Toscanini’s Meistersinger – Andante: Tim Ashley reviews in-depth this important recording in the discographical history of Wagner’s opera

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Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hans Sachs – Hans Hermann Nissen
Veit Pogner – Herbert Alsen
Eva – Maria Reining
Magdalene – Kerstin Thorborg
Walther von Stoltzing – Henk Noort
David – Richard Sallaba
Kunz Vogelgesang – Georg Maikl
Konrad Nachtigall – Rolf Telasco
Sixtus Beckmesser – Hermann Wiedemann
Fritz Kothner – Viktor Madin
Balthasar Zorn – Anton Dermota
Ulrich Eisslinger – Eduard Frisch
Augustin Moser – Hermann Gallos
Hermann Ortel – Alfred Muzzarelli
Hans Schwarz / The Nightwatchman – Carl Bissuti
Hans Foltz – Karl Ettl

Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini

Recorded in the Festspielhaus, Salzburg in August 1937

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: March 2004
(4 CDs)
Duration: NULL



This is a hugely important issue, though some, I suspect, might find it frustrating. Taken from an Austrian radio broadcast from the 1937 Salzburg Festival, this is the first commercial release of Toscanini’s only extant complete performance of one of Wagner’s operas, and as such is a document of immeasurable significance. Most Wagnerians, however, if pressed on the matter, would probably express regret that Meistersinger should be the work in question. If only one of Toscanini’s Wagner performances were to survive intact, many would argue, then ideally it should have been either Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal, the two works on which his formidable reputation as a Wagner interpreter primarily rests.

Headed by Ernest Newman, an entire generation of critics unanimously maintained that his 1930-31 Bayreuth performances of both works were not only definitive, but were, quite simply, the greatest examples of Wagner conducting they had ever heard, an opinion that now strikes us as remarkable on a number of counts. The fragments of Tristan and Parsifal that Toscanini recorded in his NBC days certainly don’t warrant such a judgement. At this point we must also remember, however, that many, at the time, considered that his NBC performances, in general, revealed a weakening of his interpretative power and a growing rigidity in his conducting.

Many who heard those Bayreuth performances would also soon become familiar with the interpretations of Reiner, Bodanzky, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber and Leinsdorf, all of whom we can now hear conducting one or both works, often with remarkable results. It’s hard to imagine a better Tristan than Erich Kleiber’s or a more engrossing Parsifal than Bodanzky’s (also on Myto, an astonishing performance, despite poor sound). Leinsdorf’s reputation as a stolid Wagnerian, based on his commercial recordings, meanwhile, is in the process of re-assessment in the light of the appearance of a number of live pre-war performances from the Met, of which his Tristan (on Naxos Historical) is one of his finest.

The absence of a complete performance of either Tristan or Parsifal in Toscanini’s vast archive, meanwhile, becomes all the more aggravating when we realise that descriptions of his Bayreuth performances confound virtually every assumption commonly held about his work. Most of us think of him as a conductor who favoured speed, yet at Bayreuth, where every performance is meticulously timed, his Tristan and Parsifal remain the longest on record. The high voltage energy that many of us also associate with Toscanini was also seemingly replaced with slow, inexorable gradations of sound and effect that built gradually with overwhelming intensity.

His Meistersinger, in contrast, very much divided opinion. Klemperer heard him conduct it at La Scala in 1923 and later remarked, “I can say nothing about it but that I have never heard a similarly perfect musical realisation of the work in any theatre in the world”. Others, however, were not so sure. Some considered it too ’Italianate’. One American critic, discussing his handling of the Act One Prelude, witheringly described it as “a parade of Florentine nobles”.

Meistersinger was, however, the Wagner opera that Toscanini conducted most frequently. Some of his critics have consequently assumed that it was his favourite of the composer’s works. This remains unproven, though the opera was both central to his repertoire and curiously crops up at major points in his biography. He first conducted it, aged 31, in Turin in 1898, in the days when he was very much a Wagner hothead, deeming him “the greatestcomposer of the century,” and sometimes championing his works at the expense of the Italian repertory.

It was from a production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth in 1933 that Toscanini famously withdrew after the Nazi acquisition of power. The 1937 Salzburg performances were among his last major engagements in Europe and the Act One Prelude was the last piece he ever conducted in public, at the close of an all-Wagner concert in 1954. Later in life, however, it would seem his attitude towards Wagner mellowed a bit. Verdi, with whom his name is now invariably linked, was becoming increasingly more important to him, and during the 1936 Salzburg festival, where he was conducting both works, he famously compared Meistersinger toFalstaff and found it wanting. “Meistersinger is a magnificent opera,” he stated, “but Falstaff is really something different … Falstaff is the absolute masterpiece and Meistersinger is an outstanding Wagnerian opera. Just think for a moment how many musical means – beautiful ones, certainly – Wagner must make use of to describe the Nuremberg night. And look at how Verdi gets a similarly startling effect from just three notes.”

His comments are frequently interpreted as a statement of his own aesthetic values, in which concise directness of expression was all-important, though they may also have political overtones. Many anti-fascist writers and intellectuals in the 1930s, among them Heinrich Mann (elder brother of Thomas) and Franz Werfel (Alma Mahler’s third husband) held up Verdi’s anti-authoritarian operas as a radical counter to Wagner’s inherently racist, totalitarian stance and to the often engulfing power of his music.

No assessment of any performance of Meistersinger – particularly if it took place between 1933 and 1945 – can leave politics out of account. The Nazis, of course, had appropriated Wagner as their musical rallying cry, and Meistersinger and Parsifal were the works that most suited their ends. Arguments that the meanings of Wagner’s subjects, symbolic or otherwise, were twisted out of recognition in the process don’t always wash. Wagner was appropriated by the far right because there are elements in his work that map onto fascist ideology. Such elements may have been given undue prominence in fascist interpretations, but that does not mean we should explain them away or ignore their presence.

Parsifal, whatever its deeper philosophical underpinnings, deals with a self-elected military elite obsessed with the idea of pure blood and attempting to rescue its totemic icons from ’defilement’. Meistersinger depicts bourgeois culture being redefined by a natural aristocrat (Walther) and purged of internal elements that undermine its integrity. ’Holy German art’, notoriously invoked in the opera’s closing scene, is revitalised and strengthened by the process of expelling Beckmesser, who is perceived throughout as the ’enemy within’. That Wagner meant Beckmesser to be ananti-Semitic caricature is an issue ducked by many critics, thoughpainstaking research carried out by Barry Millington and Stewart Spencer in the 1980s and 90s has proved Wagner’s intentions beyond dispute.

Anti-Semitism very nearly wrecked Toscanini’s 1937 Meistersinger, in fact. With the Anschluss looming, a deal was struck between the Austrian and German radio companies to broadcast that year’s Salzburg and Bayreuth performances in both countries. The Nazi authorities, however, suddenly decided to quash the project when they realised that the Salzburg performances of Le nozze di Figaro were to be conducted by Bruno Walter, who as early as 1933 had been a victim of their racism. Toscanini, incensed, threatened to withdraw from the festival. It was Walter who persuaded him to return with a letter that now strikes us as desperately sad. “Salzburg is perhaps the last non-political place where art still has a roof over its head,” Walter wrote. “I repeat that we need you”. In the end, a queasy calm was reached and the broadcasts went ahead as originally planned (Walter’s 1937 Figaro, though not his best performance of the work, is also available on Andante). Salzburg, meanwhile, was not to remain “non-political” for long, and the following year, when Meistersinger was revived, Furtwängler rather than Toscanini was in the pit.

The 1937 Meistersinger must therefore be assessed against this complex background. We are dealing with a committed anti-fascist’s interpretation of a work that had already been drafted in to form part of Nazi iconography, and consequently we must consider whether the opera itself could be also re-interpreted as a radical counter to the ideology of those who had actually appropriated it.

Too much prominence, of late, has tended to be given to recordings from Nazi Germany or its occupied territories as critics discuss the relative merits of the extant performances by Furtwängler (Bayreuth, 1942, on various labels), Abendroth (Bayreuth, 1943, on Preiser) and Böhm (Vienna, 1944, also on Preiser). We are, I think, in danger of losing the wider picture. In addition to Toscanini’s achievement, there are also the extant Met performances by Bodanzky (1936, on Guild) and Leinsdorf (1939, on Walhall, in exceptional sound). Bodanzky, it should be remembered, was one of Toscanini’s co-signatories on the famous letter sent in 1933 to the Nazi authorities protesting against their anti-Semitic policies. Leinsdorf, meanwhile, abandoned conducting to join the US forces during the Second World War. His performance, taped after hostilities had already broken out in Europe, is one of the greatest of all Meistersingers. The cast, with a few exceptions, is drawn from European exiles, and the whole thing blazes with a unique fury at the thought of ’holy German art’ being under threat from the Nazis, its only true enemy.

Toscanini’s performance inhabits comparable territory, though his approach is less overtly angry, more reflective than Leinsdorf’s. In some respects he sees Meistersinger as complementary to the Ring, in that the dominant conflict opposes love with power structures, whether they be social strictures or the Mastersingers’ endlessly convoluted rules. Few conductors have quite so sharply delineated the differences between the work’s erotic, social and ritual elements. The pattern is set early in the Prelude, when the theme associated with Walther’s and Eva’s love suddenly throws the whole pompous musical edifice into complete chromatic disarray, before the gossipy woodwind chatter of the Apprentices restores some sort of tonal and rhythmic security.

Extreme speeds and careful emphasis on Wagner’s often startling juxtapositions of chromatic and diatonic music are integral to the performance’s impact. Walther’s Act One Trial Song is taken at an extraordinary lick, its wild harmonies seeming almost out of control after the almost Handelian propriety with which Kothner elaborates the Mastersingers’ rules. As the lovers contemplate flight into the Midsummer night, Toscanini brings the score to a virtual standstill. The mood is far from chaste at this point. Toscanini envisions Walther and Eva as very much drawn together by intense sexual feelings rather than being a pair ofRomantic dreamers. The rapt string phrases, unfolding with exquisite slowness, give us a brief insight into just what his Tristan might have been like, as well as reminding us that the whole passage is very close to the music that Verdi provided for Fenton and Nannetta in Falstaff. It is a moment of genuine magic. The twang of Beckmesser’s lute that breaks it has rarely seemed more brutal.

Throughout, lyricism and excitement collide with deliberate rigidity. There is stiffness as well as grandeur in the pageants that open the final scene, and the swing into triple time when the Apprentices begin their dance carries with it further intimations of release from formality. Walther’s Prize Song is genuinely climactic, an outpouring of deep emotion that sweeps the other characters away by its unforced sincerity as well as its beauty. Here Toscanini is helped immeasurably by having a tenor who can sing it properly. Henk Noort’s Walther is one of the finest on disc, stylish, effortlessly lyrical, very sexy and without so much as a hint of the Heldentenor bark that mars so many other interpretations.

The cast, mostly imported from the Vienna Staatsoper, is by and large excellent, though many will doubtless wish that Toscanini had re-deployed the previous year’s soloists, which included Lotte Lehmann as Eva and the American Charles Kullman as Walther. Kullman – no less beautiful in tone than Noort, but fractionally more heroic and feisty – sings the role for Leinsdorf. To my knowledge, Lehmann’s Eva does not survive complete in sound, though the 1937 performance does at least allow us to hear the controversial Maria Reining at the peak of her powers. Reining is best known for her Marschallin in Erich Kleiber’s famous 1954 Decca recording of Der Rosenkavalier, a performance that both impresses with the sincerity of delivery and alarms due to the obvious weakening of her vocal powers. In 1937, however, her voice was ravishingly beautiful, with a glorious silvery sheen in the tone. Her Eva is sensual, dignified and rapturous, and the notorious mannerism we associate with later Reining – breaking in two phrases that should be taken in a single breath – is nowhere in evidence.

Toscanini’s Sachs is Hans Hermann Nissen, who had sung the role for him the previous year. Here we are in slightly more tricky territory, for Toscanini had originally opted to work with the great Hungarian bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr. Soon after the 1936 rehearsals began, however, Toscanini removed Schorr from the production, replacing him with Nissen at comparatively short notice. His reasons for doing so remain obscure, though it is possible that he found fault with Schorr’s methodology. When it came to judging voices, Toscanini valued beauty of tone and perfection of intonation over interpretative subtlety. Schorr had certain qualities in common with Maria Callas, another artist to whom Toscanini famously objected. Both singers were capable of a phenomenal expressive range and could and would deliberately harden their tone in a quest for emotional veracity. Both also had a tendency to stray off pitch in their upper registers. Schorr sings Sachs for Leinsdorf. His performance is the most finely detailed and psychologically complete on disc, making his occasional pitch problems, as far as I’m concerned, insignificant.

Nissen isn’t nearly so subtle. In a performance that depends primarily for its effect on the sharp juxtaposition of contrasts, Nissen’s Sachs gains its essential power from being placed opposite Hermann Wiedemann’s brutal Beckmesser. The sheer beauty of Nissen’s voice conveys a serene, Sarastro-ish wisdom (there’s none of Schorr’s twinkling humour and occasionally bitter irony here), while Wiedemann’s savage delivery, all barked commands and violent explosions, comes close to suggesting a jack-booted thug. Whether this was Toscanini’s overt intention again remains unknown, though Wiedemann’s interpretation is not, of course, inconsistent with the anti-Nazi stance of the performance as a whole.

The closing scene, meanwhile, brings with it the only moment of trouble in the entire performance. Unlike Leinsdorf, who cuts the section about the German empire’s disintegration “under false, foreign rule,” Toscanini presents it complete, though he and Nissen at one point have a run-in over speeds, with the baritone clearly wanting to take the passage slower than Toscanini will permit. We can’t tell whether this has any significance or not.

Nissen was German and elected to remain in Munich, where he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera, during the years of the Third Reich. As far as I am aware, he was never involved with the Nazi party, and he is certainly on record as saying he considered Toscanini to be the finest conductor he ever worked with. He apparently sometimes had difficulty completing a performance because he was moved to tears by the sound thatToscanini produced from the pit.

The actual sound-quality of the recording does, it should be added, leave a certain amount to be desired, however, despite the fact that the Andante re-mastering is by and large excellent, eliminating much of the fogginess that marred its previous ’bootleg’ issues. The microphones in the Salzburg Festspielhaus were clearly fixed rather than movable, which creates problems with both orchestral and vocal balance. Voices occasionally fade into the middle distance depending on stage positioning, and the chorale that opens Act One is virtually inaudible. Woodwind and brass are consistently over-prominent, which highlights the occasional fluffs from the Vienna Philharmonic horns in a performance that is otherwise exceptionally well played. Some of the swish from the original acetates has not been eliminated, and there are also occasional dynamic jolts, which might have you reaching for your volume controls.

Whether it would be a first choice Meistersinger is ultimately a matter of individual preference. The benchmark studio recording is still Kempe’s warm, humane 1955 EMI set, closely followed by Kubelik’s 1967 Munich performance, originally recorded by DG, then initially denied a commercial release due to a mysterious “dispute about casting,” and now available from Myto amongst others. Solti’s second, Chicago version (Decca) comes closest to Toscanini in approach among modern recordings. I confess to a great personal fondness for Leinsdorf’s version from among the other extant Meistersingers from the 30s and 40s – and to an equally great aversion to the ritual pomp of Furtwängler, though some rate it the finest performance of all.

Toscanini’s version, however, does however offer a unique experience as well as offering ample testimony to his brilliance asa Wagner interpreter. You need to hear it.

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