WAGNER: Die Meistersinger
Paul Schöffler (Hans Sachs); Gottlob Frick (Veit Pogner); Eberhard Waechter (Konrad Nachtingall); Erich Kunz (Sixtus Beckmesser); Hans Braun (Fritz Kothner); Hans Beirer (Walther von Stoltzing); Murray Dickie (David); Irmgard Seefried (Eva); Rosette Anday (Magdalene); Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orch/Fritz Reiner, cond.
ORFEO C 667 054L (4 CDs) (F) (M)

During the final days of World War 2, Allied bombers reduced Vienna’s hallowed Hofoper an der Ringstrasse to rubble. It took more than 10 years to rebuild, by which time the name (if not the location) had been changed to the Wiener Staatsoper. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, seat of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, was no more; now it was a “state” theater, whose place had been served by the smaller but even more historic Theater an der Wien. But it was the Hofoper in which Mahler reigned for a decade, where Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss, Clemens Krauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Karl Böhm had numbered among its conductors. When the Staatsoper was reinaugurated in 1955, Böhm was once more in charge for a four-week festival of seven operas, beginning with Fidelio and ending with Wozzeck. Don Giovanni followed Beethoven, then Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier, Verdi’s Aida and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg before Berg. Böhm conducted six of them with only a single guest conductor – Fritz Reiner, his predecessor once-removed at the Semperoper in Dresden, which had likewise been destroyed by British bombs two years earlier as Winston Churchill’s revenge for the Nazi bombing of Coventry Cathedral.

Why choose Reiner, who was little-known in Central Europe after his departure from Dresden in 1921 for a career in the U.S.? He already had two seasons under his belt as music director of the Chicago SO, but the recordings that spread his and the orchestra’s fame worldwide had only begun in 1954 and none were yet released in Europe. It was learned soon enough, after Böhm made his American debut in Chicago, that he was Reiner’s first choice as successor whenever the time should come. It was not be, and on the basis of Böhm’s heavy-handed performances, just as well; he proved to be happier at the NY Metropolitan, where Reiner had conducted before Chicago beckoned. It was learned a good deal later that his Vienna Meistersinger had resulted in the Philharmonic’s invitation for Reiner to conduct their Mozart bicentennial concert at Salzburg on January 27, 1956, but Reiner’s president back home, the provincially imperious Dr. Eric Olberg, had vetoed the appearance, saying in effect, “What is Salzburg compared to your schedule here?” (when Reiner was leading 23 of the CSO’s downtown 30-week season). Reiner returned to the former Habsburg capital in 1956 to record for London Decca under a lend-lease agreement with American RCA, and the Philharmonic players – the cream of the Staatsoper orchestra then as now –parried for 15 minutes before they conceded that, in the conductor’s proud words, “Reiner is iron!”

That iron, backpedaling to November 1955, was startling not only in the capacious pit of the new Staatsoper but on its larger stage, less intimate than audiences had expected, farther away to boot, with quite different acoustics than veteran listeners had been used to in the smaller Hofoper. Reiner’s Meistersinger proved controversial, although most dissenters tended to blame the new house itself. But his Wagner was interpretively different than the gemütlich Viennese were used to, especially in the interim Theater der Wien. He scraped off some of the Aryan political barnacles that characterized many performances since 1933 of what had been Hitler’s favorite work, and brought a brio to passages that had sometimes been sentimentally distended in the past. Certainly it was a work Reiner loved, and finally to hear it remastered on CD (whereas pirated versions on LP had been sonically compromised) is to validate Reiner as a master Wagnerian – a Meisterdirigent so to speak. The cast is by and large superb, although tenor Hans Beirer (as Walther von Stolzing, then new to the company) was slated by a collegium of Beckmessers in the press as well as in the paying seats. Yet we hear a tenor who would be welcome today, in the company of such midcentury singing luminaries as Irmgard Seefried (Eva), Gottlob Frick (Pogner), Erich Kunz (Beckmesser), Murray Dickie (David), Eberhard Wächter (Nachtigall, at the beginning of his career; later he would become the Vienna Opera’s director before an untimely death), Rosette Anday (Magdalene), Hans Braun (Kothner), and primus inter pares, Paul Schoeffler in the pivotal role of Hans Sachs. He was a special favorite in Vienna, as he’d been after the war at the Metropolitan (as well as Orest in Reiner’s 1956 concert versionof Elektra, truncated no thanks to RCA -- one of the Alpine achievements in his Chicago career). There may have been more beautiful voices than Schoeffler’s as Sachs, but this was after all a man of middle-years and the soul of 15th-century Nürnberg. The sound on these four CDs is commendable, although obviously a live performance with certain imbalances necessitated by Herbert Graf’s stage direction. But it is so much finer and clearer than anything heard heretofore of a mixed-review performance that one can finally enjoy in its entirety, among other pleasures, a Meistersinger which doesn’t need five discs or three sittings. Reiner could be iron, but he could be tender, too (listen to the Sachs/Eva exchanges in Act 2, or the 6' 43" Quintet in Act 3). I’d rather hear this than the several others old and new that have played on turntables, open-reel, cassettes and LP before Orfeo d’Or’s vindication.

R.D. May 2006