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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Recordings Review: The Great Wagner Escape

How the Kubelik Meistersinger escaped from obscurity. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fear the beard: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger.
Photo © 1976 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group
Two recordings of the same opera are under scrutiny this week, and that opera is Wagner's sole comedy, the mighty Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (Yes, I know. Another Wagner article. If you're all very patient next week I'll be writing about Donizetti).

In 1967, Deutsche Grammophon eager to add a Meistersinger to its catalogue, commissioned conductor Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to record this opera. This was a live recording done in a theater with no audience. The set featured a solid cast, with Gundula Janowitz as Eva, baritone Thomas Stewart as Hans Sachs, Sandor Konya as Walther--great singers but not household names. However, this set was not released--it sat on the shelf until 1994.

That was a good year for classical music, and right before the end of the CD boom, when the market was getting flooded with "bootleg" recordings by small labels from Europe: Myto, Gala and Opera d'Oro. The first appearance of this Meistersinger was bootleg pressing was issued on CD by the tiny Italian label, Myto. Collectors snatched them up.

When the pricey Myto version disappeared, the Calig label issued a new version. This one was made from the actual DGG master tapes, and has the same clarity of sound as other contemporary DGG recordings.

This recording is currently available for a third time: on a German label, Arts Archives. Like many recordings made by Rafael Kubelik, this Meistersinger is conducted with a fresh approach to the music. Kubelik displays his usual command of rhythm, phrasing and texture, and the orchestra plays brilliantly. Stewart's performance as Hans Sachs is both genial and confident, and is one of the best recordings made by this underrated baritone.

With the Kubelik set completed (but relegated to the vault) baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau entered into negotiations with DGG to record Meistersinger, with himself as Sachs. This set finally appeared in 1976, with veteran conductor Eugene Jochum on the podium leading the Deutche Oper Berlin forces. The recording has some wonderful orchestral playing but is marred by weak choral singing and a series of acoustical tricks by the Tonmeister (the echoing, boomy church acoustic in the opening scene is the biggest culprit) that distract the listener.

As for the cast, Fischer-Dieskau, better known for his achievements in lieder and art song, made some memorable Wagner recordings. This is one of his better ones. His Sachis is warm and resonant if a little fussy. Domingo is at sea here, struggling with the unfamilar German diction. Catarina ligendza is a disaster as Eva. However, charming orchestral playing, intelligent interpretation and the magnificent David of Roland Herman are all redeeming factors.

Here's a few others worth checking out:
  • The 1950 London recording under Hans Knappertsbutsch features the sonorous Sachs of Paul Schöffler and some remarkable orchestral playing from the Viennese forces.
  • The two Karajan recordings from EMI have much to recommend them--the set from Bayreuth in 1951 is excellent, the studio recording in the '70s has great stereo sound and a solid cast with Karajan leading the Dresden forces.
  • Wolfgang Sawallisch's studio recording (also EMI--they have four in their catalogue) features Cheryl Studer and Ben Heppner as a raiant Eva and Walther. The set is marred by the slightly dry Sachs of Bernd Weikl who nevertheless sings the role with experience and good humor.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.