OP3276. DIE MEISTERSINGER, Live Performance, 10 Feb., 1945, (replete with Milton Cross’ commentaries), w.Szell Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Herbert Janssen, Eleanor Steber, Kerstin Thorborg, Charles Kullman, Emanuel List, Mack Harrell, John Garris, etc. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1088. Notes by Richard Caniell as well as a second article by Caniell and Anne Woods. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Elaborate Edition features numerous lovely photos & 54pp booklet. - 752830574731
“Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, was faced with a dilemma when approaching this historic performance, despite the fact that the existing ABC transcription offered quite decent basic sound quality. The dilemma centered around the missing opening and closing. The opening wasn’t just a missing transcription disc; the first 32 minutes of the opera were not broadcast, because the ABC Network apparently didn’t want to give the time for the full length of the opera. Because it was never broadcast, it was not a case of finding the missing recording. It didn’t exist! The final ten minutes were an easier problem, as they were broadcast but the final transcription disc was lost. Caniell located a private recording of those final ten minutes. The sound was inferior to his ABC source, but he did what he could to match the two and the result is more than listenable. (The overall sound for most of the opera is quite remarkable for a 1945 broadcast - with plenty of color to the voices and even the orchestra). But what to do about the first 32 minutes? It was easy to find another recording of the Overture, led by George Szell, and append that to the beginning. He then turned to the 1939 Met broadcast of the same opera, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (a conductor with a similar musical approach to Szell, I might note) and the same Walther and Pogner in the cast. The major cast difference is probably in the role of Magdalene, which was Karin Branzell in 1939 and Kerstin Thorborg in 1945. The 1939 David is Karl Laufkötter, the 1945 David is John Garris. So for the first eight tracks of CD 1 you have a different performance, but one that is in many ways a similar performance; if you don’t like the idea of mixing performances, just start at track 9 and you’ll be in 1945. The sonic matching is excellent. In his extensive notes on the recording itself, Caniell is honest about some deficiencies in the original source: congestion and loss of bass in the finale of Act I and the end of the opera. But he has done a miraculous job in restoring this, and the performance merits the love he has put into it.
Yet another issue not is dealt with in a fascinating and insightful essay by Caniell and Anne Woods, explain the political reasons behind the huge cut in Sachs’s final oration to the people of Nürnberg. I can summarize it briefly here: for political reasons in 1945, related to anti-German feelings, the Met enforced a cut in this praise of German art! Absurd, and the essay is genuinely enlightening on the politics of the time, and their influence on a major artistic institution, even while the institution’s leadership was denying the facts.
So, with all these complications, is this a performance that Wagnerians will want to add to their collection? Yes. Absolutely, without a doubt. First, even though we don’t have his first 32 minutes, Szell’s conducting is a miracle of clarity, balancing of textures, rhythmic vitality, and dramatic cohesion. One doesn’t think of Szell as much in terms of sensitivity as one does for precision and incisiveness. But he balances everything here perfectly, conducting numbers like the great Quintet with warmth and a genuine lyrical flow. And his clarification of Wagner’s orchestral textures is, even in this 1945 monaural broadcast, unmatched. DIE MEISTERSINGER flies by because of the variety of color and finely sprung rhythms Szell brings to it. He even seems to be conducting with a smile at times. His is a masterful reading, and one we would be poorer without. Szell clearly also deserves the credit for the overall sense of ensemble among the singers. Characters vividly interact with each other; musical dialogues and multi-voiced ensembles are genuine moments of communication between real people, not vocalists competing with each other for vocal attention.
If I start on the singers with Eleanor Steber it is because of the rarity of hearing her in a Wagnerian role....The purity and beauty of Steber’s sound, her ability to spin a long line, and her dramatic concentration and specificity of inflection brings to life a character who often seems a cipher. Her voice glows, and her soft high singing is breathtaking. She limns beautiful, generous phrases in the Quintet, and the heartfelt outpouring of affection for Sachs in ‘O Sachs, mein Freund’ is deeply felt.
In Charles Kullman we have another wonderful American singer as Walther. In Caniell’s notes he points to a slight coarsening of tone between the 1939 performance and this one. If it is there, it is very slight. He was another singer with a very wide repertoire who gave many years to the Met, and while he will always be a bit in the shadow of Melchior, his is a superbly beautiful performance surely worthy of the prize in the song contest. His singing was always founded on a smooth emission of tone, an evenness throughout his range, and well thought-out phrasing. His Prize Song is deeply heartfelt and urgent - it is clear that he is expressing both his love for Eva as well as his desire to win the contest.
At the center of any Meistersinger cast is, of course, Hans Sachs….Now we have the evidence in front of us, and the fact is that Janssen is a marvelous Sachs. It is true that his voice was lighter than Schorr’s, and certainly Schorr was also a great artist and a great Sachs. But so is Janssen, despite less vocal weight than we are used to in the role. His singing is lyrically beautiful, and in particular he conveys the humanity of the character in myriad ways through inflection and subtle emphasis of inflection. The contrast between his nobility and human warmth and Beckmesser’s superficiality (admittedly a caricature by Wagner) is clearly portrayed in their scenes together....
Immortal Performances lives up to its usual extraordinary production standards, with a lavish booklet containing wonderful photos and terrific notes on the performance as well as details of the process of preparing this production. Milton Cross’ announcements are also included, but separately tracked if you don’t enjoy the nice atmospheric touch they provide. In the end, probably the central value of this important release is Szell’s conducting. But there is much else about this historic performance that collectors will treasure.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2017
“Two artists in this broadcast not only deliver sterling performances, but also profoundly influence the interpretations of their colleagues. One of those impactful artists is (not surprisingly) conductor George Szell, at the absolute top of his form. It will surprise no one that Szell leads a performance of remarkable precision, one in which the orchestral and vocal lines emerge with sterling clarity. The melee toward the close of Act II is a case in point, a virtuoso tour-de-force that is all the more humorous because of its razor-sharp precision…. Herbert Janssen is magnificent in the central role of Hans Sachs. Janssen’s characteristic warmth of voice and personality is evident throughout. Those traits seem to affect his colleagues as well. In Eva and Walther’s conversations with Sachs, both Steber and Kullman seem transfixed by Janssen’s personality and art. In those episodes, their voices and manner take on an additional degree of intensity and rapt beauty. Janssen brings a Lieder artist’s sensitivity to diction, phrasing, and dynamics. In fine voice throughout, Janssen is also able to summon more than adequate power and boisterousness for the Act II scene with Beckmesser (‘Jerum! Jerum!’)…. Both Eleanor Steber and Charles Kullman approach ideal assumptions of the roles of Eva and Walther von Stolzing. Steber, then a lyric soprano with a rich, gorgeous instrument, embodies Eva’s warmth, kindness of heart, and youthful passion. It’s not surprising that such an accomplished Mozart interpreter also dispatches Eva’s trills with technical élan and beauty. Like Steber’s, Kullman’s attractive lyric instrument has ample heft and metal, and he sings Walther’s music with assurance and stamina, no mean feat in this most demanding and lengthy work. Kullman is absolutely convincing as a young, headstrong knight, who also bears the heart of a poet. Gerhard Pechner, too, is one of the finest Beckmessers on disc.
If you love DIE MEISTERSINGER (as I do), you owe it to yourself to hear this Met 1945 broadcast, a performance that captures, as well as any I’ve heard, the beauty and humanity of Wagner’s incomparable creation.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2017
"Herbert Janssen - with his plangent, fine-grained voice, keen intelligence, aristocratic musicianship, and (not incidentally) handsome appearance - was the leading German baritone in several major theatres during the 1920s and 1930s. After study with Oskar Daniel in Berlin he was immediately accepted by Max von Schillings for the Berlin State Opera, where he made his debut in 1922 as Herod in Schreker's DER SCHATZGRABER . He remained at the Berlin State Opera until 1937 singing both lyric and dramatic roles, many of them in the Italian repertory. He later appeared in important productions of DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER and TRISTAN UND ISOLDE at Covent Garden conducted by Reiner and Beecham, also singing Orest / ELEKTRA and in 1935 taking the title role in Borodin's PRINCE IGOR, for which he was highly praised.
Janssen was a fixture at the Bayreuth Festival from 1930 to 1937. His Wolfram in TANNHAUSER set a standard not approached since, and, fortunately, it was recorded in a somewhat truncated 1930 production. During that decade, he established benchmarks for several Wagner roles, particularly Kurwenal, Telramund, Gunther, and - especially - Amfortas. His interpretation of the latter was an exquisitely sung realization of a soul in torment, achieving a remarkable unity of voice, movement, and makeup. His doggedly loyal Kurwenal is preserved on complete recordings of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE made live at Covent Garden in 1936 and 1937. His tortured Dutchman is also available in a live recording made at Covent Garden and featuring Kirsten Flagstad as Senta.
In addition to his stage work, Janssen acquired a reputation as a superior singer of Lieder. The exceptional beauty of his voice and his interpretive acuity made him a prime candidate for Walter Legge's Hugo Wolf Society venture of the 1930s. Among the finest singers Legge could pull together, Janssen was given the largest assignment and his subscription recordings made throughout the decade remain supreme, even in the face of the best achievements of post-war Lieder singers.
Janssen was very unpopular with the Nazi regime, having turned down a dinner invitation from Hitler at Bayreuth, Janssen left Germany in 1937 and with Toscanini's assistance traveled immediately to Buenos Aires. After a season in Argentina, he came to the United States where he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939, remaining at that theater until his stage retirement in 1952.
From 1940 onwards Janssen sang regularly at Buenos Aires and with the San Francisco Opera between 1945 and 1951. Following his retirement in 1952, he remained in New York as a respected teacher.
Janssen's performances were notable for the warm and sympathetic timbre of his voice, his excellent command of legato and clear enunciation, as well as his convincing acting. Also a highly accomplished lieder singer, he had in addition starred in the musical DREI MUSKETIERE at the Metropol Theatre in Berlin during 1928 opposite Gota Ljungberg."
- Erik Eriksson, allmusic.com
"Steber definitely possessed the most glorious instrument of all, with its classically organized technique, impeccable management of breath support, easy agility and, above all, that phosphorescent top register….She was a singer who possessed a rare combination of vocal radiance, technical mastery and personal charisma, and during her best years, the distinctive purity, spinning tone and easy sweetness of her soprano [which] made her the Mozart-Strauss soprano of one’s dreams."
- Peter G. Davis, OPERA NEWS, Nov., 2003