The centrepiece of this collection of historical Wagner recordings is Karl Muck’s slightly abridged version of Act Three of Parsifal recorded with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, the first attempt to give us a more or less complete presentation of any of the single Acts from one of Wagner’s music dramas. This would have been impossible in the days before electric recording, when even the excerpts which were set down had to be rescored for the limited number of instruments that could be captured by the acoustic recording process. The set has been available in various transcriptions over many years, and is discussed by Robin Holloway in his perceptive article in Opera on Record, where he speaks of the closing scene as “not surpassed in any later version.”
Other extracts from the first two Acts of Parsifal recorded by Karl Muck the year before with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra are here presented, logically enough, in the order in which they appear in the opera. One is immediately struck by the slow tempo adopted by Muck in the Act One Prelude (recorded in Berlin), which seems even more protracted than those taken by Hans Knappertsbusch in the post-War Bayreuth Festival performances available on disc; he takes nearly four minutes longer than Knappersbusch in his 1963 stereo recording. In fact the resulting sense of rapt concentration really works, and Muck – who had begun his Bayreuth career under the supervision of Wagner’s widow Cosima – should be regarded as being heir to the tempi which the composer himself would have adopted. There is no sense at all of the music here being rushed in order to fit into the limitations of the 78rpm record format; when originally issued the recording spread over four sides, but there are no obvious side-breaks audible. Mark Obert-Thorn’s recording manages - despite some suspicion of distortion at climaxes - to give us a real impression of what the performance would have sounded like. It often sounds better than the sound from live Bayreuth relays of some thirty years later, such as the Clemens Kraus Ring which I reviewed earlier this year.
Muck concludes the Prelude with Wagner’s own rarely heard concert conclusion. The recording is also valuable for letting us hear the Wagnerian bells which was used in early Bayreuth performances but which were melted down during the Second World War; very impressive they sound too, a vast improvement on the tubular bells of various sizes used in so many modern versions. Obert-Thorn shows a nice sense of judgement in his handling of the 78 rpm side-break at 3.42 (track 8) where the woodwind notes are slightly truncated as the strings enter, but he manages to make the omission scarcely noticeable. It helps when the producer has the score in front of him – would that this were so more often! – unlike the previous 1990 transfer of Act Three on the Pearl label which inserted an unwarranted break at one point. The Grail Scene from Act One is heavily truncated (no Titurel, Amfortas or Gurnemanz). The chorus are very forward in the recorded balance with no sense of approaching from a distance, or voices in the middle height of the Temple and the sopranos are very feminine, not sounding in the least like the specified Knaben. This feminine sound is a positive asset in the Flower Maidens’ scene, although in the absence of either a Parsifal or a Kundry this is the only section of the Second Act that was recorded at the time. The intricacy of the writing for the intertwining female voices really defeats the recording engineers of the era, sometimes becoming over-distant and at other times practically in one’s ear. Throughout these excerpts Muck is often unexpectedly slow and weighty, even adding quite a few additional rallentandos unspecified by the composer, which presumably derive from the hallowed Bayreuth performing tradition.
By contrast Muck is relatively more swift in his traversal of Act Three, in a set which originally occupied eight 78rpm discs. After the Prelude we cut to Parsifal’s greeting to Gurnemanz - some twenty pages of full score lasting around a quarter of an hour, although thereafter the music is given absolutely complete - and immediately encounter Gotthelf Pistor in the title role. He has what can only be described as a ‘period’ voice, with rather closed vowel sounds which sound very old-fashioned to modern ears,. He is, however, a real Heldentenor in the traditional mould, although he is decidedly unsteady in the final F-sharp of the line “schimmert heil und hehr” (track 2, 4.11) in a manner that would not be acceptable in any era. Ludwig Hoffman is much more acceptable as Gurnemanz, with a rich bass voice which has no hint of problems even in the lower register, although he lacks a real pianissimo in his description of the death of Titurel. Although the voices are quite forward in the balance, they are not objectionably so, and the orchestral accompaniment has plenty of body as well as all the heartfelt warmth one could desire as Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet. Pistor shows a welcome willingness to sing really quietly as he baptises her, leading into a gloriously touching depiction of the meadows blooming on Good Friday which demonstrates that his earlier unsteadiness was a momentary lapse.
As the distant bells sound for midday, it appears that Muck has imported the Bayreuth bell machine to Berlin, and it sounds every bit as impressive as before. It seems also that a new 78 rpm side begins as the knights enter in procession (track 6) as the music speeds up noticeably without any warrant in the score, implying the beginning of a new recording session. I cannot imagine that Muck would have expected the two sides to be listened to without a pause, but nothing can be done about that now. He does however accelerate into the climax of the funeral music in a manner that sounds like an artificial attempt to inject drama into music that doesn’t really need it. Cornelius Brongeest is a pearl of an Amfortas, not overly lachrymose but with plenty of expression and a voice that is rock-steady throughout. He has a good sense of dramatic desperation too. When Pistor re-enters, he sounds properly transported and the exaltation he brings to his music is highly impressive, quite enough so to justify Robin Holloway’s enthusiasm. He also avoids the modern habit of shading away his final note to pianissimo which seems to have crept in during the last half century, but which simply sounds wrong to my ears - and has no justification whatsoever in Wagner’s score. Only the over-close placing of the choir, and the overly feminine tone of the Knabe in “volle Hohe” detracts from the effect.
There are also two brief Parsifal extracts conducted by Siegfried Wagner, which precede and conclude the Muck items on these CDs. The composer’s son makes quite heavy weather of the Prelude to Act Three - which nevertheless cuts nearly a minute off Muck’s timing - weighed down with some very fruity brass contributions from the orchestra which are much less obvious in the contemporary Bayreuth recordings under Muck. He also shaves two minutes off Muck’s traversal of the Good Friday Music, largely by the omission of the final pages which end here rather abruptly. Although Alexander Kipnis has a more rounded voice than Ludwig Hoffman, the more forward placement given to his voice in the recorded balance results in a less satisfactory overall impression. It is interesting to note that Siegfried Wagner inserts short luftpausen between the held chords as Gurnemanz crowns Parsifal, where Muck does not and the score does not seem to warrant them. The Bayreuth tradition was clearly not as ossified as some critics would have us believe. However the Bayreuth orchestra is decidedly inferior on this showing, with rather under-nourished strings and a decidedly reedy-toned oboe who contrasts unfavourably with his more expressive Berlin counterpart. Nor does Fritz Wolff shade his voice as enticingly as Pistor; he is less willing to obey Wagner’s unusual direction for piano - the composer rarely specified dynamics for his soloists, relying on them to interpret the text appropriately - at the words “Bluten und Blumen” (tracks 9, 5.12).
The remainder of this set is filled out by extracts from The Ring under the baton of Franz von Hoesslin, a conductor who seems today to have been totally forgotten but who presided over cycles at Bayreuth in the 1920s and 1930s; this despite being exiled from Nazi Germany for refusing to play the Horst Wessel Lied before his concerts. He here gives us a number of brief ‘bleeding chunks’ together with a set of Rheinmaidens and Valkyries – presumably the principals could not be afforded for the sessions. It must be said that the vocal contributions, all very forwardly placed in the recording balance even when the singers are supposed to be offstage, add nothing much to the proceedings; but the editions of the ‘bleeding chunks’ are not altogether what one might expect. The Entry of the Gods begins with the Rainbow Bridge music, skips over Wotan’s address to Valhalla, and then gives us the closing bars of Rheingold from the final entry of the Rhinemaidens. The Ride of the Valkyries has a sizeable and unexpected cut shortly after the rise of the curtain, but continues beyond the usual conclusion to the point where the Valkyries first see Brünnhilde approaching from the distance. The Forest Murmurs exclude (rightly) the conclusion of the usual concert version where the glockenspiel makes an unconvincing attempt to imitate the singing voice of the Woodbird. The Prelude and Interlude from Act Three of Siegfried are rarities indeed outside the opera house. Here the first item extends well beyond the Prelude proper to give us the whole of Wotan’s summons to Erda (without voice) but the Interlude just cuts off in mid-phrase. Hoesslin does nothing unexpected with the music, with speeds which are neither too fast nor too slow. The recording as re-mastered is remarkably clear to the extent of exposing some very unwelcome vibrato from the bass trumpet in the Siegfried Interlude (track 5, 3.20). These recordings have previously been available in a Preiser release from 2000, but I would imagine that Mark Obert-Thorn has been able to clarify the sound considerably by comparison.
Incidentally the booklet states that, because of “complexity and lack of space” the full notes and details of performers are available from the Pristine website. Since there are two blank pages in the booklet, and the missing details of the performers at least are not extensive, it is hard to understand this. However the website article does also give a number of earlier reviews of the recordings, as well as an informative discussion of the actual recording sessions reprinted from the Gramophone and a useful summary of the re-mastering problems by Obert-Thorn.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Gotthelf Pistor (tenor)4 – Parsifal: Ludwig Hoffman (bass)4 – Gurnemanz: Cornelius Bronsgeest (baritone)4 – Amfortas: Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Karl Muck14
Ingeborg Holmgreen, Anny Helm, Minnie Ruske-Leopold, Hilde Senneck, Maria Nazádal and Charlotte Müller (sopranos and altos)3 – Flower-maidens: Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Karl Muck23
Fritz Wolff (tenor)5 – Parsifal: Alexander Kipnis (bass)5 – Gurnemanz: Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Siegfried Wagner5
Maria Nezádal (soprano)6 – Woglinde: Minnie Ruske-Leopold (soprano)6 – Wellgunde: Charlotte Müller (contralto)6 – Flosshilde: Ellen Overgaard (soprano)7 – Gerhilde: Henriette Gottlob (soprano)7 – Ortlinde: Erika Plettner (contralto)7 – Waltraute: Maria Peschken (mezzo-soprano)7 – Schwertleite: Ingeborg Holmgren (soprano)7 – Helmwige: Minnie Ruske-Leopold (soprano)7 – Siegrune: Charlotte Müller (contralto)7 – Grimgerde: Charlotte Rückforth (contralto)7 – Rossweise: Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Franz von Hoesslin678
rec. August 19272-8, 11 December 1927 and 10-14 October 19281