WORKS: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
PERFORMER: Bernd Weikl, Ben Heppner, Cheryl Studer, Siegfried Lorenz, Kurt Moll, Cornelia Kallisch, Deon van der WaltBavarian State Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Wolfgang Sawallisch
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 5 55142 2 DDD
Given the formidable difficulties of mounting a performance or recording of Die Meistersinger, and the fact that the work has not had a new studio recording since Solti’s in 1976 – the two things are not unrelated – this set has unsurprisingly been keenly awaited. Much about it is excellent, though one has to confess to disappointment on several counts.
The set’s greatest asset is its Walther. The Canadian Ben Heppner emerged a few years ago as the Great White Hope and continues to fulfil his promise as the outstanding Heldentenor of his generation with each performance he gives. His tone is ample, richly coloured and thrilling in the top register, yet flexible enough to deal with finer nuances sensitively. When he sings his big number to Sachs for the first time, it really sounds like a dream inspiration. His Eva, Cheryl Studer, though dangerously ubiquitous these days, brings her usual musical intelligence to the role, lightening her voice to produce an aptly girlish quality at times.
Bernd Weikl plays Hans Sachs as a man of the people: down to earth, weary of the Masters’ pedantry, human in his dealings with Walther, Eva and his apprentice David (well sung by Deon van der Walt). But the voice lacks the weight and authority of the greatest Sachses, and his despairing cry ‘Wahn! Wahn!’ sounds like an outburst of tetchi ness rather than the prelude to a profound observation on the foibles of human nature. Siegfried Lorenz follows the misguided modern trend of dignifying Beckmesser: Wagner specifically wanted this character to sound grotesque and ridiculous. Kurt Moll’s Pogner fails to muster quite the gravity the role demands.
Wolfgang Sawallisch is an experienced Wagnerian: his recordings of The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin, though made over 30 years ago, still stand up well to the competition. His Meistersinger is a very competent affair. Its strength is its coherence and its sense of conversational flow. But its weakness is its repeated failure to rise above the level of the mundane. One has only to compare Sawallisch’s reading of the deeply meditative prelude to Act III with that of, say, Kempe to see the difference. Sawallisch remains earthbound, utterly failing to lay bare the soul-searching quality of the moment, or, I fear, of the work as a whole. Barry Millington