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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Richard WAGNER

Parsifal - Act 2 (complete) and finale Act 3

Sung in German
Act 2 (complete)

First performance August 1882, Bayreuth, Germany
Parsifal - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Kundry - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Klingsor - Arnold Gabor (baritone)
Vocal Ensemble and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Erich Leinsdorf (conductor)
Recorded live on 15 April 1938
Act 3 (Finale):

Parsifal - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Amfortas - Herbert Janssen (baritone)
GUILD HISTORICAL 2201 [76.21]

Guild

Guild Music has an association with Immortal Performances which has an archive of first-generation historic broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s. This initial release (the others are a complete 1943 Figaro, excerpts from a 1928 Boris Godunov with Chaliapin, and a complete Siegfried from 1937) sets a standard hard to beat. All the discs are transfers from the original transcription discs master tapes, and transcripts of the complete Toscanini broadcasts from the same period are also planned. So too is a complete and mouth-wateringly cast Ring from the Met.

The current Guild series whose discs listed above I have also reviewed on this site, offers up its fourth treasure, a complete second act of Parsifal, with a filler provided by the last fifteen minutes of the opera with Herbert Janssen partnering Melchior. Considering that there were 21 performances of this opera at the Met between 1942 and 1947 (three or four each year) it was both a surprise and a scandal to learn that none was broadcast. Melchior was a supreme Parsifal, ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde’ (track 9) confirms that, while Kundry was nothing short of sublime in her phrasing, with a kaleidoscopic variety of drama and vocal colour being at the core of her interpretation. The wonderful discovery of this recording on sixteen 12" aluminium discs in cartons stored in a basement and, above all, the loving care taken by Richard Caniell and his team patching it all together means that we can enjoy this miracle casting despite its occasional glitches, clumsy joins, and variable quality. The timbre of Melchior’s voice rises electrifyingly above such technical problems to produce moments of radiance. The complex nature of the roles of Parsifal and Kundry, how the former transforms from a youth of naïve purity to the anguish brought about by the experience of Amfortas’s wound, and how the latter is at one time a maternal figure, then an alluring seductress, and finally shamefully acknowledging her failure to corrupt Parsifal, all of which both Melchior and Flagstad respectively master while clearly at the height of their vocal powers, results in a memorable souvenir of a golden age.

The conductor is the youthful Erich Leinsdorf, at the beginning of his Met career, who, according to the booklet ‘replaced [Artur] Bodanzky for Act two’, but I wonder if this is so. In Leinsdorf’s autobiography Cadenza (1976) he writes about his two-year contract signed in 1938, the year of this Parsifal, ‘it was clearly understood that I would, in addition to conducting a few works assigned to me, spell [stand in for] my ailing chief [Bodanzky] when necessary. This I gladly agreed to do with the proviso that I would not be asked to do single acts, as had been Bodanzky’s habit … [he] would sit out a second act and go back to his post for the third’. Just before the two Easter 1938 performances (one on the Wednesday two days before Good Friday and this one on Good Friday itself) Leinsdorf discovered by chance that Bodanzky was being advised by his doctor not to conduct. Sure enough at eleven o’clock on the Wednesday morning Leinsdorf was asked to take over that night, which he did, but he then goes on, ‘By Good Friday Bodanzky was able to conduct, for which I was very glad’. So is it Leinsdorf at the helm of this second act, or, as it appears from Leinsdorf’s own words, is it Bodanzky?

Christopher Fifield

Robert Farr has also listened to this disc

Wagner staging at the Met. in the 1930s and 1940s was a golden age, not known before, or equalled since. More by circumstance than design many of these performances were broadcast by NBC in their Saturday afternoon series and some were preserved. Influenced by circumstances in Germany the greatest Wagner singers had migrated to the Met. where memorable performances were the order of the day. The presence of Melchior and Flagstad made the performances of Parsifal vocally magnificent, particularly when Janssen or Schorr were also singing. Regrettably none of those performances were broadcast and nothing other than the written record remains. However, this one performance was broadcast and pirate LPs were later issued on the EJS label, albeit in barely listenable sound. Richard Canniel, the progenitor of this series, and a researcher of the Met. broadcasts, discovered metal masters professionally made for an enthusiast of Flagstad; it is from these masters that the complete Act 2 is taken. The CD is filled with 14 minutes of the finale of Act 3 taken from a later "Opera House of our Dreams Series" recording.

Perhaps the most important thing to say of this very welcome issue is how easy on the ear it is. So as not to compromise the overtones of voices and orchestra, it is the policy of the series not to remove clicks etc. There are stage noises, clicks, and some hiss; a plea of guilty is made for some clumsy joints where a few orchestral notes were missing at the end of sides. The orchestral sound is very solid and the voices well forward.

Flagstad (b 1895) came to the Met for the 1934-1935 season and within 2 years she and Melchior were the biggest box office draw the theatre had known since the days of Caruso and Toscanini. She is heard in noble voice here; perfect in pitch and diction she soars over the orchestra and brings Kundry to life. She is matched in every respect by Melchior's strong full heldentenor, they rise up the stave to climaxes without any perceivable strain or distortion of the tone –they don't seem to make them like this any more! Gabor, one of the better comprimario baritones at the Met. (he sang 18 seasons giving 804 performances of 60 roles) doesn't let the side down in his Act 2 contribution. Leinsdorf, 26 years of age, who had already been Bruno Walter's assistant at the Salzburg and Florence festivals, had made his Met debut the previous January in Die Walkure to critical acclaim. His conducting here has great power and dramatic intensity. Performances such as this doubtless contributed to his appointment as chief conductor of the German repertoire in 1940.

Such performances as Parsifal are legendary and given the quality of the recording, in its own right not merely in comparison with the EJS or Myto transcriptions, Wagnerians will want this issue in their collection.

Robert J Farr

See letter recieved from Richard Caniell regarding the Guild Historical Series


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