RECORDS: Scoring high marks for musical mastery: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on Sawallisch's new recording of Wagner's Die Meistersinger

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The Independent Culture
THE first digital recording of Die Meistersinger - can it really be? Yes, it can: there hasn't been a new recording in almost 20 years. That's about half as long as Wolfgang Sawallisch has been conducting the piece. Already the auguries are good. For if ever a piece benefited from a long and intimate courtship, this is it. Readings mature slowly, age gracefully. Die Meistersinger is as much about tradition as inspiration. So Sawallisch, the elder statesman, enters the prelude with self-evident authority, the euphonious, well-upholstered sound of the Bavarian State Orchestra holding court. Now there's the sound of tradition - mellow and comfortable. Handsome recording, too, the soundstage opening up spectacularly to take in church and vociferous congregation in the opening scene. The Bavarian State Opera Chorus are all you would expect them to be, and more, the big set-pieces greatly enhanced, ennobled by their presence - though the amazing vocal counterpoint of the Act 2 riot (astonishingly well engineered here) might have come off the reins a bit more.

Casting has been executed with a keen ear for vocal character. Kurt Moll's rolling tones exemplify the wisdom and seniority of Pogner just as surely as the homely, benevolent sound of Bernd Weikl's Sachs suggests a man you can trust. His malleable, effortlessly produced voice is at once kindly and plain-speaking. Then there is Siegfried Lorenz's Beckmesser, quick of tongue through the patter of vindictiveness, but finding also the dulcet nuances so essential to his credibility as a 'meistersinger'. Ben Heppner's Walther von Stolzing is a resounding success, an ideal blend of the lyric and heroic, sensitively, resourcefully sung. Of course it's hard to put the burnished Domingo sound out of your head, but Heppner is certainly more inside the text. His Eva, Cheryl Studer, is fine, though the brightness of the top is somewhat shrilly caught here, and there really isn't that radiance, that frisson of wonder as she leads the heavenly Act 3 quintet.

By then we should be well and truly transported. I wasn't - quite. Paradoxically, Die Meistersinger is all about the elusiveness of high art, the magic of inspiration. And there are moments here where that inner light, that elusive quality of rapture is missing; and others (such as the final scene) where you just wish Sawallisch would throw his hat in the air. But that's not his style. This is a worthy, illuminating Meistersinger, but not a great one. Few are. ES

IT IS possible to loathe Parsifal, all four of the Ring dramas, even Tristan, and still warm to Die Meistersinger. For one thing it's a comedy - an unusually rich comedy, full of wit, zest for life, pathos and earthy wisdom. For another, there's a happy ending, with no tortuous eulogies to chastity or world renunciation. The lovers are united; youth and age, innovation and tradition, are reconciled. And in writing the music, Wagner seems to have had a fit of melodic generosity - no other Wagner score is so densely packed with good tunes. Not everyone will feel like joining in the hymn to 'Holy German Art' at the end, but how much should we view that with hindsight, if at all?

For this first new Meistersinger to appear in nearly 20 years, Sawallisch's request that the recording be made as near as possible 'as live' has paid off. This is a studio Meistersinger with an unusually compelling sense of dramatic shape. The build-up to the closing scene, and the final ardent flowering of Walther's song, are handled as surely as in a great symphony, while the orchestral tone and expression are full and mellow.

But this is no mere symphony with voices. A large cast, with no weak performances and several strong ones, is a rare luxury in modern operatic recordings - but that's what we have here. Ben Heppner's Walther is glorious, the tone strong and rounded, the melodic lines sweeping and shapely, but always balanced by feeling for the words. Bernd Weikl's Sachs is another well-matured performance, not perhaps as sharply profiled as Fischer- Dieskau (with Eugen Jochum) - but some Wagnerians will like it all the more for that. His exchanges with Siegfried Lorenz's Beckmesser in Act 2 are genuinely funny, but not overacted. Cheryl Studer's recent Covent Garden Aida and Wagner- Strauss lieder disc may have caused a few ripples of critical alarm, but her Eva is persuasive and vocally firm.

I could go on listing choice vocal moments - Friedemann Kunder's brief but lovely Night Watchman's song at the end of Act 2, for instance - but it would be a major error to miss out the chorus. Aside from questionable hymns to unsullied German culture, there is an aspect of Meistersinger which speaks to Bavarians in much the same way as Vaughan Williams speaks to English ears, and perhaps it's not wildly fanciful to say that something of this comes over in the singing of the Staatsoper choir, whether in Lutheran chorales, folksongs or echt-Wagnerian opulence. The recording brings the voices well forward, but makes sure that next to nothing of the fertile orchestral writing is lost. This is an outstanding achievement: it may take another 20 years before anyone is able to match it. SJ

EMI CDS 5 55142 2

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