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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parisfal – Lars Cleveman
Kundry – Katarina Dalayman
Gurnemanz – Sir John Tomlinson
Amfortas – Detlef Roth
Klingsor – Tom Fox
Titurel – Reinhard Hagen
Hallé Youth Choir, Royal Opera Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir
The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
Rec. live, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 25 August 2013
HALLÉ CDHLD7539 [4 CDs: 258:57]

It is fitting that this recording of Parsifal should come out on the Hallé’s own label, and that their name should feature so prominently on the packaging, because they are their conductor are by some margin the best things about it. The orchestra’s Wagnerian credentials were already on the up under Elder’s leadership, and it must have been a daunting thing to be asked to give Wagner’s bicentenary Parsifal at the Proms, but they rise to the challenge triumphantly. The Prelude moves from a firmly grounded string tone, through shimmering winds to a resplendent brass climax and a beautiful melt into the first scene. The cellos and violas droop sympathetically for Amfortas’ music, and the shimmer on the violins as they describe the final flight of the swan is heartbreaking. They also manage a wonderful sigh when Parsifal removes his helmet in the third act. The climaxes as we arrive in the Grail Hall are thunderous, but they are set next to playing of marvellous sensitivity for the more magical moments.

Hand in hand with their translucent, shimmering playing, comes the BBC recording engineers, who have done an uncommonly excellent job of capturing the sound in the Albert Hall, even though the balance is a lot kinder to the orchestra than it is to the (slightly too spotlit) singers. Sound quality matters in this opera, and they do a great job of bringing the magic to life, even capturing the distances of the differing choruses very well.

Sir Mark Elder isn’t one to rush this music, but nor does he brood over it too much, and while his tempi are relaxed I never felt them inappropriately slow. Instead, Elder uses the speeds to focus the dramatic tension and extend the dramatic structure and, in some cases, to prolong certain moments of climax almost (but not quite) to breaking point. He paces the Prelude with deep, thoughtful insight, for example, but the two sets of Transformation Music roll forwards with inevitability and strength, and he is even rather playful during the Flower Maidens’ scene. The whole third act unfolds like a great arch, climaxing in a thunderous account of the knights’ confrontation with Amfortas, and the final pages shimmer beautifully.

Sadly, the singers aren’t so hot. The best of them is probably Katarina Dalayman, though even she sounds a little maternal in the second act, despite some lovely tone at “Ich sah das kind”. Lars Cleveman’s Parsifal is solid but uninspiring: neither fish nor fowl, he is neither heroic nor particularly lyrical. Sir John Tomlinson has been one of the great Gurnemanzes of our time, but his voice was long past his best by the time he sang it here. His acres of skill in vocal acting come through again and again – listen to the horror that comes through in the whisper of “Das ist ein andres”, or the awe as he describes the light from the Grail that accompanies the prophecy – but his vocal tone is shot to bits. He has hardly any lyricism in the long scenes of Act 1, and he repeatedly has to snatch for a breath where previously he could have sailed through. It’s a performance that must have been very compelling to witness in the flesh, but I don’t think it will bear repeated listening. Detlef Roth makes Amfortas sound like even more hard work than he is supposed to, struggling effortfully through his first scene and failing to hit the peaks in the final scene. Tom Fox is a rather shouty Klingsor, and it’s little comfort that the minor roles all sound very good. Some compensation comes from the various choruses, who live their roles with vigour and shine.

The Proms audience is extremely well behaved, and I never found the live-ness a problem. The only retained applause is that for the very end of the opera.

The singing means that this can’t be a first choice Parsifal, and the lack of texts or translations rules it out for beginners, too. However, those who are collecting Elder’s ongoing Wagner cycle can invest in this with the same confidence that they have bestowed on the other instalments.

Simon Thompson



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