The caption is NOT romantic hyperbole...If I could have given this set 15 or 20 "stars" on a scale of 1 to 5, I would do it. Yes, even a used copy will be on the pricey side - be it the CALIG or this ARTS transfer. But it is worth every "pfennig." (Avoid the MTYO edition: unlike the others, it is NOT based on the first-generation in-house tapes, but on a broadcast of those tapes.) And yet this might seem an unlikely choice...Kubelik was not exactly noted for his Wagner- or even for musical "focefulness" in general. But the Wagnerian "tiger" cannot devour him- it submits itself to masterful, mesmerizing conducting.
Of course, there are other great MEISTERSINGERS. I don't know them all but I can honor Kubelik's recording by comparing it to what I DO know:
1) The 1937 Toscanini Salzburg- his last complete Wagner performance and the only one ever recorded, and something unforgettable to all who were THERE. It was recorded by NBC via "Selenophone" (basically a movie soundtrack, minus the "visual"), and we can now hear it in at least passable sound - but only on the ultra-expensive, now deleted Andante set.
2) The 1944 Vienna Bohm - with very good "early tape" sound, great ensemble, rich-creamy playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, and an almost perfect cast- but marred by an excrementally bad "Walther" (whose name, out of Hans Sachsian charity, I will omit). Bohm's later live and studio MEISTERSINGERs have nowhere near the same kind of spirit. (Here I should mention Bohm's fabled Dresden MEISTERSINGER Act III, recorded by British HMV in August 1938 - the last significant, commercial pre-war Wagner recording. Acts 1 & II were planned as well, but the war intervened. So great is the warmth and spirit of this recording that, IMHO, had it been completed, it would have been THE Meistersigner for the ages...War is hell.)
3) The live 1949 Jochum / Munich production (best transferred on WALHALL, if you can find it): with the supreme Hans Hotter as Sachs, a superb orchestra, masterful conducting, an atmosphere of joyous, post-war healing, and very good sound, but occasionally marred by the wobbling of Annelese Kupper's Eva.
4) The 1950 Decca Knappertsbusch, with Schoeffler's excellent Sachs and a fresh-sounding Hilde Gueden as Eva, but marred by substandard sound (even for the time: Bohm's 1938 Dresden Act III sounds more life-like than this), and less-than-top-form conducting from "Kna" who, as anyone who has read Culshaw's RING RESOUNDING will know, was never fully "himself" in the studio.
5) The 1951 EMI Karajan / Bayreuth set: a great performance, also reeking of joy and post-war healing- with Betsy Blackhead's Eva being one of her most unaffected performances- but also with Otto Edelmann's slightly under-seasoned Sachs, and the Walter of Hans Hopf (already starting to show some of the strain that would render his 1962 Tannhauser almost unlistenable). And it is marred by a faulty microphone placement which renders the all-important, "chatty" woodwind lines too distant. For example, the crucial flute solo at the very end of Act II sounds like it's "phoned in". There is really no technical excuse for this (even given the Bayreuth orchestral "cowel"), because sound-checks at the time, by the EMI team (who had at least one dress rehearsal and several live performances at their disposal) could and should have uncovered the problem. Not to mention that the live 1949 Jochum does not have this problem AT ALL. (AND not to mention that the Decca PARSIFAL, from the same festival, sounds a lot better than this...It had something to do with Decca's hidden "mike" over the auditorium, which picked up sonic details that EMI's set-up did not. Even after the EMI "chief," Walter Legge, discovered this and, with his own money, put an extra "mike" in the same place, it STILL didn't quite do the job.)
6) The 1956 EMI Kempe / Berlin set: until Kubelik, perhaps the front runner in this happy "game." There is not one weak link in the cast: Rudolf Schock's Walter is superb; Elisabeth Grummer's Eva is perhaps her greatest recording and the very soul of maidenly purity; the massed choral scenes (always a potential sonic mess) are beautifully clear; the Berlin Philharmonic, two years past Furtwangler's death and one year into Karajan's new leadership, play their hearts out with fluent virtuosity - and not even a hint of recording "routine." And Kempe brings it all together with a potent, controlled warmth. This was my first complete MEISTERSINGER - a lucky first-time choice - on vintage LPs. The 1992 CD transfer, while listenable, has a shrillish high-end, and less warmth and "body" than the old LPs. Surely a new transfer is in order- by Testament, if EMI declines?
7) The EMI Karajan / Dresden set of 1970...Perhaps the greatest orchestral playing in any MEISTERINGER set, and a half-way decent cast...Even Rene Kollo turns in one of his better recordings as Walter (another being his Solti TANNHAUSER), and Theo Adam's Sachs is at least as good as Edelmann, better and more personable than FiDi. The choral scenes are as clearly delineated as they have ever been : obviously, HvK and his forces were going for a "chamber music" kind of clarity, and they more than succeed. But...But...Something's missing. Never mind that the overture is rather turgid, overstated and "Klempererish" (which is unusual for HvK, even at his worst: HIS besetting sin was soul-less "gloss"), but somehow the quest for "clarity" seems to have robbed this performance of something big, compassionate and spacious. That is to say, WHERE IS THE LOVE?
8) The c. 1980 DG Jochum set with Fischer-Diskau's long-awaited Hans Sachs. Great sound, wonderful conducting from Jochum, superb orchestral playing, and a decent cast including Placido Domingo as a surprisingly good Walther, and Catarina Ligenzda as a fairly good (but not great) Eva...Still, FiDi disappoints, in one of his more finicky, affected performances. Overall, a very good, ALMOST great recording.
Still, from all I have heard so far, the 1967 Kubelik emerges as the clear winner: unbeatable conducting; astounding orchestral playing (you can really enjoy what Hans von Bulow called the "Cellini-like filagree" of MEISTERSINGER's inner detail); unapproachable singing and characterization (Janowitz's Eva is unsurpassed by even Schwarzkopf & Grummer; Stewart's Sachs and Konya's Walther are both rock-solid); the sound is perfect and the transfer is stunning. This set HAS IT ALL. One expert reviewer has written that it lacks the "conversational" quality of Toscanini, early Karajan and Kempe...It does NOT. It does not lack ANYTHING: BIG when it needs to be; intimate when it needs to be; serious when it needs to be; nimble, humorous and "conversational" when it needs to be. This most sinewy of Wagner's works has never been as beautifully delineated or LIVED as it has, here. What brings all these elements together, of course, is Kubelik's wisdom, sense of musical "architecture" and sheer humanity.
"Kubi," being Czech, was best noted for his Dvorak and Smetana (he recorded the complete MA VLAST six times !). But his Wagner was perhaps his greatest achievement- which, in addition to this MEISTERSINGER, includes his LOHENGRIN and PARSIFAL - possibly the best stereo versions of Wagner's "Grail" dramas. And, PACE the Solti RING and even Bohm's Bayreuth TRISTAN, this MEISTERSIGNER may be the very greatest Wagner recording after Furtwangler's passing - and one of the ten-to-twelve greatest recorded experiences of all time.
These are bad days for good things "staying in print" ; get it while you can- new, used, just as long as it's playable. And, as Auntie Mame would put it, LIVE.