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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1865-82)
Amfortas – Falk Struckmann (bass-baritone)
Titurel – Ain Anger (bass)
Gurnemanz – Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Parsifal – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Klingsor – Wolfgang Bankl (bass)
Kundry – Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Christian Thielemann
rec. ‘live’ at the Vienna Opera, June 2005
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6006 [4 CDs: 59:13 + 39:30 + 69:19 + 74:30]

It’s become almost customary to refer to famous opera recordings by the conductor, as in ‘Toscanini’s Otello’ or ‘Furtwängler’s Tristan’, and this new Parsifal may well fall into that custom. It’s not that the singers are second best – perish the thought – but operas on a huge scale, like this one, need such careful phrasing and tempo management, to say nothing of orchestral and vocal balance and control, that the conductor really can be the make-or-break of ultimate success. Thielemann has many detractors – and I have not always been convinced, as in his Schumann Second Symphony for DG – but there’s no doubt that his superb conducting is one of the main sources of pleasure here.
In one sense I felt I knew what to expect, as I’ve always taken great pleasure from one of his better DG discs from the 1990s, a selection of Wagner chunks, of which two were the Parsifal Act 1 Prelude and an orchestral version of the Good Friday Music. These were recorded with a glowing Philadelphia Orchestra and the pacing was suitably leisurely. Here we have a just-as-glowing VPO but the tempo has picked up and the inner voices of the texture are just that bit sharper and more defined. In the Prelude, as throughout, the wind voicing and colouring is a joy and the rich carpet of string sonority enhances the ethereal atmosphere.
Whatever you feel about the questionable philosophy at the core of the opera – and at least one opera guide describes it as ‘morally repugnant’ – you quickly find yourself sucked into Wagner’s voluptuous musical sound-world, which very often reaches a state of stasis-like contemplation where silence is as telling as sound. This is Thielemann’s great contribution here, controlling the ebb and flow of tension and release, not afraid to move proceedings on with lightness and even force where required. He so obviously comes from the Karajan tradition but has learnt from other sources (Boulez?) that not everything in this piece has to resemble a religious experience, whatever Wagner thought.
The casting is certainly of international stature, but don’t expect the sort of depth of quality you find on the classic Knappertsbusch Bayreuth recordings. Domingo is supremely intelligent, as is Meier, and they both show what artistry they are capable of, as they did in last year’s Proms Walküre. The fact can’t be ignored that neither sounds young enough for their respective parts, but on disc this is less of a problem than on DVD. Both have performed and recorded these parts before, particularly Meier, who sounds obviously fresher on the 1991 Barenboim studio recording, but here she brings even greater insight to the text. Listen to the way she phrases ‘Nein, Parsifal, du tör’ger Reiner!’ during the long Act 2 seduction scene with Parsifal, a model of dramatic cogency, though in the cruelly high tessitura she is no match for Martha Mödl on the 1953 Knappertsbusch set (Naxos). Domingo paces himself well, drawing on his considerable reserves for the later, heavier scenes of Acts 2 and 3. He may not be the ‘pure, young fool’ of the 39 year-old Windgassen on Naxos, but his experience and musical intellect reveal many subtleties and his contribution is deeply satisfying.
The other roles are also well cast without erasing memories of earlier portrayals. I particularly like Struckmann’s neurotic Amfortas, even if he does sometimes gain a rough edge to the voice when pushed. Selig’s dark-hued Gurnemanz is another commanding characterisation, while Bankl’s Amfortas is suitably villainous without descending into whining caricature as can sometimes happen. The various choruses of Squires, Knights and Flower Maidens contribute strongly, always alert to the subtle shifts in Thielemann’s ultra-flexible tempos.
The recording is good rather than great, but the orchestra is warmly captured and voices emerge with clarity and presence. Given the fairly static nature of the work, stage noise is never too intrusive and ‘patching’ from the three nights is not obvious. This new set has been given a generally warm welcome which I would echo, and it is certainly worth it to bask in Thielemann and the VPO’s sumptuous orchestral radiance. It is retailing at full price, so it is still worth pointing out that both classic Knappertsbusch sets are substantially cheaper, as are Boulez (DG) and Goodall (EMI), so these alternatives should still be investigated given the relatively lucky history of this opera on disc.
Tony Haywood


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