Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Marek Janowski
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
3 Juni 2011
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsAlbert Dohmen
Veit PognerGeorg Zeppenfeld
Kunz VogelgesangMichael Smallwood
Konrad NachtigallSebastian Noack
Sixtus BeckmesserDietrich Henschel
Fritz KothnerTuomas Pursio
Balthasar ZornJörg Schöner
Ulrich EißlingerTobias Ebenstein
Augustin MoserThorsten Scharnke
Hermann OrtelTobias Berndt
Hans SchwartzHans-Peter Scheidegger
Hans FoltzHyuk-Wook Lee
Walther von StolzingRobert Dean Smith
DavidPeter Sonn
EvaEdith Haller
MagdaleneMichelle Breedt
Ein NachtwächterMatti Salminen

You want to like this beautifully recorded Meistersinger, and there’s nothing really wrong with it: Marek Janowski knows the piece and clearly loves it, and he goes for a transparent, absolutely clear reading; Wagner’s inner voices and superb contrapuntal writing rarely have been clearer. This of course helps to make the outrageous finale to the second act crystal clear, but it also diminishes its effect as a quasi-street riot. I’m not sure how I feel about it: take it as reportage.

The stunningly played and highlighted oboe and cello immediately after the Prelude is the first instance of great detail; such felicities abound. Tempos lean toward quick, but there’s never a sense of rushing, and Sachs’ two big monologues are the still, introspective oases they should be.

Those who like their Meistersinger weighty and truly profound may find Janowski’s reading lightweight. The finale to the first act has a swing to the string section I’ve rarely encountered before; it rocks back and forth and almost makes us forget Walther’s audition. Perhaps this is the point. This was recorded live, in concert, in one take, and as such is remarkably clean. But it is also somewhat earthbound, particularly if you compare it to a recorded stage performance or to a well-produced studio recording. It’s a stand-and-deliver event.

Albert Dohmen’s Sachs is a bit brusque and serious–there’s rarely a smile in his voice–but he brings real warmth to his interactions when it matters and he never tires. The voice lacks the beauty of, say, Thomas Stewart, but is expressive enough; he gives us a full portrait of an introverted man. I prefer Sachs to be more friendly.

You would be hard pressed to find fault with Robert Dean Smith’s Walther either; he sings off the text, and the sound itself is appealing, though without being memorable. The voice does not bloom or soar at the top and this makes the Prize Song worthy rather than thrilling, and memories of other von Stolzings (Kollo, Domingo, Konya) keep popping into my head. Edith Haller is the Eva, and the voice is lovely, distinctive, and able to cut through the orchestra, while her demeanor is invariably charming. Occasionally she sings without vibrato–very odd in this context–and she can sound chilly and sharp when that happens. But she’s delightful.

It’s odd that the heaviest voice is that of the Nightwatchman–a cameo by Matti Salminen. It can’t be accidental casting. Dietrich Henschel’s Beckmesser is a true baritone, light and fleet (and his portrayal is almost loony in its furious self-control), and Tuomas Pursio’s Kothner is so good at coloratura that he might not be out of place in a Bach cantata. Even Georg Zeppenfeld’s Pogner seems somewhat delicate when compared with other recorded Pogners; he is always fatherly but never overbearing or bullying. Peter Sonn’s David is larger voiced than usual but still fluent and Michelle Breedt’s Magdalene is spunky and effective. Orchestra and chorus are close to magnificent.

As suggested, it’s hard to find fault here, but I don’t get the same feeling of a journey through these people’s lives as I get with Kubelik (Arts, and with beautiful voices) or Schippers (Live from the Met, Sony, slightly cut). I’d stick with them and respect Janowski’s work here–but keep my distance.

Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 9

Robert Levine

Opera News

No conductor who decides to perform all ten of Wagner’s canonical operas can expect to have an automatic success with each of them. But there is no question that Marek Janowski, who is in the middle of just such a project, shows a special affinity for Die Meistersinger with this live recording made in Berlin in June 2011. Each of Wagner’s three long acts is given a continually engaging shape. Janowski’s timings, by the clock, are not quicker than those of most other conductors, but the opera has never seemed so short and light. It’s a canny performance, in which careful delineation is made of the moments where the characters are meant to be singing as part of the story. David’s precise instructions in Act I about the rules of songwriting are delivered in a flowing, intimate manner, but when he does an audition of his composed song in the workshop in Act III, he really performs it. The banter among the masters in Act I is blithe and rapid, but Walther slows it down for the first time with his over-eager attempt to impress everyone at “Am stillen Herd.” In Act III, there is a real differentiation between the first two verses of Walther’s tentative improvisation of a prize song in his lesson with Sachs and the way he completes it in Eva’s presence. Beckmesser is required to play it both ways in his Act II serenade, with real-life distractions finding their way into the vocal quality of his ostensibly polished performance. The characters emerge fully rounded, both passionate and full of humor. I’ve never heard a performance that so consistently and successfully reminds us that Die Meistersinger is meant to be a comedy. And Janowski sets it all up perfectly with an overture of Figaro-like busy-ness.

Janowski has brought off the type of interpretation that Georg Solti (in his second recording of the work, another live-in-concert performance) attempted to produce in Chicago in 1995. Solti, in his emphasis on the conversational aspects of the opera, ended up shortchanging the lyricism, even though his cast had more vocal glamour than Janowski’s. But Janowski knows just when to be rhapsodic. Robert Dean Smith understands both the uncertainty and formality of Walther in the early scenes and the rapture he shows with Eva later in the story. Dietrich Henschel gives a detailed performance of Beckmesser, letting us hear how the character is always suspicious that he’s being cheated. Albert Dohmen, as Sachs, gains in stregth and vocal character as the long role builds. He also brings a beautiful color to the opening of Act III, somehow suggesting Wagner’s stage direction that Sachs should play the entire scene without stirring in his chair, and he manages to show us how embarrassed Sachs is to be honored at the festival. But he certainly doesn’t back away from his contentious final solo. Edith Haller’s Eva is characterized more by Janowski’s orchestra than by the singer. It’s the orchestra that defines her in Act III, showing us how beautiful she is in her finery but then immediately catching her melancholy mood. Georg Zeppenfeld is a polished and elegant Pogner; he and Janowski take their cue from the delightful spring day. Everyone in the quintet sings beautifully, and lightly enough so that each line can be heard.

Even the choral singers differentiate their “real” singing of hymns and chorales from their everyday chatter. The men are rhythmically precise, excited and in tune for the opening of the final scene. The opera is very touching in all the right ways, and it is good to be reminded that for centuries now people have already been worried about traditions slipping away. The orchestral playing is brilliant, with the violins alternately virtuoso, tender and sweeping. The recorded sound is extraordinary; Super Audio sound is making a good play to keep music-lovers from settling for downloaded sound. One’s heart soars to see the extensive program notes in the booklet, then quickly crashes at the tough slog of getting through them.



This is probably the most symphonic Meistersinger you’ll ever hear. Conductor Marek Janowski’s stated aim with this cycle of concert recordings is to liberate Wagner’s operas from the excesses and distractions imposed by stage directors. The result is Wagner as pure music, with the story played out through harmonic progressions and leitmotifs rather than with staging and acting. The score certainly provides all the musical logic that such an approach requires, I’m just not sure it give us the whole picture. Wagner struggled to reduce the primacy of the music in his Gesamtkunstwerk concept, and the fact that this project succeeds as it does only goes to show how Wagner himself failed to integrate and balance all the elements of his new genre.

Musically speaking, the singing here is excellent, and you’d be hard pressed to find a cast of such high and even quality on any other recent recordings. Albert Dohmen has a light tone for Sachs, but has all the authority the role requires. Georg Zeppenfeld and Dietrich Henschel are both surprisingly bassy as Pogner and Beckmesser. Robert Dean Smith has an impressively even tone across the wide range that the part of Walter requires. He sometimes sounds a little distant, but that might just be a result of his slightly nasal tone. Peter Sonn brings a rich but focussed tone to the part of David. And Edith Haller has confidence and presence as Eva, although her vibrato, even on the shortest notes, may not be to everybody’s taste. But the qualities these singers bring to their various roles are strictly musical. Given Janowski’s allergy to stage directors, he presumably vetoed any ‘semi-staged’ element to these performances. As a result, there is very little sense of characterisation in any of the sung roles. Dialogues are musically precise, but the interacting is always with the listener rather than between the characters. The stereo mix distances the singers from each other, which only increases the sense of alienation between them. Little effort is made to make Pogner sound old, or to make David sound young. And the huge symphony chorus, impressive as it is in the riot scene, sounds far too big ever to fit on a stage.

But so much for what this recording isn’t. As I say, Janowski has other aims, and when judged by those standards everything here is a triumphant success. His interpretation manages that tricky balance between freedom of expression and adherence to Germanic musical values. There is also plenty of humour, something that many conductors bypass in an effort to make the work sound more Teutonic. The absence of staging, or even semi-staging, allows the conductor to take every tempo more or less as he likes. So, for example, the transition into the 2nd scene of Act 3 is an orchestral show-piece, and the riot at the end of Act 2, is paced to show off the chorus at their best, without having to worry about their acting responsibilities. In fact, the whole of the second act is a real treat, with the orchestra continuously swooning through all the various love songs. Janowski’s symphonic vision for the piece pays off in the dramatic climaxes in the outer movements. He really lets the brass go to town, and raises the dynamics of the rest of the orchestra to match them. That makes for some impressively conclusive conclusions, and some startling punch chords when they appear out of the blue. And in case that makes him seem heavy-handed, there is plenty of delicacy here too. Listening to the Overture, it is clear that he is keeping a great deal in reserve for later on, making this opening more of a tantalising taster than than the robust concert opener we are more used to.

The sound quality is up to PentaTone’s usual high standards, giving exceptional clarity to soloists, orchestra and chorus alike. But again, it is worth bearing in mind that this has the effect of emphasising the concert hall setting. The acoustic at the Philharmonie is expansive and generous, making the recorded sound warm and inviting, but also distancing it further from the ambiance of an opera house.

Just one technical problem to report: I’ve had a lot of trouble getting my player, a Marantz SA8003 to recognise the stereo SACD layer on all four discs. I’ve never had any such problems with any other SACDs, not even the Flying Dutchman in the same series. Asking around on message boards, nobody else seems to have found this, and when I contacted PentaTone they were at a loss to explain it as well. As a result, I have had more occasion than usual to compare the CD and stereo SACD versions. For the most part, the CD layer is very good, and almost as good as the SACD layer, when I’ve been able to access it. The difference comes in the complex contrapuntal textures, especially from the choir. The riot scene in Act 2 is impressive on CD, but on SACD all the individual lines are apparent, adding a whole new dimension to the music. If anybody else has been having these problems, I’d be interested to hear. In the mean time I’ll continue struggling to get the SACD to play, as it is certainly worth the effort.

Gavin Dixon


We have here the second instalment – though the third recorded – of the great adventure that Pentatone have undertaken with Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. As with the first part, it has a lot of good things going for it but, for me, it misses out on being a top choice.

The first, and perhaps greatest, asset of this set is the glorious quality of the sound. The engineers have done an outstanding job of capturing the acoustic of the Philharmonie and recreating it on disc. The acoustics are justifiably famous, but I have rarely heard them so successfully reproduced on disc as here. The balance of soloists to orchestra is exceptionally well done and the characters appear very convincingly in the stereo soundscape – all the more so in SACD surround. For example, during the cobbling song of Act 2 the listener can easily pick out Sachs and Beckmesser on the left while Eva and Walther whisper on the right, and each line of the riot scene stands out with admirable clarity. It helps, too, that the Berlin Orchestra play so exceptionally well. The clarity and sheen of the sound hits the listener right from the opening bars and creates a texture that Wagnerians can wallow in. In my view, in fact, there’s a case for arguing that this is the best sounding Meistersinger of them all; better even than Solti in Chicago (Decca) or Karajan in Dresden (EMI).

Great sound is one thing but it matters little if it doesn’t reproduce a great performance. It does, in places. The key role of Sachs is in safe hands with Albert Dohmen. As with his Dutchman in this same series, he sings with gravitas and authority. The voice carries just the right amount of weight for the role, sounding paternal without being too heavy. He injects just the right amount of humour for the second act. In the third he sounds valedictory but not self-pitying and the monologues never drag, a key test for any Sachs. However, he runs out of steam at the end, breaking up the line with poor breath control so that the final paean to Holy German Art sounds effortful and awkward. It’s a natural consequence of this being a live performance and, I’m pleased to say, the only serious example I noticed of a singer tiring as the evening draws on. None of this makes the final scene any easier on repeated listenings, and it’s a black mark any listener should be aware of. Robert Dean Smith’s Walther is good, sounding heroic and exciting and never showing signs of tiring; however, he shows much less of the golden, burnished quality that he once had. For both excitement and vocal beauty he yields to other recorded Walthers, notably Ben Heppner (for Sawallisch and Solti), James King (for Schippers) and Sandor Konya (for Kubelik). Edith Haller is a good Eva, leading the Quintet very capably, but lacking the complete security to carry off the great moments such as the end of her Act 2 duet with Sachs; O Sachs, mein Freund! is good without ringing ecstatically as it should.

The other parts are taken well but not remarkably. Peter Sonn is a passable David and he sings all the right notes, but he doesn’t evoke the character’s energy or boyishness enough. Michelle Breedt is a pretty anonymous Magdalene. The most serious gap comes with a disappointingly workaday Bekmesser. Dietrich Henschel, normally such an exciting and involving artist, sings the role with an almost complete lack of engagement. He sings in one single tone throughout the whole opera: true, it’s a very pleasant tone and it’s easy on the ear, but there is no vocal acting to speak of and Henschel might as well be singing the phone book for all the attention he seems to pay the text. The other Masters are well taken, however, and Matti Salminen is in his element as the Nightwatchman.

Janowski himself directs the score very capably, though not everyone will enjoy his preference for fast tempi. He takes the whole score at such a lick that, uniquely on record (I believe) the whole first act fits onto a single disc. My ear got more attuned to this as the performance developed so that the later scenes didn’t feel too rushed, though the Quintet was rather too pacy for my taste. The chorus are outstanding, injecting life as well as majesty into their contributions, and the big crowd scenes in the festival are great, even if (again) Wach Auf could have done with a little more room to breathe.

So where does this sit in the panoply of recorded Meistersingers? Its sound and the quality of the orchestral playing are enough for it to gain the attention of most Wagnerians. That said, the flaws in the vocal performances knock it down the league compared to some of the other classics, most notably Solti (from Chicago), Karajan (from Dresden) and Sawallisch and Kubelik (both from Munich).

Janowski and Pentatone’s epic Wagner venture continues apace and both releases so far have been perfectly acceptable in many ways. However, I hope that future instalments produce performances that are more rounded and more consistently strong. Hats off to all involved for undertaking the project, but in light of the great competition the game needs to be upped if it’s going to attract listeners to invest. We shall see.

Simon Thompson

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
587 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.0 GByte (flac)
Broadcast (DR Kultur) of a concert performance