Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Studio recording in stereo
April, 1993
Conductor: Wolfgang Sawallisch
Hans Sachs Bernd Weikl
Veit Pogner Kurt Moll
Kunz Vogelgesang Michael Schade
Konrad Nachtigall Hans Wilbrink
Sixtus Beckmesser Siegfried Lorenz
Fritz Kothner Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Balthasar Zorn Ulrich Ress
Ulrich Ei▀linger Hermann Sapell
Augustin Moser Roland Wagenfürer
Hermann Ortel Rainer Buese
Hans Schwarz Guido Götzen
Hans Foltz Friedemann Kunder
Walther von Stolzing Ben Heppner
Eva Cheryl Studer
Magdalene Cornelia Kallisch
David Deon van der Walt
Ein Nachtwächter René Pape
Chor und Orchester der
Bayerischen Staatsoper
EMI, CDS 5 55142 2 4 CDs DDD
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Review by Alan Peters

There is a plaque on a building in Vienna which reads something like "Here, in his deepest distress, Richard Wagner wrote his sunniest opera". That the composer turned aside from his financial and domestic demons and commit to paper one of the finest musical creations is far from paradoxical, it is very nearly confirmation of the purity of his artistic conscience and single-mindedness. Wolfgang Sawallisch, a conductor whose work I dearly love, has here faithfully reproduced Wagner's daunting vision. The assembled cast, along with the forces of Sawallisch's own Munich Staatsorchester and Chor, have here fashioned an almost perfect rendering of Wagner's richly complex score.

Ben Heppner, who has rapidly staked out his turf as one of the world's foremost heldentenor, gets the opera off to a great start. He is urgent, in his desire for a relationship with Eva, and he is also charmingly vulnerable in his failed attempt to convince the assembled Masters, at Act 1's end, that he truly belongs. Bernd Weikl's sympathetic and supportive Hans Sachs is the correct and intuitive response to Sixtus Beckmesser's frantic insecurity (wonderfully sung by Siegfried Lorenz).

Cheryl Studer's Eva is both yearning and virginal, precisely what one would expect from this difficult role. Eva wishes to return the young knight's ardor, but many Eva's find the shy restraint difficult to maintain over such a long opera. Ms. Studer wins our sympathies, especially in Act 2 where she flirts with Sachs, an experienced man who realizes that the days when he elicited strong feelings from women have receded into the distant past. Eva has much to negotiate here, and one of the reasons for this opera's warm reception since 1868 is Wagner's handling of Sachs. The old widower knows that he holds the key to Eva's happiness in his hands - and Eva knows it as well. Their fencing in this pivotal duet sparkles with wit, warmth and love. It is splendidly sung.

Beckmesser is the character, however, on which a "Meistersinger" can either succeed or fail. Wagnerians know that the composer's first sketches for the Marker were based loosely on the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslich. Wagner, however, wisely avoided any topical references to Beckmesser. The poor marker is easily held up to ridicule and shame, but here, Lorenz avoids the convenient traps inherent in the character. I think that many "Meistersinger" audiences, whether in a live performance or in another medium, fail to remember (or to know) that Beckmesser is himself a Mastersinger, no small feat indeed. That he is lonely and socially awkward are not reasons for his undeserved scorn. Lorenz sings the role with not a hint of caricature or misunderstanding, and for that he has carved out for himself a singular niche.

Sawallisch, in his liner notes writes that "Die Meistesinger" has more humour, fun and life, more intelligence and brilliance than any opera "I know". These are not lightly-chosen words from an established, well-respected conductor who knows Wagner down to his bones. Maestro Sawallisch's handling of "his" orchestra is flawless. I hear in this recording subtleties and nuances hidden from many of the world's most renowned orchestras. The chorus, too, comes in for the highest praise. The "brawl" which concludes the second act is not a confusing amalgam of voices and sound but a realistic slice of a moment in a small town when "everything went off" for just a few minutes.

It has always intrigued me to wonder how Wagner conceived his characters and what he really thought of them. Sachs is the moral foundation of the opera, and Wagner gives him his own "master song" at the end of the work. His apostrophe to "die heil'ge deutsche Kunst" wins him not the chaste maiden, but the deep affection and love of his plain, honest burghers. The final chorus is wonderfully moving, and Sawallisch brings this tremendous score to a rousing, but noble, shining close.