A Festspiele in the house
Unless you're Alex Ross, or someone similarly well-connected on the Green Hill, it might be a little tricky to secure tickets to the Bayreuther Festspiele. Not just for this year. Any year. I'm almost tempted to start writing for tickets now, so I can be still relatively young and active when my name comes up for the ability to purchase. I'm also banking on Katharina to take over for Wolfgang, which should thin out the old-timers a bit. In any event, it's just not practical to run to the Festspiele every year - so I've prepared a set of recordings (all Bayreuth) that will keep everyone busy all month.
Der fliegende Holländer: Joseph Keilberth, 1955 (Testament)
This is another one of the treasures from Testament's spate of Decca stereo releases from Joseph Keilberth's performances at Bayreuth in 1955. Unlike his Ring, though, it saw the light of day in mono releases intermittently until Testament showed us what really went on in the Festspielhaus. Hermann Uhde is a Holländer for the ages: he really captures the torment necessary to bring the character off well. A first-rate recording.
Tannhäuser: André Cluytens, 1955 (Orfeo)
This is a good version of this one with a solid cast, but Tannhäuser isn't one that I've particularly taken to heart. Of the "Early Three," Holländer is my preferred choice. Still, Cluytens turns in a fine account of a score that does have moments of really beautiful music. Wieland Wagner opted for the mixed version (Paris Act 1, Dresden Act 2), which is a reasonable choice, if somewhat odd in my humble estimation. A very nice reading of a sometimes-tricky score.
Lohengrin: Eugen Jochum, 1954 (Melodram)
This has been my preferred Lohengrin for some time. It is a very solid, reasonable account of an opera that tends to get overlooked. Good "Golden Age" cast, excellent playing, and reasonable sound. A very good choice for this one. Nothing too fancy or out-of-left-field, though one would never expect that from Eugen Jochum. Just good, old-fashioned Wagner.
Tristan und Isolde: Karl Böhm, 1966 (Deutsche Grammophon)
The fundamentally nervous, restless nature of this music-drama fit Karl Böhm's style perfectly. He's still quick, but it doesn't seem as out-of-place here as it does in the Ring. It also benefits from fine stereo (It was 1966, after all) and a sort of dream cast in Nilsson and Windgassen. It would be hard, overall, to best Furtwängler's EMI set, or Kleiber's later set for DGG, but Böhm seems to be a little more in his element with this one.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Wilhelm Furtwängler, 1943 (Music & Arts)
This recording is famously incomplete, and a 1943 recording from Bayreuth isn't going to be something to show off the new hi-fi set with anyway. It is still, despite weaknesses in the casting, the best treatment Wagner's orchestration has received. Furtwängler was a great Wagner conductor, but never got the chance get his conception of Wagner's world down on record, in good sound, and completely. Still, it's worth a listen to see how a truly great Wagner conductor viewed Wagner's only comedy. (Hint: Surprisingly lightly, though he doesn't water things down).
Der Ring des Nibelungen: Joseph Keilberth, 1955 (Testament)
This Ring is the one that could. Testament led off with Siegfried, a traditional weak spot for many conductors, which was anything but for Keilberth. Since then, each installment has shown itself to be of magnificent quality - both in performance, interpretation, and recorded sound. It has a true "Golden Age" cast, and some of the singers whose voices would be shaky for Solti (Hotter, mostly) are in full prime. Really, the only competition to Keilberth comes from Hans Knappertsbusch's 1956 set. Keilberth's stereo sound and somewhat fleeter interpretation (though no Böhm or Boulez) tip the scales in his favor in my opinion.
Parsifal: Hans Knappertsbusch, 1962 (Philips)
This record needs no introduction and certainly no comment. This is, to me, a contender for "greatest Wagner record," and it only meets serious competition from Rafael Kubelík (and maybe Thielemann, though I find that one a bit too distantly recorded for my tastes).
If that doesn't get you your fill of Wagner, then you probably have already heard all of those and have your own favorites. Probably obscure favorites, too, like Silvio Varviso's 1974 Meistersinger. Still, those records represent - often as not - Wagner performance that you'll be hard-pressed to find today.
If you end up needing a break from Wagner, check out this disc (if you can get it quickly). Yet another really great Salzburg set, and another good Orfeo festival set.