Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is Wagner's greatest opera. However, there is no definitive recording of it, and at four compact discs, assembling a complete discography in the search for the best recording can be very expensive. I thought I should give my opinion on the best recordings of this masterpiece, because I HAVE assembled five recordings. My opinions are on this page because the two best recordings are NOT available from Amazon.com.
SOLTI (Decca 452 606-2): My opinion is now rather lower than it was at the time of my earlier review; Solti rushes the Prize Song, which is a serious drawback, even with his excellence earlier in the work; Van Dam is severely lacking in both interpretation and voice, Mattila is wholly inadequate next to her predecessors, Heppner (a once-promising tenor whose voice has gone downhill alarmingly quickly) is beautiful of voice but not ideally ardent interpretatively; all of this puts this recording out of the running for top Meistersinger recording, even with superb work from Opie, Lippert, Vermillion, Pape and the Chicago Symphony forces. ***
JOCHUM (DG 415 278-2): For: superb conducting from Jochum, good work from the Berlin Opera forces, a gloriously lyrical Walther from Domingo, moments of breathtaking insight and beauty from Fischer-Dieskau's Sachs, the greatest Beckmesser on record in Hermann, excellent support from Ludwig, Laubenthal, Lagger. Against: the miscast Sachs of Fischer-Dieskau (lack of weight and authority), the blowsy, wobbly Eva of Ligendza, the RIDICULOUS German of Domingo. I still give it four stars thanks to Jochum. ****
CLUYTENS (Music and Arts 1011): For: arguably the greatest Sachs of the century in Hotter, a girlish Eva in Brouwenstijn, excellent Beckmesser in Schmitt-Walter, luxury casting with Greindl and Fischer-Dieskau as Pogner and Kothner. Against: the uninspired Walther of Windgassen, the mannerisms of Stolze as David, uninspired orchestral, choral and conducting work, above all the excrutiating sound. ***
KEMPE (EMI 7 64154 2): For: perhaps the best conductor on any Meistersinger set, Kempe is absolutely inspired, drawing glorious playing from the BPO, he has a consistent, comprehensive view of the work's structure, builds up raptly to the big emotional climaxes and directs the huge cast with warmth and sensitivity. His only rivals are Jochum and Kubelík. He also has arguably the greatest Eva ever in Elisabeth Grümmer: an adorable, lovable, spontaneous Eva who sings with a large, silvery, soaring soprano, if not quite with the radiance of Janowitz for Kubelík. Kempe also has a weighty, dark-toned Sachs in Frantz, an uncaricatured Beckmesser in Kusche, an ideal Magdalene and David in Höffgen and Unger, a noble Pogner in Frick, and a good chorus. Against: the dry-voiced, leathery Walther of Rudolf Schock is a serious handicap. Frantz has several passages of unsteadiness and grittiness. The mono recording distances the orchestra. It is outrageous that 1) Hotter was not cast as Sachs, 2) Gedda was not cast as Walther and 3) the recording was not made in stereo. Still an essential recording. ****(*)
KUBELÍK (Calig 50971-74): Kubelík matches Kempe's 1956 EMI achievement. He takes spacious tempi (272'10" is the total playing time, as against 255'26" for Solti) which he pulls off so well you don't notice what speed they are: you only notice the music. He has an ideal orchestral texture, built firmly on excitingly resonant, firm timpani; it is sumptuous without turgidity. He is every bit as moving as Kempe in the great emotional climaxes of the work, perhaps even more so. Kubelík is a conductor who was rather neglected on record; this recording is testament to his greatness. It is a huge loss to Wagnerians that this recording, made in 1967, was not released until 1994 (internal politics kept it on the shelf) - but now we can hear and revel in one of the great examples of Wagnerian conducting on record. Kubelík also has the best cast on disc. Thomas Stewart's Sachs has the weight and earthiness I found wanting with Fischer-Dieskau, with something close to an ideal mixture of bass and baritone, and in terms of characterization an ideal balance among poet, cobbler and mastersinger. Gundula Janowitz as Eva does not offer as lovable and charming a portrait of Eva as does Grümmer for Kempe, but has never been even remotely approached for sheer tonal beauty and radiance. She sings all of her role, especially the "O Sachs, mein Freund" outburst and the great "Selig wie die Sonne" lead into the Quintet with a gleaming, warm radiance, a silvery serenity and an incandescent glory that, allied to her perfect phrasing, are incredibly moving. Walther, often the weak link, is here turned into one of the greatest strengths of the opera by Sándor Kónya, a little-recorded Hungarian tenor. He sings here with a youthful ardency that is enormously compelling, and his voice is a radiant outpouring of liquid gold, quite able to match the voice of his Eva in tonal beauty. Each time I listen to the Quintet and hear him enter with "Deine Liebe," a chill runs down my spine; and his ecstatic account of the Preislied is peerless. With glorious playing and singing from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, a superb supporting cast, and demonstration-quality sound, this must take its place as the top recommendation. *****
A note about the availability of these recordings: Solti's, Jochum's and to a lesser extent Cluytens' are all easy to find. Kempe's is out of print in the US, but is available from Amazon's British branch, Amazon.co.uk. Kubelík's, however, is very hard to find, and I fear it has gone out of print. If anyone knows anything about its future, please post something on this page! If you can't find Kubelík's, get Kempe's, but if you need stereo, Jochum's.
I would like to end by saying that this glorious opera needs to be in every self-respecting music collection. If you haven't heard it, TELEPORT to your nearest store and get a copy of this endlessly fascinating and incredibly moving masterpiece!!!