Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal [226:20]
Parsifal - Christian Elsner
Kundry - Michelle de Young
Amfortas - Evgeny Nikitin
Gurnemanz - Franz-Josef Selig
Klingsor - Eike Wilm Schulte
Titurel - Dimitry Ivashchenko
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, in concert, Berlin Philharmonie, 8 April 2011
PENTATONE PTC5186401 SACD [4 CDs: 58:11 + 38:38 + 62:06 + 67:25]
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 bewitching.
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 successful.
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 Knappertsbusch, 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.
Simon Thompson

The finest release in this Janowski/Wagner series so far. Admirable and well worth picking up.