Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Hermann Nissen (bass-baritone), Hans Sachs; Herbert Alsen (bass), Veit Pogner; Maria Reining (soprano), Eva Pogner; Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo-soprano), Magdalene; Henk Noort (tenor), Walther von Stolzing; Hermann Wiedemann (baritone), Sixtus Beckmessser; Richard Sallaba, (tenor), David. Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic/Arturo Toscanini, cond.
Andante AND3040 (F) (4 CDs) (ADD) TT: 4:13:44

In the summer of 1937 Arturo Toscanini returned to the Salzburg Festival to conduct performances of four operas—Fidelio, Die Zauberflöte, Falstaff, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. These were his final appearances at the Festival. After the Nazis took control of Austria, Arturo Toscanini did not return to Salzburg. Although Toscanini lived another two decades and remained extremely active as a conductor, he never again led a complete performance of a staged opera. For these reasons the 1937 Toscanini Salzburg operas assume a unique importance in the Italian conductor’s life and art. Each of the operas was broadcast and recorded, although the Fidelio broadcast was lost during the war. Until now public issue of these treasures has been limited to horrid, off-the-air transcriptions, suffering from the kind of cramped dynamic range, surface noise, distortion, and pitch fluctuation that would intimidate the most veteran collector of historic recordings. Indeed, if Toscanini’s name were not associated with these Salzburg recordings, I doubt most people would make the effort to wade through them.

But the Toscanini performances were also recorded in-house on the Selenophone, a film stock machine that allowed for quite acceptable sound preservation and reproduction. Seth B. Winner, an expert in sound restoration, was able to use an original Selenophone to transfer the recordings to tape. At this point, Ward Marston, one of the true artists in remastering historic performances, took over. Through an extraordinarily detailed and time-consuming—described in his booklet essay that accompanies this release of the Salzburg Meistersinger—Marston was able adjust the recording to proper pitch, fill in some missing gaps, and remove literally hundreds of pops and clicks that are typical of recordings made on film stock. Marston’s brilliant remastering of Winner’s Selenophone transfer has now been issued by Andante.
Ward Marston comments: “it was a joy for me to remaster this recording.” And indeed we are the fortunate beneficiaries of his labor of love. While the sound reproduction of the Toscanini Meistersinger does not equal that of contemporaneous studio recordings, it has been improved beyond all recognition. The sound is remarkably clear, with the voices and instruments emerging with impressive focus and definition. Balance between the voices and orchestra is also quite realistic, although the winds are given slightly undue prominence. Except for a few spots, distortion and surface noise are relatively minimal. In short, Seth Winner and Ward Marston have removed the sonic barriers that, to date, have prevented true enjoyment and appreciation of this Meistersinger.

And what a Meistersinger it is! Toscanini, a relentless perfectionist, wrote afterwards: “I am still vibrant from my efforts. The performance took place in an infinitely poetic atmosphere. I can’t begin to tell you of the joy of the audience and performers, all of them!” That joy is evident throughout. From the very opening measures of the great Act I Prelude, this is a Meistersinger full of lyricism, energy, spirit, and celebration of life.

Not surprisingly, Toscanini presides over a performance of uncommon unity and razor-sharp execution (some brass fluffs in the final scene of Act III, notwithstanding). Some, however, may be surprised by Toscanini’s frequent use of broad tempos and elasticity of phrasing. These were, in fact, widely recognized elements of Toscanini’s conducting art throughout his career, both in Wagner and other composers as well. Perhaps these qualities were not so readily apparent in Toscanini’s most famous recordings, made in the final decade of the Maestro’s long life. But that is precisely why such performances as this Meistersinger (Toscanini’s only complete recording of a Wagner opera), the 1933 Beethoven Fifth with the New York Philharmonic (Naxos 8.110840), and the 1940 Verdi Requiem are such irreplaceable treasures (I’ll review a new Music and Arts reissue of the Requiem in the near future). If and when the 1937 Salzburg Falstaff is released with improved sound, a comparison with Toscanini’s legendary 1950 RCA recording will provide similar contrasts and insights.

Toscanini’s cast in this Meistersinger is worthy of the conductor and the festival setting in which this performance took place. All of the singers display remarkable stamina, sounding as fresh at the conclusion as at the beginning—no small achievement in this marathon opera! Another common element among the singers (again typical of a Toscanini performance) is the crystal-clear diction and their relishing of each and every syllable of Wagner’s text. Indeed, there is never a moment of routine by any of the vocalists.

Bass-baritone Hans Hermann Nissen is a first-rate Sachs, with the kind of warm, attractive timbre, and humanity one seeks in this most sympathetic role. His dialogues with Eva (sung by soprano Maria Reining in her most youthful and radiant voice) are as touching as I’ve heard. This is also a Sachs with a sense of humor, apparent in the Act II scene where the cobbler has fun at the expense of the pedantic town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser. That role is assumed by baritone Hermann Wiedemann, who manages both to sing in highly musical fashion (including an impressive top “A” in Act III) and offer a highly detailed characterization that never lapses into mere caricature.
Tenor Henk Noort has a bright, youthful voice that rings out with impressive ardor, focus, and power. He is certainly one of the better Walthers on disc. Bass Herbert Alsen offers an uncommonly tender portrait of Eva’s father, Veit Pogner. This father’s love and affection for his daughter are never in doubt. Mezzo Kerstin Thorborg and tenor Richard Sallaba are a capital Magdalene and David. The wonderful group of mastersingers includes the young Anton Dermota as Balthasar Zorn. In short, this is certainly one of the finest readings of Wagner’s comic masterpiece. It certainly is a must for anyone interested in Wagner, Toscanini—or for that matter, great opera performances.

Andante’s deluxe packaging includes a hardbound book with essays, performer biographies, a complete libretto with English translation, and numerous photos, including several from the Salzburg production. It’s hard to imagine a classical recording issue of greater importance than this Andante release of the Toscanini Salzburg Meistersinger. It is the kind of project that deserves the highest accolades and support. Now, Andante, would it be too much to ask for a similar release of the Toscanini Salzburg Falstaff?

K.M. (August 2003)