Parsifal on SACD - ears prick up! This recording has many virtues,
not least of which is the sound quality, which is very fine
indeed. It is a great performance too, not perfect, but what
Wagner recording ever is? It is well cast, well paced, and imparts
a real sense of theatrical drama, despite being taken from a
live concert recording.
The event it records was a concert performance at the Concertgebouw
in Amsterdam in December 2010. As well as the four hybrid SACDs,
the box also contains a DVD of highlights from the event. From
a musical point of view, the DVD suffers from the bleeding chunks
syndrome - just as you're getting into the music it stops and
cuts to something else - but video does give an idea of the
sheer visual splendour of the hall. It also shows that this
was strictly a concert performance, with no "semi-staged" element.
The size of the choir can come as a surprise on the audio recording
(there are more Flower-maidens than I've ever heard before),
but the sound of the ensemble makes more sense when you can
see them all lined up on the stage.
Before listing the recording's many merits, there are two issues
which I suspect are going to make it contentious. The first
is Jaap van Zweden's interpretation, which could best be described
as matter-of-fact. Better that, I suppose, than going too far
the other way, but this is a no-nonsense reading, with strict
tempos and very few indulgences in the phrase shaping. Just
listening to the first pages of the Prelude gives you an idea
of what is to come. Zweden imparts solemnity to the music through
his rigorous tempi, but with at a cost to the music's emotional
engagement. This is more of an issue in some places than others.
The Flower-maidens' music and the quiet opening of act three
feel far too rigid, at least to me, while the Grail ritual at
the end of act one and the dramatic conclusion to act two both
come off better.
The other major sticking point is the number of slips in the
orchestral playing. No recording dates are given in the liner,
but these localised problems suggest that, unusually, the recording
was made at a single event, rather than the more usual two or
three plus patch session. If so, that is perhaps to be lauded
from the point of view of the coherency of the result. But Parsifal
is a work with a long history of note-perfect recordings, so
the splits and wrong notes from the orchestra really do stand
out. In fairness, there aren't all that many of them, perhaps
ten in the whole opera. The woodwind and brass are the culprits.
The brass also struggle at times to play together. And the vibrato
on the first horn solos isn't to my taste, although I suspect
that is a trademark of Dutch orchestras.
But those provisos apart, everything else on this recording
is excellent. The casting is based on the principle that if
you have world-class singers in the roles of Parsifal and Gurnemanz,
everything else will fall into place. Klaus Florian Vogt and
Robert Holl both have enviable reputations as leading Wagnerians,
and their performances here are as good as any Wagner recording
either has made before. Vogt has an instantly recognisable tone,
intimate and sometimes narrow, but always with enough penetration
to carry over the orchestra. Holl has all the vocal authority
he needs for Gurnemanz, with plenty of support for the lower
notes and impressive clarity of diction throughout.
The rest of the cast is a wrung below these world-class talents,
but still delivers the goods. The best of them is Krister St.
Hill, whose Klingsor is among the most sinister on record, but
whose icy clarity of tone is curiously seductive. Not being
a big fan of heavy vibrato, I found Falk Struckmann's Amfortas
and Katarina Dalayman's Kundry both a little wobbly, but in
all other respects they are both ideal for their roles. Ante
Jerkunica sounds appropriately distant and drained as Titurel.
His pitching sometimes veers towards the approximate, but again
it is a performance that is ideal for the dramatic context.
The sound quality is excellent, and anybody who has heard the
recent Concertbegouw Orchestra recordings on their own label
will know how well the hall responds to SACD reproduction. There
is a curious paradox here, in that the hall's acoustic is so
well represented that it is immediately clear that we are not
in an opera house. Perhaps the hall is a little too resonant
for the singers, although it is absolutely ideal for the orchestra,
but whichever way, the sheer sense of atmosphere that it imparts
is very seductive.
The release draws inevitable comparisons with Gergiev's offering
with the Mariinsky last year. Both are SACD recordings of concert
performances of Parsifal. The comparisons go further still,
in that both Zweden and Gergiev conduct the work in idiosyncratic
ways. Both come from outside of the core German tradition, which
may be the reason. Like the Gergiev recording, this one isn't
going to be for everybody. Personally, I prefer Zweden's interpretation,
I prefer his cast too. But they both have their merits, so any
Wagner fans who are feeling flush will be buying both.