The humor, warmth and humanity of its story and the astounding richness of the music's invention and texture place "Die Meistersinger" in a class of its own among operas. However, the sheer size of the work has made recordings of this most approachable and lovable of all Wagner's operas few and far between - good recordings rarer still. Obviously, in a work of this size, there are going to be flaws in every recording, but above all, a good "Meistersinger" needs a special idiomatic feel to it; a sense of occasion and of tradition.
The first stereo recording of this opera to be recorded was Kubelik's (Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg), recorded in 1967 but only released in 1997. It is sunk by the unacceptable Walther, the orchestra's overbright, string-dominated sound, and Kubelik's at times sluggish tempi. A pity, considering the rest of the cast is magnificent.
The next recording saw Karajan travel to Dresden and record the opera with the Dresden State Opera and a hand-picked cast (Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). This is probably the best stereo set, notable for the poetically beautiful orchestral playing, the clarity of the chorus and the moving characterizations of the cast. Adam is in good voice and portrays this winning character imaginatively and movingly. Donath has a lovely, bright voice, and her portrayal is adorable. Kollo does not have the ideal Walther voice, but his impassioned interpretation is peerless. The remainder of the cast is magnificent, highlighted by Ridderbusch's poetic Pogner. Karajan is in imaginative form, but even his astounding sense of orchestral color can't compensate for some sluggish tempi and a lack of spontaneity and passion at the emotional climaxes. Preferable to any other stereo set.
Jochum's recording (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) is the most idiomatically conducted stereo set, and boasts the greatest Walther (Domingo, in golden voice), Beckmesser (Hermann), and Magdalene (Ludwig) on record. Unfortunately, the cons are just as extreme: Fischer-Dieskau is out of his depth as Sachs, Ligendza's unfocused, wobbly soprano is most unsuitable for Eva, and the orchestra is only competent.
Solti's Vienna recording is sunk by the conductor's unimaginative, at times plodding conducting. However, don't overlook the fabulous Sachs of Norman Bailey, the underrated Eva of Hannelore Bode or the magnificent VPO. Solti's second set (Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg), from live Chicago concerts, is more musical but less idiomatic. Every member of the cast offers some of the most solid, beautiful vocalization anywhere in the Meistersinger discography, and the orchestra is technically perfect, but the performance lacks the tradition and warmth I mentioned above. This will be first choice for many.
The sense of tradition and life so essential for a great "Meistersinger" set was easier to create in the environment of the 1950's, when several sets with all-German casts and great conductors were recorded. The numerous Bayreuth sets include two from 1943. One (Die Meistersanger Von Nurnberg) is conducted by Furtwängler, the greatest Wagnerian of them all, but perhaps not so suited to this opera as to other Wagner works, and here burdened with an aging cast. The Quintet is missing, a serious disappointment. The other is more convincing, conducted with warmth and passion by Abendroth, and featuring a magnificent cast. The sound, obviously, is primitive, but the performance is matched only by two or three others.
One of the first complete studio opera recordings was Knappertsbusch's Vienna / Decca set (1950-1). Knappertsbusch's genial personality was well suited to this opera, and the VPO play like angels for him. He also has magnificent leading singers in Schöffler and Güden, as well as the best David on record in Dermota. Walther, unfortunately, is a trial, hoarse and elderly, as is the remainder of the supporting cast. The chorus is not on good form, and some of the greatness of the performance seems to have been lost in the translation.
The two greatest sets of Meistersinger were made within five years of each other. The first was Karajan's 1951 Bayreuth set (Wagner: Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg). The young Karajan was in his prime, joyful and energetic, quite without the narcissim that mars his later recordings, and he is clearly inspired by the momentous occasion to give an electrically intense, deeply moving reading of the score. His cast is excellent, too. Edelmann is one of the most solidly sung Sachs on record, although not as imaginative as some. Schwarzkopf throws all self-consciousness aside and sings her head off and her heart out, to enormous effect, and Hopf's Walther is second only to Domingo. The supporting cast and chorus are excellent and the atmosphere is, again, electric.
However, what is in my opinion the greatest Meistersinger recording of all was made five years later: Rudolf Kempe's studio recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (Wagner: Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg). The BPO produces a gorgeous, idiomatic sound, and the cast has no weak link. Ferdinand Frantz, although not the most beautiful singer, portrays Sachs movingly. The remaining singers are flawless. Schock's Walther, barring the odd touch of leather in his voice, is ardent and poetic, rock-solid of voice and interpretation. The supporting cast boasts tremendous performances from Unger, Höffgen, Kusche, Frick, Neidlinger and Prey. However, this recording is distinguished above all by both the greatest vocal performance, the Eva of Elisabeth Grümmer, and the greatest conducting, from Rudolf Kempe, in the entire Meistersinger discography. Grümmer's voice is radiantly beautiful, silvery and pure, and her interpretation is peerless in its passion, lyricism and spontaneity. Her legato singing in the great climaxes of Act III is meltingly beautiful, and continuously brings a tug at the heart. Kempe is every bit as wonderful. His unexaggerated tempi are ideal, his ear for balances is unsurpassed, and he communicates more winningly than anyone else his love for the opera and the music. His interpretation is astoundingly moving and warm-hearted throughout, with passion and beauty in generous supply. His Act I prelude is exhilarating, his Act III prelude exceptionally noble and tender. Walther's Act II entrance quickens the pulse, and Kempe's ardent support to the big climaxes is peerless.
It is the performances of Kempe and Grümmer, more affectionate and heartrending than Karajan and Schwarzkopf, that push me over the edge. I recommend this recording, captured in superb mono sound, as the top recommendation for this endlessly satisfying and moving work.