Reviews for IPCD 1001-3
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Metropolitan Opera, R. Wagner.
Principals: Friedrich Schorr (Sachs), Irene Jessner (Eva), Charles Kullman (Stolzing), Karin Branzell (Magdalene), Karl Laufkoetter (David), Walter Olitzki (Beckmesser), Emanuel List (Pogner), Herbert Janssen (Kothner), Max Altglass (Vogelgesang), Louis D'Angelo (Nachtigall), George Cehanovsky (Ortel and the Night Watchman), Nicholas Massue (Zorn), Lodovico Oliviero (Moser), Giordano Paltrinieri (Eisslinger), James Wolfe (Foltz), John Gurney (Schwarz); Erich Leinsdorf, conductor.
(Performance of December 2, 1939, with Commentary by Milton Cross)
(3 CDs) Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society IPCD 1008-3.
That mystic mainspring of the Canadian-based Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society, Richard Caniell, is with us yet again, once more intent upon realizing the finest possible audio reproduction of a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera during the period of its Golden Age of Wagnerian Singing, this time with a performance of Wagner's only mature opera that does not include fantastical elements (remember that even TRISTAN UND ISOLDE contains a “love potion”), thereby making it, from both a narrative and purely human viewpoint, arguably his most humane undertaking. I don't know about you, but I have a much easier time relating to Hans Sachs than to Wotan, probably because I wear shoes and don't carry a spear, making me immediately acceptable at even the most audacious Wagner Society seminars.
While I will hold off until the end of the review in discussing sonics, I should say upfront, so that readers of a decidedly unhistorical bent will not automatically dismiss a seventy-year-old off-the-air broadcast out of hand, that the reproduction achieved by Mr. Caniell in this case is little short of remarkable, much of it on a par with state-of-the-art commercial recordings of that period, so read on.
Friedrich Schorr was universally acknowledged as the greatest Wagnerian baritone of at least the first half of the last century, arguably of the entire century, his Hans Sachs in a world of its own, possibly the best ever, and far beyond comparison with even the best interpretations of his contemporaries and successors. While I came to his Wotan a bit later, I grew up on his commercial discs from DIE MEISTERSINGER, so it is perhaps understandable that I might feel this way, but this 1939 performance does nothing to undermine my initial and long-held impressions. There is simply a “rightness” to Schorr's interpretation, which embodies warmth, honesty, kindness, humor, wisdom and sagacity, and allies those sterling qualities to just about the most perfect natural instrument imaginable for expressing them in vocal terms. Schorr's voice is a bit short on top, but this seems not a deficiency of age (he was but two months past his 51st birthday when this broadcast took place), since even on his very best earlier records his top could be problematic. In this particular performance, it is even occasionally non-existent (although he makes a pretty good show at the end of “Jerum! Jerum!”). The thing is that it really doesn't matter. Schorr simply incorporates that one vocal shortcoming into his total performance in such a way that you kindly attribute it to the cobbler's age (actually, the historical Sachs was probably a bit younger than was Schorr in 1939!), reinforcing your sad realization (and his) that Sachs is simply going to have to give way to a younger man where Eva is concerned. However, the rest of his voice is exactly as before, which means we hear beautiful, burnished and concentrated tone, and great smoothness of delivery, in an almost legendarily legato-based singing style, none of which seems part and parcel of the usual dramatic baritone's arsenal and method of delivery. Even when booming forth, Schorr remains the master of vocal and interpretive understatement, so that this could be the wise and gentle cobbler we are hearing, rather than even a very great opera singer's “take” on him. In this context, one could say that Schorr's renditions of the two great monologues are the definitive definition of “definitive”, and it is little wonder that he was every competitor's despair.
As always, Mr. Caniell's comprehensive notes are startlingly honest, especially where singers are concerned, so that it is often hard to review those singers without reference to his opinions vis-à-vis one's own. This is very much the case with the Eva here, Irene Jessner. Mr. Caniell finds her performance pretty much adequate, but nothing more due her lack of vocal individuality, especially against his favorite interpreter of the role back then, Elisabeth Rethberg, who had appeared in a still-extant prior broadcast of the opera, and he rather castigates the Met for not having assigned this broadcast to the veteran soprano, especially given the great sonic improvements since her last broadcast of it. (“Veteran” is a relative term here: At the time, Rethberg was considerably younger than are Fleming, Mattila, Voigt, Brewer, Gasteen, Guleghina and Graham today, and but one year older than Dessay and Gheorghiu!). Putting aside his expectations of prescience on the Met's part in the matter of that afternoon's sonics, however, Rethberg was in the process of dropping roles from her Met repertoire at this time; after singing in the 1939/40 opening night SIMON BOCCANEGRA (only five days before this broadcast), she never sang Amelia Grimaldi again; later in the season she would sing her last two Fraulein Pogners (Jessner sang the other four), and even her signature role, Aida, was on its way out. Also, she sang no Met Opera performances at all for six weeks after opening night, so she might have had other engagements, experienced temporary indisposition, or simply been doing her nails. Whatever the reason, she simply wasn't there. And Jessner was there in spades , having sung forty-two performances in the prior season and thirty in this one. In any case, I find the younger soprano more than acceptable, especially in the last act. If her voice lacks individuality, her personality certainly does not. Indeed, she comes on very strongly in her second act duet with Sachs, not so much as a young girl but almost as a well-sung fishwife (I kept thinking of Elizabeth Taylor's true acting talent betrayed by the very sound of her speaking voice), but after that it is clear sailing. I found her “O Sachs, mein Freund”, where so many wonderful Evas fall down a bit, downright thrilling throughout its two minutes' duration, one of the best-sung I have ever heard, and even more surprisingly, she negotiates her portion of the great “Selig wie die Sonne” quintet better than almost any soprano I can think of (Schumann apart, of course) and pretty much manages a bit of a trill after the Prize Song, all of this in attractive tones absent from that second act duet. All in all, a decidedly creditable Eva to these ears.
At this stage of his career, Charles Kullman is just about an ideal Stolzing. Given his long winter at the Met, which commenced in the mid-1940s and ran through 1960, opera lovers may forget just what a superb tenor he had been at his best, most especially in the full decade of the 1930s, when he was singing mainly in Germany and was arguably the finest American tenor of the period (pace Richard Crooks fans), a lyric tenor with a ringing top C and not ashamed to exhibit it (for proof, listen to his ZIGEUNERBARON aria). One of the reasons he stayed before the Met public beyond his vocal sell-by date was his quite extraordinary histrionic abilities (he was probably the oiliest Prince Shuisky of them all!), and he was always thus, even in his prime, with good looks to boot.This broadcast catches him at just about his best. Fully conversant with the German language, his is not only a well-sung Stolzing, but an ardent and impetuous one. Words mean something beyond clusters of syllables on which to hang the next few notes, and he even indulges in an occasional Italianate sob or two when in the throes of passion. Unlike so many Stolzings, he can sing rather meltingly when the music calls for it. His “Am stillen Herd” is almost too lyrical, but he then delivers a truly impressive “Fanget an!”, both impetuous and ringing; in anything other than a Wagner opera, it would have brought down the house! His contribution to the Quintet is also more lyrical than most tenors can manage, and the various rehearsals for the Prize Song really sound like rehearsals instead of fully-formed excerpts from the final product. Unfortunately, the Bodanzky cuts in use at the Met during these years include the second stanza of the Prize Song, which does rather rob it of the necessary build-up, not to mention the other soloists' and chorus's wonderful interjections prior to the final stanza (this particular cut was still being used by the Met in the 1950s!). Still, Kullman does it extraordinarily well, and he would continue to sing the role for a year or two after the opera re-entered the repertoire after World War II. Mr. Caniell puts Kullman on a par with Peter Anders in this role, but I put him on a par with my personal favorite (warts and all), Rudolf Schock. In any case, you couldn't possibly be disappointed by him.
Walter Olitzki (nephew of the great Rosa Olitzka) was making his Met debut as Beckmesser in this broadcast. His is the old-fashioned, somewhat caricatured version of Beckmesser-as-Village-Idiot, which has certainly not been fashionable for the past sixty years or so, but I have to admit to having loved his characterization (in the same way that I love over-the-top Don Pasquales and Don Bartolos; let someone else find their humanity, but I want a good laugh). Beckmesser is, of course, human (witness Hermann Prey and Thomas Allen), but he is also a jerk, and it's nice to be reminded of it every once in a while by a performance like Olitzki's. How he manages to sing while indulging in extreme nasality is instructive, but when he does let the voice out a little, he sounds as much tenor as baritone. What is more important, the audience can be heard heartily laughing at his antics more than once, this in pre-titles days, so he must have gotten his message across.
I usually find myself at odds with Mr. Caniell's negative opinion of Emanuel List's talents, but I have to come down on his side here, because Manny really does sound pretty uneven, if not quite wobbly, in “Das schoene Fest”. But he does manage to sound warm and fatherly early in Act 2, so I guess all must be forgiven this father who is willing to trade in his daughter for a good song. (Put it in a modern context: Offer your daughter's hand to the first one of your fellow bowlers who comes up with a 300 game!)
Karin Branzell is a very lively and infectious Magdalena, which comes as something of a surprise to anyone familiar with her wonderful-but-lugubrious recordings, not to mention her Met broadcasts of near-dire fare. And that superlative character tenor, Karl Laufkoetter, manages most of what is left to him of David's music with a certain élan; he is very good at faking high notes he doesn't actually possess, and is chock full of personality (even if we can occasionally hear Mime peeking out at us). For anyone not looking for Matthew Polenzani's leading lyric tenor-style interpretation, there is much to enjoy in Laufkoetter's more traditional one.
Finally, we have a case of pure luxury casting with Herbert Janssen as Kothner, a decidedly unrewarding role for an artist of his stature. He sounds wonderful and does everything possible with this somewhat pompous fellow, but it is hard to hear in him the singer who would shortly succeed Friedrich Schorr as the Met's heldenbaritone of choice (actually, neither he nor they really had any choice after Schorr retired, and Janssen pretty much ruined his voice in the process).
Artur Bodanzky had died only nine days prior to this performance, and the entire German repertoire of the Met devolved upon the strong shoulders of 27-year-old Erich Leinsdorf. Never one to stand in the way of the music (Toscanini was his mentor, and it would be interesting to know of his opinion of Karl Boehm, who was very much the same kind of conductor in most repertoire), he favors brisk tempi which, to these ears, almost always help in any Wagner opera except TRISTAN UND ISOLDE and PARSIFAL (well, maybe they help even more in those works). And he has a wonderful orchestra and chorus to work with. Indeed, that chorus sounds superlative in the Act 2 Riot Scene and the later “Wach auf!”
And as an extra added attraction (remember those?), Mr. Caniell has left in all of Milton Cross's distinguished, if not downright courtly, commentaries, perhaps inadvertently casting a negative light on the Met's current commentators' practice of describing practically everybody who sets foot on its stage as “incomparable”, “legendary”, etc.; in those days, even a Friedrich Schorr couldn't bring Milton Cross to cross the line between admiration and sycophancy. Still, he can't help but acknowledge the audience's roaring approval (we can hear it behind him) which culminates in Schorr's being forced to take an extra solo bow.
Other than the cast and conducting, the selling point of this particular restoration is the sound reproduction which, as mentioned before, is simply incredible. Whatever the broadcast people did with microphone placements and the like, there is perfect balance between the singers and the orchestra; in passages like the Eva-Sachs duet and the monologues the voices are often so close you'd think they had been recorded in a studio; the orchestral reproduction is as full as almost anything issued commercially at that time (I just happened to be listening to a 1940 Mitropoulos/Minneapolis Symphony Columbia recording of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony a few days back; the best portions of this MEISTERSINGER sound better!); and, miracle of miracles, the surfaces of the transcription discs used here are just about noiseless. I can't recall having heard a superior sounding broadcast recording of an opera from this period. And the third CD is filled out with two superb Schorr recordings of arias from ELIJAH and THE SEASONS, these dating from about a decade earlier.
Mr. Caniell provides highly interesting notes, with analyses and opinions to match, in five sections - 1) fifteen pages on this particular performance, the singers' relationships to the roles, etc., 2) thoughts on Wagner and DIE MEISTERSINGER, 3) a wonderfully complete synopsis of the opera, 4) extended biographies of the eight singers reviewed above and also of Leinsdorf, and 5) recording notes. In the latter, he mentions filling in one of Bodanzky's cuts - a major portion of Sachs' “Euch macht ihr's leicht” - from an earlier recording by Schorr, since he felt it was imperative for the entire piece to be included to better reflect the noble nature of Sachs, but if he hadn't mentioned the provenance of this addition, you'd never spot the join while listening. As always, Mr. Caniell retains a tendency to be a bit too severe with himself about all aspects of his CD productions (how refreshing in this day and age!) and, as in all of those productions previously reviewed here, the accompanying booklet is beautifully laid out, its photographs well reproduced, and every aspect of the release evidences the loving care of a man on a mission.
So, there it is. A particularly fine performance of DIE MEISTERSINGER from the Met's Golden Age of Wagner, in almost miraculously good sound for the time, its only detriment the standard Bodanzky cuts. If you have an abiding interest in historical performances of Wagnerian operas, this one should find a welcome place in your collection.
President, N.Y. Vocal Record Collector Society
Opera Quarterly music critic
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Metropolitan Opera, 1939
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor.
This Meistersinger includes the broadcast commentaries by Milton Cross. It does not, however, include all of Wagner's music. There is a string of excisions that leads to the performance fitting onto three discs, with space for a brief but valuable filler. Leinsdorf's way with the act I Prelude includes grandeur, but can also be immensely playful, with scurrying, scherzando staccatos. The momentum the Prelude generates seems unstoppable, and so it is that there is a distinct feeling of the brakes being applied at the chorus's entrance for the chorale, “Da zu dir der Heiland kam”; it is also remarkably distanced. This is not to imply that Leinsdorf's approach is band-masterish. He is able to give lyric moments their due, but his approach is certainly swift. The plus side of this is that dialogue, especially the Beckmesser/Sachs exchanges towards the end of act I, can take on a naturalness many other conductors cannot attain. In this piece, too, the idea of comedy is kept alive far more than in most. The opening of act II is swift but supremely involving, and the Met orchestra does astonishingly well to convey speed but not rush; Leinsdorf's approach pays dividends in urgency at Walther and Eva's scene (act II, scene 5), and he also ensures Sachs's “Jerum!”s are decidedly no-nonsense. Leinsdorf paces the Prelude to act III well, though, allowing sufficient space. Perhaps only Goodall truly communicated the depth of concentration required here-his live 1968 Chandos 3148 reading truly glows from within. Leinsdorf's way with the accompaniment at Eva's entrance in act III is very affectionate, reflecting Sachs's feelings. He is best, though, in the act III dances.
Friedrich Schorr's Sachs is expressed to perfection in his rendition of the Fliedermonolog. His rapport with nature, his turmoil regarding the “new poetry,” and his embrace of the progressive are all faultlessly projected by Schorr's radiant assumption of the role. His Wahnmonolog drips with his own disillusionment and contrasts that with the magic of Midsummer Eve, while his long “Euch macht Ihr's leicht” finds him rising totally to the occasion. A shame his final speech is cut so short. Charles Kullman as Walther certainly gives the impression of impulsive youth. His voice is young, too, and his blissfully open throat means there is little or no sense of strain in his Meisterlied. Indeed, the full version of “Morgendlich leuchtend” is as eloquent as they come, climaxing on a magnificent “das schönste Weib.” A pity the second verse is cut completely. He is positively valiant in the face of chalk scratchings that sound like Beckmesser is running his fingernails down the blackboard in the extended passage at “So rief der Lenz in den Wald.”
Karin Branzell seeks to imply an older Magdalene, one that knows better. The problem is that Leinsdorf rather powers his way through the first scene, and, like Cluytens in the recently reviewed Myto set, leaves Eva with no space to relish her “Euch, oder keinen.” Also, Branzell's Magdalene suffers from the recording, which colors her voice adversely in act II. Irene Jessner's young Eva is perhaps a little weak in general, and her “Selig, wie die Sonne” does not quite convince that she is in the heights of contained ecstasy. Yet, as the music progresses into the Quintet, a sense of awe does indeed take over. Olitzki's wheedling Beckmesser verges on caricature, his voice mostly close to a witch's cackle. He is funny as he delivers the massacred version of the Meisterlied, though, and believably outraged when he is made the subject of much ridicule. Karl Laufkoetter is a light David, which certainly helps the impetuous nature of his long speech that opens act III. Herbert Janssen impresses as Kothner, but his reading of the Tabulature is rather shallow-voiced and the melismas are undefined. The Pogner, Emanuel List, suffers from a somewhat recessed recording for his “Das schöne Fest, Johannistag.” The Nightwatchman is George Cehanovsky, strong-voiced and commanding. The Apprentices of act I are a fairly rough and ready lot but, in compensation, the choral work in the final act is nothing short of magnificent (I think particularly of the passages at “Wach auf, es nahet gen den Tag” and the ensuing paean to Sachs).
The recording is wonderfully reconstructed. The passages prior to Beckmesser's act III entrance, so often congested, are heard in miraculous transparency. Orchestral detail is faithfully rendered. Although this is not the first issue of the performance (it was previously available, briefly, in Discocorp 484), it is the most important to date. The performance included the Bodanzky cuts. A verse of Sachs's “Jerum” is lost, as are the complete second stanza of the Preislied and a lot of Sachs's final narration. Caniell has reinstated Sachs's “Wenn ihr die Kunst,” using Schorr's 1931 recording. One cannot fault Caniell's booklet essays. They are astonishingly well informed and detailed (the all-English booklet is 50 pages long).
This product sits well with the Guild issue of the 1936 Bodanzky Meistersinger (Guild 2244), which features, along with Schorr again as Sachs, the incredible Elisabeth Rethberg as Eva. The bonus item provided on this product is an aria from Mendelssoh's Elijah, sung by Schorr. It was recorded in 1930 and first issued on HMV DB 1564; here, it has been transferred at 76 rpm. It comes in at under four minutes' duration. Schorr's voice is like velvet, and the tantalizing segment just makes one itch to hear more.
FANFARE Sept./Oct. 2009
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Metropolitan Opera, 1939
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor.
(3 CDs) Immortal Performances IPCD 1008-3
& MENDELSSOHN Elijah: “Herr Gott Abraham” (Friedrich Schorr) 1930.
“Historic performances,” even if they turn out to be merely “old performances,” are a blessing to anyone with a yen to explore the past: they bring it to life in a way that no critical notice can hope to. My blessings upon those who recorded them. Not content with providing this splendid restoration of a 70-year-old Met broadcast, Immortal Performances has included a considerable amount of Milton Cross's pre- and post-act patter and, since the original source is transcription discs, not tape, his is the only “cross talk” you'll hear (sorry). Note the above timing and bear in mind that Cross's commentary and the applause consume more than 14 minutes and CD No. 3 concludes with an encore, Friedrich Schorr's beautiful rendering of “Herr Gott Abraham” (Lord, God of Abraham) from Mendelssohn's Elijah, which takes up another 3:50 and you may well wonder if anyone could conduct Wagner's opera that fast. The answer is that Artur Bodansky, who headed the Met's German wing for many years, used to make a lot of cuts in Wagner's operas. Bodansky's sudden death put this performance into the competent hands of Erich Leinsdorf, his assistant, on short notice. To give the devil his due (and at the risk of committing sacrilege), let me say that I don't think that the Bodansky cuts do real violence to either the musical or dramatic narrative. They may horrify purists but, for what they are, they work. In effect, they “streamline” the opera. That does not mean that I enthusiastically approve of them nor does the fact that Leinsdorf observed them in this performance prove that he endorsed them-in fact, he didn't but he couldn't do anything about them until he took over the German wing the following season (he did open some cuts in Der Rosenkavalier before this season was over). And that doesn't mean that he isn't fast-in fact, things generally move along at a jaunty clip, especially the ensembles. In the “big” moments, Leinsdorf does expand and allows his singers to make the most of them.
Of course, the reason this set has been issued isn't Erich Leinsdorf-it's the presence of the most celebrated Hans Sachs of the 20th century, Friedrich Schorr, who, although in the downward phase of his career, still leaves little room for skepticism about the acclaim that followed him in the role. I suppose it is the mellow authority (one writer calls it a “paternal” quality) of his voice and delivery (better for Sachs than, say, Wotan) that seems to place the character before you. There are also the discretion in dynamics and the ability to express Sachs's emotions in song that vivify the characterization even further. The willingness to sing softly isn't just an attempt to save his voice, for one can hear it (and clearly) on the live 1928 discs made at the Berlin State Opera even with the distant mike placement. (The conductor, Leo Blech, also holds down the orchestra at the appropriate spots. What a pity that so many of the original discs are apparently missing, since it's inconceivable that the recording deliberately omitted Sachs's two monologues!) Much of Sachs's part is conversational (with Walter, Beckmesser, Eva, and David), and the monologues represent his thoughts-this is the sort of thing that plays to Schorr's strengths. Only when he must declaim will we sense some of the wear on his voice. In 1939, Schorr was only 50 years old, but years of singing heavy roles had taken their toll and he soon retired, but he requires no apologies here. If anything, I think he starts to warm up as the performance goes on. Maybe he was husbanding his strength and maybe the many cuts helped, but he sounds good enough to me and competes with any Sachs I've heard; I won't say he's better than my favorites but he certainly holds his own. .
The rest of the cast is, well, uneven. Outstanding is the bright, youthful Walter of Charles Kullman, who simply soars through the role. I have heard some good ones, but he matches any I've heard. As Eva, Irene Jessner must have had an ideal appearance. Surely, no one needed to strain to hear her, and she gets through the role with no apparent vocal strain-but, subjectively, something seems to be missing. I think it's that there's nothing distinctive about her voice. It's neither strident nor ravishingly beautiful. It does the job. I could probably hear a dozen Irene Jessner recordings and I'll bet I still couldn't identify her. I get the impression that the Met didn't quite know what to do with her; she was too good not to be used, but could never “carry” a performance. So, she could be cast in roles like Eva, Elisabeth, the Marschallin, and Tosca while also being cast as Ortlinde and a Flower Maiden. On Artur Rodzinski's Columbia recording of act III of Die Walküre, she actually doubles as Sieglinde and Ortlinde. She's neither the best thing in this performance nor the worst, a sort of distinction that probably held true for her whole Met career as a leading soprano. After Rudolf Bing arrived, she apparently saw the handwriting on the wall and left the Met to become a very successful voice teacher in Toronto.
Honors for the worst thing are divided between Emanuel List (Pogner), who sometimes sounds more like Eva's grandfather (even the producer laments the presence of his “dreary, constricted, strangulated tones”), and Walter Olitzki (Beckmesser), who was making his Met debut. If you like Beckmesser played as a grotesque caricature, you may like him (the audience obviously did); I wanted to strangle him after a few minutes-in fact, some of the sounds he emits suggest that he was strangling himself. I think that Kothner might have been a shade low for Herbert Janssen, who sings 95 percent of it with the beautiful tone he was noted for; I wish Leinsdorf had cut him some slack so he wouldn't have had to scramble to get all the notes in when Kothner makes his big act I address. He switched over to Sachs later in the season. Karin Branzell (Magdalene) has little to do but does it wonderfully well. Karl Laufkoetter brings a constricted voice but solid routine to David. Here's a case where I approved Bodansky's cuts and I didn't miss Sachs's final declamation much (I wonder if some was cut because World War II was on and the audience might not have been enthusiastic about some of Sachs's more overtly nationalistic proclamations). Most of his statement to the crowd after “Wach' auf” (“Euch macht ihr's leicht”) was also omitted at the performance and, evidently, the producer, Richard Caniell, thought this to be “the unkindest cut of all,” so he has discreetly interpolated the rest of the oration from Schorr's 1931 recording, deciding to be more faithful to Wagner than to Bodansky. I will admit that, if I had not read the annotations, it probably would have slipped right by unnoticed. The Night Watchman, by the way, is George Cehanovsky, who was well into his career in 1939 and was still singing at the Met when I started to attend performances.
The inclusion of Milton Cross's contribution (or, at least, a good bit of it) almost gives one the sensation of eavesdropping on a 1939 broadcast, and the sound is sufficiently clear that you can hear Leinsdorf tapping the music stand with his baton prior to each act to alert the orchestra that he's ready to begin-does any conductor do this anymore? The accompanying booklet, which runs to 51 pages, certainly doesn't skimp on annotations, including an excellent plot summary tied to the cueing points, respectable digests of the singers' careers, and an accounting of some of the cuts. There is even a replica of the actual cast list from the day's program. I note that the director's name isn't mentioned (assuming there was a director)-a sign of the times. For better or worse, they certainly get their billing nowadays.
FANFARE Sept./Oct. 2009
Letter to the Editor; Fanfare from the Archivist / Sound Engineer Richard Caniell
I relished both reviews about our release of the 1939 Met Die Meistersinger for varied reasons, especially in that they emphasized different aspects of the performance. I was particularly gratified by Colin Clarke's response to my restoration (“miraculous transparency”). I think I spent a goodly part of my life on achieving just what he cites, not only in removing the disc groove sound but in working on the dynamics between forte and piano and all the sub-grades in between. I wanted it to sound like it had never been committed to disc but that this was the broadcast itself, materializing out of the receptive airwaves via a good size 1939 radio. This “float” was the chief aim of my work.
I was interested to read that James Miller not only agrees with my booklet text estimate of Irene Jessner as Eva but he's developed aspects which dimensionalize what I endeavored to say. My problem is that I no longer (quite) agree with my opinions about her. When I first wrote the booklet text I recalled that Paul Jackson in his Met book had heard more in her singing than
I did, so I quoted him and another affirmative critic to help balance my viewpoint. However, once I had sent off the booklet and master for replication I continued listening to the performance and the more I heard Jessner, the more deeply I recognized that, after a cool beginning, she improves and from the moment she greets Walther, after her Act 2 duet ends with Sachs, she need not bow to Rethberg for thrilling tones and ecstatic expression. I heard the same enthralling qualities in her response (in Act 3) after Walther delivers the balance of his morning song. I, who had come through boyhood with the Schorr-Rethberg 78 rpms discs of the Footstool Duet, which had been further dimensionalized by my restoration of the 1936 Meistersinger we put out through Guild, now heard in Jessner some of the same estimable qualities that had so thrilled me in Rethberg. From this point, even into the Quintet, my view of Jessner greatly changed, and while she doesn't have an instantly recognizable timbre she does some thrilling singing. Imagine my dismay when hoping to change and enlarge my text about her, given this revelation, I learned from the Toronto replication plant that the booklets were already printed.
Having lived with this 1939 Meistersinger, in various tapes and endiscments, for 30 years, now (too late!) I heard what Jackson was citing about Jessner. Lacking an unique immediately identifiable timbre, her voice does not come to mind when memory recalls this or that passage which Eva's sings but, that aside, Jessner really does some excellent singing in this performance.
I liked both reviews for the panoply of elements each cited, and for their quite distinctive language. To me, the experience of a Met broadcast doesn't get any better than this 1939 Meistersinger, given the fact that the sound is actually equal to commercial 78s of that era and is, in some instances, better.
We passed the Fanfare reviews around and everyone was smiling and greatly encouraged. I was amazed that there were two reviews and send my thanks to all concerned.
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 2 December 1939, live, Metropolitan Opera
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Elijah (1846) - Herr Gott Abraham [3:50]
Friedrich Schorr (bass-baritone)
rec. 1930, London
As war began to rage in Europe, the Met's German wing staged an imperishably vital performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg . In the cast was - very much primus inter pares - the magnificent figure of Friedrich Schorr. The recording equipment captured the impersonation in excellent sound for the time, one for which no real allowances need to be made. Fortunately - because I like them - Milton Cross's scene-setting introductions and commentaries have been retained. Collectors will know that this performance has been released before, on LP by Edward Smith on a limited issue basis, and subsequently by Discocorp to a more general audience.
As for the production itself those familiar with conductor Arthur Bodanzky's work, previously auditioned in many Guild transfers of Met performances, will be aware that he imposed sometimes drastic cuts. Leinsdorf frequently had to take these over, as here. But for this Immortal Performances restoration we need also to note that there have been some minor interpolations and editorial revisions. Schorr's Act III passage Euch macht ihr's leicht was truncated on the night, for whatever reason; here an interpolation from a commercial Victor by Schorr from 1931 has 'restored' it. There were also some instances of brusque side joins, where the engineers left no overlaps, so these have been modified. Certain unspecified 'problems in vocal or orchestral phrases' have also been corrected. There are two sides to this argument, but IP's éminence grise Richard Caniell has always been straightforward about his belief in the 'higher fidelity' of a performance, and it's a view one can respect even if one doesn't happen to side with it. For what it's worth I tend to the latter position.
And so to the performance. The casting is invariably uneven. Some outstanding performances stand alongside sub-par ones. But the truth is that the performance emerges, notwithstanding some local difficulties, as an ensemble of deep humanity and vitality. At its apex stands Schorr, whose nobility, dignity, humour and multi-faceted impersonation is as complete as anyone's on record. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine his Act I Scene II passage, Vielleicht schon ginget being better done - but I doubt it. His is a performance of artistry, theatrical power, and subtlety - of phrasing, of timbral weight, of timing. There are, to my ears, simply no serious intimations that he was nearing the end of his career. And when he mines the deep expressive potential of the reflective Act II Was duftet doch der Flieder we have the sensation of, if it's not too fanciful, hearing something like the wisdom of the ages. It's a performance that inevitably overshadows the ensemble by virtue of its sense of accumulated sensibility, but it is not alone in parading excellence.
Prominent amongst the other cast members who does just that, for example, is Charles Kullman, who is pure pleasure throughout. His Walther starts as he means to go on; lithe, masculine, ardent, vocally exceptional throughout his compass, and theatrically utterly convincing. His Am stillen Herd has youthful fluency as well as panache. Irene Jessner is Eva, somewhat uneven and technically compromised in the faster passages but singing with equally youthful tone as Kullman, though his is by far the finer voice. Walter Olitzki sings Beckmesser in a way that must surely now strike us as excessively hectoring, stereotypical and lacking in suggestive subtlety. And Emanuel List's old, tired-sounding Pogner is a study in vocal immobility. Far better to turn instead to the marvellous Herbert Janssen whose Kothner is sung in exemplary fashion. So too is Karin Branzell's Magdalene, a gleeful and truly involving spirit. Karl Laufkoetter's David brings a bright confidence to his role; I'm not sure I agree with the magisterial Paul Jackson who, in his book on Met performances, called his singing here a 'bleat'. Surveying all is the young Erich Leinsdorf, whose bright clarity is a force for good in this work. He marshals the forces with enviable control, ensures that sectional balances are apt, and is never businesslike.
So this realisation is a tremendously impressive, though inevitably partial, triumph. The booklet has synopses, analytical and biographical material and photographs; altogether a classy product, with notes really worth reading and digesting. This often inspiring 1939 performance comes, as I said, in truly first class sound as well.