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Wagner on Record – The Mastersingers

available at AmazonR.Wagner, The Mastersingers,
R.Goodall / Sadler’s Wells Opera / Soloists
Stereotypes exist because they relate to some reality, even if they lack nuance, tact, and are misleading when we fail to distinguish between sweeping claims and individual instances.

Applied to musicians they can attain a life of their own, especially the negative ones coloring our perceptions before we’ve even heard the artist in question. Maurizio Pollini is a “cold” pianist, Lang Lang shallow, Pierre Boulez an ‘analytical’, fast, and emotionless conductor, Hans Knappertsbusch invariably slow, Herbert von Karajan slick and polished.

Of course Pollini can be coolly technical on some recordings. But he’s just as likely involving and dazzling in concert. Boulez conducts Wagner slower than Sawallisch or Kraus, and some of his Mahler recordings are among the most charged and fervent. Even Karajan occasionally allowed for grit and Lang Lang has delivered concerts and recordings that go well beyond the notes and sheer facility.

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Wagner, Meistersinger, Kubelik / BRSO / T.Stewart, S.Konya, G.Janowitz, B.Fassbaender et al.
(Arts Music, ’67)

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Wagner, Meistersinger, Sawallisch / Bavarian State Orchestra /B.Weikl, B.Heppner, C.Studer, C.Kallisch et al.
(EMI, ’93)

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Wagner, Meistersinger, Böhm/ Bayreuth Festival / T.Adam, W.Kmentt, G.Jones, J.Martin et al. (Orfeo, ’68)

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Wagner, Meistersinger, Karajan / Dresden StKap. / T.Adam, R.Kollo,
H.Donath, R.Hesse et al. (EMI, ’70)
The stereotype about Sir Reginald Goodall, the very English conductor of German repertoire, is that he is very, very slow. Judging only from his recordings, this is not just a stereotype, it’s the plain truth. His Mastersingers performance, thanks to the Sir Peter Moores Foundation now for the first time available on CD, starts with an in-cred-i-bly slow overture. From there, these Mastersingers (just minutes shy of five hours!) proceed slowly generally, sometimes to wonderful effect, sometimes without the slothfulness being bothersome, and sometimes making matters garrulous. But there are also surprisingly lively moments in between – or are they perhaps just moments of normal tempos that seem lively amid the rest?

There are plenty stage noises in this live recording from 1968, but not too intrusive to disturb. A little disturbing is the applause after the quintet (because the curtain went down) – which is then belatedly hissed down. What makes this set interesting to Wagnerians even outside English-speaking countries are the fine voices so well caught, even if the sound quality isn’t great (a touch muffled, for one). Goodall had an eye and ear for promising young British singers – and he championed them through his entire career. The cast he assembled for the Mastersingers is one of young, yet old-fashioned sounding singers. If you compare to another live recording from the same year, Karl Böhm’s Bayreuth with Waldemar Kmentt (Orfeo), Theo Adam, and Gwyneth Jones (on average a few years older than their British colleagues), you will find the latter present a much more modern style of Wagner-singing.

But old-fashioned doesn’t mean ‘bad’ at all, and Norman Bailey (Sachs), Derek Hammond-Stroud (Beckmesser), Alberto Remedios (Stolzing), Margaret Curphey (Eva), and Gregory Dempsey (David) make for a terrific ensemble of strong, carefully enunciating voices superior to many in more famous recordings. It culminates in the very nice and nicely recorded nightwatchman of Stafford Dean. He’s got a terrific voice and sings most melodiously.

“Die Meistersinger” in English works—as does the Ring—surprisingly well. (Since I’ve heard and liked the Ring, I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me.) It’s easier to understand—even for native German speakers—than most recordings in German are. Not only does English lend itself curiously well to Wagner, the pronunciation and diction of each cast member is impeccable. The translation (Frederick Jameson, revised by Norman Feasey and Gordon Kember) is terrific and has only two, three moments that compare poorly with the original to these ears.

The stage-action during the Volksfest is a hoot, a boisterous and raucous affair, realistic to the point of challenging the music. It’s excellently done: from the midst of noisy carousing arises the choir – and the exclamations of “Silentium!” really make dramatic sense. It’s a choir very charmingly engaged with all they’ve got, including early entries and all.

Goodall, Mastersingers, Act III, Entrance of the Mastersingers (excerpt), CHAN 3148 4-06

Listening to meaningful opera in the original language is hugely overrated—authenticity is worth little when it comes at the cost of incomprehension. In opera houses and on DVDs, the solution of super- or MET-titles offers a working compromise. But on CD it’s nicer to comprehend something while listening, rather than arduously trying to follow the action by reading a multi-language libretto in minuscule print. This is not supposed to be an argument to replace all your recordings of non-Italian operas (better off not understanding the text of “Il Turco”, I say) with versions done in your vernacular (not likely available, anyway), but it’s to suggest that this recording being in English need not be seen as a detriment when it can be a bonus. In any case the singing is so fine and the interpretation has so many neat moments that I rank it with a good handful of the most desirable (see list on the right) available versions.