GHCD 2244/45/46/47 – DIE MEISTERSINGER – Wagner – Metropolitan Opera – 1936
Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, ARTUR BODANZKY – Conductor, FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ELISABETH RETHBERG, RENE MAISON, KAREN BRANZELL, EMANUEL LIST
By Colin Clarke
No doubting whom the star is here. The booklet cover declares this is ‘FRIEDRICH SCHORR in Richard Wagner’s …’. Note the capitals, here faithfully reproduced. Although Bodanzky’s name is there on the box cover, it is completely absent from the booklet cover. All of this is indicative of ‘Meistersinger as the Friedrich Schorr Show’; 36 minutes of tacked-on excerpts with other conductors under the umbrella heading of ‘Schorr as Hans Sachs’ kind of confirm impressions. Sure, there is no doubting Schorr’s stature, but let us not forget that the great Elisabeth Rethberg is there as Eva, not to mention Emanuel List (Pogner) …
Whilst Schorr’s Sachs was preserved in recorded excerpts, no complete opera was recorded in the studios, so it is to the broadcast archives we must go. Schorr sang at the Met for a full twenty seasons (taking 19 different roles). This Meistersinger was recorded with a single mike pick-up so perspectives can be mobile as characters move around the stage. There are also some cuts to the score, including the second verse of Sachs’ ‘Jerum’. Guild have ‘slid in’ much of Sachs’ response to the crowds’ acclaim (‘Euch macht ihr’s leicht’) from Schorr’s 1931 commercially-available Victor 7682, altering the acoustic space to fit the present performance. All this shows remarkable care on the side of Guild, and the result is a glowing Meistersinger, not least because of Herr Schorr himself.
It does take the ear a while to adjust, though. The overture is shrouded in the mists of time, but it becomes clear there is much dedication at work here. The woodwind peck away nicely and in the main there is a serene lyricism. A pity Bodanzky spoils the close of the overture, rushing in the final pages and in the process spoiling the ‘surprise’ choral entry. Perhaps this was in an attempt to foreground the lighter side of Wagner, but it takes away the triumphant feel of the climactic fanfares, and their pre-echoes of the close of the opera.
Schorr is magnificent, especially in the second act. He is gripping right from the outset; the ‘Flieder monologue’ is exquisitely fragranced; and he is nice and lusty at ‘Jerum! Jerum!’. The Eva, Elisabeth Rethberg, sounds tremulous at this point (‘Guten Abend, Meister!’), but nevertheless remains touching and delicate. If there remain finer documents of Rethberg’s art, she nevertheless remains the epitome of youthful freshness.
But whatever Schorr’s strengths in the first two acts, his art reaches its zenith in Act 3. The warm, dark tone speaks of an all-knowing compassion in the ‘Wahn monologue’; he remains the mainstay of this performance. Perhaps that design was right after all …
Rene Maison takes the part of Walther. In Act 2 he sounds rather unfortunately like Mime, throwing Rethberg’s lyricism into high relief, but the advantage is that both of them sound youthful, as is entirely appropriate. The Act 3 ‘Morgenlied’ is confident and inspiring, as of course it should be. Eduard Habich is Beckmesser, and very funny he can be, too. Emanuel List is another famous name, here taking Pogner. Impressive as he is, he can ‘crack’ at critical moments.
Julius Huehn is a powerful Kothner, if sometimes a little approximate. Hans Clemens takes the part of David, a role he was particularly associated with at the Met, and it shows. This performance is six years into his Met career, and his confidence is most impressive. Magdalene (contralto Karin Branzell, who also sang Fricka and Waltraute at Bayreuth) is rich of tone and clear.
Bodanzky provides a reading which is always fluent if not of entirely exalted nature. Not for him the heights of a Karajan or a Jochum. There are memorable passages, however. The Prelude to Act 3 is rapt and sonorous of utterance, attaining a dignity and breadth that makes one wish the entire performance were like this. The greatest shame is that the finale is not as apocalyptic as it could be, a direct result of Bodanzky’s somewhat limited vision. Despite many insights along the way, and many pleasures (chiefly from Schorr), one does not emerge uplifted at the end, and this is surely an acid test of a performance’s effectiveness.
The Schorresque appendix is fascinating, even if only approximate dates and only one source number is the sum total of discographical information (is the Malchior/Heger excerpt DA1227, for example?).
It is always good to be reminded of conductor Albert Coates’ prowess as a Wagnerian, and his strong conducting of another ‘Flieder monologue’ is welcome. Rethberg is on excellent form in ‘Sieh’ Evchen!’ (VIC8195, December 1925). Coates’ direction again triumphs in ‘Aha! Streicht die lene’ (May 1930), which is lovely, and expansive in conception (if not necessarily in tempo). How better to finish this ‘Meistersinger experience’ off, but with the quintet , ‘Selig, wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht’, conducted by the miraculous John Barbirolli with a line up that includes Elisabeth Schumann and Melchior. Here is miraculous music-making, hushed and guaranteed to transfix.
By Gerald Fenech
Guild continues to thrill all serious historical collectors with their stunningly produced resurrections from the vast and unique library of the Metropolitan Opera. After having given us a complete ‘Dream Ring’, they now turn their attentions to a magnificent 1936 broadcast of the monumental ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ with Friedrich Schorr at the absolute peak of his prime.
The usual glitches apart, this set can confidently be recommended as the finest ‘Meistersinger’ ever recorded. As far as I can discover, it is complete from first note to last and the array of singers assembled here almost beggars belief. Friedrich Schorr is absolutely unimpeachable as Hans Sachs, he is a cajoling, pleading, authoritative gentleman with a titanic voice that almost bursts through the crackly radio sound.
But Schorr is not alone in greatness. The opera is conducted by the much underrated Arthur Bodanzky, a great conductor in all departments and there is also Elisabeth Rethberg. By all accounts, this is an Eva for all time and the combination of all three artists is absolutely beyond reproach. Habich’s Beckmesser is also unforgettable as are the other smaller roles taken by Maison, Branzell and List’s delightful Pogner.
I grew up with Karajan’s 1971 Dresden version and find his 1951 Bayreuth recording much overrated. Solti’s recordings are slightly flawed and Kempe’s genial 1958 version with the BPO remains my firm favourite. However, this new version will win pride of place amongst my growing Wagnerian collection for its unique sense of occasion and its sense of a live recording that is quite remarkable.