The Penitent Favorites
Since I keep my own overall recommendations, especially for Wagner, pretty quiet, I thought that I would go through and make my preferences obvious.
Der Ring des Nibelungen: Janowski.
He has the best sound, best cast, and the best band. The Dresden Staatskapelle was Wagner's band and he helped shape their sound. His cycle is the best overall cycle.
Das Rheingold: Von Karajan
Simply wonderful. The orchestra shines, and the cast here is far better than the usually low level for Von Karajan's Ring.
Die Walküre: Böhm
Like Janowski, this recording benefits from the best cast and best Wagner band at the time. Böhm drives the score along to create a nervous energy that is really great for this pivotal opera.
Siegfried: Keilberth ('55)
Just released, this record shows what all the fuss is about when people talk about the "Golden Age." Pristine Decca stereo, a top-rate cast in great voice, and a committed Wagnerian conductor of the old school add up to make a fantastic record. Had this Ring happened, Solti would be an also-ran at best.
This record is every bit as earth-shattering as Solti's but played with greater subtlety and in better sound. There is, also, no studio effects. This is just gorgeous Wagner, at the height of his powers, played to perfection.
Yes. This is my favorite Parsifal, unseating Boulez. The cast is perfect. The band is perfect. The conducting is perfect. There is no reason not to like this one. Believe me, I've tried.
Tristan und Isolde: Kleiber
The cast is not up to Böhm, but it isn't far behind. However, Tristan was one of the few operas Kleiber performed, and he did it perfectly. Bringing the same verve and intelligence to the score as he did to the famous 1989 Neujahrskonzert and he proved that he understood the score intimately. The Dresdeners only show how wonderful they were.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Von Karajan
This one isn't close. There is no other complete recording in good sound that deserves to be mentioned. Furtwängler's Bayreuth record is the best, but it's neither complete nor in decent sound.
Der fliegende Holländer: Klemperer
Once again, this is the first choice for a reason. Other conductors might do one aspect better, but no one manages to bring the whole thing off as well as Klemperer. This one speaks for itself.
Live from the Green Hill, this record benefits from Bayreuth acoustics, a great mid-1950s cast, and Jochum's businesslike conducting. Let's face it, this isn't Wagner's best, so an outstanding effort makes this opera very good. However, it's never going to be truly great.
It has an interesting cast, but the fact that I like this recording of an opera I generally don't like or think about much isn't saying volumes. It just sounds good, has a good conductor and band, and has a better-than-average cast. The Pilgrims' Chorus at the end is swell, and that's all that matters to me. It isn't Parsifal for a reason.