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Parsifal on Disc:
the Strongest Entries

 


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PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

--Geoffrey Riggs


Having now heard most of the Parsifal sets out there, it might be useful to know where I'm "coming from" when I say........that the relatively new James King Parsifal -- first released in 2003, although made in 1980(!), and only conducted by Kubelik!!!!!!!! -- is now my preferred recording! I would say Run, Don't Walk and get this set now!

To know where I'm "coming from" when I make such a sweeping claim, I'm enclosing a survey I slapped together some while back under the impact of the first release in 2003 of both this Kubelik set and the remarkable restoration of the Fritz Busch b'cast from the '30s.

There are a select handful of sets that are special in one way or another, and I hope that this survey helps put them -- and this superb Kubelik entry -- in clearer perspective.

============================================

[enclosure from 2003]

Now that I have finally heard the two important Parsifals recently added to the discography (Fritz Busch from the '30s and Rafael Kubelik from 1980), it seems it's time to reassess the virtues and flaws of the finer recordings currently available. Out of at least twenty or so mainline recordings out there, roughly a third of them emerge, in my opinion, as worthy of consideration for one's introduction to the work. Two of those are these newly released Busch and Kubelik sets. That's the good news, and I give thumbnail assessments of these two under #1 and #6. In fact, the new Kubelik (#6) is arguably an extremely strong candidate for a fine and modern-sounding set of the sort many a poster might want as a useful way of learning this piece.

However, while I often read the refrain from others that there are a number of really good ones -- and that therefore it's hard to settle on just one -- that's frankly not my take, for what it's worth. I find that few recordings work superbly throughout, although a few come so close that the one lapse, the one flaw, can be particularly painful, in my opinion.

With these two new recordings, there are eight in all that stand out, but almost all have flaws. I'll tick them off in chronological order.

1. Having now heard the newly unearthed performance issued on the MARSTON label -- a 1936 Teatro Colon performance conducted by Fritz Busch -- I can say this offering now strikes me as having the most consistent cast on disc. Busch's conducting, while very fine, may not be a match for Hans Knappertsbusch's ("Kna"), but it is definitely in the top tier, in my opinion. And the principals! I find Alexander Kipnis's Gurnemanz the most insightful and the most sumptuous I've heard. Tenderness, sorrow, pity, exasperation, anger -- it's all there -- and an ease of understanding in his integration of the vocal line as intrinsically a part of a superb drama marks his every utterance. Marjorie Lawrence's Kundry is almost on the same level, although it's possible to point to one or two Kundrys who match her (unlike Kipnis's unique Gurnemanz). Rene Maison's Parsifal may not have the full variety of a Kipnis, but he is always musically attentive and vocally attractive, with a degree of innigkeit that is ideal in this role. He sets a high standard for those coming after him. The same with Martial Singher's noble-sounding Amfortas. The cons? A number of cuts throughout, including 90 lines of Gurnemanz! In addition, the sound is occasionally primitive, particularly in the opening measures.

2. The LP era starts with a 1951 Bayreuth performance, originally issued by DECCA/LONDON, preserving the opening of Wieland Wagner's famed Neu Bayreuth production under Hans Knappertsbusch. From this set on, all the recommended entries are literally complete. For 1951, this release is in surprisingly fine sound, especially considering the fact that it's a monaural recording! Its spaciousness and sense of place are a rarity for that time. In addition, Kna's leadership captures best both the sweep of this work and its internal world. Some of the ensemble work may not be the acme of preparedness, and Kna's principals here, while creditable for the most part, are no more a match for Busch's than is the case for any other set. However, it's a boon hearing the young George London's Amfortas before throatiness overcame him, and Ludwig Weber's Gurnemanz is deeply stirring, the finest Gurnemanz on disc outside of Kipnis -- and we get to hear him do this role uncut. Parsifal and Kundry are another matter. Windgassen does a fair amount of growling (the role appears to lie somewhat low for him), however dramatically effective he is at certain points. One still welcomes the innate sound of a voice that, while not sumptuous like Maison's, is suggestive enough of youth -- and of the callowness that can go with it. Hardly inappropriate for the role -- at its outset. Martha Moedl's Kundry is always dramatically acute, imparting astounding communicative variety to every nook and cranny of this staggeringly varied role, while imparting true spontaneity at the same time. Nothing seems calculated. However, we hear her in far superior vocal control elsewhere.

3. In 1953, Clemens Krauss took over from Kna at Bayreuth. His is a less internalized reading than Kna's, and therefore, in the end, less affecting. But he easily matches Fritz Busch at least. And his cast is better than Kna's -- in a way. The principals are pretty much the same as in '51. Two significant differences, though: Moedl's Kundry is in her element now, easily the most inspired and the most satisfying Kundry on disc, showing us conclusively that she did have a sumptuously beautiful voice after all as well as an infinitely expressive one, and Ramon Vinay replaces Wolfgang Windgassen. Vinay was a much finer artist than Windgassen, with a richer and more expressive voice. However, he is not in very fresh voice here. There is little suggestion of youth and many a phrase seems hammered out on an anvil. A shame, since his finest moments here, and there are a few, can move one more than Windgassen's best. All told, Windgassen is possibly more convincing in his overall portrayal, with youth and a (marginally) cleaner line on his side, despite Vinay's keener insights and coloring. Neither Windgassen nor Vinay equal Rene Maison. A delightful bonus is the First Flower of Rita Streich.

4. We're back with Kna again in 1962, first released by PHILIPS. Kna gives us his finest reading of all here. All his instrumentalists are in excellent fettle, and they and their inspired Maestro give the finest reading of Wagner's orchestral writing on disc. In addition, the sound quality is excellent stereo, giving us possibly the finest sound-picture available of the unique Bayreuth Festspielhaus sound. This is crucial, since Wagner composed this score with the Festspielhaus sound specifically in mind. Hearing this set tells us exactly why. There is a homogeneity to the instrumental combinations that works magical emotional and mood transformations throughout. Only when the orchestral colors are synthesized in the way made possible by the physical layout of the Festspielhaus musicians and the manner in which sounds are suffused through the Festspielhaus auditorium can one achieve such transformations -- "like the shiftings of clouds in the sky" [paraphrase] as Wagner characterized his writing for Parsifal. The Parsifal/Kundry pairing here is generally stronger than in '51. With the youthful Jess Thomas's Parsifal, we appear finally to have caught up with Maison: meltingly sung and richly expressive, Thomas's Parsifal is maybe the finest on disc. Irene Dalis's Kundry may not probe as deeply as Moedl's, but she is certainly engaged enough to be an apt partner for her fine Parsifal, and her vocalism is astoundingly assured. Unfortunately, the Gurnemanz of Hans Hotter is an acquired taste. As profoundly insightful as Kipnis, it is hobbled by a voice in tatters, in my opinion. Some will swear that there is authentic music-making here as well as inspired drama. I simply do not hear the former (my failing?). I'm only aware of a wheezing, tremulous sound that sadly undercuts Gurnemanz's authority. Even worse, in my opinion, whatever fleeting musicality Hotter has left seems positively like Kipnis(!) compared to his colleague's Amfortas! George London's 1962 Amfortas is a sad comedown from his grand reading of '51. Throatiness has overtaken his entire instrument, and there is not an iota of truly telling poetic nuance anywhere. One critic termed it, I believe(?), a big dark bawl. Couldn't agree more. Depressing.

5. Another Bayreuth reading, this time from 1970 and released by DG, features Pierre Boulez at the podium. His interpretation does not have the warmth of most others, and tempi are also much tighter. There may be a consistency of feeling in the kind of world Boulez evokes, but it is a consistency of non-feeling. Whatever expression this set has is found in (most of) its intensely engaged principals. All four principals are also in generally respectable vocal control, if not invariably impeccable. They offer a series of contrasts between the vocally impeccable and the deftly imaginative. Neither Gwyneth Jones's Kundry nor Thomas Stewart's Amfortas may be the last word in vocal perfection. But they are never less than musical, and they bring considerable imagination to their parts, particularly Jones. Moreover, they both use the music itself to flesh out the drama and the characterization, rather than overlarding "interpretation" on top of the music, always a phony proposition. As a a result, it is Kundry and Amfortas who dominate here and give this set its chief value. It occupies a special niche because of those two. James King's Parsifal, OTOH, offers far superior vocalism to either Jones or Stewart, but minimal variety of shading. It is hardly unfeeling throughout, merely lacking a true sense of transformation. Crass's Gurnemanz also offers fine vocalism, and an all-purpose gentleness that exerts its own special aura and does deflect from Boulez's want of feeling but is ultimately one-dimensional.

6. A just-released, well-engineered set on the ARTS ARCHIVES label unveils a 1980 studio effort under Rafael Kubelik. Kubelik's is a long-lined approach with a singing melody over all. Always beautiful and persuasively phrased. While without the unstinting energy of a Busch or a Krauss, Kubelik picks his spots for the full urgency heard in these other two. He shows himself fully capable of that kind of urgency, but it is primarily the linear beauty of Wagner's score that stays with one. He has strong principals for Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz: James King, Yvonne Minton and Kurt Moll. King is vastly improved over his reading of ten years earlier, especially effective in the last act, bringing true generosity of spirit to his baptism of Kundry and, most especially, to a deeply moving apotheosis with the suffering Amfortas at the end. Maison, Vinay, or Thomas -- each of them may bring slightly more imagination to the role, but King's sincerity and engagement here would be welcome whatever the context. His is now a successful assumption by practically any standard. Minton is as much into her part as Lawrence and also a fine singer. So is Kurt Moll, whose Gurnemanz is easily in the Weber class. As for Weikl's Amfortas, he may boast an occasionally attractive tone and genuine feeling, but his control over his instrument can be uneven: recurrent unsteadiness and choppy line detract from the general impression. Still, all in all, this Parsifal makes for an attractive set, with more consistent principals in general than in any extant Bayreuth performance, if marginally less sweep than either of the Knas.

7. In 1981, on ERATO, Armin Jordan came out with a studio set where the conductor as story-teller is paramount. Not that there isn't some fine musical phrasing here as well, but the tilt is definitely toward the kind of energy we hear in Busch/Krauss. Jordan is to be commended as one of the few who achieves a through-line for the tricky first act. For most of this recording, there may be relatively little that is particularly profound or noteworthy, but nothing here lacks shape either: a steady well-controlled reading with a palpable sense of narrative that is welcome. His cast can boast a trio of artists in the roles of Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz who know how to convey intimacy and are expert at relating *to* each other as real characters in a story. Reiner Goldberg's Parsifal is almost in the maturer James King mold as heard with Kubelik, not especially profound but simpatico and affecting enough and, at this point, still an accomplished vocalist. Yvonne Minton repeats her fine Kundry. Robert Lloyd's Gurnemanz, I know from experience, was to get better from here. We already have a beautiful voice and a deeply expressive one. However, in this early recording, delivery that can be as poetic as anyone who has ever sung this role (Kipnis included) can alternate with choppy phrasing. At his best, he towers over all his colleagues here. At his worst, there are (very occasional) moments of unsteadiness. Goldberg and Minton seem the more seasoned performers in general. Unfortunately, Wolfgang Schoene's Amfortas strikes me as pure ham: unadulterated, anti-poetic, unmusical shtick. This is a solid recording, however relatively lacking in its full share of incandescent peaks.

8. Finally, in 1990, Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin forces in a digital studio recording that in spots shows some of the finest conducting in the discography, in my opinion, while being somewhat uncertain in much of Act I. On the positive side, Barenboim knows how to build a scene better than anyone of his generation, when he wants to. Exhibit A would be his Act II. This almost vies with the Kna of '62 in the genius shown in rendering the steady ratcheting up of tension throughout the sixty odd minutes of this sequence. Dramatically, his two principals respond beautifully. Siegfried Jerusalem (Parsifal) and Waltraud Meier (Kundry) offer as exciting a performance here as Thomas and Dalis for Kna. In addition, Meier's dramatic acuity is greater than Dalis's, effective as the latter is. Meier's is one of the finest Kundrys yet. As for Jerusalem, his is almost as intrinsically attractive an instrument as Thomas's. But his control of it can be spotty. Sometimes, the tone has a thrilling ring that can also carry superb poetic urgency with it. Sometimes, it gets locked up in the throat in a disconcerting way. The finest Amfortas on disc, in my opinion, is Jose Van Dam: all the nobility of Martial Singher, all the insight of the young George London and a variety of nuance and shading that beggars both. Here is the prize of this set, in my opinion. As for Matthias Hoelle's Gurnemanz, it is slightly more consistently vocalized than Lloyd's, but it too has its occasional share of vocal uncertainty with nowhere near the richness of Lloyd's insight and musicianship to compensate nor the intrinsic depths of Lloyd's instrument.

With a little tweaking here and there, it would have been possible for any one of these eight sets to emerge as an utterly unflawed entry. How frustrating it was not to be.

Yet -- right now (and that can change;-) -- I find myself gravitating to three of these above and beyond the rest. This is not to say that there aren't fine -- and unique -- aspects in each of the remaining five that makes each of them a viable enough set by way of introduction to Wagner's masterpiece, considering what's out there. This is why I would not want to be without any of these eight in the end and why I feel it important that all eight be cited in this posting. Nor would I view it as necessarily unfortunate were someone limited by circumstance to only one of the remaining five. After all, since all eight are not quite unflawed anyway.........

The three I tend to go back to the most are the Kna '51 (#2), the newly released studio set under Kubelik (#6, and why this took 23 years for its release is a mystery!!!!) and the Barenboim recording (#8).

The old Fritz Busch (#1) is a potent performance that would win out over every other were it not for the cuts and the (occasionally) so-so sound. Still, its restoration is something to be deeply thankful for.

In the "niche" class (those that have something unique to them that illumines one aspect of the work in an irreplaceable way), the Krauss (#3) and the Boulez (#5) are the most excitingly acted of all, the Kna '62 (#4) is the most superbly conducted and miked of all and the Jordan (#7), of those in modern sound, may have the greatest naturalness in terms of principals who can relate to each other and maintain a conversational and narrative flow.

Finally, going back to my (current;-) chief three -- Kna '51 (#2), Kubelik (#6), Barenboim (#8) -- I've become more and more fascinated with the newly released Kubelik from '80. There is a wonderful inevitability to this reading that grows on one. Having lived with many recordings since my early twenties (in the '70s), I find myself forgetting much of what I've heard whenever I put this set on!!! That's highly unusual, I find.

I only purchased this one in October (which is when it first came out, I believe). But I can't get enough of it, it seems. I've played it through now at least two or three times, and I'm still looking forward to the next playing! It's a looooooooong time since I responded to a recording this way. It seems to get better upon repetition, something I don't recall ever happening to me with any other Parsifal. (Its superb engineering certainly doesn't hurt.) In fact, I find I don't want to hear any other recording these days.

Whether this is merely due to the initial thrill of discovery (it is at worst _one_ of the very finest sets in the catalogue) or to something in this reading that is indeed unique after all is still too early to say, in my opinion. I want to give myself much more time with this first. Hence my careful itemization of all eight sets for the time being. And hence my distinguishing both the Kna '51 and the Barenboim as still competitive with the Kubelik.

Yes, my favorite now seems to be the Kubelik. But let's see what a year does..........

Current standings:

A) Kubelik (#6)
B) Kna '51 (#2)/Barenboim (#8)
C) Busch (#1)
D) Krauss (#3)/Kna '62 (#4)/Boulez (#5)/Jordan (#7)

===============================================

[back to today]

Since I wrote that, I find my estimate of the Kubelik has continued to change somewhat......from guarded preference to unequivocal admiration(!), leaving the '51 Kna, superb as it is and superior as Kna's conducting clearly is, as an even more definite second choice.

I now feel that both Kna sets, both the '51 and the '62, plus the Barenboim, remain closer in quality to the Kubelik than to the "also-rans" further on down (fine as those are in individual respects). But the Kubelik now exerts a pull for me unequalled by any other set -- and I've only been immersed in the Parsifal discography for over 30 years!

Bottom line: GET IT!!!!!!!

For what it's worth, I'm not in disagreement with my previous thoughts on the Kubelik set. But I would further refine the standings today:

A) Kubelik (#6)

The above is in a class by itself.

B) Kna '51 (#2)
C) Kna '62 (#4)
D) Barenboim (#8)

Those three are three of the most competitive sets.

E) Busch (#1)
F) Jordan (#7)

Those two would be unique "niche" sets.

G) Boulez (#5)
H) Krauss (#3)

Those two are still of particular interest, with some amazing peaks. But I now wonder if I'd class them as viable sets for introducing one to this score. At the same time, I certainly wouldn't want to do without either one.

 

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

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