Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Live recording in mono from
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
1943
Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler
Hans Sachs Jaro Prohaska
Veit Pogner Josef Greindl
Kunz Vogelgesang Benno Arnold
Konrad Nachtigall Helmut Fehn
Sixtus Beckmesser Eugen Fuchs
Fritz Kothner Fritz Krenn
Balthasar Zorn Gerhard Witting
Ulrich Ei▀linger Gustav Rödin
Augustin Moser Karl Krollmann
Hermann Ortel Herbert Gosebruch
Hans Schwarz Franz Sauer
Hans Foltz Alfred Dome
Walther von Stolzing Max Lorenz
Eva Maria Müller
Magdalene Camilla Kallab
David Erich Zimmermann
Ein Nachtwächter Erich Pina
Chor und Orchester der
Bayreuther Festspiele
Grammofono 2000, AB 78602/05 4 CDs ADD
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Review by Davyd Melnyk

"I have just listened to the overture from Die Meistersinger once again for the first time". With these words Nietzsche opens the section of "Beyond Good and Evil" called 'Peoples and Fatherlands'; he also anticipates the possible reaction of most Wagnerites on settling down to hear Furtwängler's reading. Before beginning this review I checked the site for other reviews, comments and preferences regarding Die Meistersinger so as to not waste too much time on the possibility of preaching to the converted.

The review of Karajan's Dresden set is perhaps a good place to start as I assume many will be familiar with this reading. Those who have found Karajan's reading too 'light', a quality praised by the reviewer, can turn with relief to Furtwängler. Not that the conducting threatens to be TOO serious, a charge some have levelled at Kempe and Solti (in Vienna); just listen to the overture for an advance preview of how the sheer joy of the score can be combined with an unmatchable intensity in the realization of Wagner's orchestration. Before returning to pre-war Bayreuth I had always believed the Vienna strings to be unmatchable, but I must report that in 1943 Bayreuth had achieved a perfection in its string section (not that the rest of the orchestra is far off perfection) that the mono sound cannot even begin to sully. One caveat though: if you listen to Furtwängler's reading you may find it difficult to take much pleasure in any of the snazzy post-war stereo recordings of Meistersinger's masterly orchestration. Act III's prelude is likewise the most moving, the most eloquent performance I have heard in any recording from the 30s to modern times.

Having said all that it must be stressed that this is not QUITE a complete recording. After Act I's chorale we move to scene 2 without the brooch retrieving antics that normally open the dialogue - no great loss. The one sticking point for many critics though, is the absence of - brace yourselves - the quintet (and Sachs's dialogue from "Ein kind ward hier geboren". This tragic loss should not lead anyone to write the set off, however - bear in mind that this was Hanslick's (the real Beckmesser) favourite bit - for I have always suspected that people who go on about the quintet TOO much don't really like Meistersinger; personally I would grieve any set's loss of the 'Wittenberg Nightingale' chorus still more in dramatic terms.

The other reservations concern the cast. As is generally well known, amongst Meistersinger nuts, in '43 performances were alternated between Furtwängler and Abendroth with different singing casts. The singing on Abendroth's set is legendary - and the conducting is almost as good as Furtwängler's. Unfortunately Furtwängler kept faith with many aging favourites that perhaps should have been pensioned off. We have here a Walther in his forties and an Eva in her fifties! Oddly enough, the Eva, Maria Müller, is actually very beautiful and does not show her age.

The same cannot be said for Max Lorenz's Walther who is well below par; imagine René Kollo on his USUAL form as opposed to his freakishly reasonable performance in Dresden. The Preislied is seriously compromised as a result, but against this must be weighed the dramatic conviction and experience that Lorenz does bring to the role.

Eugen Fuchs is an artful Beckmesser and the fact that he is half caricature and half Meistersinger tends to cover any faults in his voice; his is an enjoyable performance. Jaro Prohaska clearly WAS an excellent Sachs but, again, time was not on his side. He sings with intelligence and compassion but the beauty of the voice is variable particularly when stretched to higher notes. His 'Wahn' monologue is mainly good though, and the 'Verachtet mir' comes off quite well despite his obvious tiredness.

Josef Greindl is a good Pogner and adds to the desirability of the set. The other singers are less noticeable although Zimmermann's David is not without moments of beauty; a delicately understated performance in the main. The chorus is variable, good at the opening chorale (so powerful that the beautiful string detailing emerges only partially at times) but clearly more tired in Act III.

I have laid bare the set's faults because I love this recording so dearly that I wouldn't want to leave reservations unsaid and force another to pounce on such imperfections in a less affectionate manner. If I have made the singing sound unsatisfactory, in performance it actually is not because the worst singers tend to be buoyed up by the better ones and the magic of Furtwängler carries even the worst sung scenes to a level higher than Solti (and, to my mind, Karajan) could ever achieve even with younger singers. The worst singer IS Lorenz but he is no worse than Kollo in Vienna on balance.

To repeat: the Eva IS excellent and Prohaska's Sachs is certainly preferable to Fischer-Dieskau's "hectoring" Sachs and has more character than the dull Frantz who is too often protected from criticism by the other excellencies of the Kempe set.

I urge anyone who loves Die Meistersinger to buy this set; I also urge anyone who doesn't to do the same as perhaps Furtwängler's touch can convert you. Virtually no allowance needs to be made for the sound - far superior to Cluyens '56 on Music and Arts - apart from a mercifully brief distortion in the transition to the Chorale after the vorspiel.

Listen to Die Meistersinger, once again for the first time.