musically adroit, delicate-voiced David without quite the boyish charm of some interpreters. Ridderbusch is a superb Pogner, exhibiting Wagnerian bel canto of a quite special kind and portraying a wise fatherly, firm figure. My chief disappointment on rehearing the performance, and my one disagreement with AP, is over Evans's Beckmesser Throughout, he employs a kind of exaggerated Sprechgesang, using a 'funny' voice to delineate the town clerk's vicious nature. Benno Kusche on the deleted Kempe EMI set and Roland Hermann on the Jochum show that Beckmesser's disaffections can be expressed without resort to such obvious caricature.
The choral singing from the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the Dresden State Opera Chorus is as full and idiomatic as that on any version, and contributes to the general sense of well-being exuded by the whole performance. It is a joy to hear. I set this version alongside the fine DG as my recommendation. It is certainly one of Karajan's most warm-hearted recordings in the operatic field.'