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