WAGNER Parsifal (Elder/Hallé)
Wagner’s final masterpiece has been well served on disc over the last few years, with new sets from Marek Janowski (Pentatone, 10/12), Jaap van Zweden (Challenge Classics, 12/11) and Valery Gergiev (Mariisnky, A/10), all originating in concert performances. Mark Elder’s new recording also comes from a concert: his and the Hallé’s contribution to the BBC Proms’ Wagner anniversary celebrations in 2013.
It’s a fair bit rougher around the edges than the alternatives mentioned above. The sound, for a start, is decent enough but short on sheen and shimmer, with voices, balanced quite close, moving around quite a bit in the stage picture (the concert was semi-staged). And then there are the voices themselves, none of them flatteringly captured. At the centre of it all is John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz. It’s a portrayal of immense authority and still astonishing verbal acuity, but his bass is now in a ragged state, wobbly and hollow anywhere above around middle C and greatly taxed when taken even higher – as of course it often is by this role.
Katarina Dalayman is a committed Kundry but sounds effortful and slightly hazy, lunging for many of her top notes with inconsistent results – her performance of the role is much better seen as well as heard, as opposite Jonas Kaufmann on Sony’s DVD of François Girard’s Metropolitan Opera production. Lars Cleveman is reliable in the title-role, but is similarly hazy in timbre and entirely lacking in Heldentenor ring or steel. Detlef Roth’s Amfortas isn’t much better: the voice sounds dry and small, unable to offer much sense of tragic grandeur. Tom Fox is a vivid, satisfying Klingsor, though, and there’s good work in some of the smaller roles, not least an excellent bevvy of Flower Maidens.
But it’s the conducting, along with the playing of the Hallé, which is the recording’s greatest strength. Elder’s approach to the score is leisurely (on the clock he takes almost exactly as long as Gergiev, and both take over 30 minutes longer than Janowski) but he never really lets things drag; only some parts of Act 2 feel to me as though they could do with a little more urgency.
And Elder’s single-minded patience – much of it, one notes, reflecting the many indications in the score to keep things slow – creates a powerful and quietly hypnotic sense of weary sadness, an entirely appropriate feeling of pale grandeur. He controls everything with the surest of touches right up until a deeply moving account of the final bars, and his orchestra are with him every second of the way, playing with sensitivity and feeling, as well as an impressive delicacy of timbre.
The singing on all three recordings I mentioned in my first sentence is better – as it is on numerous other recordings. But listen past that, if you can, and this set certainly has something to offer.