Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
|Richard Wagner, Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra|
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Listen to Samples
Two star leads stuck in a listless production
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 09/24/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Note: (Jan. 22, 2007) Below is my original, unenthusiastic review of this set. I subsequently came to a greater appreciation, so the original is followed by a lengthy review comparing most of the current Meistersingers in the catalog.
The opera world waited sixty years, since the heyday of Lauritz Melchior, for a great Walther in Meistersinger (Melchior never sang the role in its entirety, leaving only tantalizing exceerpts). An ideal finally arrived in the form of Ben Heppner, who has dominated productions around the world. At the Met his Eva is the excellent Karita Mattila, also on this set. What a shame that they are stuck in Solti's listless concert performance, and to make matters worse, Jose van Dam is a tired, dry-voiced Hans Sachs with little depth or even true Wagner style. One can hear Heppner in even fresher voice on the (now deleted) Sawallisch set on EMI, but the stolid conducting is a major drawback.
The whole recorded legacy of Meistersinger would be discouragingly uneven except for the Kubelik set, where all the singers are excellent and the comedy comes thorugh with brisk expertness. That's the one to get, in my opinion, if you want consistency and not just one or two stellar singers lost in a bath of mediocrity. Often the problem with Wagner recordings is that one critical element ruins the rest, however excellent. With that in mind, the second of Solti's two recordings scores higher than I originally gave it credit for--there are no bad, or even mediocre singers, and some are among the best we've ever had. The opera world flocks to hear Heppner's Walther, and with good reason. In addition, the sonics, orchestral playing, and chorus are beyond reproach. The biggest suprise, however, is Solti himself, who had mellowed enough by 1997 to drop his habit of going into overdrive: this is a gentle, refined, but alert performance, with lots of inner life in the setting of a concert-hall audinece.
But before praising the individual parts of this set, let me offer some comparisons with the competition, concentrating on that plague of Wagner recordings, the one dreadful singer who becomes the fly in the ointment.
Karajan, Bayreuth (EMI)-- This, the first important postwar Meistersinger, comes from Karajan's fleeting appearance at Bayretuh. Here in a live 1951 stage production we hear a great conductor at his finest and a cast that couldn't be bettered at that time, with Otto Edelmann's Sachs and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's Eva standing out. Long a famous set, this one nevertheless suffers from the curse of the nearly insufferable Hans Hopf, a bawling, burly Walther. You must listen around him and also make allowances for murky sonics.
Kempe, Berlin (EMI) -- Also in mono (EMI was just dipping into stereo for its operas by 1956) this set appeals to fans of Kempe and Elisabeth Grummer as Elsa--they also paired in Lohengrin to great success. I can only say that the gritty Sachs of Ferdinand Frantz, a coarse, loud singer, disqualifies the whole performance for me, and the Walther of Rudolf Schock holds limited charms.
Jochum, Bavarian State (DG) -- The very fine set conducted by Kubelik in 1967 was shelved becasued Fischer-Dieskau, the company's superstar, and Placido Domingo, taking his first steps into Wagner, wanted to record Sachs and Waltehr. Nothing worked. F-D mugs constantly and is far too light-voiced for the part; Domingo's German is rudimentary at best. Add a poor Eva and the routine conducting of Jochum, and this set can be bypased.
Solti, Vienna (London/Decca) - I can understand the English fondness for this set, consistently praised over the years by the Gramophone, because the Sachs, Norman Bailey, is British, and Solti was a pet conductor. But Bailey, however noble, is rather wooly and sluggish of voice. Love him if you will, but nothing can help the painfully uncharming Walther of Rene Kollo, who was lucky to come along during a complete famine of Wagner tenors. Not so lucky for us, he is marginally fresher of voice here than for Karajan. The Eva is even weaker, and Solti's conducting is coarse and totally without humor.
Karajan, Dresden (EMI) -- After the left the Philharmonia in the early Sixties it was rare for Karajan to conduct any orchestra except Berlin and Vienna, so it was an event when he traveled to Dresden to make one of the most magisterial Meistersingers on record. There are listeners who cannot abide Karajan's Wagner, and even a huge admirer like me has reservations, but not here. We get a lovely Eva from Donath, and all the minor parts are fine. But Kollo is distressingly ugly of voice as Walther, and just as unlistenable is the Sachs of Theo Adam, whose gargly, gravelly voicalism grates like fingernails on a blackboard.
Kubelik, Bavarian RSO (Calig) - You could heaar the cheering from Tokyo to Bayareth in 1994 when DG allowed this long-shelved set to be licensed by Calig. In retrospect the mid-Sixties feels like a golden age for Wagner, and here we get some of the best singers of the era. There are no weaknesses whatever in the cast. One can sit back to luxuriate in the gorgeous, easy, charismatic Walther of Sandor Konya (who also excelled as Lohengrin), the perfect vocal production of Gundula Janowitz as Eva, and the firm, masucline, youngish Sachs of Thomas Stewart. It was insane for DG to prefer the Jochum/ Fischer-Dieskau recording, but now amends have been made. Is this the perfect Meistersinger? Well, now that we've lived with it for a while, Kubelik could relax more, Stewart lacks the mellow wisdom one associates with Sachs; he's a bit fierce for such a benign figure. And Janowitz lacks charm in her pursuit of an almost mechanical perfection. Still and all, this set was miles ahead of the competition.
Sawallisch, Bavarian State (EMI) - Here we have EMI's fourth Meistersinger since the end of WW II and in many ways the most eagerlyanticipated, becasue for the first time since Melchior and Konya, a truly magnificent Walther was available in Ben Hepppner, here caught at his freshest. The voice is as beautiful as Konya's and, if not as powerful as Melchior's, more than strong enough to soar over Wagner's huge orchestra. The Eva, Cheryl Studer, was also caught in her all-too-brief prime. Neither sounds like the traditional German singers we're used to, but much of the cast were Bayreuth veterans. Sadly, two huge disappointments arose, Bernd Weikl, a strong baritone but a routine artist, makes nothing of Sachs, and for the first time in a great while, the conducting falls far short of ideal. Sawallisch has been lucky to outlive better conductors from his generation, but here his slack, unimaginative time-beating makes for a dull evening at the opera.
Which brings us to the set at hand. The Gramophone was highly critical of Jose van Dam as Sachs, and it's true that he is light of voice for the part, and very un-German. He isn't wise, benign, or exciting. His long shoemaker's song in the second act reveals a certain shallow, threadbare quality in his voice. However, he is a real artist, and every note is sung with finesse. Van Dam may not be to your taste, but he doesn't ruin the proceedings. Likewise, the Eva of Mattila is somewhat mature and ripe-sounding; you won't mistake her for an innocent young girl. But she triumphs onstage as Eva, even close to fifty as she is now, by looking lovely and acting well. As a musician she's certainly up to the task, nad her vocal production is creamy and affectionate.
After those reservations it's smooth sailing. Every other part is wonderfully sung, and all earlier Mesitersingers are put in the sahde by Decca's full, likelike sonics. Meistersinger is replete with ensemble singing, and Solti's forces blend like none other on disc. All in all, I want to give five stars, but I must bow to the deficits of Van Dam and Mattila and limit my rating to four.
P.S. 10`0 -- A new wrinkle has been added recently with the advent of remastered live recordings. Knappertsbusch has two, both form Bayreuth, dated 1952 and 1960, that are competitive. In Europe Naxos Historical has reissued the first-ever version to appear on LP, also under Knappertsbusch; it came out on the Decca label. Kna was good at tis opera, never indulging in tortoise-like tempos. If you don't mind mono sound, the main difference comes down to the choice of Walther -- the bawling Hans Hopf in 1952, the excellent Windgassen in 1960, and Gunther Treptwo on the commercial set, who is somewhere in between."