Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Fritz Reiner
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
14 November 1955
Staatsoper Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsPaul Schöffler
Veit PognerGottlob Frick
Kunz VogelgesangKarl Terkal
Konrad NachtigallEberhard Waechter
Sixtus BeckmesserErich Kunz
Fritz KothnerHans Braun
Balthasar ZornErich Majkut
Ulrich EißlingerFritz Sperlbauer
Augustin MoserWilliam Wernigk
Hermann OrtelHarald Pröglhöf
Hans SchwartzAdolf Vogel
Hans FoltzLjubomir Pantscheff
Walther von StolzingHans Beirer
DavidMurray Dickie
EvaIrmgard Seefried
MagdaleneRosette Anday
Ein NachtwächterFrederick Guthrie

This performance, recorded on November 14, 1955, was part of the four-week festival that took place at the Vienna State Opera celebrating its reopening after having been destroyed near the end of World War II. Meistersinger had long been a Viennese favorite and was performed 65 times between 1949 and 1955 at the interim Theater an der Wien. It enjoyed luxury casting and great conductors: Clemens Krauss, Rudolf Moralt, Hans Knappertsbusch, Karl Böhm, Rudolf Kempe, and Fritz Busch. For the return to the State Opera, director Karl Böhm invited the Hungarian-born Fritz Reiner, a perfectionist who in the previous 20 years had gained a reputation as one of America’s finest conductors. Rehearsals, it was said, were grueling; but judging from this recording it was worth the work.

You can tell much about the entire performance from Reiner’s Prelude. It is precise, grand, and detailed, with frisky, playful chattering in the upper strings underpinned by a more muscular approach in the lower strings. But it never becomes aggressive or reckless enough to smash into the opening scene; it grows into it naturally. (Where else can such a complex expression end but in prayer?) Throughout the opera we’re treated to spirited tempos and playing from the Vienna Philharmonic that Reiner slows down to good effect: The Fliedermonolog is relaxed and as soft as cotton; the prelude to Act 3 wafts in the air gradually and wistfully; the quintet is a moment frozen in time and is presented with great breadth. We can feel what each character is feeling, even if a couple of them don’t have the breath to express it.

Beckmesser’s false “prize” song is slow to start, and so is the unease and eventual laughter of the assembled crowd. And the real “Prize Song” is accompanied lyrically, with sweep up to the high points, after which Sachs’ speech about German art comes as a powerful missive. What the Viennese of 1955 thought of it, with its nasty recent memories, is anyone’s guess, but the opera ends with true joy erupting, and much of it has to do with Reiner’s ability to balance light and heavy, upper joy with lower gravity–a great reading.

Paul Schöffler, the possessor of a voice that never sounded young, is tonally a bit dry here but nonetheless does not present Sachs as an old man; he is vital and sure of himself. Sachs is a man who prods fate a bit, just because he can, and Schöffler sings with the assurance and potency and shading of a man of wisdom, his voice gaining in strength as the opera progresses. And his pianissimo singing is always handsome, never resorting to falsetto. His is the best Sachs on CD, bettering his own performance under Knappertsbusch on Decca. Hans Beirer’s Walther is neither as sweet and ardorous as Sandor Konya’s nor as simply gorgeous as Domingo’s (for Jochum on DG), and in fact he sounds indisposed. But his indisposition is only vocal, and while I realize how odd that sounds, his beautiful phrasing and shading, sincerity, vigor, and musicianship make up for a lack of grand tone and some dry singing. It’s a performance impossible to dislike.

I was put off by Irmgard Seefried’s Eva at first–her second act is too cutesy and pert–but she grows into the part and is lovely in the third act despite lacking anything like a trill. Gottlob Frick’s Pogner is important. His address to the Masters in Act 1 has real authority and he’s warm and tender with Eva in the second act. Erich Kunz sings all of Beckmesser’s notes (save the silly falsetto high-A that ends his monolog in Sachs’ shop) and has remarkable “face”; while we don’t exactly feel sorry for him at the end, he clearly is not entirely mockable either. The David of Murray Dickie also is almost visible, and he sings with an impetuous young man’s certainty, his high-Bs ringing out easily and pointedly. Rosette Anday’s Magdalene is stodgy and hectoring; Eberhard Waechter’s Nachtigall is mellifluous; and the other Mastersingers bark just a bit too much.

The sound is Austrian Radio mono from 1955 but sounds 10 years younger–grand and able to cope with the big climaxes, clear in the ensembles, clean in quiet moments. Aside from the Kubelik version (various labels, including Myto, Calig, Arts) with Thomas Stewart, Konya, and Gundula Janowitz, and possibly Solti’s second recording (Decca) with Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, and (small-scale but impressive) José van Dam, this set goes to the top of the list.

Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 6

Robert Levine


During the final days of World War 2, Allied bombers reduced Vienna’s hallowed Hofoper an der Ringstrasse to rubble. It took more than 10 years to rebuild, by which time the name (if not the location) had been changed to the Wiener Staatsoper. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, seat of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, was no more; now it was a “state” theater, whose place had been served by the smaller but even more historic Theater an der Wien. But it was the Hofoper in which Mahler reigned for a decade, where Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss, Clemens Krauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Karl Böhm had numbered among its conductors. When the Staatsoper was reinaugurated in 1955, Böhm was once more in charge for a four-week festival of seven operas, beginning with Fidelio and ending with Wozzeck. Don Giovanni followed Beethoven, then Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier, Verdi’s Aida and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg before Berg. Böhm conducted six of them with only a single guest conductor – Fritz Reiner, his predecessor once-removed at the Semperoper in Dresden, which had likewise been destroyed by British bombs two years earlier as Winston Churchill’s revenge for the Nazi bombing of Coventry Cathedral.

Why choose Reiner, who was little-known in Central Europe after his departure from Dresden in 1921 for a career in the U.S.? He already had two seasons under his belt as music director of the Chicago SO, but the recordings that spread his and the orchestra’s fame worldwide had only begun in 1954 and none were yet released in Europe. It was learned soon enough, after Böhm made his American debut in Chicago, that he was Reiner’s first choice as successor whenever the time should come. It was not be, and on the basis of Böhm’s heavy-handed performances, just as well; he proved to be happier at the NY Metropolitan, where Reiner had conducted before Chicago beckoned. It was learned a good deal later that his Vienna Meistersinger had resulted in the Philharmonic’s invitation for Reiner to conduct their Mozart bicentennial concert at Salzburg on January 27, 1956, but Reiner’s president back home, the provincially imperious Dr. Eric Olberg, had vetoed the appearance, saying in effect, “What is Salzburg compared to your schedule here?” (when Reiner was leading 23 of the CSO’s downtown 30-week season). Reiner returned to the former Habsburg capital in 1956 to record for London Decca under a lend-lease agreement with American RCA, and the Philharmonic players – the cream of the Staatsoper orchestra then as now –parried for 15 minutes before they conceded that, in the conductor’s proud words, “Reiner is iron!”

That iron, backpedaling to November 1955, was startling not only in the capacious pit of the new Staatsoper but on its larger stage, less intimate than audiences had expected, farther away to boot, with quite different acoustics than veteran listeners had been used to in the smaller Hofoper. Reiner’s Meistersinger proved controversial, although most dissenters tended to blame the new house itself. But his Wagner was interpretively different than the gemütlich Viennese were used to, especially in the interim Theater der Wien. He scraped off some of the Aryan political barnacles that characterized many performances since 1933 of what had been Hitler’s favorite work, and brought a brio to passages that had sometimes been sentimentally distended in the past. Certainly it was a work Reiner loved, and finally to hear it remastered on CD (whereas pirated versions on LP had been sonically compromised) is to validate Reiner as a master Wagnerian – a Meisterdirigent so to speak. The cast is by and large superb, although tenor Hans Beirer (as Walther von Stolzing, then new to the company) was slated by a collegium of Beckmessers in the press as well as in the paying seats. Yet we hear a tenor who would be welcome today, in the company of such midcentury singing luminaries as Irmgard Seefried (Eva), Gottlob Frick (Pogner), Erich Kunz (Beckmesser), Murray Dickie (David), Eberhard Wächter (Nachtigall, at the beginning of his career; later he would become the Vienna Opera’s director before an untimely death), Rosette Anday (Magdalene), Hans Braun (Kothner), and primus inter pares, Paul Schoeffler in the pivotal role of Hans Sachs. He was a special favorite in Vienna, as he’d been after the war at the Metropolitan (as well as Orest in Reiner’s 1956 concert versionof Elektra, truncated no thanks to RCA — one of the Alpine achievements in his Chicago career). There may have been more beautiful voices than Schoeffler’s as Sachs, but this was after all a man of middle-years and the soul of 15th-century Nürnberg. The sound on these four CDs is commendable, although obviously a live performance with certain imbalances necessitated by Herbert Graf’s stage direction. But it is so much finer and clearer than anything heard heretofore of a mixed-review performance that one can finally enjoy in its entirety, among other pleasures, a Meistersinger which doesn’t need five discs or three sittings. Reiner could be iron, but he could be tender, too (listen to the Sachs/Eva exchanges in Act 2, or the 6′ 43″ Quintet in Act 3). I’d rather hear this than the several others old and new that have played on turntables, open-reel, cassettes and LP before Orfeo d’Or’s vindication.

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Orfeo, Melodram, Walhall Eternity, OOA, TOL, Line, OD, Premiere
Technical Specifications
458 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 847 MByte (flac)
A production by Herbert Graf (premiere)