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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882)
Music drama in three acts, libretto by the composer
Parsifal – Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor)
Kundry – Martha Mödl (soprano)
Gurnemanz – Ludwig Weber (bass)
Amfortas – George London (bass-baritone)
Titurel – Arnold van Mill (bass)
Klingsor – Hermann Uhde (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/Hans Knappertsbusch
Recorded at the Bayreuth Festival, July and August 1951 Mono
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110221-24 [4CDs: 55’15+62’10+78’20+76’26]


Most opera guides tend to agree on one thing when discussing Parsifal on disc – that the two best versions are live from Bayreuth and both conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. In the final analysis the choice between the two still tends to divide enthusiasts. Usually the stereo recording from 1962 tends to come out top, due mainly to the superior sound quality. Naxos have now re-issued in their Historical Opera Series, at their usual super bargain price, the earlier 1951 mono version which, according to some, had the better balanced cast (marginally), and was the more intense spiritual experience. So maybe this actually resolves the issue. For under £20.00 you can treat yourself to this one, get the stereo remake (which is in the mid price Philips 50 (review)) and have the luxury of both sets for around the same value as one of the rival full price sets.

Actually, this 1951 version has been available for some time at mid price on Teldec, but at the Naxos price, and with improved re-mastering from Mark Obert-Thorn, this classic account is likely to win a whole new audience. It thoroughly deserves to. I have read many times about the way Knappertsbusch worked, preferring the frisson of the live occasion to any studio performance; he recorded this opera no less than six times, and all are live. One feels time and again the palpable tension and electricity coming from this famous theatre over fifty years ago. There are technical fluffs (mainly in odd brass and wind solos) and tuning and timing occasionally go astray. But these are very minor quibbles, especially in the face of such moving music making. Indeed, from the very opening bars one senses something rather special, the sort of intensity and communication that only comes when great musicians are working in front of an audience, and in a setting that will engender these results. Bayreuth is such a place.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and I do not share some other critics’ doubts over Windgassen, who is found to be a ‘lightweight’ Parsifal by some. His tone and timbre are not as heroic as others (such as Jess Thomas on the later set) but the characterisation is spot on; youthful, naïve, headstrong, impetuous. The tone is rich and full, even in taxing passages, and his acting convincing. George London is hugely impressive as Amfortas, and in slightly firmer voice than his assumption of the same role in 1962. The dark, sultry tone of Martha Mödl is ideal for Kundry, and the rest of the cast really cannot be faulted, with even the tiny roles well allotted – the Fourth Squire is Gerhard Stolze, luxury casting by any standards. The Wilhelm Pitz trained chorus make an altogether outstanding contribution.

There is no doubt, though, as to whose Parsifal this is. Just as one thinks of the ‘Fürtwängler Tristan’ or the ‘Toscanini Otello’, this is Knappertsbusch’s Parsifal from the beginning, through its long (over four hours) journey, and to a culmination that is incandescent in its spirituality. Yes, it is one of the longest accounts on disc, but it never drags, for this man understood the intricate web of motifs and character relationships that make up the whole. Inner detail is breathtaking, and the themes have an inner life and animation no matter what the basic tempo, surely the sign of a great performance. This was Kna’s debut at Bayreuth, when he was already 63, but the set quickly acquired legendary status, such is the triumph of vision and execution.

As is Naxos’s way, there is no libretto, just a detailed cue by cue synopsis, which works pretty well for a basic understanding of the story. Tully Potter provides the useful notes. Recorded sound, though mono, is marvellous for the year, full, warm and rich and with a relatively static production, stage noise is kept to a reasonable minimum. Unless you already have it, no Wagner lover should hesitate.

Tony Haywood

Johnathan Woolf has also listened to this recording

The manifold virtues of Knappertsbusch’s Parsifal have for so long been acknowledged that for many listeners the question doesn’t involve other conductors at all so much as a simple, if for the uninitiated, gnomic numerical question: ’51 or ’62? The 1962 Philips, fractionally better performed (better executed orchestrally, better recorded, tighter in conception) is in stereo and has another towering advantage – literally and figuratively – in Hans Hotter’s Gurnemanz. George London too, though good in 1951, is perhaps more involved and involving in the later recording though arguably not in as good voice as he had been a decade earlier. Neidlinger is excellent in ’62 – but so was Uhde in ’51 and rather more viciously so in fact. And the earlier set was graced by Mödl’s devastating Kundry who manages to characterise eroticism and drama with utterly personal but nevertheless extraordinary power. And as for Windgassen, thirty-seven at the time, I think he has been rather underrated in the role. He was in prime vocal form, approaching his peak in terms of vocal production – albeit it’s true that he takes time to warm up here; the first Act not nearly so well or so consistently inflected as the remainder.

As for Knappertsbusch in the earlier performance, given in the first post-War broom–sweeping season at Bayreuth he stresses, even more than he was later to do, the solemnity and purificatory unfolding of the score. The Prelude is magnificently sustained, sonorous, wind choirs to the fore. He was arguably more forward-moving, better able to integrate the work’s structural stresses, in the later traversal – also accorded greater aural perspective and instrumental and choral forces to match. That said, the 1951 set contains within it a lucidity and elemental gravity and grandeur, one that reaches a height of expressivity in the Transformation and the Flower Maiden’s scenes (where Windgassen is notably successful as well). In the Baptismal music honours are pretty much shared equally between ’51 and ’62. The latter receives a great sense of direction, albeit the former’s rough hewn columnar solemnity carries its own massive nobility and its own greater emotive charge. Mödl irradiates Act I and here and elsewhere the range of her assumption, her visceral characterisation is incinerating in its power and depth. In 1962 Jess Thomas and Irene Dalis operated on a considerably lower level of histrionic and emotive engagement than had Windgassen and Mödl. As Amfortas George London possesses impressive declamatory power even if, as I suggested earlier, he remains a little withdrawn in ’51 and has begun to suffer little vocal crises in ’62. Ludwig Weber’s Gurnemanz is deeply affecting and if he can’t quite weather the comparison with Hotter few, if any, could – the latter’s subtle and exquisite colouration in so big a voice are imperishable features of that later assumption. One of the highlights of the early set is Arnold van Mill’s Titurel – an exact contemporary of Windgassen, the Dutchman makes a most impressive showing, every bit as fine as the later Martti Talvela.

So these famous discs live again in Naxos’s restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn. It’s a shame that the exigencies of matters of timing mean that the Prelude to Act III begins at the end of the third CD and that one must reach for the fourth to continue. A synopsis is provided but no libretto and there are brief biographies and an equally brief discussion on the nature of the recording. This evocative and magnetic set deserves permanence in the catalogues: pro or contra, this Parsifal has an imperishable gravity that can never be forgotten.

Jonathan Woolf

An imperishable gravity that can never be forgotten. … see Full Review

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