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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Parsifal: opera in three acts
Parsifal, Wolfgang Windgassen (ten). Kundry, Martha Modl (sop). Gurnemanz, Ludwig Weber (bass). Amfortas, George London (b. bar). Titurel, Arnold van Mill (bass). Klingsor, Hermann Uhde (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival/Hans Knappertsbusch
Recorded live during July and August 1951
Bargain Price
NAXOS 8.110221-24 [55.15+62.10+78.20+76.26]


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First produced at Bayreuth on July 26th 1882, Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera. Set to the composer’s own words based on a 13th century poem its themes of purification and redemption were seen to be an ideal offering at the eagerly awaited resumption of the annual ‘Festival’ in 1951. It was ideal as there was trepidation in some quarters as to how the resumption would be viewed and received. Wagner’s music had after all been subject to ‘Nazification’. Wagner’s daughter-in-law had afforded a warm welcome to Hitler and his senior lieutenants during the Second World War at a time when informed Germans were aware of the suffering being inflicted on the Jews.

Great care was taken in casting which also provided an opportunity for the mixing of nations and generations. This casting, the advent of magnetic tape recording with all its potential for long takes, and the emerging LP record all combined to draw the record companies like bees to the proverbial honey-pot. Regrettably, the senior producers and engineers who descended on the Festival were not accompanied by lawyers, as at least one recording didn’t see the light of day for nearly fifty years because of ‘contractual’ difficulties; that is, an artist singing in a recorded performance was ‘exclusive’ to another label when the term meant exactly what it said!

This Parsifal recording was a resounding success when it was issued on seven LPs (Decca LXT 2651 through 2657). Outstanding in the singing cast is the Gurnemanz of Ludwig Weber. He was a Germanic (Austrian by birth) black bass with steady well-coloured and covered tone (CD 1 tr 3, 6-7) and the ability to inflect a phrase to give whatever emotion is called for; gentility, frustration, anger, horror or love. Too many singers fail to exhibit this level of skill. His steadiness is particularly noteworthy given the conductor’s slow tempi, particularly in the first act and the early pages of act 2. Some critics have ascribed the virtue of intensity to this slowness. Well, the conductor’s second recording of the work made at the 1962 Festival is no less intense and is over twenty minutes faster! (Currently available on Philips ‘50 Great Recordings’). As the eponymous hero Windgassen, aged 37 at the time of the recording, is ardent and fresh voiced; one of the best Parsifals on disc. As Kundry, Martha Modl was at the turning point from mezzo to dramatic soprano. Her singing is full toned, vibrant and expressive, although smoothness of legato is not a phrase one is tempted to use. George London and Arnold van Mill are strongly characterful and sonorous whilst the Klingsor of Hermann Uhde is thrilling in his characterisation albeit there is a touch of raw tone at the top of the voice (CD 3 tr3). The chorus is excellent and although set a little further back than the soloists play a full and appropriate part in the proceedings.

The mono recording is somewhat constricted although not without depth. The acoustic at Bayreuth is such that several of the succeeding recordings of Parsifal were made live in that theatre. The Naxos producer notes that ‘changes in perspective and audience noise are noticeable at some of their (i.e. Decca’s) edits, and continues ‘there are other problems with the original master, including post echo and swishing sounds … during the loud portions of Act 2’. However, recording quality is not the issue here, rather it is the history of the occasion and the outstanding quality of the singing. For those for whom recording quality is all, Karajan (DG), Solti (Decca) and more recently Baremboim (Teldec) have all made studio recordings with good singing casts. I certainly wasn’t too disturbed by the sonic limitations here particularly with such outstanding singing to be heard. Those who like to hear outstanding singers practising their art or who want to get to know the opera at an affordable price should not hesitate.

Robert J. Farr

See also reviews by Tony Haywood and Jonathan Woolf

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