Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

David Robertson
Edinburgh Festival Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
2 September 2006
Usher Hall Edinburgh
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsRobert Holl
Veit PognerMatthew Rose
Kunz VogelgesangWilliam Kendall
Konrad NachtigallJohn Shirley-Quirk
Sixtus BeckmesserAndrew Shore
Fritz KothnerJames Rutherford
Balthasar ZornJeffrey Lawton
Ulrich EißlingerJohn Mitchinson
Augustin MoserJohn Robinson
Hermann OrtelPhilip Joll
Hans SchwartzGlanville Hargreaves
Hans FoltzRichard van Allan
Walther von StolzingJonas Kaufmann
DavidToby Spence
EvaHillevi Martinpelto
MagdaleneWendy Dawn Thompson
Ein NachtwächterPaul Whelan

For many reasons this final Usher Hall concert of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival seemed an appropriate choice to mark the conclusion of Sir Brian McMaster’s tenure as Festival Director – a position that he has held since 1991.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the longest of Wagner’s works still commonly performed today, usually lasting about 5 hours. The setting is mid-sixteenth century Nuremberg, one of the centres of the Renaissance in Northern Europe at the time and the story is about real-life Mastersinger guild of who established a complex system of rules for the composition and performance of songs. The opera realises much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the guild’s traditions and one of its main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure (1494 – 1576): perhaps Wagner’s greatest character, he features as a wise and compassionate man.

Wagner’s only ‘comedy’ is a favourite for many. Of all his works it is the most accessible and potentially least disturbing, perhaps because Wagner ignored all the rules he had proposed for opera in his 1850s theoretical prose writings. The work has a historically well-defined plot, rather than mythological or legendary one and is the only mature Wagner opera based on an entirely original story, devised by Wagner himself. Deliberately using many of the operatic conventions that Wagner had railed against in his essays, including a ballet, rhymed verse, choruses, arias, the work even has five different characters singing together at one point (the celebrated Meistersinger Quintet.) The whole thing is a huge metaphor about the meaning of Art, reflecting on the response to the foreign or unfamiliar in music and asking whether everyone can be sufficiently open-minded to value the modern. In this essentially autobiographical treatise, Wagner propounds his view that there is a greater chance of being understood by the masses than by essentially conservative professionals.

At this, his final bow, the self-effacing Sir Brian squirmed in his seat as a fulsome tribute was paid to him before the concert and might have preferred, I suppose, to let the opera to do all of his talking for him. Reflecting the manner in which the old gives way to the new in the opera, it may have seemed particularly significant to Sir Brian that his successor (Jonathan Mills) comes not from the UK’s classical establishment but is an Australian composer and academic currently based at the University of Melbourne.

There was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of celebrated ‘Mastersingers’ on stage singing comparatively small parts (William Kendall, John Shirley-Quirk, Jeffery Lawton, John Mitchinson, John Robertson, Phillip Joll, Glenville Hargreaves and Richard Van Allan). They had centuries of experience in music between them and long associations with Brian McMaster from his days in charge of the Welsh National Opera to the present. They contrasted neatly with the ‘youthful‘ apprentices (literal and metaphorical) from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama also singing in the performance. A similar contrast balanced the old and young quite judiciously among the principals too.

Toby Spence isn’t all that old but is already an experienced David. He was the only cast member ‘off the book’ however, and reminded me of the over-excited Andrex puppy in the TV ads, a little too eager to be admired. His performance was too mannered with an insufficient range of colours in his voice making his long Act I explanation of the Mastersinger art somewhat of a trial in its own right. The younger basses made a substantial impression particularly James Rutherford, the recent winner of the inaugural Seattle Wagner Competition (see review) who was an impressive Kothner. His range is wide – from baritone to bass roles – and he looks to have an exciting future before him. Matthew Rose (a former Jette Parker, if not Vilar, Royal Opera Young Artist) was Veit Pogner, every bit the pater familias he should be. Paul Whelan was luxury casting as the Nightwatchman.

Andrew Shore made his role-debut as Beckmesser. He was fresh from his success as Alberich in the new Ring cycle in Bayreuth and obviously had not had much chance to familiarise himself with the role as he left his head in the score most of the time. Nevertheless this meant he gave us a very interestingly fresh take on the role. It is occasionally the case that Beckmessers these days woo Magdalene (as Eva) by singing too well in Act II – here there was just the right side of the embarrassment that Wagner intended for this character. It was good too that Andrew Shore was not put off by the BBCSSO’s inability to find a lute player, since the guitar used here did not sound right.

Wendy Dawn Thompson’s Magdalene began with her perky involvement in the Scene 1 ensemble and made much of this relatively small supporting role. The stunning Swedish soprano Hillevi Martinpelto was an ideal looking Eva and does not seemed to have sung this role many times. She was totally at ease in the part if not quite girly enough and other Wagner heroines, Elsa or Elisabeth, may be better parts for her.

When Robert Holl (Hans Sachs) came on stage looking flushed with an open collar and generally unkempt, I thought he must have got stuck in traffic on his way back from a relaxed lunch. His involvement in Act I was rather low-key but it proved that he was simply pacing himself for this very long role where he must be at his best at the end of the evening. He was very much the reflective poet rather than the cobbler unlike the best Sachs I have seen (Norman Bailey) who was both. Robert Holl had all the humanity that Sachs needs but little of the necessary innate humour although he coped well with the role. Despite his stage experience in it (and the shoe last he was given in Act II) he retained a certain Dutch ‘sang froid’ in his pivotal encounter with Beckmesser.

The young German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, was the physical antithesis of the typical heldentenor today – tall, thin and with lots of hair! Again, he was singing the role for the first time and it showed. Not that it was bad, far from it: it was superbly sung but without convincing me that he is a stage Walther of the immediate future – not until he gains more (vocal) weight. By the time he came to sing a compelling ‘Morgenlich leuchtend’ he was using a crooning falsetto more than he should.

All of these artists had come together for this one-off final night festival (proper) offering and it suffered from a choice of conductor (the American David Robertson) without much of a Wagner pedigree (was no one else available?). He did little wrong and kept this oratorio-like event on track but rarely does any Meistersinger pass by swiftly and this one will leave little lasting memory. The secure playing was that of a conductor and orchestra familiar enough with the music not to spoil anything but unable to allow enough insight, colour or magic to intrude and make it special.

However, all was nearly forgiven with Sachs’s stirring closing ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’. Robert Holl delivered all that could be expected of him and with the large Edinburgh Festival Chorus on inspired form (as they had been all evening) it reminded me of the infamous Woody Allen quote ‘I heard so much Wagner at last night’s concert that I’m ready to invade Poland’ … but that’s another story best not dwelt on here!

Jim Pritchard

The Guardian

Brian McMaster’s farewell after 15 years in charge of the Edinburgh international festival was a star-studded concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. As a celebration of McMaster’s tenure – which has been longer than any previous director of the festival – this could hardly have been a more lavish present to himself, but on its own terms, it was a more convincing performance of this gargantuan work than you often see on the operatic stage.

Its heart was Robert Holl’s Hans Sachs, a performance that grew in stature throughout the drama. Holl was in magnificent voice, but it was the way he embodied the character of Wagner’s wise cobbler that was astonishing. Holl was as adept in the comedy of his scenes with Andrew Shore’s conniving – and superbly sung – Beckmesser as in his moving soliloquy in the third act, and he made Sachs a man of infinite patience and integrity. He also registered his sadness at losing Eva to Walther, lamenting the passing of his youth. Holl seemed released by not having a staging or directorial conceit to work against. This was the Sachs, you sensed, he has always wanted to sing, and his final paean to the traditions of the Meistersinger was overwhelming, capped by the tumultuous power of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

McMaster obviously had fun with the casting of the other Masters, genuine master-singers of a previous generation, including John Shirley-Quirk, Jeffrey Lawton and John Robertson. But there was another typical McMaster touch in developing young singers: tenor Jonas Kaufmann sang his first Walther, and even if he sounded strained by the third act, there was enough evidence that he will be ideal casting for Wagner’s wide-eyed knight in the future. Toby Spence was a brilliantly realised David, and Hillevi Martinpelto created an innocent Eva, all of them partnered by the supple playing of the BBCSSO. But the evening belonged to Holl, as complete a dramatisation of Sachs as you can imagine.

Tom Service | 5 September 2006

The Telegraph

A farewell filled with warmth and wisdom

To mark the end of his 15-year stint as director of the International Festival, Sir Brian McMaster programmed a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. It’s the perfect choice for such an occasion – an opera full of the festive warmth of summer and the joy of both witnessing and participating in art, as well as the melancholy wisdom of maturity. On sentimental grounds, it seemed a pity that someone like Sir Charles Mackerras with close associations to McMaster’s Edinburgh wasn’t conducting the valedictory, and the choice of the American David Robertson was surprising on other grounds, too – he’s not to my knowledge noted as a Wagnerian.

But, in the event, no complaints. Robertson did a perfectly good job, keeping the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on its toes – there was some especially lovely silken string playing in Act 2 – and taking a generally brisk approach to a score that can swiftly sound clodhopping when mediocrities are in command.

Robertson was fortunate in his excellent singers, not least the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, whose “Wach auf” was mightily stirring. At the still centre, however, was Robert Holl’s Sachs, a shaggy, shambling presence, radiating a proper mixture of sceptical irritation at the world’s idiocies and a big-hearted vision of its beauties. The ruddy warmth of his voice and the sensitivity of his phrasing gave rare pleasure.

Scarcely less good was Jonas Kaufmann, looking the part of the romantic hero Walther to perfection and singing with all his usual firmness, intelligence and artistry. Was he running out of puff at the very end? The “Prize Song” lacked quite the transfiguring glow that Wagner intended.

His beloved Eva was the delightful Hillevi Martinpelto, in steadier voice than in her previous Edinburgh appearances – if only her diction had been a bit crisper. Andrew Shore made a credibly uncaricatured Beckmesser; Toby Spence presented a sharply characterised and vivaciously sung David; and Wendy Dawn Thompson was an exuberant Magdalene. Matthew Rose (Pogner), James Rutherford (Kothner) and Paul Whelan (Nightwatchman) upheld the honour of the bass.

The band of Mastersingers was appropriately drawn from grey-haired old-timers such as John Shirley-Quirk, while the fresh-faced Apprentices came from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Both were splendid.

It hasn’t been the most artistically successful of festivals, but McMaster saved his best to last – with this uplifting performance, he leaves Edinburgh on a high note.

Rupert Christiansen | 05 Sep 2006

Financial Times

A fond farewell for McMaster’s singers

When the people acclaim Hans Sachs at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, creating one of the most celebratory climaxes in all opera, they do so because Sachs has reminded them of the high value of art. But they are equally stirred by his warning that the mastersingers’ guild must not become set in its ways.

The message is clear: institutions need a regular infusion of what is “foreign” if they are to move forward. That these sentiments should crown Sir Brian McMaster’s 15th and last summer as director of the Edinburgh International Festival was no coincidence. Like Sachs and Nuremberg’s mastersingers, McMaster realises Edinburgh needs fresh blood – and his Australian successor, Jonathan Mills, will probably have ideas that seem “foreign” to the old guard.

What a way to go. McMaster’s contribution to theatre, dance and the visual arts at Edinburgh may be subject to dispute, but Saturday’s concert performance of Meistersinger set the seal on a 2006 programme that was musically outstanding.

The last three days were the best of all. McMaster’s triple-decker concert series – nine evenings framed by Beethoven and Bruckner – ended with both composers’ Ninth Symphonies, in performances that reversed expectations.

Bruckner came out on top. That could be because a Bruckner cycle is almost unheard of – and unlike Beethoven’s nine symphonies, all of which were conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Edinburgh’s view of Bruckner was enriched by a different conductor and orchestra each night.

In his wonderfully sonorous Bruckner Nine on Friday at the Usher Hall, Jirí Belohlávek tapped into the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s experience with the late Günter Wand, building the first-movement edifice with impeccable authority. Although the other two movements were marginally less successful, the performance sent out extremely positive signals about the Czech conductor’s unshowy skills.

Just 24 hours earlier Claudio Abbado had charmed a capacity Festival Theatre audience with the delicacy and gracefulness of his Mozart.

I can’t remember when I last heard an opera performance that was so quietly, so completely and so beneficially infused with the spirit of its conductor.

Die Zauberflöte came to Scotland courtesy of a production from Reggio Emilia, where it had been hatched specially for Abbado 18 months ago.

His Edinburgh visits have always had a special magic, and opera now features so rarely in his schedule that any chance to hear him must be relished. This Flute achieved what all conductors aim for but rarely achieve – a natural-sounding articulation of parts within a broader contour of line and colouring.

Abbado’s nephew Daniele staged it as an adult fairy-tale, with no allegorical gloss but plenty to keep us amused.

The iconography was simple, the décor amounting to little more than a succession of sensitively coloured screens. But there was fantasy and clarity aplenty, and spiritual energy in abundance. The unspectacular cast was reassuringly even: it had the feel of an ensemble, with a trio of sexy Ladies and the best Boys I’ve ever heard.

Meistersinger was a roll-call of McMaster singers, including no less than two Tristans and a Wotan from his time at Welsh National Opera. Robert Holl’s Sachs was in glorious voice, and Andrew Shore came hot foot from Bayreuth to sing Beckmesser, a hugely promising role-debut.

But it was the younger talents who stole the show, among them Toby Spence’s David and Matthew Rose’s Pogner. Best of all was Jonas Kaufmann, who lent Stolzing’s Prize Song the softness of a Lieder singer.

McMaster’s only questionable choice was the conductor. Ignoring close Wagnerian associates such as Donald Runnicles and Richard Armstrong, he settled for the bland David Robertson. But with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at their peak, this Meistersinger was a fitting farewell for McMaster.

Andrew Clark | September 4, 2006

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, CA, PO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 604 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast of a concert performance from the Edinburgh International Festival (BBC)