WAGNER: 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,
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
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
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,
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.
I will be reviewing the Complete Operas of Richard Strauss in the coming
No stars applied because it is a unique venture outside usual rating criteria.
From the Web site:
||John Mitchinson, Paul Hudson ; April Cantelo
||Raimund Herincx, Alexander Young, Ian Caley, Neil Jenkins
||John Mitchinson, Michael Langdon; Lorna Haywood, Lois McDonnall
|The Flying Dutchman (in English)
||Norman Bailey; Stafford Dean; Gwyneth Jones
||Karl Liebl, Eberhard Wächter; Gre Brouwenstijn, Herta
||Lovro von Matacic
||Fritz Uhl, Carlos Alexander; Victoria de los Angeles, Christa
||Theo Adam, Jean Cox, Eberhard Katz; Nadezda Kniplova, Hildegard
|Tristan und Isolde
||Spas Wenkoff, Donald McIntyre; Katerina Ligendza, Yvonne Minton
|The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (in English)
||Norman Bailey, Alberto Remedios; Margaret Curphey
||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.
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