A Tale of Parsifals Four



Over the past nine or so months, I’ve gone through four versions of Parsifal somewhat off the beaten track. That is, Hans Knappertsbusch, Herbert von Karajan, and Daniel Barenboim were not covered. They’ve been covered before, and I think it’s reasonable to say that many or most people familiar with this work would likely recommend a recording by one of those august gentlemen. These reviews were written for another forum and may therefore contain seemingly incomprehensible references. I apologize in advance. Here goes:

Boulez’s 1970 Bayreuth Parsifal

After all the posting about this year’s Parsifal led by everyone’s favorite geriatric, modernist French conductor, I decided to buy his DG recording of the piece. I thought it was from the 1966 production, but it turns out it’s from 1970. And it’s even faster. This version comes in at a trim 3’40.” So how is it? Outstanding.

Okay, perhaps Act I is rushed in places, with some of the beautiful score pressed ahead a bit too insistently, and perhaps the chorus is not ideally recorded, and perhaps Gwyneth Jones is not the ideal Kundry nor James King the best Parsifal, but these are all quibbles. The piece moves forward with an inexorable dramatic thrust, quite in contrast to Kna’s beloved and highly lauded 1962 affair, which I find a bit stodgy at times. Boulez’s Grail scene is powerful indeed, and I’ve yet to hear a beginning to Act II to match his in intensity, Donald McIntyre making a fine, nasty Klingsor. The duet between Kundry and Parsifal is not ideal, but I dig those flower maidens! Franz Crass’ Gurnemanz is excellent, with great power, integrity and solemnity, and even if he’s not in peak form here, he still makes for compelling listening. Act III is compelling from start to finish, and the ending is just beautiful.

While Boulez does go a bit fast at times – no doubt some would say he rushes the work – the clarity and transparency he brings are bewitching. It does lack some ripe romanticism that others bring, though I hesitate to call this version cold at all, but if people want Wagner the towering Romantic above all else, this is not the set to hear. Ultimately, it lacks the hypnotic effect that Barenboim brings (my favorite overall version, even with some less than stellar singers), and which even Karajan’s studio effort offers a glimpse of (what a contrast it was to go from the glacial Levine straight to the glowing Karajan!). But this effort had me glued to my La-Z-Boy the entire time. Perhaps I’ll replay it later this month when I have the house all to myself.

Rafael Kubelik’s 1980 Parsifal

After the great success of Boulez’s Parsifal, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Kubelik’s 1980 staging of the same work. This is a version I had wanted to hear for some time, and with the Boulez still relatively fresh in my mind, I thought it would be a good time, so I could compare it to a version I enjoy. Kubelik’s other two big Wagner recordings – Lohengrin and Meistersinger – are both favorites of mine, so I had high expectations. Alas, they were not met.

I’ll start with the first thing that got me: the cast. I think Boulez’s cast is better overall. Though the two recordings both feature James King in the title role, I find him more compelling in the earlier Boulez set. (That written, he’s still not my favorite Parsifal.) Kurt Moll’s Gurnemanz lacks the power and dignity of Franz Crass’, and Franz Mazura’s Klingsor is simply no match for Donald McIntyre. When Klingsor makes his first appearance in Act II, McIntyre is ablaze and forceful, whereas Mazura merely sings well. I even prefer Thomas Stewart’s Amfortas to that of Bern Weikl. On the plus side, I find Matti Salminen’s Titurel for Kubelik more satisfying, and Yvonne Minton makes a much better Kundry than Gwyneth Jones. (Neither can match Waltraud Meier for Barenboim, though.) Better singers usually translates into a better performance.

And so it is. Whereas Boulez presents the work with a white hot intensity, inexorably propelling the drama along to its glorious end, Kubelik takes a more leisurely approach, slowing to savor some beautiful music, and pondering certain points in the score. Indeed, he really brings out more beauty in Act I, which is where Boulez suffers the most. One just revels in the glory of Wagner’s most beautiful music. During the Grail scene, Kubelik gets even more powerful playing from his band, and the better sound helps a bit here too. (It is warmer, larger sounding, with more powerful low frequencies, though some detail is lacking.) Kubelik’s take gives the music a warm glow, if you will. While that works reasonably well in the first act, it begins to drag in the second and third acts.

Indeed, the heat and power that Boulez brings to Act II is conspicuously absent in the Kubelik. Lacking a satisfyingly dark and powerful Klingsor to get things going, Kundry sounds less influential and seductive. Even the Flower Maidens are not as lovely sounding. So when Parsifal rejects sensual pleasures, it doesn’t sound as difficult. Kubelik’s laid back conducting also makes this act seem to take too long. And that, unfortunately carries over to Act III. Indeed, during much of Act III, I was wondering how much time was left. I found the dramatic impetus was gone at points, and it just couldn’t keep my attention as well as it should. As compensation, there is all of the beautiful music, which Kubelik gets right, but by the end, he had failed to perform that magic trick of making four-plus hours melt away. Barenboim does it, and so does Karajan. And Boulez does it, too, though he only has to make three hours and forty minutes melt away. No, this performance is not at the top of my list. That position still belongs to Danny Boy. Don’t get me wrong, Kubelik’s Parsifal is good and has some of the most beautiful playing I’ve heard, but it’s definitely not one to use to kill an entire evening with. My guess is that many people would indeed prefer the Kubelik to the Boulez. After all, Kubelik presents the music in a more contemplative, more overtly romantic way, and that seems to be high on the list of many Wagner fans.

Clemens Krauss’ 1953 Bayreuth Parsifal

I rather enjoyed Krauss’ 1953 Ring cycle, so I figured why not go for his Parsifal as well. The kind people and BRO are selling the set for a pittance, so there was no reason to delay. This would be my third new Parsifal in about as many months, but one can never hear enough of this beautiful piece.

I’ll start with the strongest singing: George London’s Amfortas. He conveys the suffering of the decrepit old man extremely well, though paradoxically his voice is strong. He commands undivided attention during his long passages, and is quite moving at times. Almost as good is Ludwig Weber as Gurnemanz. He, too, commands attention, and were it not for London’s singing, this would be the singer to listen to. As it is, both are superb. The only blemish is that the two sound somewhat similar during some of the scenes where both sing, but that’s a mere quibble.

Ramon Vinay is quite good in the title role, but he’s not quite up to the standard of London or Weber. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I usually find Parsifal less compelling than either Amfortas or Gurnemanz. Don’t know why.) He doesn’t sound youthful or naïve enough at times, though he is extremely expressive, particularly in parts of his duet with Martha Modl’s Kundry. Ah, Modl. After the less than perfect Gwyneth Jones for Boulez and a somewhat uninspired Yvonne Minton for Kubelik, it is indeed a treat to hear such a fine, sultry, twisted Kundry. She is extraordinary in her scenes with Vinay, and I only find Waltraud Meier more to my liking here.

That leads me to Herman Uhde’s Klingsor. Uhde’s voice lends an appropriately malevolent heft and power to the part, and he portrays a truly evil character. I’m tempted to call him the best, but then I think of Donald McIntyre’s positively crackling, evil Klingsor and I’m not so sure. Uhde definitely fits in with Krauss’ conception, but I can’t be without McIntyre. Call it a draw. The other singer of note is Josef Greindl doing a fine job as Titurel. Indeed, all of the main characters are well cast. You just know that you have a good cast when Rita Streich is on hand as a Flower Maiden.

Which leaves Krauss’ conducting. It is superb. His way with the work is relatively quick, coming in at just under four hours, and that yields some lovely results. Never does this performance drag, even in Act III where some others lose their way. Krauss’ pacing is near flawless in the opening movement, where he never allows the tension to subside but where, unlike the otherwise superb Boulez, he will slow up a bit to revel in the beauty of the music and attend to little details. Throughout, he emphasizes the incredible, almost painful beauty of the score, rendering a romantic yet never mushy or bloated sound. Okay, so maybe the Transformation music is not as powerful as I’d like (though that is due partly or perhaps mostly to the recording), and Act II doesn’t breath fire the way Boulez’s does, but overall he is right on target. Among the two versions I have heard most recently, I prefer this to the Kubelik and like it about as much as the Boulez, but for entirely different reasons. Barenboim still reigns supreme for me, and even Karajan may be a touch better. Of course, these last two benefit from notably superior sound, and thus they can more easily cast a hypnotic spell.

The recording is good for the time and place, roughly on par with Krauss’ Ring (both transfers are on Archipel), and suffers from some post-echo, a bit of stage noise, and shifting vocal perspectives and volumes as the singers move around the stage, but nothing here should detract anyone from hearing this recording. Highly recommended for fans of the work.

Eugen Jochum’s 1956 Parsifal

When I picked up Eugen Jochum’s 1953 Lohengrin, I also took it upon myself to get his March 29, 1956 Parsifal on Living Stage just in case. Just in case I didn’t like his Lohengrin. Well, I enjoyed his Lohengrin, so surely this roughly contemporaneous Parsifal should be good. After all, Jochum has three of the singers from Clemens Krauss’ superb 1953 recording of the great Eastertide opera – Hermann Uhde as Klingsor, Martha Modl as Kundry, and Ludwig Weber as Gurnemanz – and he also has Wolfgang Windgassen in the title role and Ferdinand Frantz as Amfortas. It looked promising. Rather than lead a German ensemble, Jochum had to work with the Rome Radio Orchestra and Chorus, so perhaps a little something might go missing, but not too much. That’s not the case.

I’ve had a bad luck streak when it comes to sound lately. Walter Klien’s Brahms is a major letdown sonically, and while not as bad, this isn’t too far behind. First of all, it sounds as though it was recorded not at the broadcast source but off a radio. All manner of spurious RF noise makes its way into the mix throughout, and other extraneous noises (including something that sound like someone raking gravel) intrude here and there. The sound is also compressed. The loudest passages during the glorious Transformation music are barely louder than the rest of the work. Beyond that, the recording is oddly balanced. The label says mono, but what I heard was either really poor, really off-center stereo, or stereo synthesized from mono sources. Most of the time, the right channel dominates, and in some cases all of the sound seems to emanate from that channel. (Some deft rebalancing favoring the left channel helped alleviate that.) The orchestra sounds impossibly distant nearly the whole time, and it often sounds like the orchestras from the old Looney Tunes cartoons: gobs of portamento and rubato wrapped up in a tight little sonic ball. The various singers do not always fare well. Sometimes, Weber’s voice is so close it sounds like a Telefunken is stuck in his throat. Other times singers can barely be heard. It’s just a mess.

I’m a forgiving soul, though; if the performance is up to snuff, I can listen past bad sound. (As bad as it is, it’s not painful to listen to like the Klien set.) Alas, there’s not much to off-set the sonic badness. Take Martha Modl’s Kundry. Where she is sultry and twisted in Krauss’ set (obviously mostly in Act II), here she’s less electric. In the outer acts she sounds worn and tired, and while she is definitely better in the second act, particularly with Hermann Uhde, she’s just not as good as she was three years earlier. One need only hear her anemic screams to know how she’ll be. Hermann Uhde is relatively better, but he cannot match the intensity of his earlier performance. A few really nasty lines aside, his earlier self sounds more loathsome. Pity. Ludwig Weber also sounds a bit worn for a good portion of the performance. The latter part of Act I finds him at his most persuasive and commanding, but I just don’t know if it’s enough. Wait, I do know: it’s not. Ferdinand Frantz is reasonably good, I suppose, but really compared with George London, who would want to help this ailing, syphilitic regent? That leaves Wolfgang Windgassen. While he really soars from time to time – when he decides to help the King, when he’s, um, facing down the Flower Maidens, and a little bit when he rejects Kundry – he is also uneven, and can be decidedly humdrum at any time. While he’s not terrible, he’s not a compelling hero. (That doesn’t count for too much with me since I think Parsifal is about the least interesting character in the work.) The chorus, well, let’s just say the Knights aside, this isn’t the best.

That leaves Jochum’s conducting. Again, unevenness is the watchword. The first two-thirds of Act I drags on and is characterized by general boredom. It’s not that Jochum’s slow – he’s not – it’s just that he doesn’t generate any heat. When Parsifal arrives and the Transformation music is first played, the energy level picks up quite a bit, and he carries that greater energy into the second act. But then the Third Act is hit and miss again. And too often it is miss. I was left distinctly underwhelmed by the whole thing. I guess this was not meant to be. Did I mention that the orchestra is sub-par? I’ll leave it at that. Ho-hum is probably overstating the quality of this recording a bit. To the used shop it goes.

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