Masterful Meistersinger

WAGNER’S OPERAS ARE now all available on records, uncut, each of them in several splendid-sounding versions. Yet Wagner is still a very difficult composer to get to know through recordings. During the period of the greatest Wagner singing, the years between the wars, the limitations of 78-rpm records made complete recordings virtually a practical impossibility. A few superb, more or less complete performances, privately recorded either in the opera house or as they came over the radio, have survived and been issued, but the recorded sound is so poor as to put off (and mislead) any listener who does not already know the music thoroughly. Since the Second World War—or, more accurately, since the reopening of Bayreuth, in 1951—stage directors, in a misguided attempt to make Wagner “relevant” (and thus to erase all associations of his work with Nazi Germany), have resorted to ever zanier productions. The distortion of Wagner’s clearly expressed intentions that has resulted from such tactics has, understandably, had a disastrous effect on singers. Wagner’s operas, perhaps more than any others, were conceived as wholes—Gesamtkunstwerke— and the significance of the music, from individual phrases to large-scale formal structures, is primarily determined by the stage action. If that action and the scene in which it is supposed to be taking place are misrepresented, so too will the music be. Thus it is all but impossible to find in the recent complete recordings either the depth of individual characterization or the sharp and knowledgeable dramatic interplay among characters suggested by the surviving prewar recordings, flawed as they are.

Occasionally, however, one can have the best of both worlds. There are several performances that were recorded in good postwar sound by artists who had learned their craft before the war. One of the most interesting of these performances is the 1949 Munich Die Meistersinger recently issued on the Melodram label (set 428, available for $54.90 plus $2.00 postage and handling from German News Co., Inc., 220 East 86th Street, New York, New York 10028). The excellent conductor is Eugen Jochum, and the singers, though few of them are internationally famous, all sing very well and all know their own and the other roles thoroughly. The result is a rare blend of delight and illumination,

probably the best all-round Die Meistersinger ever issued. The miracle of this performance is Hans Hotter’s portrayal of Sachs, surely one of the finest operatic characterizations ever captured on records and one that has, to my knowledge, never before been commercially available.

The great problem with Die Meistersinger has always been its first act. Act II touchingly depicts the relation between Sachs and Eva, and then leads effortlessly to the comic intrigue of Walther’s and Eva’s attempted elopement, Beckmesser’s wooing song, and the ensuing street brawl. The first half of Act III shows us Sachs gradually bringing to realization Walther’s Prize Song (and with it the romance between Walther and Eva); the second half is pure, irresistible pageantry. Act I, which is mainly occupied with David’s attempt to teach Walther the elaborate rules and techniques of the Mastersingers and then with Walther’s failure to please the Masters with his singing, almost always seems static by comparison. Part of the reason is that Sachs, who is to dominate the work, does not even appear until the action is well under way, and that he then has very little to do. But as Hotter’s performance makes clear, that little brilliantly prepares us for what is to follow.

As the Masters assemble for the Singschule at which Walther is to be heard and judged, the most prominent of them, Kothner and Eva’s father, Pogner (sung on this recording by Karl Mücke and Max Proebstl, respectively), are rhetorical, stentorian, even pompous—as befits men of their station on such a public occasion. But Hotter’s Sachs, almost from his first words, is sharply different: sensitive, personal, quietly making his presence instantly felt. After Pogner has announced that he will give his daughter’s hand to the Master who wins the singing contest on the following day (but that if she refuses, she may never marry thereafter), Sachs protests that he may be going a bit far in this attempt to glorify the Masters and their art. Usually this brief protestation slips by almost unnoticed, but Hotter, intimate yet authoritative, invests it with deep concern and understanding. After Walther has sung, and has been duly reproved by Beckmesser and the other Masters, Hotter is again eloquent as Sachs tells them that this time they are all going too far.

By characterizing Sachs so sharply right from the beginning, Hotter places all of Act I in a clearer light than usual, calling attention to its many detailed anticipations of Act III and thus making us see the whole opera as a giant arch, a satisfyingly symmetrical structure. More important, he makes the complex Sachs who emerges at the beginning of Act II not seem to have come out of nowhere. Throughout Acts II and III, Hotter, making every word and gesture count and yet never overacting, gives us a Sachs who is capable not only of the kindness, generosity, and homely wisdom traditionally associated with the role but also of sudden, intense bursts of anger and self-disgust. The two great monologues are full of beautifully modulated internal conflict, and the grief and bitterness that Hotter gives to Sachs’s reaction to the Prize Song, when Walther sings its third verse for him and for Eva in Act III, provide, for once, a fully comprehensible motivation for Eva’s impassioned outburst, “O Sachs! mein Freund!” Describing this moment in his interesting book Wagner and “Die Meistersinger,” Robert M. Rayner notes cozily that Eva is “not to be taken in by [Sachs’s] affectation of gruffness.” And so the scene is usually played—but not in this performance. As there is nothing affected in Sachs’s inward-turning rage and frustration, so there is nothing arch in Eva’s declaration that she would give herself to Sachs if she could.

SACHS, AS HOTTER portrays him, is not the kindly but wily manipulator we encounter in most performances; he is rather a character who, like Eva and Walther, grows in self-knowledge over the course of the drama. We witness, with a mixture of pain and admiration, his gradual realization and resigned suppression of his own desire for Eva, and his final energetic return to the familiar public role he has carved out for himself. The other characters are portrayed with almost equal vividness. Günther Treptow and Annelies Kupper are an ardent pair of lovers; Benno Kusche’s Beckmesser is keen-spirited and full-bodied, never a mere caricature; even Fritz Richard Bender’s earnest and soulful Nightwatchman is a small comic masterpiece. Jochum’s pacing and shaping of the music is naturally and unaffectedly responsive throughout, and the playing of the Munich orchestra, while not technically up to the level of that found on the best recent recordings, is more than adequate.

The argument posed by Die Meistersinger concerns the relations between old and new, craft and inspiration, in the creation of art (and perhaps also in the living of life). The solution offered lies not in any simple-minded advocacy of inspiration and novelty over craft and tradition but rather in synthesis and compromise. Wagner was himself a far more craftsmanlike composer than he is usually made out to be, and each of his mature operas exemplifies the spirit of compromise explicitly dramatized in Die Meistersinger. But he is also the most difficult of great composers to do justice to, the one most easily and most frequently misrepresented. It requires a performance of this magnitude to make his message fully clear.