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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1865-82)
Amfortas – Theo Adam (bass-baritone)
Titurel – Fred Teschler (bass)
Gurnemanz – Ulrik Cold (bass)
Parsifal – René Kollo (tenor)
Klingsor – Reid Bunger (bass)
Kundry – Gisela Schröter (mezzo)
Radio Choruses Leipzig and Berlin, Thomaner Choir
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Kegel
rec. live, Congress Hall, Leipzig, 1 January 1975. ADD
BERLIN CLASSICS (EDEL CLASSICS) 0184402BC [3 CDs: 79:06 + 75:29 + 65:58]
Experience Classicsonline

Herbert Kegel was not known for Wagner interpretations when he performed and recorded this Parsifal in the Congress Hall of Leipzig in 1975. Edel Classics (of which Berlin Classics is a sub-label) has just re-issued this GDR Eterna recording for the second time. In 2005 it became available as a budget edition on their “Reference” line. Now it comes in a deluxe edition with full libretto, an essay, extensive bios, all in a very sturdy box, and – astonishingly – scarcely more expensive than before.

Listening to this re-issue - in exceptionally present sound - it becomes clear that Kegel certainly wasn’t a Wagner interpreter. But before you stop reading now, consider the possibility of this being praise, not criticism. If Kegel doesn’t seem to interpret the music, it’s because he takes the music at face value. There is no incense hanging above the music, there is no dwelling on numinous orchestral passages. Instead it’s a brisk march through crisp air; unsentimental and unconcerned with the recorded interpretive legacies of Parsifal that go back to Carl Muck and Hans Knappertsbusch. The latter left Wieland Wagner to complain about “Slow-motion piety”. With Pierre Boulez’s 1970 recording - four of six of his Bayreuth Parsifals still await publication - Kegel’s is the fastest uncut Parsifal on record (less than 3:40:00). Clemens Krauss (1954) and Horst Stein (1981) follow. 

Tempos don’t tell the whole story. And depending on the conductor, they don’t tell a story at all. Pierre Boulez might be a speed-monger on paper, but he can create the illusion of gravitas even as he keeps the orchestral playing transparent. Christian Thielemann’s Parsifal lasts a very average - if anything mildly speedy - three hours and fifty-plus minutes, but his tempi inside the opera are anything but average. He can be sinuous and quickly flowing like Clemens Krauss one minute, then broad and celebratory like “Kna’” the next. His inaudible gear-changes bring Furtwängler’s Tristan to mind. 

In Kegel’s case, the tempos do tell the story. As Klaus Kalchschmidt writes in his Parsifal discography (WagnerSpectrum, v.7 June ’08), the knights of the grail are marching in quickstep. The trumpets’ snaps are just about obscene, and the grail’s bells ring as secular as never before. It is easy to speculate, but hard to tell, whether this is a conscious or subconscious result of performing this Sacred Festival Drama (or better “Festival Play for the consecration of the stage”) for the first time in the officially atheist East German Republic. 

In any case, the result has so many positive elements that it would be a shame to dismiss this Parsifal only because it’s streamlined in a way not done again until Hartmut Haenchen’s 2008 Paris performance. The absence of oratorio-feel and palpable reverence gives way to a dramatic performance that dashes through the usually broad highlights and tightens the rather ‘lengthy’ moments that invariably sag with all but the very best among the ‘slow conductors’. Whether the latter makes up for the lack of the former will be up to each listener’s preferences. 

Lack of name recognition can’t keep Ulrik Cold from delivering a melodious, sonorous Gurnemanz: less authority than Kurt Moll, but never less beautiful than he, or René Pape. Gisela Schröter’s Kundry causes all kinds of reactions: from “showing unprecedented presence and versatility” (Boris M. Gruhl) to “strident, one-dimensional” (Jed Distler). Take me down for “acute, homogenous, and ultimately unspectacular”. She has plenty presence, but tries a little hard in her vibrato-heavy seduction scene. I don’t find the three characters of her transformed Kundry very distinctive. 

René Kollo, who had already been Solti’s Parsifal, and Theo Adam’s veteran Amfortas can be comfortably pitched against the best of the competition without fearing to disappoint. That said,  James King (Kubelik) and even Siegfried Jerusalem (Barenboim) do more for me, dramatically speaking. 

Brass kinks are inevitable in a live performance, but here they rare enough not to diminish the enjoyment of repeat listens - as they can when one anticipates errors, which is worse than the error itself. The rest of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Leipzig plays splendidly throughout, and the recording ensures that you can hear everything they do. The choirs are even better: clear and audible in every word they sing. 

There are only a few Parsifals from the ranks of which one could pick  a ‘first’ or ‘top choice’: Knappertsbusch (in a category of his own – most impressive perhaps in his last performance in 1964 [Orfeo D’or]), Kubelik (Arts Archives, 1980), Barenboim (Teldec, 1989) – and possibly Solti (Decca). 

But there are many other recordings that a Wagner- or opera enthusiast will want to consider having. Thielemann’s flexible conducting needs to be heard (DG, 2005). The young Waltraud Meier makes Goodall (EMI, 1984) somewhat interesting. Boulez’s dramatic reading and his fluidity (DG, 1970) make his Parsifal one of the most compelling ‘second choices’. James Levine may stretch things out well beyond his ability to maintain the tension and arc, but in his most glorious moments, he is most glorious, indeed. If a ‘Parsifal highlights’ CD could ever make sense, it’s (only) with Levine – either live from Bayreuth (Philips/Decca, 1985) or in his New York studio recording (DG, 1991). Karl Krauss’s “Italianate” reading (Archipel, 1953) is insightful, showing that even in the 1950s the inspired creep’n’crawl of Knappertsbusch wasn’t the sole way to perform this opera at Bayreuth.

Kegel’s Parsifal certainly enters this second list for the excellent overall quality - presentation, sound, singers, chorus, and orchestra - and the unique, uncompromising interpretation. As the exact antithesis to Goodall, Kegel’s Parsifal never leaves the impression of a neighbour who, though pleasant in principle, lingers annoyingly in the door for another hour after saying goodbye. Even next to a dozen Parsifals, this well produced set – as likely to find ardent supporters as vociferous opponents – gladly receives the little shelf-space it needs.

Jens F. Laurson


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