Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Herbert von Karajan
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
27 July, 5, 16, 19, 21, 24 August 1951
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsOtto Edelmann
Veit PognerFriedrich Dalberg
Kunz VogelgesangErich Majkut
Konrad NachtigallHans Berg
Sixtus BeckmesserErich Kunz
Fritz KothnerHeinrich Pflanzl
Balthasar ZornJosef Janko
Ulrich EißlingerKarl Mikorey
Augustin MoserGerhard Stolze
Hermann OrtelHeinz Tandler
Hans SchwartzHeinz Borst
Hans FoltzArnold van Mill
Walther von StolzingHans Hopf
DavidGerhard Unger
EvaElisabeth Schwarzkopf
MagdaleneIra Malaniuk
Ein NachtwächterWerner Faulhaber

This set caused controversy when it first appeared on 78rpm on 68 sides!! – the longest set ever devoted to a single work. It competed with the Decca Knappertsbusch set, and opinion was fairly equally divided between the two as to which was preferable. The Decca set appeared first on LP, and thus had a head start, but Karajan soon made up the distance. The set was plagued with bad tape joins, and differences in pitch between the various joins – disconcerting to say the least. I have had the advantage of being able to compare the performance with Kempe/EMI, Karajan/EMI, Sawallisch/EMI, and Kubelik/Calig (or Myto). The nearest comparison is to Kempe, both in time and recording medium (both mono), but a recommendation (very personal) with digital recording is I think, valuable.

The first comparison between the two Karajan versions, with a gap of 18 years, is the similarities and the almost identical speeds! – in fact, the later version takes fully 9 seconds less, and this despite Karajan’s reputation for lingering over the more romantic lush passages. In fact, in both versions it is noticeable that his speeds are brisk and keep the action moving; this is especially marked in the polterabend scenes in Act 2. At the same time, the moving scenes between Eva and Walther in the same act are not rushed. Neither is Pogner’s address to the Masters in Act 1, which retains its nobility and praise to the Johannesfest. Hans Hopf has an excellent heldentenor voice, and Gerhard Unger, as ever, gives a wonderful rendition of David’s role (how many times has he sung this? – at least five times are represented in the current catalogue). I had not heard of Ira Malaniuk who sings Magdalena before this performance, but she is a very sure and steady mezzo-soprano who holds her lines well. The unsure one is unfortunately Otto Edelmann as Hans Sachs, the central figure in the opera. It is admitted that he had not sung the part before, but surely for someone of his stature he should have been more certain than he sounds? There are several weak entries and one rank bad one in the Wahnmonolog. He also (and this is the greatest fault) fails to dominate the scene when he appears. On the other hand, the chorus is good, and being placed reasonably well forward, the diction is excellent, even surpassing more recent recordings. The Masters as a group are only adequate, and then probably greater than the sum of their parts; Pogner is suitably imposing and Beckmesser notably waspish. I was surprised to hear Schwarzkopf as Eva with a very noticeable vibrato (this affected Edelmann too) and wondered whether this may have been engendered from the tape machine used in the recording.

The sound has been cleaned up wonderfully by Mark Obert-Thorn; the aforesaid tape joins are virtually indistinguishable (I heard one in Act 3) and the pitch has been restored to its normal level. Except for the odd glissando in the strings, and a very slight uncertainty of pitch, one would never guess this was 1951. The booklet is of Naxos standard, i.e. a brief synopsis and no words – not too important provided one knows the broad outline of the story, which is given. I should point out that this is taken from the rehearsal and performances of what is a live performance; therefore one has varying bumps and bangs from the stage, and a fair amount of coughing from the audience (at times this seems almost obligatory).

So which should one choose? Of the two mono recordings, my preference must stay with Kempe on EMI (763500-2). His Sachs is preferable (Ferdinand Franz), Eva from Elisabeth Grummer is radiant, and he has a very heroic Walther in Rudolf Schock (and Gerhard Unger as David!). The Berlin Opera forces are far superior to Karajan’s Bayreuth performers, and the recording is naturally richer and more full, being five years later. Of the digital versions, Kubelik on Calig is outstanding in his interpretation, allowing air and light through the score, and he has an unforgettable Eva in Gundula Janowitz (CAL50971/4). Thomas Stewart makes a noble if somewhat lightweight Sachs, and Thomas Hemsley is excellent as Beckmesser. And who do you think is David? – Gerhard Unger again, still sounding youthful 16 years later.

As with most long works, there is no ideal version, and a lot depends on individual preference. I would not like to be without any of the above and as an introduction, this Naxos disc at £20 cannot be sneered at.

John Portwood

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Media Type/Label
Columbia, HMV, Seraphim, EMI, Electrola
EMI, Naxos, Membran, Urania, Hunt, Myto, Zyx, Fogliame
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Technical Specifications
513 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 987 MByte (flac)
From the Bayreuth fesitval
A production by Rudolf Otto Hartmann (1951)
Urania states that their release is from the 5 August 1951 performance using for the first time the orginal master. However the master tapes no longer exist. It’s just a slightly altered version of the EMI release.