Wagner Parsifal

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A survey of recordings of Wagner's iconic opera

The Gramophone Choice 

Jess Thomas (ten) Parsifal George London (bass-bar) Amfortas Hans Hotter (bass-bar) Gurnemanz Irene Dalis (mez) Kundry Gustav Neidlinger (bass-bar) Klingsor Martti Talvela (bass) Titurel Niels Møller (ten) First Knight Gerd Nienstedt (bass) Second Knight Sona Cervená (mez) First Squire, Sixth Flower Maiden Ursula Boese (mez) Second Squire Gerhard Stolze (ten) Third Squire Georg Paskuda (ten) Fourth Squire Rita Bartos, Gundula Janowitz, Anja Silja, Elsa-Margrete Gardelli, Dorothea Siebert (sops) Flower Maidens Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Hans Knappertsbusch

Philips 475 7785POR4 (4h 10' · ADD · T/t). Recorded live 1962. Buy from Amazon

This is one of the greatest sets of all time. Every time one returns to it, its inspiration and distinction seem to have been enhanced. There have been many fine recordings of this great Eastertide opera but none has so magnificently managed to capture the power, the spiritual grandeur, the human frailty and the almost unbearable beauty of the work as Hans Knappertsbusch. This live recording has a cast that has few equals. Hotter is superb, fleshing out Gurnemanz with a depth of insight that has never been surpassed. London’s Amfortas captures the frightening sense of impotence and anguish with painful directness, while Thomas’s Parsifal grows as the performance progresses and is no mean achievement. Dalis may lack that final degree of sensuousness but she provides a fine interpretation nevertheless.

Throughout the work, Knappertsbusch exercises a quite unequalled control over the proceedings; it’s a fine testament to a great conductor. The Bayreuth acoustic is well reproduced, and this record is a profound and moving experience. 


Additional Recommendations

Gary Lehman (ten) Parsifal Evgeny Nikitin (bar) Amfortas René Pape (bass) Gurnemanz Violeta Urmana (sop) Kundry Nikolai Putilin (bar) Klingsor Alexei Tanovitski (bass) Titurel Yuri Alexeev (ten) First Knight Yuri Vorobiev (bass) Second Knight Lia Shevtsova, Olga Legkova, Alexander Timchenko, Andrei Popov Squires Olga Trifonova, Irina Mataeva, Liudmila Dudinova, Elena Ushakova, Zhanna Dombrovskaya, Anna Kiknadze Flower Maidens Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Valery Gergiev

Mariinsky MAR0508 (4h 19’ · DDD/DSD · S/T/t) Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon

Recorded in concert, this Parsifal is more like an old-style studio recording and that need be no bad thing. It must be said at once that, on grounds of the general excellence of its singers and the cumulative authority of the interpretation, this is a performance to be reckoned with. It boasts not only the peerless René Pape, a Gurnemanz of tireless eloquence and refinement, but Gary Lehman, the formidably gifted American Heldentenor, new to recording, in the title-role. Nor are Violeta Urmana, Evgeny Nikitin or Nikolai Putilin to be found wanting: Nikitin’s Amfortas might project more anger than pain in Act 1 but he makes amends with a superbly judged contribution to Act 3. As for Lehman: some Wagnerites will probably feel that the sheer weight of a voice which has already tackled Tannhäuser and Tristan, with Siegfried soon to come, is less than ideal as far as character goes. But it does no harm for Parsifal to be heroic as well as naive and in any case Lehman’s sensitive way with the text is just as rewarding in, for example, Act 3’s Good Friday scene as in Act 2’s hectic exchanges with Kundry. There are occasional hints of a beat in the voice, raising concerns that he might have been singing too many heavy roles too soon: and while both Lehman and Pape cope very well with Gergiev’s often spacious pacing of the score’s long, intricately interconnected paragraphs, Pape’s tendency to fine down the sound to a whisper on a single word risks becoming a mannerism too far.

Mannerism might also be the term for those places in all three acts where Gergiev opts for stateliness rather than flow; deliberation seems to be at war with the impulsiveness evident elsewhere. But Gergiev’s mastery of the orchestral melos and his ability to bend the Mariinsky musicians productively to his will are never in doubt: rarely, if ever, has the first fortissimo from the brass in the Act 1 Prelude blazed out with such sonorous gravity as it does here. Nevertheless, some of the decisions about balance are questionable. While the solo singers are always placed well forward, the offstage music can be distant to the point of near-inaudibility.

What is beyond question is the remarkable effect of the conductor’s interaction with a cast which is not exclusively Russian. Certainly ­Nikitin, Putilin and the hugely imposing Alexei Tanovitski (Titurel) need fear nothing by ­comparison with their non-Russian colleagues.

Gergiev’s Parsifal has an imaginative force, overall, which pushes any hints of contrivance to the musical and dramatic margins. Would a live, staged performance with this cast, conducted by Gergiev, be the same? Perhaps, one day, we will be able to find out.


Jon Vickers (ten) Parsifal Norman Bailey (bar) Amfortas Louis Hendrikx (bass) Gurnemanz Amy Shuard (sop) Kundry Donald McIntyre (bass) Klingsor Michael Langdon (bass) Titurel Edgar Evans (ten) First Knight Dennis Wicks(bass) Second Knight Nan Christie (sop) Delia Wallis (mez) David Lennox, John Dobson (tens) Four Squires Kiri Te Kanawa, Maureen Keetch, Alison Hargan, Anne Pashley (sops) Anne Howells, Marjorie Biggar (mezs) Flower Maidens Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Reginald Goodall

Royal Opera House Heritage Series ROHS012 (4h 44’ · ADD · T/t). Recorded live 1971. Buy from Amazon

Although Reginald Goodall was thoroughly familiar with Wagner’s last opera from sitting in the pit for Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1950s Bayreuth performances and from his own coaching work at Covent Garden, he actually made his debut conducting the work with the 1971 run from which this release derives. The planned cast was strong but illness led to four Gurnemanzes and two Klingsors being called upon to keep the curtain up.

By many accounts the opening night (with Gottlob Frick coming out of retirement as Gurnemanz) was a great evening – is there not some test recording of that around? The present performance, with the Belgian Louis Hendrikx returning as a careful, direct Gurnemanz, has passionate, well-defined interpretations from Jon Vickers in the title-role, Donald MacIntyre as a rapaciously evil Klingsor (with superb German), Norman Bailey’s sorrowful Amfortas and soaring contributions from solo flowers Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne Howells. Amy Shuard also makes her mark in a role especially suited to her dramatic, hard-edged soprano. Goodall’s guidance of the music is replete with beautiful aperçus of balance and rhythm, not to mention much fine wind-playing. But, on this particular evening, the reading too often hangs fire. As interesting reviews of other Goodall performances have pointed out, the conductor’s habits of following (rather than leading) singers he especially trusts, and his taking over of a German, especially Knappertsbusch-like, tradition of marking the end of paragraphs with lengthy, unwritten Luftpausen – in a score that already calls for many significant pauses – often elongate his reading to a point where Act  1, in the iconoclastic words of note-writer John Deathridge, ‘verges on incoherence’.

In addition, Goodall’s textures and instrumental colours here continually stress the work’s pain and sadness. But it’s not the whole story – there’s exciting psychological drama in this score too, of a Tristan-like heat and intensity. 

Medici and ROH Heritage Series have done fine work in remastering these BBC tapes for release. Admirers of the conductor and collectors of the art of Jon Vickers will find a great deal of consummate music-making and singing here – but, without sounding mealy-mouthed, the story of Sir Reginald Goodall’s Parsifal should not yet be over.


Peter Hofmann (ten) Parsifal José van Dam (bass-bar) Amfortas Kurt Moll (bass) Gurnemanz Dunja Vejzovic (mez) Kundry Siegmund Nimsgern (bass) Klingsor Victor von Halem (bass) Titurel Claes Hakon Ahnsjö (ten) First KnightKurt Rydl (bass) Second Knight Marjon Lambriks, Anne Gjevang (mezs) Heiner Hopfner (ten) Georg Tichy (bass) Squires Barbara Hendricks, Janet Perry, Inga Nielsen (sops) Audrey Michael (mez) Doris Soffel, Rohângiz Yachmi Caucig (contrs) Flower Maidens Hanna Schwarz (mez) Voice from Above Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan 

DG 413 347-2GH4 (256‘ · ADD · T/t) Recorded 1979-80. Buy from Amazon

Karajan’s Parsifal seems to grow in stature as an interpretation on each rehearing; on its CD transfer it appears to have acquired a new depth, in terms of sound, because of the greater range of the recording and the greater presence of both singers and orchestra. As in practically all cases, CD offers a more immediate experience. Karajan’s reading, a trifle stodgy in Act 1, grows in intensity and feeling with the work itself, reaching an almost terrifying force in the Prelude to Act 3 which is sustained to the end of the opera. Moll’s Gurnemanz is a deeply expressive, softly moulded performance of notable beauty. Vejzovic, carefully nurtured by Karajan, gives the performance of her life as Kundry. Hofmann’s tone isn’t at all times as steady as a Parsifal’s should be but he depicts the character’s anguish and eventual serenity in his sincere, inward interpretation. Van Dam is a trifle too placid as Amfortas but his singing exhibits admirable power and fine steadiness. Nimsgern is the epitome of malice as Klingsor. The choral singing doesn’t have quite the confidence of the superb orchestral playing, which has both qualities of Keats’s imagining of beauty and truth in abundance. 


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