Herbert Kegel was not known for Wagner interpretations when he
performed and recorded this Parsifal in the Congress Hall
of Leipzig in 1975. Edel Classics (of which Berlin Classics is
a sub-label) has just re-issued this GDR Eterna recording for
the second time. In 2005 it became available as a budget edition
on their “Reference” line. Now it comes in a deluxe edition with
full libretto, an essay, extensive bios, all in a very sturdy
box, and – astonishingly – scarcely more expensive than before.
Listening to this re-issue - in exceptionally present
sound - it becomes clear that Kegel certainly wasn’t a Wagner
interpreter. But before you stop reading now, consider the possibility
of this being praise, not criticism. If Kegel doesn’t seem to
interpret the music, it’s because he takes the music at face
value. There is no incense hanging above the music, there is
no dwelling on numinous orchestral passages. Instead it’s a
brisk march through crisp air; unsentimental and unconcerned
with the recorded interpretive legacies of Parsifal that go
back to Carl Muck and Hans Knappertsbusch. The latter left Wieland
Wagner to complain about “Slow-motion piety”. With Pierre Boulez’s
1970 recording - four of six of his Bayreuth Parsifals still
await publication - Kegel’s is the fastest uncut Parsifal on
record (less than 3:40:00). Clemens Krauss (1954) and Horst
Stein (1981) follow.
Tempos don’t tell the whole story. And depending
on the conductor, they don’t tell a story at all. Pierre Boulez
might be a speed-monger on paper, but he can create the illusion
of gravitas even as he keeps the orchestral playing transparent.
Christian Thielemann’s Parsifal lasts a very average - if anything
mildly speedy - three hours and fifty-plus minutes, but his
tempi inside the opera are anything but average. He can be sinuous
and quickly flowing like Clemens Krauss one minute, then broad
and celebratory like “Kna’” the next. His inaudible gear-changes
bring Furtwängler’s Tristan to mind.
In Kegel’s case, the tempos do tell the story.
As Klaus Kalchschmidt writes in his Parsifal discography (WagnerSpectrum,
v.7 June ’08), the knights of the grail are marching in quickstep.
The trumpets’ snaps are just about obscene, and the grail’s
bells ring as secular as never before. It is easy to speculate,
but hard to tell, whether this is a conscious or subconscious
result of performing this Sacred Festival Drama (or better “Festival
Play for the consecration of the stage”) for the first time
in the officially atheist East German Republic.
In any case, the result has so many positive elements
that it would be a shame to dismiss this Parsifal only because
it’s streamlined in a way not done again until Hartmut Haenchen’s
2008 Paris performance. The absence of oratorio-feel and palpable
reverence gives way to a dramatic performance that dashes through
the usually broad highlights and tightens the rather ‘lengthy’
moments that invariably sag with all but the very best among
the ‘slow conductors’. Whether the latter makes up for the lack
of the former will be up to each listener’s preferences.
Lack of name recognition can’t keep Ulrik Cold
from delivering a melodious, sonorous Gurnemanz: less authority
than Kurt Moll, but never less beautiful than he, or René Pape.
Gisela Schröter’s Kundry causes all kinds of reactions: from
“showing unprecedented presence and versatility” (Boris M. Gruhl)
to “strident, one-dimensional” (Jed Distler). Take me down for
“acute, homogenous, and ultimately unspectacular”. She has plenty
presence, but tries a little hard in her vibrato-heavy seduction
scene. I don’t find the three characters of her transformed
Kundry very distinctive.
René Kollo, who had already been Solti’s Parsifal,
and Theo Adam’s veteran Amfortas can be comfortably pitched
against the best of the competition without fearing to disappoint.
That said, James King (Kubelik) and even Siegfried Jerusalem
(Barenboim) do more for me, dramatically speaking.
Brass kinks are inevitable in a live performance,
but here they rare enough not to diminish the enjoyment of repeat
listens - as they can when one anticipates errors, which is
worse than the error itself. The rest of the Radio Symphony
Orchestra Leipzig plays splendidly throughout, and the recording
ensures that you can hear everything they do. The choirs are
even better: clear and audible in every word they sing.
There are only a few Parsifals from the ranks of
which one could pick a ‘first’ or ‘top choice’: Knappertsbusch
(in a category of his own – most impressive perhaps in his last
performance in 1964 [Orfeo D’or]), Kubelik (Arts Archives, 1980),
Barenboim (Teldec, 1989) – and possibly Solti (Decca).
But there are many
other recordings that a Wagner- or opera enthusiast will want
to consider having. Thielemann’s flexible conducting needs to
be heard (DG, 2005). The young Waltraud Meier makes Goodall (EMI,
1984) somewhat interesting. Boulez’s dramatic reading and his
fluidity (DG, 1970) make his Parsifal one of the most compelling
‘second choices’. James Levine may stretch things out well beyond
his ability to maintain the tension and arc, but in his most glorious
moments, he is most glorious, indeed. If a ‘Parsifal highlights’
CD could ever make sense, it’s (only) with Levine – either live
from Bayreuth (Philips/Decca, 1985) or in his New York studio
recording (DG, 1991). Karl Krauss’s “Italianate” reading (Archipel,
1953) is insightful, showing that even in the 1950s the inspired
creep’n’crawl of Knappertsbusch wasn’t the sole way to perform
this opera at Bayreuth.
Kegel’s Parsifal certainly
enters this second list for the excellent overall quality - presentation,
sound, singers, chorus, and orchestra - and the unique, uncompromising
interpretation. As the exact antithesis to Goodall, Kegel’s Parsifal
never leaves the impression of a neighbour who, though pleasant
in principle, lingers annoyingly in the door for another hour
after saying goodbye. Even next to a dozen Parsifals, this well
produced set – as likely to find ardent supporters as vociferous
opponents – gladly receives the little shelf-space it needs.
Jens F. Laurson