Saffron Hall celebrated its first birthday with the best performance of Die Meistersinger that I have witnessed for 40 years. The whole story of Saffron Hall is itself a matter for celebration in its own right before extolling the performance. Saffron Hall is the amazing central exhibit of Saffron Walden County High School and it owes its existence to the school’s expansion from 1,000 pupils in the 1950s when the original hall was built, to 2,000 today. This gave rise to conundrums and worries about how on earth to refurbish the existing hall, but fortunately the difficulties came to the attention of a successful local businessman whose twin passions are state education and music.
Through this remarkable man’s vision and his Charitable Trust, a new multi-purpose hall was built and given to the school. (This is apparently the largest single donation ever given to a state school.) The result is now named Saffron Hall, and it is a beautiful 730 seat performance space with an acoustic that is both accurate and warm; moreover the sound can be tuned from poetry reading to Berlioz in about eleven seconds. It is a heart-warming demonstration that some successful entrepreneurs can do wonderful things with the fruits of their achievement, the very opposite of those wealthy business wives exposed by Robert Peston of the BBC, who squander their affluence on a jet fighter for the front lawn, or arrange a Valentine’s Day dinner on an arctic iceberg, because they can think of nothing better to do with the money.
The first performance in the mint new hall took place on 9th November last year when the Saffron Walden Choral Society sang the Verdi Requiem to a packed house and a standing ovation. What led to this performance of Die Meistersinger is that Professor Michael Thorne attended that inaugural performance. Professor Thorne is Vice-Chancellor of Anglia University and a passionate Wagnerian, and he has already conducted a Wagner opera in Edinburgh every year since 2001.
On seeing and hearing the hall Professor Thorne decided that he just had to do Wagner there and because he is a personal friend of the benefactor, things began to happen. Events were helped on by Paul Garland and Francis Lambert, both members of the Saffron Walden Choral Society, who were asked to set up the detailed arrangements. They assembled the crucial chorus of Die Meistersinger, by inviting choral society singers from London to Cambridge. Equally crucial to the whole enterprise was the St Albans Symphony Orchestra, enlarged to 74 by 22 professionals. Most crucial of all, they invoked the auspices of Elaine McKrill to put together the strongest possible cast of soloists, and it was because of all this that a performance could take place that was so remarkable.
What is as remarkable in a different direction is the casting department at Covent Garden, which has reached an all-time low in my estimation for its failure to recognise the wonderful Sachs on their doorstep, Andrew Greenan. His is a voice of the same magnificence and scale as John Tomlinson’s in its heyday, a sound both steady and lustrous; but if John Tomlinson had an imperfection as Sachs, it was simply that he was too obviously an authority figure. Tomlinson dominated right from the start, and Bryn Terfel does the same only much worse, like a Wotan who has strayed into 16th Century Nüremberg. Wagner and Andrew Greenan by contrast present Sachs as initially unobtrusive and unremarkable; only gradually does this cobbler poet emerge as a man who carries weight. Make no mistake however, his is a Sachs of exceptional personality and interest; his winning nuances of vocal inflection were counterpointed by little gestures or sensitive facial changes that gave great subtlety to his assumption. Perhaps Otto Wiener achieved some of the same effect at Bayreuth in 1958, but he had not the sheer sonority of Andrew Greenan.
Where to turn next amongst such a profusion of vocal talents as those on display at Saffron Hall, when they were all of them possessed of a purity of pitch that is exceptional today? Just as important, they all managed sophisticated characterisations of mostly unsophisticated men, seldom glancing at the scores on their music stands but turning to face each other, to act and react to one another. Jonathan Finney was something else that is rather rare, a very appealing Walther, both genial and reflective, and at times even uncertain. It seemed like insecurity and not arrogance that led him to his hoity-toity moment with Sachs when he refuses to compose a third verse to his prize song, but there was no uncertainty about his stamina and his ability to sustain the role through to his triumph, his final prize song. It helped his portrayal that he is in life far more personable than his nerdy, unshaven photograph in the programme suggested.
Finney’s Walther was given a close call by Adam Tunnicliffe’s David because Tunnicliffe was equally appealing and musical. As it happens, his timbre possesses the strength and the delicate edge which could point to career possibilities as another heroic tenor. Paul Carey Jones was likewise a superb Kothner, a fusion of strict assertiveness as the newest mastersinger on the block and of sudden deference to his seniors, expressed in a vocalism which had all the purity and strength of phosphor-bronze. Then too there was the Pogner of Richard Wiegold, a very secure and solid voice and a very solid citizen, except that he could melt tenderly with Eva in Act II as it dawns on him that his making his daughter the prize for a singing contest might be at odds with her ideas of the man who would make her happy.
The Beckmesser alone created some uncertainty, and his reticent presentation was not mitigated by his solitary need of the score. Every one of the other mastersingers demonstrated abilities that deserve fine careers, and last but by no means least, there were two veterans of Malcolm Rivers’ Mastersingers organisation: Oliver Hunt, who is additionally a member of the Ace Choir at Westminster Abbey, and Stuart Pendred, who brought to the Night Watchman all the bigness and projection of his Hagen at Longborough.
I must confess to some disappointment as I read that our Eva was not to be a British singer, because this seemed to be more of the inverted chauvinism that is rife at Covent Garden and many British concert managements, always rejecting British singers if some semi-competent foreigner is available. In the event it took less than three minutes to be convinced of the organisers’ wisdom in engaging Inga-Britt Andersson as Eva. This German-Swedish Soprano, who is very easy on the eye, has a voice of ravishing purity but delectably warm and rich. Moreover her singing can act. Her great outburst, “O Sachs, mein Freund” expressed pain as well as ecstasy and was gloriously beautiful. It may seem churlish to add even a hint of criticism for such a lovely artist, but perhaps her Eva could yet acquire some of the naughtiness that Elizabeth Grümmer displayed at Bayreuth. It was as well that Eva was so remarkable because otherwise she might have been upstaged by the Magdalene of Anna Burford. Anna Burford’s biography is over-economical with information on her background, but her voice is another that is rich, warm and even, and in her dealings with Eva she managed exactly the right mix of bossiness, eagerness and affection.
These ace singers were not the only reason why this Die Meistersinger had so much heart. There was the orchestra, valiantly tackling a marathon. In the late 1960s, when Sadlers Wells planned to do The Mastersingers with Goodall, one of the management’s concerns was about the stamina of an orchestra which was very professional but only familiar with operas like Boheme, which is shorter than Die Meistersinger Act III on its own. Unsurprisingly there were times when the St Albans orchestra, mostly enthusiastic amateurs, did flag, sometimes audibly. Even by the start of the Flieder monologue the horns could no longer manage an elegant shimmer, but sounded big and beefy. Perhaps a couple more rehearsal sessions might have polished up the ensemble, but whatever the imperfections of detail, the spirit was always fully in evidence: lovely and happy, and the orchestra made up in warmth and commitment what it occasionally missed in accuracy.
Just as important, their conductor had plenty of the same warmth and commitment, and his very individual way with the score contributed greatly to the occasion. He is another like the ever-lamented David Crighton, distinguished both as a mathematician and as a Wagnerian. It was not however a mathematical quality that Professor Thorne revealed in Die Meistersinger, but its floods of inspiration, with some mighty brass at the heart of the proceedings. This full-blooded magnificence was at the farthest possible extreme from Kempe’s classic recording. Saffron Walden was all rich summer and its fulfilments in contrast to Kempe’s breezes on a spring morning, but both views are equally valid and worthwhile, and this wonderful occasion won an immense standing ovation. What is more those who shouted “Encore! More please!” may be in luck. There were whispers that Professor Thorne’s next Saffron project is to be a little number known for short as The Ring.