I found it a fascinating experience to listen to this set, not so much because of the quality of the performance, but because I had already experienced the same production on DVD (Opus Arte OA1085D). My chief focus was not so much the quality of the performance as on the quality of the sound. Glyndebourne record a vast number of their performances in both audio and video format, and they have been releasing many of the CDs on their own label; other labels, principally Opus Arte, have been given the job of releasing the DVDs. One is never a carbon copy of the other, however: the producers master the sound for a stereo CD in an entirely different way to that for a surround-sound DVD or Blu-ray, and they tend to use different performances, too. The DVD is taken principally from one performance - presumably the one that was broadcast live on the Guardian website in summer 2011, though the DVD notes are not specific about this: you will notice that the CD is even less so. This CD set ranges from, I assume, a different set of performances across a wider range of dates.
Sound-wise you can definitely notice the difference. The engineers have taken off the centre-focus that I found remarkable on the DVD, and there is a much more “natural” placing of everyone involved. The orchestra sound is particularly good, making the most of the unique Glyndebourne acoustic. Things are at their very best in the Act 1 prelude, full of rich good humour whose fullness is accentuated by the lavish, rounded sound. Likewise, the Act 3 prelude seems to glow when the horns enter with the Wach auf theme - said horns are equally excellent in Sachs’ Fliedermonolog. The richness of the string intonation is made even finer without having the stage business to occupy the eye, though Jurowski’s tempo did feel somewhat slower than I noticed with the DVD. The chorus are also great, with a Wach auf that is fit to raise the roof. The riot sounds rather foggy, but then, on what recording does it not?
The absence of a visual dimension means that you base your whole assessment on what you hear, and this brings benefits and gains. The singers, first of all, continue to sound great. The CD confirmed for me that Finley’s Sachs was no fluke, but a truly great performance of the role. He brings an air of wounded nobility, appropriately falling just short of tragic grandeur, with a youthful hue to the voice that makes it clear that this Sachs is far from over the hill. Likewise, Topi Lehtipuu’s David is really top notch, bristling with youthful energy and full of lyrical vigour. Alastair Miles also makes a fantastic Pogner, his address in Act 1 sounding deeply moving as it moves towards an overflow of patriotic and familial pride. The greatest performance of all, though, is revealed to be Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser. Stripped of McVicar’s production - though perhaps subconsciously helped by my memory of it - he sounds like one of the very finest Beckmessers I have heard. The voice has a nasty edge to it, insidious as he inveigles himself into Pogner’s (and Eva’s) good books, and wounded during the fiasco of the final scene. He is always musical, however; full of lyrical beauty and surging with creativity and life in a way that is both impressive and very moving.
The young lovers don’t come across quite so well. Anna Gabler sounds fairly anonymous as Eva, and her top notes are compromised, namely at the end of her Act 2 dialogue with Sachs, and in the climactic O Sachs, mein Freund! Marco Jentzsch did not impress me on the DVD, and nor does he do so here. There is a raw, sandpapery quality to his voice that does not fit well with the role of the young wooer, and at times he seems downright over-parted, most damagingly in the Trial Song, where he sounds under strain at an alarmingly early point in the evening. The Prize Song is better - and better than it was on the DVD - the result of judicious editing, I wonder? - but he can’t stand up to his rivals.
There are other losses too. The frequent bumping around on stage, especially in the opera’s first and final scenes, reminded me just how much extra-musical action there is in the production, and a lot of it - cheering, and so on - is pretty unwelcome on CD. Similarly, the Masters are insufficiently distinguished from one another so that their scene in the Song School unfolds with monotonous vocal character which doesn’t appeal.
So, while this set contains lots of good things, on balance I’d prefer to see the production, not necessarily because McVicar’s staging was particularly full of revelations, but because I want to see Finley’s interaction with Kränzle and enjoy watching his developing expression in the third act as he lets go of Eva and reconciles himself to his future. Yes, this comes through in the voice, but it’s even richer on screen. Furthermore, there is so much excellent competition for Meistersinger on CD that I doubt this set would appeal to many who weren’t already interested in the Glyndebourne production. This is despite the beautiful packaging in a hard-back book with production photos, the text, English translation and John Allison’s contextual note (in English only) about Wagner on the Sussex Downs. This won’t make me reach for this issue over Solti (in Chicago), Karajan (in Dresden) or Sawallisch (in Munich). However, I’ll go back to it for the benefits of having Finley and Kränzle together, and to dream about what other Wagnerian treats might lie in Glyndebourne’s future.