Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Hermann Nissen (bass-baritone), Hans Sachs; Herbert Alsen (bass),
Veit Pogner; Maria Reining (soprano), Eva Pogner; Kerstin Thorborg
(mezzo-soprano), Magdalene; Henk Noort (tenor), Walther von Stolzing;
Hermann Wiedemann (baritone), Sixtus Beckmessser; Richard Sallaba,
(tenor), David. Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic/Arturo
Andante AND3040 (F) (4 CDs) (ADD) TT: 4:13:44
In the summer of 1937 Arturo Toscanini returned to
the Salzburg Festival to conduct performances of four operas—Fidelio,
Falstaff, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. These
were his final appearances at the Festival. After the Nazis took control
Arturo Toscanini did not return to Salzburg. Although Toscanini lived
another two decades and remained extremely active as a conductor, he
never again led a complete performance of a staged opera. For
these reasons the 1937 Toscanini Salzburg operas assume a unique
importance in the Italian conductor’s life and art. Each of the
operas was broadcast and recorded, although the Fidelio broadcast
was lost during the war. Until now public issue of these treasures
been limited to horrid, off-the-air transcriptions, suffering from
the kind of cramped dynamic range, surface noise, distortion, and pitch
that would intimidate the most veteran collector of historic recordings.
Indeed, if Toscanini’s name were not associated with these Salzburg
recordings, I doubt most people would make the effort to wade through
But the Toscanini performances were also recorded in-house on the Selenophone,
a film stock machine that allowed for quite acceptable sound preservation
and reproduction. Seth B. Winner, an expert in sound restoration, was
able to use an original Selenophone to transfer the recordings to tape.
At this point, Ward Marston, one of the true artists in remastering
historic performances, took over. Through an extraordinarily detailed
in his booklet essay that accompanies this release of the Salzburg Meistersinger—Marston
was able adjust the recording to proper pitch, fill in some missing gaps,
and remove literally hundreds of pops and clicks that are typical of
recordings made on film stock. Marston’s brilliant remastering
of Winner’s Selenophone transfer has now been issued by Andante.
Ward Marston comments: “it was a joy for me to remaster this recording.” And
indeed we are the fortunate beneficiaries of his labor of love. While
the sound reproduction of the Toscanini Meistersinger does not
equal that of contemporaneous studio recordings, it has been improved
all recognition. The sound is remarkably clear, with the voices and instruments
emerging with impressive focus and definition. Balance between the
voices and orchestra is also quite realistic, although the winds are
given slightly undue prominence. Except for a few spots, distortion and
surface noise are relatively minimal. In short, Seth Winner and Ward
Marston have removed the sonic barriers that, to date, have prevented
true enjoyment and appreciation of this Meistersinger.
And what a Meistersinger it is! Toscanini, a relentless perfectionist,
wrote afterwards: “I am still vibrant from my efforts. The performance
took place in an infinitely poetic atmosphere. I can’t begin to
tell you of the joy of the audience and performers, all of them!” That
joy is evident throughout. From the very opening measures of the great
Act I Prelude, this is a Meistersinger full of lyricism, energy, spirit,
and celebration of life.
Not surprisingly, Toscanini presides over a performance of uncommon
unity and razor-sharp execution (some brass fluffs in the final scene
III, notwithstanding). Some, however, may be surprised by Toscanini’s
frequent use of broad tempos and elasticity of phrasing. These were,
in fact, widely recognized elements of Toscanini’s conducting art
throughout his career, both in Wagner and other composers as well. Perhaps
these qualities were not so readily apparent in Toscanini’s most
famous recordings, made in the final decade of the Maestro’s
long life. But that is precisely why such performances as this Meistersinger (Toscanini’s
only complete recording of a Wagner opera), the 1933 Beethoven Fifth
with the New York Philharmonic (Naxos 8.110840), and
the 1940 Verdi Requiem are such irreplaceable treasures (I’ll
review a new Music and Arts reissue of the Requiem in the near future). If and
when the 1937 Salzburg Falstaff is released with improved
sound, a comparison with Toscanini’s legendary 1950 RCA recording
will provide similar contrasts and insights.
Toscanini’s cast in this Meistersinger is worthy of
the conductor and the festival setting in which this performance took
place. All of
the singers display remarkable stamina, sounding as fresh at the conclusion
as at the beginning—no small achievement in this marathon opera!
Another common element among the singers (again typical of a Toscanini
performance) is the crystal-clear diction and their relishing of each
and every syllable of Wagner’s text. Indeed, there is never a
moment of routine by any of the vocalists.
Bass-baritone Hans Hermann Nissen is a first-rate Sachs, with the kind
of warm, attractive timbre, and humanity one seeks in this most sympathetic
role. His dialogues with Eva (sung by soprano Maria Reining in her
most youthful and radiant voice) are as touching as I’ve heard. This
is also a Sachs with a sense of humor, apparent in the Act II scene where
the cobbler has fun at the expense of the pedantic town clerk, Sixtus
Beckmesser. That role is assumed by baritone Hermann Wiedemann, who manages
both to sing in highly musical fashion (including an impressive top “A” in
Act III) and offer a highly detailed characterization that never lapses
into mere caricature.
Tenor Henk Noort has a bright, youthful voice that rings out with impressive
ardor, focus, and power. He is certainly one of the better Walthers
on disc. Bass Herbert Alsen offers an uncommonly tender portrait of
father, Veit Pogner. This father’s love and affection for his daughter
are never in doubt. Mezzo Kerstin Thorborg and tenor Richard Sallaba
are a capital Magdalene and David. The wonderful group of mastersingers
includes the young Anton Dermota as Balthasar Zorn. In short, this is certainly one of the finest readings of Wagner’s
comic masterpiece. It certainly is a must for anyone interested in Wagner,
Toscanini—or for that matter, great opera performances.
Andante’s deluxe packaging includes a hardbound book with essays,
performer biographies, a complete libretto with English translation,
and numerous photos, including several from the Salzburg production.
It’s hard to imagine a classical recording issue of greater importance
than this Andante release of the Toscanini Salzburg Meistersinger. It
is the kind of project that deserves the highest accolades and support.
Now, Andante, would it be too much to ask for a similar release of
the Toscanini Salzburg Falstaff?