Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hans Knappertsbusch
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
23 July 1960
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsJosef Greindl
Veit PognerTheo Adam
Kunz VogelgesangWilfried Krug
Konrad NachtigallEgmont Koch
Sixtus BeckmesserKarl Schmitt-Walter
Fritz KothnerLudwig Weber
Balthasar ZornHeinz-Günther Zimmermann
Ulrich EißlingerHarald Neukirch
Augustin MoserHermann Winkler
Hermann OrtelFritjof Sentpaul
Hans SchwartzHans Günter Nöcker
Hans FoltzEugen Fuchs
Walther von StolzingWolfgang Windgassen
DavidGerhard Stolze
EvaElisabeth Grümmer
MagdaleneElisabeth Schärtel
Ein NachtwächterDonald Bell

This recording captures the opening night of the 1960 Bayreuth Festival in Wieland’s (in)famous “Mastersingers without Nuremberg” production. The staging demands of this opera seem to have eluded even him, and there are several production photographs in Orfeo’s booklet to illustrate it, though you only rarely get a glimpse of Wieland’s big picture. The big draw, however, was not on the stage but in the pit. Orfeo have released this performance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary Wagner conductor Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965). “Kna”, as he was known, was never comfortable in the recording studio, and all of his finest opera recordings were made live, most famously the Parsifals of 1951 and 1962, also at Bayreuth. In Ring Resounding, Decca’s (equally legendary) record producer, John Culshaw, talks of how difficult it was to get Knappertsbusch to accept the conditions of the studio – when recording excerpts from Tristan, for example, he refused to listen to the playbacks – and the spontaneity of the live occasion suited him much better. You can hear that here. He repeatedly gets caught up in the excitement of the moment, lingering lovingly on a phrase or pushing ahead as the mood takes him. It’s right there in the Overture, which tends to slow down as it progresses, so that the final pages are perhaps a little too stately. Anyone who were to follow him with a metronome would be thoroughly upset, and the ensemble regularly, albeit briefly, falls apart; but there is magic aplenty on display in, for example, Pogner’s Act 1 narration, or the expansive depiction of Midsummer’s Night in Act 2.

The Sachs of Josef Greindl is the highlight of the singing cast. Even in his Act 1 moments, particularly when he urges giving due consideration to Walther’s song, he manages a magnificent combination of worldly wisdom, weariness and warm humanity, all the while managing to sound about as lyrical and beautiful as you could hope for in this part. His Fliedermonolog is deeply reflective and enormously moving, and there is a glint of mischief in his voice during the Act 2 skirmish the Beckmesser. The great monologues of the third act are all superb, be it the weariness of Wahn, the deeply moving quality of his address to the people after Wach Auf, or the slightly finger-wagging final pages. Hearing this performance makes you regret that Greindl never set down the role in the more friendly conditions of the studio.

Wolfgang Windgassen is a surprisingly wonderful Walther. The voice is warm and lyrical, honeyed even, without a hint of Heldentenor strain, and if you didn’t already know that he was the finest Siegfried of his day then you wouldn’t be able to guess from this performance. The voice begins to take flight even as he describes his training, and during his Trial Song he gets caught up in wave upon wave of emotion. He is impetuous and hot-blooded during the second act and, even if he is not the final word in lyricism, his Prize Song should win over any sceptics. Equally surprisingly, Gerhard Stolze, the finest German character tenor of his generation, puts in an appearance as David. However, his voice is so distinctive that he seldom sounds like anything other than a Niebelung-in-training, and he undeniably sounds too old, with little of David’s youthful innocence. Too much irony, on the whole.

Elisabeth Grümmer is a marvellous Eva. She moves from flirtatious to feisty during her Act 2 duet with Sachs, and she rings with beautiful clarity in the third act, crowning the quintet with a gorgeous top line. Likewise, Elisabeth Schärtel is an unusually characterful Magdalena, making the most of all her appearances.

Karl Schmitt-Walter is also very winning as Beckmesser. There is never a hint of unnecessary caricature: instead he really sings the part even when being thoroughly malicious, as after the Trial Song. Several little touches (such as yawning at Walther’s description of his training) reveal him to have been a very fine actor. There is a recurring hint of caricature about him, though, which develops worryingly into the second and third acts. I wonder whether seeing him in Wieland’s production would have made him look like a less appealing character than he sounds?

As Pogner, Theo Adam has done nothing better on disc. His voice sounds authoritative, but also uncommonly warm and remarkably lyrical for a singer who is often criticised for having too much grit in the voice. The other masters are equally marvellous, with a great sense of cooperation and pulling together. I especially enjoyed the self-important Kothner of Ludwig Weber.

The mono sound is remarkably good for its age, though the orchestra is much too recessed compared to the forward, bright voices. However, there remains the perennial problem that the Bayreuth acoustic simply doesn’t suit Meistersinger, even in stereo, so anyone who seeks out this recording will do so mainly because it captures several legends in full flow. For that, at least, we should be grateful.

Simon Thompson


As this performance has been available unofficially for some time, collectors may already know that ‘Kna’, the legendary dinosaur of Ring cycles and Parsifal, copes rather well with the variety of tempi (brisk not excluded) and musical humour required by Wagner’s mature comedy. Such information was already available a decade previously when Meistersinger became the only complete Wagner (with an experienced cast) that suspicious Decca would allow him to record in the studio, although the approach to tempi and balance is much more conventional there than in this Bayreuth adventure.

There are certainly some surprises here. In Act 3 a good minute is taken off most other maestros’ tempi for the Prelude (two off the old Decca recording), a good half-minute from the Quintet. The dances are real funfair stuff, bright and chirrupy, while the philosophical grass certainly doesn’t grow under the feet of Greindl’s bass Sachs in his two serious monologues. And the adventurous discordances of the Act 2 ‘riot’ music – both when first heard and quoted when Beckmesser revisits Sachs in Act 3 – are clearer (and better delivered) than in many rival versions. That said, the very steady tread at which the whole ‘riot’ ensemble is launched will not be for everyone – and isn’t for everyone onstage on this occasion in terms of pinpoint ensemble. In the middle of all this, Canadian Donald Bell is a subtly amusing Nightwatchman.

Josef Greindl, already established in the Festival’s ‘baddy’ roles, makes the transition to Sachs comfortably. However, he sounds a mite too dark and gruff giving out marching orders for departure for the Festival Meadow, or ‘Jerum! Jerum!’ – where the comedy of embarrassing Beckmesser overtakes the hints to Eva that Tomlinson (and Hotter and Norman Bailey) work into their performance. Among his fellow masters, Ludwig Weber is entertaining as Kothner sending up the pomposity of the Guild’s rules, and Theo Adam is mannered while not inappropriately young as Pogner, but Karl-Schmitt Walter’s Beckmesser comes across as penny-plain and straightforward. Elisabeth Grümmer (on instruction from conductor or stage director?) sounds as if she is trying to sound younger and more soubrettish than she naturally was – in fact more like Hilde Gueden, Knappertsbusch’s first Eva on record. Stolze, without any of the vocal over-acting assumed for his contemporary Decca recordings, is a fluent and natural David. Wolfgang Windgassen’s evident intelligence as the hero is unfortunately rarely matched by the beauty of tone one wants from a Walther.

The sound of this latest reissue is adequate for its period and source but it’s hardly a revelatory resurrection. The booklet messes up the track-listing of Act 2. Pace past reviews of this performance, you may find, this is certainly neither ‘the slowest Meistersinger ever’ nor Knappertsbusch’s ‘worst ever’ Wagner performance. Its main interest remains the curiosity value of hearing him conduct it, but I wonder why Orfeo did not choose the production’s 1956 Cluytens/Hotter first night and whether the company will risk the intriguing 1963 Schippers/Silja/Thomas version, Wieland’s next Bayreuth opening.

Mike Ashman

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Media Type/Label
Orfeo, Melodram, GM, Myto, OOA
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Technical Specifications
442 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 881 MiB (flac)
Broadcast from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (1956)