CD: Wagner: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

(Chandos, 4 CDs)
Also reviewed: Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Gustafson/ Winbergh/ Tomlinson/ Allen/ Royal Opera Chorus and Orch/ Haitink

Avid Wagnerites have been clamouring for the commercial release of these two performances for ages. Broadcast on Radio 3, from Sadler's Wells and the Royal Opera House respectively, they have cult status among postwar British Wagner interpretations, and each also represents a significant moment in its company's history. Reginald Goodall's English-language performances in 1968 marked the start of a 15-year-long Wagnerian golden age, as far as Sadler's Wells (later English National) Opera was concerned. Bernard Haitink's Meistersinger - the high point of his tenure as Covent Garden's music director - was broadcast in July 1997, on the eve of the house's closure for refurbishment.

Stylistically, they are antithetical. Goodall's at times overwhelming performance is at once extremely slow and phenomenally intense, while Haitink is swift, mercurial and altogether more relaxed. Goodall never lets us forget that Meistersinger is a parable of poetic creativity, and there is an overriding sense of metaphysical resonance and elation in his interpretation. Haitink, meanwhile steers us through an urbane social comedy, before anchoring the work in the final scene, when Walther (Gösta Winbergh) gives the song's first performance, as Sachs (John Tomlinson) gazes contentedly on.

Goodall has marginally the more consistent cast, the product of his determination to train an ensemble of house singers. Bailey's nobly introverted Sachs has claim to being the most beautiful on disc, and few Walthers have ever matched Remedios in poetic fervour. Winbergh, very much his equal in vocal ease and beauty, is more impulsive and also, tellingly, more obviously aristocratic. Goodall has the better Eva in the ecstatic Margaret Curphey, while Haitink's Nancy Gustafson is having an off night. On the other hand, Thomas Allen's subtly characterised Beckmesser, for Haitink, is preferable to Derek Hammond-Stroud's snarling caricature on the Goodall set.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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