Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

George Szell
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
10 February 1945
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsHerbert Janssen
Veit PognerEmanuel List
Kunz VogelgesangMorton Bowe
Konrad NachtigallHugh Thompson
Sixtus BeckmesserGerhard Pechner
Fritz KothnerMack Harrell
Balthasar ZornRichard Manning
Ulrich EißlingerKarl Laufkoetter
Augustin MoserLodovico Oliviero
Hermann OrtelOsie Hawkins
Hans SchwartzJohn Gurney
Hans FoltzLorenzo Alvary
Walther von StolzingCharles Kullmann
DavidJohn Garris
EvaEleanor Steber
MagdaleneKerstin Thorborg
Ein NachtwächterLouis D’Angelo
Fanfare (I)

Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, was faced with a dilemma when approaching this historic performance, despite the fact that the existing ABC transcription offered quite decent basic sound quality. The dilemma centered around the missing opening and closing. The opening wasn’t just a missing transcription disc; the first 32 minutes of the opera were not broadcast, because the ABC Network apparently didn’t want to give the time for the full length of the opera. Because it was never broadcast, it was not a case of finding the missing recording. It didn’t exist! The final 10 minutes were an easier problem, as they were broadcast but the final transcription disc was lost. Caniell located a private recording of those final 10 minutes. The sound was inferior to his ABC source, but he did what he could to match the two and the result is more than listenable. (The overall sound for most of the opera is quite remarkable for a 1945 broadcast—with plenty of color to the voices and even the orchestra). But what to do about the first 32 minutes? It was easy to find another recording, led by George Szell, of the Prelude, and append that to the beginning. He then turned to the 1939 Met broadcast of the same opera, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (a conductor with a similar musical approach to Szell, I might note) and the same Walther and Pogner in the cast. The major cast difference is probably in the role of Magdalene, which was Karin Branzell in 1939 and Kerstin Thorborg in 1945. The 1939 David is Karl Laufkötter, the 1945 David is John Garris. So for the first eight tracks of CD 1 you have a different performance, but one that is in many ways a similar performance; if you don’t like the idea of mixing performances, just start at track 9 and you’ll be in 1945. The sonic matching is excellent. In his extensive notes on the recording itself, Caniell is honest about some deficiencies in the original source: congestion and loss of bass in the finale of act I and the end of the opera. But he has done a miraculous job in restoring this, and the performance merits the love he has put into it.

Yet another issue, dealt with in a fascinating and insightful essay by Caniell and Anne Woods, concerns the political reasons behind the huge cut in Sachs’s final oration to the people of Nuremberg. I can summarize it briefly here: For political reasons in 1945, related to anti-German feelings, the Met enforced a cut in this praise of German art! Absurd, and the essay is genuinely enlightening on the politics of the time, and their influence on a major artistic institution, even while the institution’s leadership was denying the facts.

So, with all these complications, is this a performance that Wagnerians will want to add to their collection? Yes. Absolutely, without a doubt. First, even though we don’t have his first 32 minutes, Szell’s conducting is a miracle of clarity, balancing of textures, rhythmic vitality, and dramatic cohesion. One doesn’t think of Szell as much in terms of sensitivity as one does for precision and incisiveness. But he balances everything here perfectly, conducting numbers such as the great quintet with warmth and a genuine lyrical flow. And his clarification of Wagner’s orchestral textures is, even in this 1945 monaural broadcast, unmatched. Die Meistersinger flies by because of the variety of color and finely sprung rhythms Szell brings to it. He even seems to be conducting with a smile at times. His is a masterful reading, and one we would be poorer without. Szell clearly also deserves the credit for the overall sense of ensemble among the singers. Characters vividly interact with each other; musical dialogues and multi-voiced ensembles are genuine moments of communication between real people, not vocalists competing with each other for vocal attention.

If I start on the singers with Eleanor Steber it is because of the rarity of hearing her in a Wagnerian role. We know of her Strauss and Mozart, her Barber, and even her Puccini and Verdi (her 1954 Fanciulla del West with del Monaco and Mitropoulos from Florence is a classic). But aside from her splendid Elsa on Keilberth’s Lohengrin, we don’t associate her with Wagner. In fact, the American soprano was one of the most versatile and gifted singers of her era, which covered two full decades, from 1940 to 1961 at the Met. While she may not have quite the power that Rethberg did in the 1930s, or briefly Cheryl Studer did in our own time, she can be spoken of with the same reverence as another wonderful Eva, Victoria de los Angeles. The purity and beauty of Steber’s sound, her ability to spin a long line, and her dramatic concentration and specificity of inflection bring to life a character who often seems a cipher. Her voice glows, and her soft high singing is breathtaking. She limns beautiful, generous phrases in the quintet, and the heartfelt outpouring of affection for Sachs in “Oh Sachs, mein Freund” is deeply felt.

In Charles Kullman we have another wonderful American singer as Walther. In Caniell’s notes he points to a slight coarsening of tone between the 1939 performance and this one. If it is there, it is very slight. He was another singer with a very wide repertoire who gave many years to the Met, and while he will always be a bit in the shadow of Melchior, his is a superbly beautiful performance surely worthy of the prize in the song contest. His singing was always founded on a smooth emission of tone, an evenness throughout his range, and well thought out phrasing. His Prize Song is deeply heartfelt and urgent—it is clear that he is expressing both his love for Eva as well as his desire to win the contest.

At the center of any Meistersinger cast is, of course, Hans Sachs. There have been many critics who felt that this role was beyond the vocal abilities of Herbert Janssen. If you read the Wikipedia entry on the singer, you will find this sentence: “The heavier Wagnerian baritone roles, such as Wotan and Hans Sachs, were the natural preserve of Janssen’s more heroic-voiced contemporaries Friedrich Schorr and Rudolf Bockelmann, but he was ill-advised enough to attempt them during the Second World War, owing to a shortage of dramatic singers at the Met.” Now we have the evidence in front of us, and the fact is that Janssen is a marvelous Sachs. It is true that his voice was lighter than Schorr’s, and certainly Schorr was also a great artist and a great Sachs. But so is Janssen, despite less vocal weight than we are used to in the role. His singing is lyrically beautiful, and in particular he conveys the humanity of the character in myriad ways through inflection and subtle emphasis of inflection. The contrast between his nobility and human warmth and Beckmesser’s superficiality (admittedly a caricature by Wagner) is clearly portrayed in their scenes together. Steber and Janssen give us characters with a real face in their scenes together. The huge cut in Sachs’s final address is all the more maddening because of the quality of Janssen’s singing and vocal acting.

The rest of the cast is very good too. In particular, Emanuel List’s Pogner is quite strong, though at age 57 he is past his best years, and it is impossible to imagine a finer Magdalene than Thorborg. Gerhard Pechner is an underappreciated baritone from his years at the Met, where he sang over 500 performances from 1941 to 1967. His Beckmesser is very musical, and always believable. Too many singers exaggerate what is already a caricature, and it loses dramatic veracity. Pechner’s restraint is admirable, and to my ears never turns into dull note-reading.

Immortal Performances lives up to its usual extraordinary production standards, with a lavish booklet containing wonderful photos and terrific notes on the performance as well as details of the process of preparing this production. Milton Cross’s announcements are also included, but separately tracked if you don’t enjoy the nice atmospheric touch they provide. In the end, probably the central value of this important release is Szell’s conducting. But there is much else about this historic performance that collectors will treasure.

Henry Fogel | Issue November/December 2017

Fanfare (II)

On February 28, 1940, the Metropolitan Opera staged its 227th performance of Richard Wagner’s comic masterpiece, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. During the better part of World War II, the opera was shelved, with the next performance taking place on January 12, 1945, led by George Szell. On February 10, the opera was featured as part of the Met’s regular Saturday matinee radio broadcasts. Immortal Performances has now issued that broadcast, reproduced in its entirety. Through no fault of Immortal Performances, the broadcast is a flawed document, both of the February 10, 1945 staging, and of Wagner’s work as a whole. For starters, while the performance began at 1:30 pm, the broadcast did not start until 2, beginning with Kothner’s roll call of the Mastersingers. In order to assemble a complete performance, Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances turned to a pair of additional sources. In 1945, Szell conducted the New York Philharmonic in three Carnegie Hall concerts (March 15, 16, and 18) that concluded with the Meistersinger Prelude to Act I. Richard Caniell discovered an archive tape marked “Szell – 1945” of the Meistersinger Prelude, which may have come from the broadcast of those NY Philharmonic concerts, and included it to open this set. For the remainder of the missing act I music, Immortal Performances substitutes the Met’s December 2, 1939 broadcast conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, featuring the same Walther and Pogner, but a different Eva (Irene Jessner), Magdalene (Karin Branzell), David (Karl Laufkötter), and Beckmesser (Walter Olitzki). For years, it was assumed that the final 10 minutes of the 1945 broadcast had also been forever lost. But thanks to a collector who wishes to remain anonymous, this new release includes that formerly missing portion, albeit in quite inferior sound to the remainder of the broadcast. Finally, and typical of Met performances of the time, Sachs’s final address is reduced to just a few lines. While never explicitly stated by the Met, it appears the opera company did not feel comfortable, during the existence of the Nazi regime, including Sachs’s exhortation to preserve “holy German art.” This decision did not escape notice and criticism at the time, and is the subject of a booklet essay by Richard Caniell. More on that, later.

Despite all of the above issues, I think that anyone who loves this magnificent opera will find much to treasure in the new Immortal Performances release. The cast is strong from top to bottom. Both Eleanor Steber and Charles Kullman approach ideal assumptions of the roles of Eva and Walther von Stolzing. Steber, then a lyric soprano with a rich, gorgeous instrument, embodies Eva’s warmth, kindness of heart, and youthful passion. It’s not surprising that such an accomplished Mozart interpreter also dispatches Eva’s trills with technical élan and beauty. Like Steber’s, Kullman’s attractive lyric instrument has ample heft and metal, and he sings Walther’s music with assurance and stamina, no mean feat in this most demanding and lengthy work. Kullman is absolutely convincing as a young, headstrong knight, who also bears the heart of a poet. Gerhard Pechner, too, is one of the finest Beckmessers on disc. The role demands a supreme artist, one who can sing Wagner’s challenging music, while simultaneously (without ever lapsing into slapstick or caricature) depicting a stuffed shirt pedant who is quite full of himself. Pechner achieves this, with an attractive vocal quality, musical precision, and crystal-clear diction. The heartfelt earnestness with which Pechner’s Beckmesser attempts to deliver his botched Prize Song is at once hilarious and touching. John Garris, while perhaps a bit lacking in the upper register, is a lively, youthful, and appealing David. The great Wagnerian contralto Kerstin Thorborg is luxury casting in the role of Magdalene. Special mention should also be made of baritone Mack Harrell in the somewhat lesser, but still important role of Fritz Kothner, beautifully sung, and sharply characterized. The only principal who lets the side down somewhat is Emanuel List as Pogner. At the time of the broadcast, List was nearing his 57th birthday. While List’s identification with the role and Wagner idiom are never in doubt, the voice has lost much of the bloom and range of its prime (he is forced to take a lower alternative at the conclusion of his act I address to the Mastersingers, “Das schöne Fest, Johannistag”). The artists in the 1939 broadcast, substituted for the missing part of act I, all hold their own admirably.

Two artists in this broadcast not only deliver sterling performances, but also profoundly influence the interpretations of their colleagues. One of those impactful artists is (not surprisingly) conductor George Szell, at the absolute top of his form. It will surprise no one that Szell leads a performance of remarkable precision, one in which the orchestral and vocal lines emerge with sterling clarity. The melee toward the close of act II is a case in point, a virtuoso tour de force that is all the more humorous because of its razor-sharp precision. Szell was fiercely demanding, and he had a rather stern podium manner. But he was also a master in capturing the humor in a musical work, one of the great interpreters, for example, of Haydn symphonies and Strauss tone poems. That gift is apparent, too, in this Meistersinger, as is the warm, glowing sound he elicits from the Met Orchestra. Szell’s pacing is also ideal—never rushed, but always with a sense of liveliness and motion. In short, Szell’s way with this score is one of the finest I have heard, joining the likes of such conductors as Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Jochum, von Karajan, Kempe, and Kubelík. Herbert Janssen is magnificent in the central role of Hans Sachs. Janssen’s characteristic warmth of voice and personality is evident throughout. Those traits seem to affect his colleagues as well. In Eva and Walther’s conversations with Sachs, both Steber and Kullman seem transfixed by Janssen’s personality and art. In those episodes, their voices and manner take on an additional degree of intensity and rapt beauty. Janssen brings a Lieder artist’s sensitivity to diction, phrasing, and dynamics. In fine voice throughout, Janssen is also able to summon more than adequate power and boisterousness for the act II scene with Beckmesser (“Jerum! Jerum!”). There are, of course, many ways to portray Hans Sachs, one of the greatest and most beloved of operatic characters. But on this occasion, Herbert Janssen provides just about all that one could hope for.

With the exception of the final moments of the broadcast (there, using the newly-found source), the recorded sound is quite fine, with ample detail, dynamic range, and color. The accompanying booklet includes a page from the performance program book, photos of the artists and the old Met, artist bios, and notes and a plot synopsis by Richard Caniell. There is also an essay by Caniell and Anne Woods, thoroughly researched, and passionately and eloquently argued, addressing the Met’s deletion of the greater part of Sachs’s concluding monologue. As I mentioned, that decision was criticized by many at the time, and it certainly would not pass muster today. And it’s a shame that we are deprived the opportunity to hear Janssen’s interpretation of that grand music. If you love Die Meistersinger (as I do), you owe it to yourself to hear the Met 1945 broadcast, a performance that captures, as well as any I’ve heard, the beauty and humanity of Wagner’s incomparable creation.

Ken Meltzer | Issue November/December 2017

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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 520 MiB (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Wilhelm von Wymetal (1923)
Besides the usual cuts the first 30 minutes of act 1 are missing, strangely the performance started at 1:30 the broadcast at 2:00 pm and the last six minutes were preempted for a war announcement.