Parsifal has a special place in the post-war history
of the Bayreuth Festival. When the doors re-opened in 1951 it was the
production of this work rather than the Ring that made most headlines.
Wieland Wagner directed both; both were products of the new "minimalist"
production style the composer's grandson would turn into a festival
tradition, but it was Parsifal that was remembered most by those lucky
enough to be there. Perhaps it was because the simplicity of stage presentation
seemed to suit this piece better than the Ring and that meant the approach
was accepted more quickly by the traditionally minded audience, whereas
when applied to other works it took longer. At that 1951 festival Die
Meistersinger had been assigned to Rudolf Hartman and perhaps as counterbalance
to the new astringency on show for Parsifal and The Ring he designed
one of the most traditional productions ever seen and smiles all round
from the faithful were guaranteed. A few years later Wieland would pare
down Die Meistersinger to a bench or two and a vast suspended orb representing
a tree ("The Mastersingers without Nuremberg," as the
wags called it) causing rebellion in the house and when Wagnerites rebel
it's time to head for the hills. But there was a traditional counterbalance
within the 1951 Parsifal in the shape of the conductor assigned to it
and maybe that helped assure acceptance of the production.
That year at the festival Herbert Von Karajan and Hans Knappertsbusch shared conducting duties but it was Knappertsbusch, a man from the old school, who took on the "new-look" Parsifal alone and anchored what people saw onstage into a performing tradition of what they heard stretching back to Wagner himself. Because Knappertsbusch had learned his Wagner from Hans Richter and he had learned his from The Master. Those 1951 performances were beautifully recorded by John Culshaw and Kenneth Wilkinson for Decca and issued on a legendary mono LP set that for years was the only complete Parsifal on the market. With a matchless cast it educated an entire generation in Wagner's final work and set a standard for others to aim for. Few who bought the set when it appeared in the early 1950s could have known that one conductor who would aim to better it would be Knappertsbusch himself and again at Bayreuth because that celebrated Wieland Wagner production stayed in the repertory for longer than any in the festival's history. Although other conductors would come in for an odd year or two that work at that festival in that production remained "Kna"'s until he died. So it's no surprise he was in the pit in 1962 when Philips decided to record performances of the production again for commercial issue when he was 74 years old with two years to live and which now appears again newly remastered in this Philips 50 reissue.
Received knowledge always has it that Knappertsbusch is only worth hearing in recordings made "live"; that he could never take to studio recording because he had no audience to play for and the need for retakes impeded any chance of a performance flowing, which in his case was absolutely essential. Whilst this was not always the case there is still some truth in it. But you can say much the same about other conductors of his generation. Like Furtwängler, his only equal as a Wagner conductor, Knappertsbusch was of the generation that thought in long stretches. In effect men who could think as performers in the same long stretches as the composers they excelled in. In that they were men out of the 19th century thought-world where operas, symphonies, novels and plays were big and long and demanded a sustained concentration that seemed to become fatally wounded around World War I in performers and listeners, sickening and dying as the century progressed. Creative artists as well as listeners and performers lost the ability or the inclination to take in these big works in the same way so new works pursued minimalist concerns and performers of works from the previous era started to think in shorter spans and so robbed them of some of their grandeur. Fragmentation and deconstruction became the norm in so many areas in the 20th century and so much became changed and sometimes not for the better. I've already mentioned how at Bayreuth half way through the century, in a world recovering from a second socially seismic world war, the new minimalism and the old grandeur, the new world and the old, came into a creative conflict that proved positive. But in so many areas much was lost, not least what might have been an easier way of appreciating a work like Wagner's Parsifal which was very much a 19th century culmination and closing statement prior to the changes that were approaching. Here is a case of the contemporary listeners finding the whole concept of an opera that lasts nearly four hours and contains vast plateaux of music where little happens much easier to take than we might. In Parsifal the thinking is in the kind of long stretches characteristic of 19th century creativity. It is the key to understanding a work that even some Wagnerites find daunting. Knappertsbusch was supreme in this aspect on the interpretative side and is the ideal conductor to unlock this work. You can hear this approach in the more recent Decca recording by Reginald Goodall, present in the pit for some of the 1951 Bayreuth performances, but that version doesn't have the added Bayreuth magic nor does it have as stellar a cast, or as great an orchestral instrument as Bayreuth.
The cast in 1962 was, on balance, even finer than the one in 1951 and by then Knappertsbusch had reached a deeper understanding of the opera, which is saying something. Though broadly the same interpretation as before, there is a degree more dramatic bite to the key moments of Wagner's story and even greater sense of ensemble. This is perhaps explained by the more recent date affording resources for more rehearsal time and the fact that, by then, the orchestral team was more of an ensemble. Also there is never a point in the entire score where you feel the spacious tempi are going to get in the way. This is the definitive version of Knappertsbusch's Parsifal and so, for me, the definitive recording of the work. It's a close thing but there are passages in the 1951 recording, still historic, that drag just a little. Here in 1962 that crucial sense of line is never broken, especially in the huge Act I, but the emotional highs and lows are all placed unerringly. The 1951 recording leans more towards solemnity and spirituality though the Flower Maidens scene in Act II gains from having a finer set of young ladies to tempt Parsifal. Jess Thomas sings Parsifal and responds to those 1962 Maidens with just enough youthful wonder. He is also mightily convincing in the same act with Kundry, especially in his dismissal of her. Then in Act III he is movingly exalted in the Good Friday Music and with him matched with Hans Hotter as Gurnemanz we have a scene that needs to be heard in order to be believed. Hotter himself turns in one of the performances of his life and as this was a life full of many great performances, on and off record, that should tell you how good he is here: a pleasure and enrichment. Only in the first Act do I feel a rather detached portrayal by Thomas doesn't quite come over in sound alone as Wolfgang Windgassen's does in 1951. But maybe in the theatre it was more convincing and this is just one downside of "live" recording. Kundry is Irene Dalis who is intelligent, moving and possessed of a fine dramatic sense even though Martha Modl was sexier in 1951. It must be difficult for the soprano who sings this role as it's the only featured female part in the whole opera and so all attention is brought to bear on her. That great Bayreuth stalwart Gustav Neidlinger (surely the definitive Alberich) sings Klingsor with authority and power, though Hermann Uhde in 1951 was even more menacing. Finally George London is a matchless Amfortas, as he was in 1951. But eleven years later he had deepened his interpretation with his anguish and his remorse in Act I deeply moving; his cries of "Erbarmen! Erbarmen!" almost frightening in their power. All of these are matched to a vintage Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that was in a purple patch at that time. With a fabulous Chorus trained by the legendary Wilhelm Pitz nothing is left to chance.
The Philips engineers manage to convey the feeling that you really are in a theatre, Bayreuth's theatre, in an ideal seat for an evening to remember. There are a few stage noises, some audience presence too, one or two fluffs as well, but theatre is nothing if it is not alive and I would swap all the clinical studio productions in the world to be able to create an experience like this in my living room. It may have been patched together from a number of performances at the festival that year but the fact is it sounds like one take of one performance and that is fine by me.
In the end it's still Hans Knappertsbusch who carries all before him. Bayreuth was his spiritual home and Parsifal his finest hour there. Down in the covered pit, completely out of sight of the audience, he could take off his jacket, roll up his shirtsleeves and just get on with making music. Those who saw him conducting the transformation music in Act I have said that the sight of the old man, arms aloft, his braces straining, will remain with them forever. Thanks to this recording we can share in that magic.
In so much as any recording can be called definitive, this is the definitive Parsifal. I doubt if it will ever be equalled.