Sunday, April 30, 2006

Opera Recordings That Almost Never Were

I just placed an order at Amazon for a recording of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg", conducted by Rafael Kubelik, which is probably the all-time best studio recording of Wagner's only comic opera (Wagner being Wagner, it's a four-and-a-half hour comic opera with German nationalist overtones). What I find interesting about the recording, mostly because I'm the only one who cares about wheeling and dealing in the classical recording business, is that this recording -- an expensive studio production -- was financed by a major record company and then never released. It was recorded in 1967 and never got a commercial release until the '90s; the version at Amazon, from the original master tapes, came out in 2003.

What happened was that Deutsche Grammophon (Germany's biggest classical recording company) put up the money for Kubelik to record Meistersinger. But once the recording was completed and edited, the company then decided not to release it. There were two stories at the time as to why it wasn't released:

1. The most powerful musician recording for Deutsche Grammophon was the conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who at that time was recording Wagner's "Ring" for the company. There was a rumour at the time that Karajan was upset that the "Meistersinger" recording had been given to Kubelik -- who had sort of B-level status in terms of fame and status (though probably Karajan's superior as a conductor). There was speculation that the DG executives, wanting to keep Karajan happy, suppressed Kubelik's recording in case Karajan might want to record "Meistersinger" for them (he eventually recorded it for another company).

2. The golden boy at the classical recording companies at this time was the lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was everywhere in the '60s, recording hundreds of songs (one critic wrote "This record by Mr. Fischer-Dieskau is not among his hundred best") and branching out into opera, recording many roles he rarely if ever sang on stage. From the vantage point of today, it's hard to figure out exactly why the recording companies were so determined to cast him in Verdi and Puccini and Wagner and other composers that weren't really right for his lightish baritone voice (to be fair, his recording of Verdi's "Rigoletto" is actually quite terrific), but there we are; and the leading record producers felt that in order to record "Meistersinger," they would need to have Fischer-Dieskau in the lead role, Hans Sachs. Problem: Fischer-Dieskau had never sung the part and wasn't even interested in learning it, claiming that it was wrong for his voice. John Culshaw of Decca offered him a recording of "Meistersinger" and he said no; other producers offered him the same, and he still said no. But by the late '60s there was some talk that Fischer-Dieskau might give in and record the part of Sachs, and the rumour was that Deutsche Grammophon deep-sixed the Kubelik recording of "Meistersinger" so that they could record a Fischer-Dieskau version and cash in on what they apparently thought to be the baritone's superstar status. They did, in fact, finally record a "Meistersinger" with Fischer-Dieskau -- ten years later. As Sachs, he's quite a bit inferior to the baritone who takes the part for Kubelik, Thomas Stewart.

So that's that. Again, these kind of inside-baseball classical-music recording anecdotes aren't of much interest, I realize, but I still like digging them up, if only as a reminder that classical music used to be a bustling, profitable part of the recording industry -- with all the things that come with a bustling, profitable recording business, like behind-the-scenes machinations, bizarre decisions to suppress recordings, and kowtowing to powerful superstars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I actually saw Fischer-Dieskau as Sachs onstage in Berlin in the late 70s. He was very, very good, if not great - underpowered, but very fine acting.