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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, opera in three acts
Hans Sachs – Georg Zeppenfeld
Veit Pogner – Vitalij Kowaljow
Sixtus Beckmesser – Adrian Eröd
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Sebastian Kohlhepp
Eva – Jacquelyn Wagner
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Jörn Hinnerk Andresen (chorus master)
Bachchor Salzburg/Alois Glaßne (chorus master)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Stage direction – Jens-Daniel Herzog
rec. live, 13 & 22 April 2019, Großes Festspielhaus, Osterfestspiele, Salzburg
No sung texts
PROFIL EDITION PH20059 [4 CDs: 274:20]

I’m the third Musicweb reviewer to write about this set. Michael Cookson liked it so much that he made it on his recordings of 2020, though Paul Steinson was somewhat less effusive. I’m going to outflank them both on the negative side and say that I was disappointed with it.

My expectations were set sky-high when I saw both the cast and, especially, the conductor-and-orchestra team. Alongside Daniel Barenboim, Christian Thielemann is perhaps the most experienced and respected Wagner conductor around today, and he’s a master at building the composer’s long paragraphs. As with his Vienna recording of Strauss’s Frau Ohne Schatten, the orchestra and conductor are the main reasons to hear this recording. Thielemann understands Wagner's sense of line, of ebb and flow, better than anyone else conducting today. The Act 1 prelude surges forwards like a great wave, with plenty of ebb and flow to give it life, climaxing just as it gives way to the full-throated hymn in St Catherine's church, and throughout the opera Thielemann manages the transitions brilliantly, be it the big ones such as the scene change in Act 3 or, sometimes even better, the smaller ones like the luscious key change from Sachs’ Wahnmonolog into his scene with Walther in Act 3. The orchestra – his orchestra – respond to him with hairpin precision and a great deal of affection. Listen, for example, to the blooming strings that accompany Pogner’s Act 1 address, or the delicacy with which Act 2 is put to bed. So far so excellent.

After that my gripes begin to settle in, though, starting with the recorded sound. Recording an opera of Meistersinger’s scale and length is an unfeasibly difficult task, and we should salute anyone who even tries, but Profil’s sound for this recording is recessed, distanced and balanced far too low. You’ll have to turn it up pretty high to hear much detail, and that puts everything too far away from the ear to be comfortable. That’s most damaging in Act 3, where there is no thrill to the chorus’ Wach Auf, a moment that should raise the roof. Worse, Sach’s subsequent monologue sounds so far away that he might as well be Jochanaan in the cistern. That’s bad, and that pallor over the sound automatically rules this out as a library choice when you can wallow in the clarity of, say, Solti or Sawallisch in the studio, or even Janowski and Jurowski live.

There are also problems among the singing cast, most damagingly with Georg Zeppenfeld’s Sachs. I’m a fully paid up fan of his, but his Sachs just didn’t impress me. He sounds very much a part of the community, but this renders him undistinguished, and there is very little about his performance that really stands out. He is almost invisible in Act 1, and his Fliedermonolog in Act 2 never caught my attention, nor did any of his great Act 3 monologues. This was his role debut, so he definitely has potential to grow into it, but this is an inauspicious start.

There is no such excuse for Klaus Florian Vogt, who has been singing Walther for more than a decade. He sounds a little worn here, compared with his two Bayreuth DVDs, and, more generally, I’m not sure whether his overgrown-choir-boy tones are suited to Walther. He never sounds particularly heroic, his Trial Song is rather choppy, and while there’s an artistic argument for treating the final Prize Song so gently, he doesn’t quite carry it off.

Sebastian Kohlhepp is a sweet-voiced, likeable David, but elsewhere the rest of the cast is similarly afflicted with that vocal anonymity. The other Meisters blend into one another, failing to make much of an impact. Damagingly, that extends to Adrian Eröd’s Beckmesser, though not to Vitalij Kowaljow’s masterly Pogner, who holds the peak of his monologue brilliantly.  Jacquelyn Wagner is perfectly fine as Eva, though she lurches for the top of “O Sachs, mein Freund”, and Christa Mayer is a solid Magdalena. The chorus sing well too, for all that the recorded sound holds them back.

All told, then, this set left me feeling rather flat in comparison with the other bounty on offer elsewhere. If you really want to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden in this music, then I can’t imagine anyone picking this version over Karajan’s 1970 recording, which still sounds fantastic today. For all the benefits of a staged performance, though, the Meistersinger I still turn to first is Solti’s second recording from Chicago. Even though it’s live in concert, it’s a proper Decca spectacular, with stunning sound and a first rate cast. It beats this one hands down, I’m afraid.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Paul Steinson

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