Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882) [3:54:50]
Amfortas - George London
Titurel - Josef Greindl
Gurnemanz - Ludwig Weber
Parsifal - Ramon Vinay
Klingsor - Hermann Uhde
Kundry - Martha Mödl
Altsolo - Maria von Ilosvay
Gralsritter - Gene Tobin
Gralsritter - Theo Adam
Knappe - Hetty Plümacher
Knappe - Gisela Litz
Knappe - Hugo Kratz
Knappe - Gerhard Stolze
Blume - Rita Streich
Blume - Erika Zimmermann
Blume - Hetty Plümacher
Blume - Anna Tassopoulos
Blume - Gerda Wismar
Blume - Gisela Litz
Choir and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/Clemens Krauss
rec. live concert broadcast, Bayreuth Festival 24 July 1953
PRISTINE PACO 043 [3:54:50]

This is one of the few uncut performances of Parsifal with a timing under four hours, and as such ranks as one of the fastest on record. Karajan at Bayreuth in 1961 comes in at about the same time and only Boulez in 1966 (3:49:00) and 1970 (3:39:00) is faster. Whereas Boulez sounds detached, scrambled and even perfunctory, Krauss never feels rushed or dismissive; he has a real grasp of the ebb and flow of this piece and is also alive to its poetry. His more lithe and responsive approach is certainly preferable to the sclerotic and marmoreal readings of Levine in 1985 and Goodall in 1971, both of whom, absurdly, take just under four and three quarter hours. To take Knappertsbusch, as a reasonable comparison, even he generally takes another quarter of an hour in his various accounts, but another favourite version of mine by Armin Jordan in 1981 takes just five minutes over four hours. While I concede that a crude comparison of duration does not necessarily indicate the relative merits of performances, you will by now have gathered that I am not in favour of Parsifal as a cure for insomnia and am in favour of a more forward narrative momentum as opposed to the petrified stasis that passes for spirituality in some conductors’ interpretations.

Several of the cast in this 1953 performance are the same who sang in Parsifal the previous two years at Bayreuth but conducted by Knappertsbusch. The big changes are the substitution of Ramon Vinay for Wolfgang Windgassen in the title role and the inheritance of the conductor’s baton by Clemens Krauss. The 1951 broadcast has generally been the more admired, but I would suggest that the arrival of Vinay represents a marked improvement over his predecessor, that both Weber and Mödl sing better than in previous performances and that Krauss’s propulsion is preferable to Knappertsbusch’s reflection and restraint. I realise that some will disagree with me; what cannot be disputed though is that Andrew Rose at Pristine has performed another miraculous re-mastering of the dim mono sound of the original broadcast tapes in the same way that he recently revitalised Krauss’s Ring. That accomplishment alone is enough to make this Parsifal preferable to all the other live Knappertsbusch accounts recorded at Bayreuth throughout the 1950s, regardless of the merits of the various casts. As Rose notes, this transmission by Bavarian Radio was made a couple of weeks before Krauss’s Ring so the engineers would not have had opportunity to fine-tune the location and settings of their equipment, thus the quality of the tapes is about the same as he had to deal with in Das Rheingold and they were as such more recessed and afflicted by whines, hums, hissing and rumbling. He has clearly done a wonderful job in removing or at least alleviating those defects. Voices occasionally go off microphone but in general we are now not missing much, I think.

Parsifal is ideally heard in sumptuous stereo sound, but I am tolerant of live, historical mono, especially when the performance is first class and the recording is as well refurbished as here by Pristine. However, I return again and again to two modern recordings, not just to be able to hear the musical nuances but because in both Kurt Moll is an ideal interpreter of Gurnemanz. These are the 1980 Kubelik and the 1979/80 Karajan sets. Ludwig Weber has his moments; he has a big, authoritative, paternal voice and is clearly vastly experienced in the part, but his frequent unsteadiness and approximate pitching mean that he cannot really deliver the shiver down the spine that Moll provokes when he rolls out his huge, smooth black voice in climaxes such as “Gesegnet sei, Du reiner” through to “die letzte Last entnimm nun seinem Haupt!”, at the anointing of Parsifal. Robert Lloyd for Jordan is another bass whose sheer beauty of sound seduces the ear during those long narrative monologues; I do not really look forward to them with Weber, as when the vocalisation is less than perfect they can drag. There is no doubt that he understands the text at a profound level, but his vocal resources are not always able to produce the effects he is aiming for. Hotter, for all his verbal acuity, has similar vocal limitations; I’m afraid I do not find his voice especially beautiful but rather “woofy”.

An unwelcome side-effect of the audio restoration of this performance is that it reveals just how persistently bronchial the supposedly reverential Bayreuth audience were that night; I know it’s absurd to feel homicidal towards an audience member of nearly sixty years ago who has now probably long since passed away, but there is one I would happily throttle; he invariably saves his throatiest blasts for the most tender moments. Perhaps his interventions partially explain why some crucial moments remain earthbound; I don’t think any other conductor emulates the ecstasy Karajan generates at key points, yet at other times Krauss manages to create a suitably elevated and weighty ambience, such as in the Transformation music. The orchestra, some iffy intonation in the woodwind and flutes apart, is generally more comfortable than in previous years, having already been put through their paces by Knappertsbusch. The chorus trained by Wilhelm Pitz is superb. Krauss’s approach is certainly less internalised than his predecessor but there are benefits to his more dramatic treatment of the score, especially in Act 2, at Klingsor’s magic castle, which is charged with evil tension.

Hermann Uhde repeats his nonpareil of a Klingsor; he is to this role what Gustav Neidlinger was to Alberich - although the latter also sang Klingsor too. His biting, febrile, almost hysterical characterisation of the magician is thrillingly voiced and we can well believe that this sinister Klingsor “laid violent hands upon himself”. He is aptly partnered by Martha Mödl’s coruscating Kundry. No wonder the Flower Maidens - led by a lovely Rita Streich - quail before her. She underscores her reputation as a splendid singing actress; she is wholly uninhibited in how she growls and yowls to emphasise the sensual and bestial side of Kundry’s nature and the result is compelling; she is a complete stage animal and here delivers a seminal performance to stand alongside her Isolde for Karajan a few years earlier.

Windgassen’s Parsifal was arguably vitiated by the querulous whine in his voice which compromised his otherwise admirable Tristan and always made him sound too old. Vinay is an improvement vocally and he sings beautifully, but there is no denying that his big, dark, baritonal tenor also sounds too old for the naïve Parsifal, but for different reasons. Nonetheless, he is in good company here with other mature-voiced Parsifals like Vickers and Baldelli (the latter in an estimable but cut recording sung in Italian alongside Callas and Christoff) and he sings as if he is really living Parsifal’s painful journey towards enlightenment; just listen to the torment in his outburst "Amfortas! Die Wunde!” It’s a fine, involving performance. Perhaps one day Jonas Kaufmann, with a voice still boyish yet of Heldentenor amplitude, will give us the perfect Parsifal?

George London’s bleak, world-weary Amfortas is the best of his various incarnations, certainly far superior to the “big, black bawl” of his performance for Knapperstbusch too late in his sadly curtailed career in 1961. His huge, resonant, rock-solid voice grandly embodies Amfortas’s grief and anguish, although I still think José Van Dam’s account for Karajan is both the most beautifully vocalised and the most subtly characterised on disc. Resident Bayreuth cave-man Josef Greindl is suitably sonorous and sepulchral as Titurel.

All in all, this a valuable and worthy issue of Wagner's last opera (Gesamtkunstwerk, Buhnenweihfestspiel?) in sound far superior to any of its previous incarnations. This quadruple set comes in two double CD cases: the Prologue and Act 1 span discs one and two, using a natural break to separate the continuous music into two halves of similar length, with brief fades of background atmosphere ending and beginning these CDs. Acts 2 and 3 fit in their entirety onto CDs 3 and 4 respectively.

Ralph Moore

A valuable and worthy issue of Wagner's last opera