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What's the best recording of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg?

Robert Rowat

June 21 marks the 150th anniversary of the first performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

It may be Wagner's only comic opera — which is to say it's heartwarming, not laugh-out-loud funny — but Die Meistersinger is also a profound statement on art, articulated through a community of 16th-century mastersingers whose traditions are shaken when newcomer Walther von Stolzing enters their singing competition to win the hand of Eva. Hans Sachs, a shoemaker and mastersinger himself, puts aside his own ambitions to marry Eva, and champions Walther's cause.

Writing the opera's story occupied Wagner for 17 years, during which time he composed Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde and the Ring Cycle. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was revealed to the world on the 1868 summer solstice at Munich's National Theatre.

"My old Viennese professor, Hans Swarowsky, always had a Fangfrage or two up his sleeve — traps for the unwary," recalls conductor Timothy Vernon, founding artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria. "'What,' I remember him challenging a roomful of young conductors, 'is Wagner's one undisputed masterpiece?' After a few student murmurations — The Ring? Tristan? Parsifal? — he banged the desk and thundered: 'The text of Meistersinger!'"

While Vernon's professor had a point — the text of Die Mistersinger is a tremendous (if controversial) accomplishment — it's the opera's soaring vocal lines, powerful ensembles, moving monologues and affirming choruses that make it Wagner's most accessible score.

Die Meistersinger is also Wagner's longest opera: add two intermissions to its typical running time of four hours and 30 minutes and you're looking at a six-hour commitment. So, if you're new to the opera, we recommend familiarizing yourself with the music in advance, to ensure maximum enjoyment. (A good summer listening project, maybe?)

What's the best recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg? We put the question to five Canadian opera professionals with deep knowledge of the work:

  • Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who has sung the role of Eva many times in Vienna and Munich alongside such singers as Gösta Winberg, Peter Seiffert, Bernd Weikl, Matti Salminen and Kurt Moll. "I have such fond memories and I adored singing Eva," she says.
  • Baritone Gerald Finley, who added the role of Hans Sachs to his repertoire in 2011 at the Glyndebourne Festival and has since sung it at Opéra de Paris. He likens the role's 6,000-plus words (more than Shakespeare's Hamlet) and two-and-a-half hours of singing to running a marathon.
  • Alexander Neef, who is general director of the Canadian Opera Company and artistic director of Santa Fe Opera.
  • Tenor Ben Heppner, whose Walther von Stolzing conductor James Conlon described as "God's gift to the world." Heppner triumphed in the role at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Bavarian State Opera, to name a few, and has recorded it for EMI (see below).
  • Vernon, who has yet to conduct Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but says it's on his bucket list.

Scroll down to get their recommendations on the best recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Be advised: In true Wagnerian style, they were expansive in their endorsements.

Defence by: Adrianne Pieczonka
Chosen recording: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1993, EMI Classics

Bernd Weikl (Hans Sachs), Ben Heppner (Walther), Cheryl Studer (Eva), Deon van der Walt (David), Kurt Moll (Pogner), Siegfried Lorenz (Beckmesser), Cornelia Kalisch (Magdalena)
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor

I chose this EMI recording for several reasons. It was recorded in Munich in 1993 under Wolfgang Sawallisch. Sawallisch was not a star conductor in the same league as Herbert von Karajan or Georg Solti, but here he sits firmly at the helm of a well-rounded performance, quite in command of each and every musical component. There are perhaps moments where the orchestra seems a tad sterile — I find the overture lacking in vitality and fervour — but there are also moments of great joy and spontaneity. The members of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra could play this score in their sleep. It is their musical life blood and this œuvre is particularly revered by all in Munich.

Austrian baritone Bernd Weikl sings the role of Hans Sachs. Bernd was almost exclusively my Hans Sachs when I sang Eva. He doesn't possess a huge dramatic instrument but he manages to sing with elegance and poise even when negotiating the more demanding dramatic outbursts. His burnished baritone is perhaps not to everyone's taste as Sachs but, for me, he is completely convincing. He sings many phrases with a sort of Lieder-like delivery, sometimes using little vibrato or what's referred to as "straight tone." This is a signature trait of Bernd's and there are those who love it and others who abide it less. One can hear evidence of this style of singing at the beginning of the Fliedermonolog (Lilac monologue) in Act 2, where Sachs recalls being moved by Walther von Stolzing's singing in Act 1. Perhaps Theo Adam or Paul Schöffler were more vocally ideal singers to portray Sachs, but I have a soft spot for Bernd Weikl.

My favourite scene in the opera is the Act 2 duet between Sachs and Eva, "Gut'n Abend, Meister," which follows Sachs' monologue. I love this coy encounter as Eva tries to glean information from Sachs about Walther's performance at the master singing contest. On this EMI recording, the orchestra provides a warm cushion of velvet sound underneath this tender, flirtatious duet.

German bass Kurt Moll sings Veit Pogner. Kurt played my father often when I sang Eva. He offers one of the finest examples of great Wagner singing, his glorious and noble, resonant sound envelopes the listener and his diction is exemplary. He was a lovely man, too, very sweet and gentle.

As Walther von Stolzing we have Canadian Ben Heppner in his early vocal prime. His brilliant lyric Heldentenor is on full display on this recording. He delivers an impressive elegant trill at the end of his Act 1 aria, where he sings in front of the other masters for the first time. By the end of Act 1, he delivers gleaming top notes aplenty.

I find the duet between Stolzing and Sachs in the first part of Act 3 particularly moving — Sachs is honing and refining Stolzing's Preislied (Prize song) like a wise vocal coach. You can sense a warmth between these two singers and men. Even in a studio setting, I can imagine Bernd's eyes twinkling with approval as Ben's Lied becomes more and more inspired and imploring. Bravo, Ben.

Deon van der Walt is a lively, fleet/sweet-voiced David and we also have a young Canadian Michael Schade singing the role of one of the masters, Kunz Vogelgesang. Michael soon after began singing the role of David and we shared the stage in Meistersinger in Vienna several times.

We're also treated to the cameo of the young bass Rene Pape singing the brief but important role of Night Watchman at the end of Act 2, his impressive sonorous voice portending his later rise as one of the great Wagner singers of his generation.

Eva is sung by a sweet-voiced Cheryl Studer. I've long been an admirer of Cheryl and it was to her recordings I turned when I was learning several Wagner and Strauss heroines. She sings here with excellent diction, warmth and clarity. Perhaps there is an occasional thinness of tone during her third act outburst, "O Sachs, mein Freund," but hers is a very fine performance all round. The famous Act 3 quintet starts a bit tentatively by Studer but, joined by the other singers, it soon gains depth and beauty as the five voices weave together magically.

Having sung at the Bavarian State opera for over two decades, I have long admired their very fine chorus, and on this EMI recording we hear them in their full glory in the "Wach auf" chorus near the end of Act 3. Definitely a few goosebumps are guaranteed here! Special mention is due to chorus master Udo Mehrpohl.

Defence by: Gerald Finley
Chosen recording: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1949, Preiser Records (live recording)

Hans Hotter (Hans Sachs), Günther Treptow (Walther), Annelies Kupper (Eva), Paul Kuen (David), Max Proebstl (Pogner), Benno Kusche (Beckmesser), Ruth Michaelis (Magdalena)
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Eugen Jochum, conductor

What a pleasure to be able to consider so many recordings of a piece I am beginning to know well from the inside. Since my guides were Sawallisch — I studied the role with Richard Trimborn, assistant to Sawallisch — and Bernd Weikl, I had the pleasure of listening to Ben Heppner’s Walther many times. It is hardly matched in many of the recordings I have listened to. It is a worthy preference, but not my overwhelming choice. (Pace, Ben.)

The overwhelming challenge of this monumental work is getting everyone matched to voice, character and musical and theatrical unity. In the end, I have been edged towards the great Sachs, knowing that the burden of storytelling lies in that role. My first ever opera recording was the Deutsche Grammophon/Eugen Jochum recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Sachs. Of course, he was my hero and I thought his was the legendary performance along with Placido Domingo’s Walther. However, in recent years, I have come to appreciate the Sachs of earthy and solid humanity, a bit of glue and polish of the cobbler as well as the poet at heart. There are some worthy exponents: Thomas Stewart, Norman Bailey, Theo Adam, Otto Edelmann and a surprise was Paul Schoeffler. These last two were with Fritz Knappertsbusch, effervescent and sparkling in the score, the latter a Decca version from 1950 Vienna. The obvious name lacking is, of course, Hans Hotter.

There are a few live recordings of Hotter, but the (live) energetic and exuberant Jochum recording from Munich Bayerische Staatsoper in 1949 seems to embrace him at his immense best. For me, his awareness of the text as a Lieder singer is of great importance. He was 40, very young for a Sachs! Only Fischer-Dieskau really can match the poetic element, but obviously Hotter’s voice is galactic. He finds subtlety and grace in the tender moments with Eva, but great power, which I find overwhelming. Matched with Jochum’s wonderful pacing, I feel this is one I would listen to often for the glories of the worldly wise character, and musical intelligence and celebration. It is sourced on YouTube currently and claims to be licensed by Preiser Records, but it is not available on their website. Persevere!

Defence by: Alexander Neef
Chosen recording: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1956, EMI/Pristine Audio

Ferdinand Frantz (Hans Sachs), Rudolf Schock (Walther von Stolzing), Elisabeth Grümmer (Eva), Gerhard Unger (David), Gottlob Frick (Pogner), Benno Kusche (Beckmesser), Marga Höffgen (Magdalena)
Berlin Philharmonic, Choruses of Deutsche Oper Berlin and St. Hedwig's Cathedral
Rudolf Kempe, conductor

For aficionados, Rudolf Kempe is a bit of an open secret. He didn’t record a lot of opera, but just about everything he did was spot-on. Being the wonderful conductor that he was, Kempe’s command of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is stunning and it simply hasn’t been equalled since. He deftly avoids being overly analytical and it ends up being quite a fun reading; I like that you can feel the enjoyment of everyone involved.

The opera also requires a cast that can rise to the task of performing it. Ferdinand Frantz, who sings Hans Sachs, was a fairly seasoned bass-baritone and delivers a solid vocal interpretation. Elizabeth Grümmer sings Eva and is one of the most wonderful German sopranos of the post-war period. And though it was unusual casting for Stolzing with Rudolf Schock, he did a couple of thrilling opera recordings and this was one of them.

My personal favourite honourable mention is Gottlob Frick as Eva’s father, Pogner. He comes from the same region in Germany as I do and when he sings, he can’t quite shake his accent – it’s a very particular dialect that I was raised with so hearing his Swabian inflection always makes me smile. It’s familiar.

The context of this recording is also particularly interesting. We’re talking about an opera that is essentially a celebration of German culture, being recorded in 1956 Berlin, just 11 years after the war; politically, Wagner was tainted. But given that the piece is a comedy and this was a time when people needed some levity back in their lives, this recording seems to represent a step toward finding new meaning again.

Defence by: Ben Heppner
Chosen recording: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1967, Arts Archives

Thomas Stewart (Hans Sachs), Sándor Kónya (Walther), Gundula Janowitz (Eva), Gerhard Unger (David), Thomas Hemsley (Beckmesser), Franz Crass (Pogner), Brigitte Fassbaender (Magdalene)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Rafael Kubelík, conductor

My choice for best Meistersinger recording is from 1967.

I identify strongly with the role of Walther von Stolzing, so that’s where I’ll start. He was my alter ego for about 15 years starting in 1989 and we know each other well. He’s passionate and hard-headed and needs a tenor who walks a fine line between the lyrical and the heroic. For me Sándor Kónya is the guy.

I’d gotten to know Kónya’s voice over the past 30 years or so, mostly as an operetta singer. But back in the 1960s, no one could touch his Lohengrin. I love his approach to singing. He’s lyrical and soft-grained, and just when you think he has reached the end of his expressive range, he shifts gears and finds a kind of turbo boost in the "Prieslied." He wins the girl and is my choice for Walther.

Die Meistersinger rises and falls on the cobbler-turned-philosopher Hans Sachs. And here’s where Thomas Stewart shines. His performance is finely shaded with a kind of baritonal surround sound that warms my ears like a Wagnerian toque. I can feel his emotions stretch to the breaking point when he steps aside from the contest and gives the nod to the younger Stolzing.

Gundula Janowitz brings a beautiful sound to her reading of Eva. I should note her fervour and passion right at the beginning of the Act 3 quintet. It’s among the best I’ve heard.

I should also mention Gerhard Unger for his fabulous work as David. There are times in the voice lesson section of Act 1 that had me laughing at his exasperation with the undisciplined Walther. There's nobody better in my books.

And bringing it all together is the amazing conductor Raphael Kubelik. This guy just lives and breathes Wagner. He glues everything together with flexible tempos and dynamic range. And even though he’s always in control, he makes the climaxes just bubble with emotional intensity. Five out of five goosebumps from me.

Defence by: Timothy Vernon
Chosen recording: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1955, Orfeo (live recording)

Paul Schöffler (Hans Sachs), Hans Beirer (Walther vn Stolzing), Irmgard Seefried (Eva), Murray Dickie (David), Gottlob Frick (Pogner), Erich Kunz (Beckmesser), Rosette Anday (Magdalena)
Vienna State Opera and Chorus
Fritz Reiner, conductor

The Kempe and Sawallisch versions being spoken for, I've chosen the Vienna 1955 recording from a live performance in the old/new Staatsoper. Fritz Reiner was one of the great monstermaestri (there is a clip of him glaring down the line of Chicago's first violins with an expression that would fit directly into the later raptor-ridden frames of Jurassic Park). Pitiless, exigent, a block of ice to Toscanini's boiling pot, his temperament offers an excellent corrective to the occasional bloated excess of the "great tradition," and indeed he strips off a few layers of hypergermanic interpretive encrustation in this carefully rehearsed performance. (Once asked if he would like, there being time left, to re-record Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils with a view to making it "more sensual," his response was characteristic: "No.")

The Viennese were adjusting to the restored house, having become fond of the greater intimacy of opera’s temporary home in the Theater an der Wien. This spare new Wieland Wagner production was dubbed "Meistersinger without Nürnberg." The singers had been unable to travel much during the 10-year occupation by the Four Powers; an indescribable ensemble sense developed. The orchestra, too, plays with a profound awareness that is deeply satisfying. Arriving 11 years after this taping to begin studies in Vienna, I heard all these singers live onstage from my few square inches sardined into the standing-room areas along with fellow students and indigent devotees.

Schöffler’s Sachs fits him like a well-worn cobbler’s apron. Hans Beirer never had Ben Heppner's spun-gold line, but he sings Walther with detail, poise, expressiveness and excellent text (true of everyone here). It is a treat to hear Gottlob Frick, warmly paternal here as Pogner, certainly compared to a later, more famous father (Hagen); Irmgard Seefried, beloved in this house, is youthful and endearing. For me, a real highlight is the Beckmesser of the, in many ways, incomparable Erich Kunz (whose 60-year-old Papageno was still the most winning I’ve ever seen). Somehow, with that lighter, immediately identifiable baritone, he gives us every pedantic nuance along with the self-importance (and self-pity), yet we end up forgiving, perhaps liking, him.

Even Reiner may not quite dispel the historical shadows that filter the sunshine of Johannestag in the finale’s Volksfest, an all-capitals apotheosis of Deutschtum. I’ve always savoured the irony that Goethe’s Wagner — Faust’s assistant, soon replaced by Mephistopheles — early in the drama expresses his disdain for popular holidays and noisy public celebrations. Let’s be grateful that R.W. — the real Meistersinger — has given us this finale. Its C-major jubilation almost drowns out those other Nürnberg rallies. One can live in the beautiful world he has composed.

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