Meeting the Mastersingers

8 July, 2018

A very pleasant Sunday salon at the Hackett-Jones residence for the SA Wagner Society’s afternoon with some of the featured players from the forthcoming State Opera’s dramatic concert production of Act III of Meistersinger

ASO french horn players Emma Gregan and Alex Miller gave us some nice pieces written for horn (by Brahms, of all people!)  These pieces were very easy on the ear, whilst apparently rather difficult to play.  Hearing them, one started to daydream of a tense afternoon tea with Wagner, Brahms, Cosima and Clara Schumann debating the role of music, perhaps with Eduard Hanslick as an ‘impartial’ observer.  More of which later.

In August, the role of Magdalena will be taken by Fiona McArdle, who gave us three lovely songs from the Wesendonck-Lieder, accompanied by her mentor on piano, with conducting by Nicholas Braithwaite (who is to conduct Meistersinger).

Anyone who thinks of Wagner’s work as too heavy, chocked with hammers and anvils and excessive Sturm und Drang, should listen to these beautiful songs, full of quiet reflection and mood. They were all the more heartfelt by virtue of the setting – a handsome room full of afternoon light, clear and crisp playing, a beautiful voice and some gentle prompts from the conductor – simple, pellucid, and great.  The first song was of course, the immortal Im Treibhaus, the music of which eventually made its way into Tristan und Isolde, compensation for Wagner being rusticated from the Asyl.

Fiona had some interesting secrets to share on preparation for her art, and she also gave a good account of a soprano’s education and development.  One new fact (new to this ignoramus, in any event) stood out: there is no ‘trick’ to singing Wagner except treating him as ‘German Bel Canto’ – you follow the harmony à la Bellini (whom Wagner admired), and Nicholas weighed-in on this, observing that many great singers find Puccini much less measured, and hence more difficult to sing, than Wagner.

Nicholas Braithwaite then gave a wide-ranging and entertaining discourse on various Wagner-issues, such as how the Master lowered and drew out the chords for Tristan, making them darker, more portentous and almost golden-brown; he drew a telling parallel between Wagner’s Lohengrin and Weber’s Euryanthe; he touched on the hectically-few short weeks of rehearsals he had available for Meistersinger (as Booker T and the M.G.s would say, “time is tight”), and he offered general observations on the story itself, which Wagner mined from antique sources concerning the original Minne-singers of the 12th century, and their successors.

Mr Braithwaite wears his learning lightly but it is profound for all that.  He covered the cultural and moral aspects of the work, reviewed the abundant goings-on in Act III, and amply justified why this opera of Wagner’s, more than most, attracts and resonates as it does, particularly because of the true humanity of the piece exemplified in the characters of Eva, Walter and of course, Hans Sachs. But he did not neglect to single-out disreputable and pedantic Town Clerk Beckmesser (aka Hanslich!) for dishonourable mention.  Beckmesser’s song is one of the funniest things in Wagner:

“Wie Frucht, so Holz und Pferd – 

Vom Leberbaum.”

Eduard Kandl, German bass as Beckmesser in Meistersinger


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