Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Arturo Toscanini
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker
5 August 1937
Festspielhaus Salzburg
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsHans Hermann Nissen
Veit PognerHerbert Alsen
Kunz VogelgesangGeorg Maikl
Konrad NachtigallRolf Telasko
Sixtus BeckmesserHermann Wiedemann
Fritz KothnerViktor Madin
Balthasar ZornAnton Dermota
Ulrich EißlingerEkkerhard Fritsch
Augustin MoserHermann Gallos
Hermann OrtelAlfred Muzzarelli
Hans SchwartzCarl Bissuti
Hans FoltzKarl Ettl
Walther von StolzingHenk Noort
DavidRichard Sallaba
EvaMaria Reining
MagdaleneKerstin Thorborg
Ein NachtwächterCarl Bissuti

This is a hugely important issue, though some, I suspect, might find it frustrating. Taken from an Austrian radio broadcast from the 1937 Salzburg Festival, this is the first commercial release of Toscanini’s only extant complete performance of one of Wagner’s operas, and as such is a document of immeasurable significance. Most Wagnerians, however, if pressed on the matter, would probably express regret that Meistersinger should be the work in question. If only one of Toscanini’s Wagner performances were to survive intact, many would argue, then ideally it should have been either Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal, the two works on which his formidable reputation as a Wagner interpreter primarily rests.

Headed by Ernest Newman, an entire generation of critics unanimously maintained that his 1930-31 Bayreuth performances of both works were not only definitive, but were, quite simply, the greatest examples of Wagner conducting they had ever heard, an opinion that now strikes us as remarkable on a number of counts. The fragments of Tristan and Parsifal that Toscanini recorded in his NBC days certainly don’t warrant such a judgement. At this point we must also remember, however, that many, at the time, considered that his NBC performances, in general, revealed a weakening of his interpretative power and a growing rigidity in his conducting.

Many who heard those Bayreuth performances would also soon become familiar with the interpretations of Reiner, Bodanzky, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber and Leinsdorf, all of whom we can now hear conducting one or both works, often with remarkable results. It’s hard to imagine a better Tristan than Erich Kleiber’s or a more engrossing Parsifal than Bodanzky’s (also on Myto, an astonishing performance, despite poor sound). Leinsdorf’s reputation as a stolid Wagnerian, based on his commercial recordings, meanwhile, is in the process of re-assessment in the light of the appearance of a number of live pre-war performances from the Met, of which his Tristan (on Naxos Historical) is one of his finest.

The absence of a complete performance of either Tristan or Parsifal in Toscanini’s vast archive, meanwhile, becomes all the more aggravating when we realise that descriptions of his Bayreuth performances confound virtually every assumption commonly held about his work. Most of us think of him as a conductor who favoured speed, yet at Bayreuth, where every performance is meticulously timed, his Tristan and Parsifal remain the longest on record. The high voltage energy that many of us also associate with Toscanini was also seemingly replaced with slow, inexorable gradations of sound and effect that built gradually with overwhelming intensity. His Meistersinger, in contrast, very much divided opinion. Klemperer heard him conduct it at La Scala in 1923 and later remarked, “I can say nothing about it but that I have never heard a similarly perfect musical realisation of the work in any theatre in the world”. Others, however, were not so sure. Some considered it too ’Italianate’. One American critic, discussing his handling of the Act One Prelude, witheringly described it as “a parade of Florentine nobles”.

Meistersinger was, however, the Wagner opera that Toscanini conducted most frequently. Some of his critics have consequently assumed that it was his favourite of the composer’s works. This remains unproven, though the opera was both central to his repertoire and curiously crops up at major points in his biography. He first conducted it, aged 31, in Turin in 1898, in the days when he was very much a Wagner hothead, deeming him “the greatest composer of the century,” and sometimes championing his works at the expense of the Italian repertory. It was from a production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth in 1933 that Toscanini famously withdrew after the Nazi acquisition of power. The 1937 Salzburg performances were among his last major engagements in Europe and the Act One Prelude was the last piece he ever conducted in public, at the close of an all-Wagner concert in 1954. Later in life, however, it would seem his attitude towards Wagner mellowed a bit. Verdi, with whom his name is now invariably linked, was becoming increasingly more important to him, and during the 1936 Salzburg festival, where he was conducting both works, he famously compared Meistersinger to Falstaff and found it wanting. “Meistersinger is a magnificent opera,” he stated, “but Falstaff is really something different … Falstaff is the absolute masterpiece and Meistersinger is an outstanding Wagnerian opera. Just think for a moment how many musical means – beautiful ones, certainly – Wagner must make use of to describe the Nuremberg night. And look at how Verdi gets a similarly startling effect from just three notes.”

His comments are frequently interpreted as a statement of his own aesthetic values, in which concise directness of expression was all-important, though they may also have political overtones. Many anti-fascist writers and intellectuals in the 1930s, among them Heinrich Mann (elder brother of Thomas) and Franz Werfel (Alma Mahler’s third husband) held up Verdi’s anti-authoritarian operas as a radical counter to Wagner’s inherently racist, totalitarian stance and to the often engulfing power of his music.

No assessment of any performance of Meistersinger – particularly if it took place between 1933 and 1945 – can leave politics out of account. The Nazis, of course, had appropriated Wagner as their musical rallying cry, and Meistersinger and Parsifal were the works that most suited their ends. Arguments that the meanings of Wagner’s subjects, symbolic or otherwise, were twisted out of recognition in the process don’t always wash. Wagner was appropriated by the far right because there are elements in his work that map onto fascist ideology. Such elements may have been given undue prominence in fascist interpretations, but that does not mean we should explain them away or ignore their presence. Parsifal, whatever its deeper philosophical underpinnings, deals with a self-elected military elite obsessed with the idea of pure blood and attempting to rescue its totemic icons from ’defilement’. Meistersinger depicts bourgeois culture being redefined by a natural aristocrat (Walther) and purged of internal elements that undermine its integrity. ’Holy German art’, notoriously invoked in the opera’s closing scene, is revitalised and strengthened by the process of expelling Beckmesser, who is perceived throughout as the ’enemy within’. That Wagner meant Beckmesser to be an anti-Semitic caricature is an issue ducked by many critics, though painstaking research carried out by Barry Millington and Stewart Spencer in the 1980s and 90s has proved Wagner’s intentions beyond dispute.

Anti-Semitism very nearly wrecked Toscanini’s 1937 Meistersinger, in fact. With the Anschluss looming, a deal was struck between the Austrian and German radio companies to broadcast that year’s Salzburg and Bayreuth performances in both countries. The Nazi authorities, however, suddenly decided to quash the project when they realised that the Salzburg performances of Le nozze di Figaro were to be conducted by Bruno Walter, who as early as 1933 had been a victim of their racism. Toscanini, incensed, threatened to withdraw from the festival. It was Walter who persuaded him to return with a letter that now strikes us as desperately sad. “Salzburg is perhaps the last non-political place where art still has a roof over its head,” Walter wrote. “I repeat that we need you”. In the end, a queasy calm was reached and the broadcasts went ahead as originally planned (Walter’s 1937 Figaro, though not his best performance of the work, is also available on Andante). Salzburg, meanwhile, was not to remain “non-political” for long, and the following year, when Meistersinger was revived, Furtwängler rather than Toscanini was in the pit.

The 1937 Meistersinger must therefore be assessed against this complex background. We are dealing with a committed anti-fascist’s interpretation of a work that had already been drafted in to form part of Nazi iconography, and consequently we must consider whether the opera itself could be also re-interpreted as a radical counter to the ideology of those who had actually appropriated it.

Too much prominence, of late, has tended to be given to recordings from Nazi Germany or its occupied territories as critics discuss the relative merits of the extant performances by Furtwängler (Bayreuth, 1942, on various labels), Abendroth (Bayreuth, 1943, on Preiser) and Böhm (Vienna, 1944, also on Preiser). We are, I think, in danger of losing the wider picture. In addition to Toscanini’s achievement, there are also the extant Met performances by Bodanzky (1936, on Guild) and Leinsdorf (1939, on Walhall, in exceptional sound). Bodanzky, it should be remembered, was one of Toscanini’s co-signatories on the famous letter sent in 1933 to the Nazi authorities protesting against their anti-Semitic policies. Leinsdorf, meanwhile, abandoned conducting to join the US forces during the Second World War. His performance, taped after hostilities had already broken out in Europe, is one of the greatest of all Meistersingers. The cast, with a few exceptions, is drawn from European exiles, and the whole thing blazes with a unique fury at the thought of ’holy German art’ being under threat from the Nazis, its only true enemy.

Toscanini’s performance inhabits comparable territory, though his approach is less overtly angry, more reflective than Leinsdorf’s. In some respects he sees Meistersinger as complementary to the Ring, in that the dominant conflict opposes love with power structures, whether they be social strictures or the Mastersingers’ endlessly convoluted rules. Few conductors have quite so sharply delineated the differences between the work’s erotic, social and ritual elements. The pattern is set early in the Prelude, when the theme associated with Walther’s and Eva’s love suddenly throws the whole pompous musical edifice into complete chromatic disarray, before the gossipy woodwind chatter of the Apprentices restores some sort of tonal and rhythmic security.

Extreme speeds and careful emphasis on Wagner’s often startling juxtapositions of chromatic and diatonic music are integral to the performance’s impact. Walther’s Act One Trial Song is taken at an extraordinary lick, its wild harmonies seeming almost out of control after the almost Handelian propriety with which Kothner elaborates the Mastersingers’ rules. As the lovers contemplate flight into the Midsummer night, Toscanini brings the score to a virtual standstill. The mood is far from chaste at this point. Toscanini envisions Walther and Eva as very much drawn together by intense sexual feelings rather than being a pair of Romantic dreamers. The rapt string phrases, unfolding with exquisite slowness, give us a brief insight into just what his Tristan might have been like, as well as reminding us that the whole passage is very close to the music that Verdi provided for Fenton and Nannetta in Falstaff. It is a moment of genuine magic. The twang of Beckmesser’s lute that breaks it has rarely seemed more brutal.

Throughout, lyricism and excitement collide with deliberate rigidity. There is stiffness as well as grandeur in the pageants that open the final scene, and the swing into triple time when the Apprentices begin their dance carries with it further intimations of release from formality. Walther’s Prize Song is genuinely climactic, an outpouring of deep emotion that sweeps the other characters away by its unforced sincerity as well as its beauty. Here Toscanini is helped immeasurably by having a tenor who can sing it properly. Henk Noort’s Walther is one of the finest on disc, stylish, effortlessly lyrical, very sexy and without so much as a hint of the Heldentenor bark that mars so many other interpretations.

The cast, mostly imported from the Vienna Staatsoper, is by and large excellent, though many will doubtless wish that Toscanini had re-deployed the previous year’s soloists, which included Lotte Lehmann as Eva and the American Charles Kullman as Walther. Kullman – no less beautiful in tone than Noort, but fractionally more heroic and feisty – sings the role for Leinsdorf. To my knowledge, Lehmann’s Eva does not survive complete in sound, though the 1937 performance does at least allow us to hear the controversial Maria Reining at the peak of her powers. Reining is best known for her Marschallin in Erich Kleiber’s famous 1954 Decca recording of Der Rosenkavalier, a performance that both impresses with the sincerity of delivery and alarms due to the obvious weakening of her vocal powers. In 1937, however, her voice was ravishingly beautiful, with a glorious silvery sheen in the tone. Her Eva is sensual, dignified and rapturous, and the notorious mannerism we associate with later Reining – breaking in two phrases that should be taken in a single breath – is nowhere in evidence. Toscanini’s Sachs is Hans Hermann Nissen, who had sung the role for him the previous year. Here we are in slightly more tricky territory, for Toscanini had originally opted to work with the great Hungarian bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr. Soon after the 1936 rehearsals began, however, Toscanini removed Schorr from the production, replacing him with Nissen at comparatively short notice. His reasons for doing so remain obscure, though it is possible that he found fault with Schorr’s methodology. When it came to judging voices, Toscanini valued beauty of tone and perfection of intonation over interpretative subtlety. Schorr had certain qualities in common with Maria Callas, another artist to whom Toscanini famously objected. Both singers were capable of a phenomenal expressive range and could and would deliberately harden their tone in a quest for emotional veracity. Both also had a tendency to stray off pitch in their upper registers. Schorr sings Sachs for Leinsdorf. His performance is the most finely detailed and psychologically complete on disc, making his occasional pitch problems, as far as I’m concerned, insignificant.

Nissen isn’t nearly so subtle. In a performance that depends primarily for its effect on the sharp juxtaposition of contrasts, Nissen’s Sachs gains its essential power from being placed opposite Hermann Wiedemann’s brutal Beckmesser. The sheer beauty of Nissen’s voice conveys a serene, Sarastro-ish wisdom (there’s none of Schorr’s twinkling humour and occasionally bitter irony here), while Wiedemann’s savage delivery, all barked commands and violent explosions, comes close to suggesting a jack-booted thug. Whether this was Toscanini’s overt intention again remains unknown, though Wiedemann’s interpretation is not, of course, inconsistent with the anti-Nazi stance of the performance as a whole. The closing scene, meanwhile, brings with it the only moment of trouble in the entire performance. Unlike Leinsdorf, who cuts the section about the German empire’s disintegration “under false, foreign rule,” Toscanini presents it complete, though he and Nissen at one point have a run-in over speeds, with the baritone clearly wanting to take the passage slower than Toscanini will permit. We can’t tell whether this has any significance or not.

Nissen was German and elected to remain in Munich, where he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera, during the years of the Third Reich. As far as I am aware, he was never involved with the Nazi party, and he is certainly on record as saying he considered Toscanini to be the finest conductor he ever worked with. He apparently sometimes had difficulty completing a performance because he was moved to tears by the sound that Toscanini produced from the pit.

The actual sound-quality of the recording does, it should be added, leave a certain amount to be desired, however, despite the fact that the Andante re-mastering is by and large excellent, eliminating much of the fogginess that marred its previous ’bootleg’ issues. The microphones in the Salzburg Festspielhaus were clearly fixed rather than movable, which creates problems with both orchestral and vocal balance. Voices occasionally fade into the middle distance depending on stage positioning, and the chorale that opens Act One is virtually inaudible. Woodwind and brass are consistently over-prominent, which highlights the occasional fluffs from the Vienna Philharmonic horns in a performance that is otherwise exceptionally well played. Some of the swish from the original acetates has not been eliminated, and there are also occasional dynamic jolts, which might have you reaching for your volume controls.

Whether it would be a first choice Meistersinger is ultimately a matter of individual preference. The benchmark studio recording is still Kempe’s warm, humane 1955 EMI set, closely followed by Kubelik’s 1967 Munich performance, originally recorded by DG, then initially denied a commercial release due to a mysterious “dispute about casting,” and now available from Myto amongst others. Solti’s second, Chicago version (Decca) comes closest to Toscanini in approach among modern recordings. I confess to a great personal fondness for Leinsdorf’s version from among the other extant Meistersingers from the 30s and 40s – and to an equally great aversion to the ritual pomp of Furtwängler, though some rate it the finest performance of all.

Toscanini’s version, however, does however offer a unique experience as well as offering ample testimony to his brilliance as a Wagner interpreter. You need to hear it.

Tim Ashley


In the summer of 1937 Arturo Toscanini returned to the Salzburg Festival to conduct performances of four operas—Fidelio, Die Zauberflöte, Falstaff, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. These were his final appearances at the Festival. After the Nazis took control of Austria, Arturo Toscanini did not return to Salzburg. Although Toscanini lived another two decades and remained extremely active as a conductor, he never again led a complete performance of a staged opera. For these reasons the 1937 Toscanini Salzburg operas assume a unique importance in the Italian conductor’s life and art. Each of the operas was broadcast and recorded, although the Fidelio broadcast was lost during the war. Until now public issue of these treasures has been limited to horrid, off-the-air transcriptions, suffering from the kind of cramped dynamic range, surface noise, distortion, and pitch fluctuation that would intimidate the most veteran collector of historic recordings. Indeed, if Toscanini’s name were not associated with these Salzburg recordings, I doubt most people would make the effort to wade through them.

But the Toscanini performances were also recorded in-house on the Selenophone, a film stock machine that allowed for quite acceptable sound preservation and reproduction. Seth B. Winner, an expert in sound restoration, was able to use an original Selenophone to transfer the recordings to tape. At this point, Ward Marston, one of the true artists in remastering historic performances, took over. Through an extraordinarily detailed and time-consuming—described in his booklet essay that accompanies this release of the Salzburg Meistersinger—Marston was able adjust the recording to proper pitch, fill in some missing gaps, and remove literally hundreds of pops and clicks that are typical of recordings made on film stock. Marston’s brilliant remastering of Winner’s Selenophone transfer has now been issued by Andante.

Ward Marston comments: “it was a joy for me to remaster this recording.” And indeed we are the fortunate beneficiaries of his labor of love. While the sound reproduction of the Toscanini Meistersinger does not equal that of contemporaneous studio recordings, it has been improved beyond all recognition. The sound is remarkably clear, with the voices and instruments emerging with impressive focus and definition. Balance between the voices and orchestra is also quite realistic, although the winds are given slightly undue prominence. Except for a few spots, distortion and surface noise are relatively minimal. In short, Seth Winner and Ward Marston have removed the sonic barriers that, to date, have prevented true enjoyment and appreciation of this Meistersinger.And what a Meistersinger it is! Toscanini, a relentless perfectionist, wrote afterwards: “I am still vibrant from my efforts. The performance took place in an infinitely poetic atmosphere. I can’t begin to tell you of the joy of the audience and performers, all of them!” That joy is evident throughout. From the very opening measures of the great Act I Prelude, this is a Meistersinger full of lyricism, energy, spirit, and celebration of life.

Not surprisingly, Toscanini presides over a performance of uncommon unity and razor-sharp execution (some brass fluffs in the final scene of Act III, notwithstanding). Some, however, may be surprised by Toscanini’s frequent use of broad tempos and elasticity of phrasing. These were, in fact, widely recognized elements of Toscanini’s conducting art throughout his career, both in Wagner and other composers as well. Perhaps these qualities were not so readily apparent in Toscanini’s most famous recordings, made in the final decade of the Maestro’s long life. But that is precisely why such performances as this Meistersinger (Toscanini’s only complete recording of a Wagner opera), the 1933 Beethoven Fifth with the New York Philharmonic (Naxos 8.110840), and the 1940 Verdi Requiem are such irreplaceable treasures (I’ll review a new Music and Arts reissue of the Requiem in the near future). If and when the 1937 Salzburg Falstaff is released with improved sound, a comparison with Toscanini’s legendary 1950 RCA recording will provide similar contrasts and insights.

Toscanini’s cast in this Meistersinger is worthy of the conductor and the festival setting in which this performance took place. All of the singers display remarkable stamina, sounding as fresh at the conclusion as at the beginning—no small achievement in this marathon opera! Another common element among the singers (again typical of a Toscanini performance) is the crystal-clear diction and their relishing of each and every syllable of Wagner’s text. Indeed, there is never a moment of routine by any of the vocalists.

Bass-baritone Hans Hermann Nissen is a first-rate Sachs, with the kind of warm, attractive timbre, and humanity one seeks in this most sympathetic role. His dialogues with Eva (sung by soprano Maria Reining in her most youthful and radiant voice) are as touching as I’ve heard. This is also a Sachs with a sense of humor, apparent in the Act II scene where the cobbler has fun at the expense of the pedantic town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser. That role is assumed by baritone Hermann Wiedemann, who manages both to sing in highly musical fashion (including an impressive top “A” in Act III) and offer a highly detailed characterization that never lapses into mere caricature.

Tenor Henk Noort has a bright, youthful voice that rings out with impressive ardor, focus, and power. He is certainly one of the better Walthers on disc. Bass Herbert Alsen offers an uncommonly tender portrait of Eva’s father, Veit Pogner. This father’s love and affection for his daughter are never in doubt. Mezzo Kerstin Thorborg and tenor Richard Sallaba are a capital Magdalene and David. The wonderful group of mastersingers includes the young Anton Dermota as Balthasar Zorn. In short, this is certainly one of the finest readings of Wagner’s comic masterpiece. It certainly is a must for anyone interested in Wagner, Toscanini—or for that matter, great opera performances.

Andante’s deluxe packaging includes a hardbound book with essays, performer biographies, a complete libretto with English translation, and numerous photos, including several from the Salzburg production. It’s hard to imagine a classical recording issue of greater importance than this Andante release of the Toscanini Salzburg Meistersinger. It is the kind of project that deserves the highest accolades and support. Now, Andante, would it be too much to ask for a similar release of the Toscanini Salzburg Falstaff?

The Guardian

Toscanini’s regular commercial recordings never included a complete Wagner opera, so it is exciting to get a flavour of what it was like to attend one of his Salzburg festival performances.

This one of Meistersinger, dating from August 1937, demonstrates that Toscanini at this period was far from rigid in his conducting, with the high-voltage electricity of the moment leading him forward in urgency while letting him and his performers expand in warmth, with Hans Hermann Nissen a noble Sachs and Maria Reining a strong and touching Eva.

The radio sound is very limited, with the orchestra thin and dry. For most of the time the voices come over well, but they periodically fade into the distance, with the balance of voices on stage variable.

The wonder is that the CD transfer of Ward Marston does so much to make the sound acceptable, with Andante offering its typically sumptuous packaging.

Edward Greenfield | Friday 12 September 2003

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Media Type/Label
Melodram, MRF, Accord
Melodram, Eklipse, Memories, Membran, Grammofono 2000, Andante, OOA
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Technical Specifications
524 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 831 MiB (flac)
Broadcast from the Salzburger Festspiele
A production by Herbert Graf (1936)