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: Parsifal, live performance from Muziektheater, Amsterdam, February 1997
Poul Elming (Parsifal), Robert Lloyd (Gurnemanz). Violeta Urmana (Kundry), Carsten Stabel (Amfortas), Gunther von Kannen (Klingsor), Wolfgang Schone (Titurel).Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
From: The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner on 1 CD-ROM (AE003), priced $8.50 + $3.00 p&p. Time: 40+ hours. Available only from
YES! All the Wagner operas for around £10


It is often the case with opera that the most inspired performances derive from live concerts. In the case of Wagner and Richard Strauss this is almost always the case, and the development of CD has allowed many previously unreleased performances to appear on disc, particularly from Bayreuth and Vienna. There are other sources, of course, notably Paris Opera and San Francisco Opera, as well as from the music centres of Amsterdam, London and New York. This release (of an Amsterdam production) appears on an American CD-ROM (so can only be played on a computer or DVD player), and is extraordinary.

That you will get the complete operas of Wagner on one disc is treasure enough, but that the performances are also so compelling adds immeasurably to this disc's value. I will discuss in greater detail the other operas on this CD later, but will highlight Rattle's Parsifal as the main reason to acquire this disc. It is an exceptional performance by any measure (certainly one of the greatest I have ever heard), very spaciously conceived and wonderfully sung. The recording is more than satisfactory, stemming as it does from a live relay, and more than conveys the power of Rattle's interpretation. Indeed, the spaciousness of this performance, from the opening Prelude onwards, reminds me in many ways of Toscanini's approach to this opera. Toscanini, usually the urgent dynamo, conducted this opera more slowly than any other conductor at pre-war Bayreuth. He is the only conductor (based on his 1931 Parsifal) to have taken the first act to over two hours in length (Rattle comes in at 1 hour 40 minutes). Even his 1930s BBC SO recording of the Prelude is slow, in fact so slow it is ponderous and collapses under the weight of Toscanini's fervent religiosity.

This greatest of operas can withstand much, but the finest performances always emphasise the desolation of the music. Rarely have I heard a Transformation Scene (62 minutes into the performance) as magnificent as Rattle's. It is so overwhelming that it shocks, and the power of the playing is astonishing. The depth of tone from the strings have extraordinary passion, and the brass are gloriously full-throated. Wagner's markings of poco crescendo and ff are taken at face value, but the moment of the music's apotheosis with trumpets, trombones, horns, woodwind and timpani playing at ff for three bars on a sustained single note (moving to diminuendo) is simply shattering. The ostinato on bells is thrillingly captured.

The Preludes to both Act I and Act III are, I think, central to Rattle's entire vision of the whole work. The First Act prelude is rich indeed, with Rattle's wind instruments (bassoon, clarinet and cor anglais) blending magnificently with the violins and cellos. He establishes the ambiguity between A flat and C minor masterfully and the hushed tremolo on strings that begins the third section of the Prelude develops the agony of Amfortas more suggestively than any Prelude I can remember. By the Act III Prelude, Rattle has already defined the progression of the opera. The blackness of the closing of the second act is here given superb characterisation in Rattle's development of the conflicting tensions between B flat and B minor. The desolation becomes apparent in a very unsettling way.

If the orchestral playing is magnificently full bodied, the singers are more than equal to this. This is after all a human epic, but the singing in Parsifal is not often as uniformly inspired as it is here. Gunther von Kannen as Klingsor is wonderful. This is no ordinary villain, rather one with an intellectual brilliance that makes him more evil than usual. His is a Klingsor who personifies carnality. The big narratives in each act are triumphs: Gurnemanz's great scene (Act I), the Kundry-Parsifal dialogue (Act II) and the Gurnemanz and Parsifal exchanges in Act III prior to the Good Friday Music. The singing here is divine, focusing the attention on the developing drama magnificently. The role of Parsifal (so often the weak link in many performances, not least on studio versions) is finely sung and acted by Poul Elmers. Violeta Urmana's Kundry throws caution to the wind and is memorable because of this. She is dark-toned where needed, and lyrically expansive when with Parsifal. Carsten Stabel is often unbearably moving as Amfortas.

If this Parsifal were available on commercial release it would be the most recommendable version since Knappertsbusch's 1964 Bayreuth performance. It is as transparently intense as that version, and an extraordinarily moving performance of an opera that never ceases to unravel its greatness over repeated listening.

The other performances on this disc cover all of Wagner's operas from Die Feen through to Die Meistersinger. Most of the performances are notable in one way or another. Amongst the best is Lohengin under Lovro von Matacic. It is an Italian production, from the Teatro Colon (1964) and boasts a magnificent set of principals. Fritz Uhl is Lohengrin, Victoria de los Angeles, Elsa and Christa Ludwig, Ortrud. Rather bizarrely, the chorus sing in Italian and for this reason there are extensive cuts to Act II. The recording is amongst the poorest on this disc, but the performance itself is vital. The performance of the Ring is from RAI Rome in the early seventies and is conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Although not using big name stars from either Bayreuth or the Met it is still a fine cycle, with Theo Adam as Wotan and Gerd Nienstadt as Hagen particularly thrilling. Sawallisch's conducting is direct and non-fussy.

The Tristan is the only Bayreuth performance on this disc. Dating from 1977, it is conducted by Horst Stein, a regular at Bayreuth in the '70s. Stein undertook the 1970 Ring at the Bayreuth Festival (for an indisposed Lorin Maazel), a performance that was grandly Wagnerian, if under inspired. This Tristan is much the same, although the Kurwenal of Donald McIntyre is truly memorable, although the same cannot be said of Katerina Ligendza's Isolde. Her Tristan was Spass Wenkol.

The two most interesting performances are both from English productions - the Die Meistersinger from 1968 conducted by Reginald Goodall and Die Fligender Hollander from ENO (1975) conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones has Norman Bailey as his Dutchman and Gwyneth Jones as Senta. Jones was just about beginning to show strain in the upper register of her voice, but here she is better than most Senta's on record. Norman Bailey is Sachs in Goodall's Meistersinger (a noble performance), and the ever impressive Alberto Remedios is Walter.

But, apart from Rattle's extraordinary Parsifal, the reason to acquire this disc will be for the performance of Tannhauser. The performance is not dated (but is early), and comes from RAI Rome and is conducted by the fabulous Arthur Rodzinski. Rodzinski could be electrifying in opera (his 1937 concert Elektra is devastating), and he is just exhilarating here. Karl Liebl is Tannhauser and the great Gre Brouwenstijn Elizabeth. This is thrilling from first note to last, although the second half of Act I is marred by a breakdown in the recording quality. It is, however, unforgettable.

As these are CD-ROMS you can expect something extra. As well as on-screen librettos, there are detailed synopses of plot and biographies of all of the major singers. Cueing is generous, and the amp software (supplied) allows you to adjust sound settings, balances and volume. For less than £10 (including postage), I cannot recommend this disc enough and would suggest it is not just for experienced Wagnerians. This is a disc for 2000 that I cannot imagine being bettered in terms of performances (Rattle and Rodzinsky) and value for money.


Marc Bridle


I will be reviewing the Complete Operas of Richard Strauss in the coming month.


No stars applied because it is a unique venture outside usual rating criteria.

From the Web site:
Title Conductor Cast
Die Feen Edward Downes John Mitchinson, Paul Hudson ; April Cantelo
Das Liebesverbot Edward Downes Raimund Herincx, Alexander Young, Ian Caley, Neil Jenkins
Rienzi Edward Downes John Mitchinson, Michael Langdon; Lorna Haywood, Lois McDonnall
The Flying Dutchman (in English) David Lloyd-Jones Norman Bailey; Stafford Dean; Gwyneth Jones
Tannhäuser Artur Rodzinski Karl Liebl, Eberhard Wächter; Gre Brouwenstijn, Herta Wilfert
Lohengrin Lovro von Matacic Fritz Uhl, Carlos Alexander; Victoria de los Angeles, Christa Ludwig
The Ring Wolfgang Sawallisch Theo Adam, Jean Cox, Eberhard Katz; Nadezda Kniplova, Hildegard Hillebrecht
Tristan und Isolde Horst Stein Spas Wenkoff, Donald McIntyre; Katerina Ligendza, Yvonne Minton
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (in English) Reginald Goodall Norman Bailey, Alberto Remedios; Margaret Curphey
Parsifal Simon Rattle Poul Elming, Robert Lloyd; Violeta Urmana

The disc includes complete German-language libretti keyed to the music and biographies of many of the soloists. While these performances may at time lack the sound quality and stellar names of other recordings, each is a worthy realization of the score which is not in wide circulation. The primary purpose of the disc is to embody in a single volume a synoptic view of Wagner's evolution; such an overview is difficult to obtain with the large number of discs in conventional formats.

Since April 20th 2000 you have been visitor number


Marc Bridle

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