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