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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882) [258.57]
Lars Cleveman, tenor (Parsifal): Katarina Dalayman, soprano (Kundry): Sir John Tomlinson, bass (Gurnemanz): Detlef Roth, baritone (Amfortas): Tom Fox, baritone (Klingsor): Reinhard Hagen, bass (Titurel): Robert Murray, baritone (First Knight): Andrew Greenan, tenor (Second Knight): Sarah Castle, mezzo-soprano (First Squire, Flower maiden): Madaleine Shaw, contralto (Second Squire, Flower maiden, Voice from above): Joshua Ellicott and Andrew Rees, tenors (Third and Fourth Squires): Elizabeth Cragg, Anita Watson, Ana James and Anna Devin, sopranos (Flower maidens): Hallé Youth Choir: Royal Opera Chorus: Trinity Boys Choir: Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 25 August 2013 (BBC Prom broadcast)
HALLÉ CDHLD7539 [4 CDs: 258:57]

Although before 1973 all the recordings of Parsifal in the catalogues came directly from live performances, these were also all compendia drawn from a number of different takes made over the course of several evenings and edited together. To issue on CD a complete performance of the work, deriving entirely from one single concert performance, without any opportunities for editing or patches, might seem like a recipe for disaster in the case of an extended score like Parsifal¸ and that it succeeds in a performance like this is in itself a major cause for congratulation, even when some individual elements call for adverse comment. In the first place, the audience is commendably silent, far less obtrusive than the Bayreuth coughers in Knappersbusch’s 1962 recording for example (where one offender actually interrupts the final bar of Act Two, completely ruining the effect of the timpani diminuendo). But that, of course, is what we expect at the Proms most of the time. Secondly, the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall lends itself to the Temple of the Grail more naturally than any studio or opera house, even the Bayreuth Festival Theatre. The choirs, with a strong admixture of boys’ voices, sound exactly right in their disembodied and distant delivery than the unsteadily feminine opera choruses, which sometimes introduce a female element in Montsalvat’s supposedly all-male environment (but then where did the Grail Knights recruit their boys from?). Thirdly, every effort is made to accommodate the effects that Wagner asks for – less demanding than in the Ring, but nonetheless important – even the thunder indicated in the score at the moment of the earthquake at the end of Act Two, exactly as Wagner specifies and as so many performances simply omit or relegate to the background (CD3, track 13). And best of all, bells in the right octave, something which even conductors keen to point out the manner, in which they adhere to the instructions in Wagner’s score persist in getting wrong. I am not sure what sort of bells are used here – they do not sound like the electronic ones employed at Bayreuth and on Goodall’s studio recording during the period 1975-85 or so – but they have the proper deep tone although perhaps they could have been more forward in the orchestral mix (as indeed they are during the funeral march in Act Three, CD4 track 12).

Indeed it is the internal balance of the sound, which raises the most immediate queries with this issue. Sir Mark Elder gets a pretty well ideal balance internally within the orchestra (one might have liked slightly more string tone in the opening prelude to Act Two), but the BBC engineers have clearly opted to keep their microphones quite close to the solo singing voices – not to the extent of providing a false balance against the orchestra, since the give-and-take is generally excellently managed – but at a cost in the loss of the ideal resonance on the tone of the individual singers. This might not be so serious a problem, were the solo singers able to withstand such close observation, but although the Flower Maidens and those taking minor roles – the Knights and the Squires – leave little to be desired, unfortunately many of the principal singers fall short in various different degrees and ways.

Wieland Wagner once observed that in Parsifal his grandfather had shown himself to be more sympathetic to the problems of singers than in his other mature music dramas, but that by no means implies that the roles are any less problematic to cast. The longest single part, that of Gurnemanz, is often undertaken by retired Wotans, who one would imagine would have become accustomed to pacing themselves through the course of a long evening; but here the distinguished ex-King of the Gods Sir John Tomlinson, responsive as he is to every nuance of the text and action, simply no longer can command the steadiness of tone that the upper reaches of the role demand. Towards the end of the evening, indeed, it appears that his conductor, in a rare lapse of judgement, allows himself to accelerate the speed of the final peroration in the Good Friday music, clearly seeking to minimise the vocal difficulties, which Tomlinson is experiencing. Two of the other principals also give evidence of problems with steadiness or pitching; Lars Cleveman in the title role at times allows himself to sit on the flat side of notes, distressingly so in places during his final Nur eine Waffe taugt (CD4, track 14), where again tiredness may have been a factor at the end of a long evening. On the other hand Detlef Roth lacks the sense of baritonal depth which the singer of Amfortas should ideally command, and pushes himself sharp in the opening of his Act One lament (CD2, track 5), although he avoids the sense of strain that can enter into deeper voices during the high-lying closing stages of this passage. Tom Fox as Klingsor has plenty of solid tone at his command, but he fails to make much of the character. Admittedly Wagner gives him a limited amount to work with, but moments of introspection like Furchtbäre Noth! (CD3, track 3) pass without the sense of inner reflection that other singers can summon here. The firm-toned Reinhard Hagen as Titurel simply sounds too young and too healthy, and Wagner’s instruction that his voice should resonate “as if from within a tomb” does not appear to have troubled the BBC engineers too much. Of the solo singers the most impressive is Katarina Dalayman as Kundry, a role that over the years has caused immeasurable difficulties for sopranos – to the extent that Karajan in the theatre actually assigned the part to two different individual singers in Act One and Act Two. For some thirty years the ideal exponent of the “wild woman” was Waltraud Meier, a mezzo-soprano with rock-solid upper reaches to her voice; she was preceded by Christa Ludwig, who had a similar kind of approach but sung the role all too rarely. But in general I have preferred the sound of a soprano who can command the lower passages and at the same rise to the climax of Ich sah’ das Kind (CD 3, track 8) as the best-fitted kind of voice – a sort of Brünnhilde, in fact, as Dalayman is. Her guttural utterances at the beginning of Act Two don’t come across too solidly here (probably the lack of the stage dimension) but otherwise she comes close to the ideal, and for once she justifies the interpolation of a high B-flat at the end of her curse (CD3, track 13).

Nonetheless it must be observed that despite a superlative overall performance, it is the contributions of the chorus and orchestra under the inspired direction of Sir Mark Elder, which remain the touchstone of the excellence in this concert performance. I have observed with approval in the past Sir Mark’s willingness to allow a composer’s directions for extremely slow tempos to make their full effect – for example, in Elgar’s The Apostles – and although Wagner eschewed the use of metronome marks in his later scores, the pacing allows the long pauses and pregnant ritardandi to make their full effect – for example, in the transition to the voices in the dome at the beginning of the Temple Scene of Act One (CD2, track 4). Elder’s conducting is definitely in the honourable tradition of Goodall rather than Boulez (I think of the Goodall live performance from Covent Garden, now on CD, rather than his studio recording with Welsh National Opera), and is all the more effective for that. He never allows himself, as some conductors in the ‘Goodall tradition’ have done, to equate simple slowness with profundity, but allocates full weight to the orchestral sound as required – and his players respond to him magnificently.

The cover of the set gives due credit to the Hallé and Elder without mentioning the singers, as indeed would seem to be appropriate, given my reservations expressed earlier. But the performance, despite those reservations and the unflattering balance given to the voices by the BBC engineers, remains one which one would be extremely happy to encounter live, when incidental flaws could be easily forgiven in the heat of the moment. Whether the listener could tolerate the waywardness of some of the vocal pitching on repeated hearings is a matter for the individual listener to decide, and those anxious to hear these particular voices will need no recommendation to purchase this set. The booklet indicates that texts and translations are available on line, but the synopsis provided by Barry Millington perpetrates one slip, when it describes Gurnemanz as an “elderly squire” instructing “two young knights” rather than the other way about (oddly enough the German and French translations get it right); and the outline fails to explain the reason for Klingsor’s hatred of the Grail Knights in his original desire for holiness. Nonetheless the cheers of the audience at the end find a ready echo in this listener, even though when I want to spend an evening in the company of Parsifal ,I will probably turn to the Bayreuth DVD conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, which I reviewed with such enthusiasm a couple of years ago. Archiv currently lists 53 alternative recordings (some of which are duplicates of each other), so we are hardly spoilt for distinct choices, among which can be found further performances by Dalayman, Fox and Tomlinson.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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