When I reviewed the most recent release in Pentatone’s Berlin Wagner
cycle, I said that they needed to up their game if these recordings
were to attract attention in a crowded marketplace. Happily,
with this release of Parsifal, they have done so.
This is the third instalment of the cycle to be released, though
the second to be recorded. As with Meistersinger,
the first benefit that strikes the listener is the quality of
the recorded sound. It’s crystal clear with strong extremities
but inner transparency. It’s apparent right from the start
of the prelude. The re-statements of the main theme sound bright
and ever-so-slightly piercing on the winds. They are buoyed
up by a shimmering halo of strings, while the brass statement
of the faith theme brings about an outstandingly strong climax.
This is repeated with wonderfully atmospheric scenes in the
grail temple. Sound quality is important in this opera, and
the Pentatone engineers have excelled themselves. This is matched
by a vivid performance from the orchestra, who have played Wagner
brilliantly throughout this cycle so far. Brass and winds lend
kaleidoscopic colour in their contributions. The string playing
is even more outstanding, especially in the world-weary prelude
to Act 3; even more so, at the moment in the same act where
Gurnemanz recognises the mysterious knight as Parsifal. The
rich, almost chocolaty hue of the string tone at this moment
is something which every orchestra aspires to but few achieve.
The chorus play an outstanding role in the proceedings, singing
with clarity and direction but always with a good degree of
beauty. The engineers do a great job of capturing their dramatic
part in the Act 1 temple scene, each layer of sound conveyed
in its proper place with the right amount of distance between
each component. The only place where this doesn’t quite
work is the entry of the Flower Maidens, who are all over the
shop in terms of the soundscape, often sounding confusing or
poorly thought out. It’s not until Komm, holder Knabe
that their sound settles down and when it does so they are appropriately
It helps, too, that Janowski feels much more at home with this
score than he did in Meistersinger or Holländer.
He evinces a greater sense of the long view and he shapes the
unfolding of the music with a more secure eye as to where it
is going. The hasty tempi that marred his Meistersinger
are here brought under control. The Prelude unfolds naturally
from within itself, leading to an account of the first act that
is unhurried but dramatically urgent. The Transformation interludes
are paced and accented with an eye not only to structural progress
but also to musical argument. The temple scenes, always tricky
to pace, seem just right, judging the balance between stasis
and movement as well as anyone else. His conducting of Klingsor’s
music is quicksilver and slippery, as well it should be. This
sets the seal on a very strong performance. Not everything is
perfect: I want more of a sense of urgency in the orchestral
plunge into Amfortas! Die Wunde! and Gurnemanz’s
recognition of the spear (O Gnade!) is too fast but on
the whole the overall sweep of the work is convincing. Janowski
commands the confidence of both his orchestra and his singers
and the results are very strong.
He is partnered by an excellent cast of singers. The Gurnemanz
of Franz-Josef Selig is outstanding, anchoring the whole set
with gravitas and weight. He sings not only with authority but
with outstanding beauty, even more so than he did for Thielemann’s
Vienna set. The narrations of Act 1 fly by in their dramatic
excitement. Nikitin’s Amfortas is a little gravelly at
first but this conveys the character’s agony very well.
His interpretation grows in stature as the work progresses.
His narrations in the grail temple do not have the poetry or
nobility of, say, José van Dam (for Karajan and Barenboim),
but they are enormously exciting to listen to and Nikitin is
outstanding at evoking sympathy for the plight of the fallen
king. Eike Wilm Schulte is wonderfully malevolent as the magician
Klingsor but he never over-eggs it and is interpretation is
thoroughly musical. Christian Elsner’s voice has a hard-edged,
nasal quality that not everyone will love but it shouldn’t
put any listener off as he becomes ever more compelling as the
recording progresses. His assumption of the role of King is
thrilling in the final act. Michelle de Young’s Kundry
is outstanding because she gets inside both aspects of
the role. In Act 1 her voice has a frenzied, almost manic quality
to it which gives way to deflated submission before her exit.
The great duet with Parsifal in Act 2 inspires her to find a
much more seductive tone which stands her in great stead. The
narration where she laughs in the face of Christ is thrillingly
This disc is well worth picking up. It’s admirably performed
with excellent sound, and the packaging is very effective too.
As with the other instalments in this series, the four discs
are housed in a hardback booklet with full texts and translations
and extensive - though somewhat esoteric - notes about the work.
It won’t make anyone throw away their recordings from
Barenboim or Karajan (whose 1981 Berlin recording is still,
for me, the best, despite its evident flaws) but it’s
a worthy modern successor. It’s the finest release in
this Janowski/Wagner series so far.