Reviews for IPCD 1069-5
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Salzburg 1937 / 1936
Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Chorus
WAGNER Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  (complete). Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg : Act I, Prelude; Act III: excerpts • Arturo Toscanini, cond;  Maria Reining,  Lotte Lehmann (Eva);  Kerstin Thorborg (Magdalene);  Henk Noort,  Charles Kullman (Walther); Richard Sallaba (David); Hans Hermann Nissen (Hans Sachs);  Hermann Wiedemann (Beckmesser); Herbert Alsen (Pogner); Vienna St Op Ch; Vienna po • Immortal Performances 1069 mono (5 CDs: 327:04) Live: Salzburg  08/23/937,  08/08/1936
• Bonus: Act III Quintet with Lehmann, Thorborg, Laholm, Werning, Hofmann (rec. 1935, Vienna, unnamed orchestra cond. Felix Weingartner)
November / December 2016
World events often have conspired to create opportunities which might not otherwise have existed. That truism, obvious in diplomacy, applies also in art and musical performance. The rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933 caused Arturo Toscanini to depart Bayreuth and its Wagner Festival, and, in 1935, he accepted engagements at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, which did not fall under Nazi control until 1938. For three remarkable seasons, the Italian conductor conducted first Fidelio and Falstaff, and then Meistersinger, and finally The Magic Flute. The 1937 performance of Wagner’s comedic masterpiece has been issued previously on various labels, most of the early issues being unfortunate. The excerpts from the 1936 performance have generally not been available, and this mastering by Immortal Performances’ Richard Caniell is, as regards these scenes, in the nature of a most welcome CD premiere.
Recorded on a machine called the Selanophone, which utilized optical film, the basic sound was little more than adequate. As Caniell points out in a detailed commentary (included with the absorbing documentation which accompanies these discs), by the mid-1930s, is should have been possible to achieve good live performance recording. Such had been done at Covent Garden, and elsewhere. Seemingly, little attention was paid, at Salzburg, to microphone placement, balance, or any management of controls to avoid peaking, blasting, and the like. Also, it seems the Selanophone was not stable as to recording speed, and thus to pitch. I first heard the complete performance on Melodram LPs, which I owned for years, and which—dim in sound, and recessively mastered—masked some of the pitch problems and the occasional blast or buzz. Some 15 years ago, I acquired a digitally mastered set of CDs from Europe (the unlikely label name “WAGNERmania” the only identification), which put the voices more forward, but in a hard unyielding sound and a sonic perspective which fatigues the ear in far less time than Wagner took to tell his tale. In 2003, Ward Marston, on the now defunct Andante label, issued what Caniell refers to as a generally “superb” restoration, one which the late William Youngren included in his 2003 Fanfare Want List. Sadly, Andante did not endure and that set is no longer available, other than occasionally in the after-market. We are fortunate Caniell decided to take a set of tapes in his possession for half a century—given him by his one-time mentor and long-time friend, Richard Gardner—and do a new mastering for our benefit.
Despite my long familiarity with earlier reproductions, so striking are the results on these discs that I felt I was hearing the performance for the first time. Obviously we are not in the era of high fidelity, but no longer is the sound tiring to the ear. I listened to my earlier copies of the 1937 performance, the poor attempts, and the much more successful Andante set. I also listened to the Preiser CDs of a few scenes from Schorr’s 1928 Berlin State Opera performance, and Nissen’s 1938 record- ing of act III. The new issue has the cleanest sound and the most presence, and has the benefit of great attention being paid to those pitch fluctuations which had so plagued prior attempts at restoration. It is surely the most consistent representation of this performance I have heard.
The fresh beauty of Reining’s lyric soprano (at 34, she was only six years past her Vienna debut), the warmth of Thorborg’s “Lene” (which, truth to tell, was lost on those old LPs!), and the subtleties of Leiden-born Henk Noort in his successive developmental repetitions of the Prize Song can be appreciated fully. The splendid vocal quality—and much greater dramatic insight than he was given credit for—of Nissen’s cobbler-philosopher poet also resonates. Nissen’s byplay with the radiant Reining in act II, the warmth he brings to the act III scenes with David and Walther, and the splendid vocal beauty of his great monologues, quite justify his choice to replace the great Friedrich Schorr when he and Toscanini unexpectedly came to a parting of the ways during rehearsal. Schorr’s voice had more plush, more velour on the tone (I always felt him even better suited to Sachs than to Wotan and the Wanderer), but Nissen’s was a splendid, solid instrument. He sang briefly in Chicago c. 1930, and at the Met in 1938 (again, just before geo-political conditions ended the visits of German artists), but his was largely a career with a Central European focus. Following his two series of Salzburg “runs,” he recorded act III of Meistersinger for HMV and Electrola in Dresden in 1938. If we had his like today, he would be honored in any opera house.
So, this issue gives us the opportunity to hear a cast strong down to the last role (the young Anton Dermota as Fritz Zorn, no less!) It also helps redress the balance for Reining, who is remembered by North American listeners, if at all, for her Marschallin, recorded for Decca in her 51st year when she was slightly past her best. Tenor Henk Noort, although he sang in the U.S. in the late 1930s, is also largely forgotten; if not gifted with a voice as beautiful as that of Kullman who pre- ceded him the summer before, he possessed a welcome amount of metal in his lyric tenor. His thoroughly developed characterization stands up well to Sachs and tonally he fits in well with Reining’s lyricism. A word, too, for the veteran Wiedemann whose Beckmesser, although funny, is actually sung. Toscanini allows him a fair amount of the traditional business of this role, but not too much, and the baritone repays that trust with a well-preserved voice (he was in his late 50s) and nary a hint that he was also famed as Alberich.
Still, with so much vocal balm, this is the conductor’s show. Throughout, we benefit from what critic Neville Cardus (in a thoughtful commentary reproduced in the booklet) calls “Latin clarity.” Latin or not, we actually hear more in this performance than in more than one better-recorded set I could name. The “riot” scene, concluding the second act is an amazing example of this, and, taking nothing away from this remastering, we clearly owe Toscanini for his ability to enable each sonic strand to stand out. Cardus felt (he was in the audience) a “certain rigidity” in act I. I don’t hear that but the first act is, I should say, a bit “straight.” By that, I mean it is played seriously. Even Sallaba’s marvelous David (one of the great casting strengths here) is a bit less buoyant in his opening scenes than others have been allowed to be. The only downside I hear, and it could be a factor of miking as much as of Nissen’s interpretation or Toscanini’s desires, is that Sachs does not make as much of an impression in the first act when finally he is given something to sing, as does for example Schorr in the 1936 and 1939 Met broadcasts, both of which Immortal Performances has previously issued. That is really the only vocal or interpretive aspect of this performance which caused me to second-guess. Toscanini does achieve the lovely rush of tone and feeling with the first act’s opening chorale, and the entire second act has a matchless warmth and lyricism. From the opening notes, the second act is magical.
As with any great operatic conductor, Toscanini is with his singers at every point. He supports Nissen’s phrasing in his first monologue, giving the singer ample time to breathe and make his interpretive points. The cobbling scene is, of course, pounded out, but the singer is never stressed into making it unattractive. Perhaps the moment where I was most aware of Toscanini creating a rhythmic and aural cushion is in act III where, in his scene with Eva, Sachs reminds her, himself, and us, of the folly of King Marke in marrying a younger woman. It might just move one to tears. After hearing this new release several times in the last weeks, my thoughts, most unusually in a Toscanini performance, are not primarily of his over-arching control. No doubt, at age 70 he had that and in spades, actually, with each act a drama, and the final culminating chords ringing out as had the corresponding music at the end of the Prelude over four hours before. But there are so many countless small effects, where you have the impression of the conductor shepherding his gifted cast through this score, in a manner as natural as conversation: the first part of act II, and the opening scenes of act III. These are as memorable here as are the grand moments in the score.
I said the experience of hearing the 1937 performance was akin to “the first time.” In the case of nearly an hour and quarter from the August 8, 1936 performance (four performances were given that summer), we have, quite literally a first-time experience. It turns out the performance was recorded in its entirety (evidence differs as to by whom), and that Toscanini loved the results and expected to receive his own set. What happened is that his copies (of this and the 1937 recording) were never sent, and that most of the 1936 masters seem to have been destroyed in 1938 or so. We have the Prelude and then the first two scenes of act III and the final half of the act III conclusion. Sallaba is once again a superb David, and his interaction with Nissen splendid. The lyric tenor’s voice seems a bit differently focused than in 1937—mike placement, I am sure. In the American tenor Charles Kullman we find a measure of vocal beauty unique in recorded performances of Walther of which I am aware. I am a Kullman fan. He was Rodolfo in the first opera I ever saw (SFO, 1945). He was the first tenor to be heard on records in Das Lied von der Erde. In 25 Met seasons, he sang well over 400 performances and his broadcasts of Walther, Ottavio, des Grieux, and other roles are uniformly fine, solid accomplishments. When the SFO premiered Walton’s Troilus and Cressida near the end of Kullman’s career, he gave a brilliant performance as Pandarus, which, for me, capped a career of great versatility. Never, however, have I heard Kullman sing as here. I described Reining’s youthful tones as “radiant.” So, too, Kullman’s (he was less than two months her senior). The tenor is in fresh, open, easy voice, never forces, and his conductor never asks him to. We have a good deal of act III here and this Walther surely deserves his prize. Caniell notes that to complete a musical segment, he has spliced in the few notes from Nissen in 1937 and Kullman in 1939 (at the Met). You would have to know which notes and words of text to notice. Kullman broadcast Walther several times from the Met, most notably in the 1939 performance led by Leinsdorf and issued a few years back by Immortal Performances. The tenor’s voice, beautifully captured, not yet 36, still has great freshness and a limpid tonal quality.
Sadly, of Lehmann, we have only her final expressive phrases in the last scene. Her timbre is unique, and, at 15 years Reining’s senior, this one small bit suggests a more knowing Eva. The micro- phones, well placed in this instance, pick up the moment amazingly well. Further magic is presented by a lovely encore: a 1935 act III Quintet with Lehmann, Thorborg, and bass-baritone Ludwig Hoffman as Sachs. Tenor Eyvind Laholm is Walther and Vienna comprimario William Wernigk is David. No less than Felix Weingartner conducted that performance. I would be happy to hear it complete.
But what we have here, complete, is quite sufficient. At five discs for the price of four (in keeping with Immortal Performances’s frequent disc set practice), we have nearly five and a half hours of music brilliantly performed, and audible in sonics which will not jar the listener nor (if my experience is representative) cause fatigue. Rather the opposite! Amazingly in both recordings of the third act, the massed sound comes through as well as any portions of the work. We also have several in- formative essays in a handsome booklet, including the best synopsis of the story and action I’ve ever read. An analysis by Robert Matthew-Walker places these performances in context. Two excerpts from the writings of Toscanini expert Harvey Sachs, and the aforementioned Manchester Guardian review by Neville Cardus, enrich the experience. Finally, Richard Caniell writes at some length of his restoration work, and of the source material, and pays credit to an associate on this project, the young pianist and conductor John Sullivan, who labored to correct the numerous spots of incorrect pitch. The present remastering is, based on my listening, by far the most accurate in that regard. It honors Toscanini on the 150th anniversary of his birth, and also honors Wagner and the vocalists, VSO Chorus, and Vienna Philharmonic of the day. I am honored to recommend it whole-heartedly.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Salzburg 1937 / 1936
Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Chorus
November / December 2016
The main body of this release is the Salzburg Festival performance of August 23, 1937. The generosity of the fillers is something else: not just more Toscanini Meistersinger (excerpts from 1936), but also a Weingartner act III Quintet. Weingartner it was who, longer ago than I care to admit, introduced me to the concept of historical recordings and their value (an HMV Treasury LP set called The Art of Felix Weingartner with, I seem to remember, a lurid green cover: RLS717). I wonder if Immortal Performances could be persuaded to issue more from this conductor? It is true that there is no doubting the Quintet recording’s age, and the orchestra is recessed to put it mildly, but the vocalists come across very well indeed, as does the near-holy beauty of this famous passage.
So, on to the Salzburg 1937 Meistersinger. Act I fits snugly (very snugly) onto one disc, coming in at 78:42. The sheer bright heft of the opening of the Prelude speaks of a directness that is pure Toscanini. The lyrical contrasts are honored, but what comes through most is that the contrapuntal basis of Wagner’s writing runs through all sections of the Prelude, including the more relaxed portions; an extension to this is Toscanini’s magnificent molding of the string phrases of the act III Prelude (the lower frequencies of which are expertly caught in the present transfer). Toscanini’s light touch is beautifully caught in this first scene of the music-drama. He can do chaotic also: The horn parts towards the end of the second act (which includes its fair share of chaos) are remarkable, astonishingly dynamic and really contributing to the impression of the onstage chaos. Conductorial gripes are few and far between: perhaps the passage around “silenzio” in act III is rather band-masterish (or should that be band-masterisch?), but Toscanini’s Meistersinger is a phenomenal achievement.
The perfect exemplar of Toscanini’s lyricism is surely in the third scene of act I, prior to Walther’s song: There is a real sense of excitement, so when we hear “Der Sanger sitzt,” there is a real sense of expectation. The song itself is lovely and ardent; and careful listening reveals that Henk Noort as Walther paces his impetuosity well. His open high register also deserves comment, all beautifully preserved in this transfer.
The orchestral sound is wonderfully rendered here, especially the pecking, staccato woodwinds. The “church choir,” when it enters in Wagner’s magnificent coup de théâtre, seems somewhat recessed; Noort’s Walther initially sounds a tad on the weak side, but Kerstin Thorborg as Magdalene leaves us in no doubt as to her authority from the start. That said, Noort completely vindicates himself in the third act in his discussion with Sachs around the Prize Song, his voice beautifully open.
It is to Sachs that every Meistersinger looks, of course, and here it is the wonderful Hans Hermann Nissen. Take the “Fliedermonolog”: The horns don’t come across fantastically at the open- ing, but Nissen’s voice is brilliantly captured, and again Toscanini gives plenty of space. His interruption towards the end of act I (“Halt, Meister”) is perfectly judged, his act II “Jerum” nicely enthusiastic. Nissen subsequently recorded Sachs with Böhm in Dresden in 1938 and was no stranger to the role. He’s a very human Sachs, but his wisdom that wins through eventually is eminently believable. In the final stages of the piece, he comes absolutely into his own, fully swept away by the music drama, and supported by a fabulous (if somewhat recessed) chorus.
Maria Reining is a splendid Eva, not radiant perhaps and a touch more business-like than others one might be used to, but absolutely within the role. David is fervently sung by Richard Sallaba, youthful and ardent, his higher register beautifully strong; he really comes into his own in the final act, in his scene with Sachs. As Pogner, Herbert Alsen is lyric (“Das schöne Fest, Johannistag”) and eminently satisfying. Perhaps the one weak moment of the performance is the “roll call” of the Masters, where the energy does rather sag. As Beckmesser, Wiedemann is terrific, especially in his failed attempts at the Prize Song in the final act; the fact that one can clearly hear the giggles of the ladies in the chorus helps. As to the Prize Song itself, even through time, one can hear the halo of sound around the opening. Toscanini takes the Prize Song quite slowly, and there is an element of Italianate blossoming around it all. Viktor Madin is a fine Kothner; indeed, the Mastersingers are uniformly well cast (Anton Dermota is in there as Zorn). One also has to mention the Apprentices, who are certainly a light-voiced bunch, one might argue in an Italianate way. And what a pleasure it is to be so enthusiastic about a Nightwatchman, here Carl Bisutti, particularly on his first appearance midway through act II.
The documentation is as usual from this source stimulating and immensely knowledgeable. The Weingartner Quintet has already been discussed, which leaves the segments from the 1936 Salzburg Meistersinger. The act I Prelude has a lot of strength about it, and is resolute, with great accuracy from the violins. It bursts upon our consciousness with huge, almost angry, energy (and one can hear the Maestro singing along periodically). The excerpt includes the first phrase of the chorus after the Prelude. The act III Prelude is gloriously done, as well shaped as in the set’s main event and even more radiant. We hear Sallaba’s “Gleich Meister!” and his eloquent “Am Jordans Sankt Johannes stand,” but the greatest treat is Sachs’s “Wahn, Wahn” Monolog, in a performance if anything more authoritative than that of the following year. The “Morgenlich leichtend,” featuring the Walther of Charles Kullman (incidentally the Don Ottavio in both the Max Rudolf and Szell Don Giovanni’s from the Met recently issued by this company on Immortal Performances 1059) has plenty of space, and Kullman is wonderfully lyrical. There is no sense of rush at all, merely the music unfolding. There is a similar feel of unfolding in the final two tracks of this performance of act III (“Ehrt eure deutschen Meister” onwards), with Nissen strong and resolute.