I had decided not to review my favorite studio recording of Parsifal because so many others had already said most of what I had to say. But after listening to the 2nd Act on my lunch hour today, I find I need to blow off some happy steam and share a few thoughts.
Much for the same reason as Kubelik's "Meistersinger" was supressed to clear the market for Karajan's inferior recording, this Parsifal languished in the vault for more than twenty years. It is a great pity and shame that one conductor can wield that much power, to the detrement of his collegues, and the loss of the opera-loving public.
Rafael Kubelik's flawlessly proportioned, profoundly felt reading of this most ephemeral of Wagner's operas equals the best of Knapperstbusch's live Bayreuth performances with all the advantages of a studio recording: the orchestra and choruses are exceptionally detailed and transparent without any loss of weight in the sound, so all inner voices can be clearly heard. This is especially effective in the Flower Maiden scene, where you get a more visceral sense of the numbers of bodies surrounding Parsifal, rather than a generic choral mass. Kubelik's sense of detail in dynamics and color is a real highlight of this set, and The Bavarian Radio Symphony, particularly their winds and brass, plays magnificently. In this recording, more than any other I've heard, they are the equal of the NY, Vienna and Berlin. He also understands that the voices in Wagner are part of the orchestra, or rather that the orchestra is often 'on top.' You will not have an unnatural prominence of the voice at the biggest climaxes, as is so often the case. The voices may very nearly be subsumed at times, but not entirely lost.
Kubelik also has a clear vision of the overall architecture of each act. His sense of pace is generally faster that what we usually hear these days; Knapperstbusch could be very brisk when the spirit was on him; Fritz Busch, on Marston's issue of the 1936 Buenos Aires broadcast is even more manic at times. But when he opts for a slower than usual tempo, the effect is enthralling. Listen to Parsifals first description of his past to Gurnemanz ("Ich hab' eine Mutter"): the stately tempo reflects the majesty of the forest and the dramatic tension begins to increase. The same occurs in the 2nd act at "Ich sah' das Kind." Kundry's gentle, deliberate pace builds the tension released in Parsifal's grief. He also makes a point of combining changes of dynamics with shifts of timbre. This is remakably effective throughout the score and requires playing of the highest calibre. The emotional result is obvious at first hearing and never wears thin.
Kurt Moll's superb Gurnemanz was recorded within months of his equally fine reading for Karajan. His vocal health is virtually the same, but there are many differences of interpretation and nuance. This is the mark of a great lieder singer, and great Wagner singers are usually great lieder singers, too. Here he makes wider use of pianissimo singing, especially in Act 3 scene 1; he barely whispers some lines, something he could never do in the theater, and the effect is tremendous.
I am unapologetically a huge fan of James King's, and this is some of his best recorded work. He is an anomaly among Wagner tenors; a combination of italiante spinto squillo and a touch of gallic restraint. (He studied extensively with Martial Singher, perhaps the finest baritone France produced in the 20th century, and the eloquent Amfortas on that Buenos Aires broadcast, with his father-in-law holding the baton.) He is hardly unemotional, though he can tend toward a strictness with note values. But if you listen closely (with headphones), even his inhalations are in character, a rare and difficult thing. Only Jon Vickers compares in emotional inolvement, seemingly more so for his greater freedom and less brilliant tone. As is often the case, a phrase by phrase comparison of these two singers shows that they make pretty much the same emotional points, but the sheer opulence of King's sound tends to overwhelm the expressive gesture.
Yvonne Minton again sings an impassioned and seductive Kundry, as she did on Armin Jordan's soundtrack to the Syberberg film. The edge in her upper range is a little more pronounced here than it was a few years earlier, but it helps put over Kundry's frantic desperation at the end of act two. She copes well with the role's notorious pitfalls and understands the character completely.
Amfortas is sung here by Bernd Weikl, in peak voice. He is a very fine Amfortas, vocally luxurious in fact. He holds out the high G in act one for nearly the full measure, although Wagner only wrote an 1/8-note. He doesn't express the same depth of sorrow as Jose van Dam, or the searing torment of Thomas Stewart, but he surely belongs in that upper echelon.
Franz Mazura's Klingsor is one of the best on records, too. He has the natural sound perfect for Wagner's villains, but doesn't rely on it alone. In addition to the native snarl he uses the words, particularly the consonants, to express his hatred and disdain of the Grail Knights.
Titurel is sung magnificently by Matti Salminen, and this is a bit of a problem. Why did the engineers choose to place him up front and equal to Amfortas and the Knights when Wagner demands that the voice issue from the crypt? The effect of this scene is spoiled. But, as Jascha Heifetz said, "Only God is perfect."
All of the small knight and squire parts are filled nicely. Lucia Popp again lends her ravishing soprano to the 1st Flower Maiden, and the rest of that ensemble is as good as you will hear. The Toelzer Knabenchor and Bavarian State Opera Chorus are magnificent in the Grail Temple scenes, which glow with spiritual intensity. The bells of Monsalvat, however, seem rather thin: more like cymbal and gong tacked together.
The original early digital recording has been remastered to the latest 24bit/96kHz technology, and the sound is
brilliant and balanced throughout. My only misgiving (beside the perspective on Titurel) is a hint of room echo, but this is rarely noticable except with headphones.
It isn't a problem at all in the interior scenes of the temple, where the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residenz has just enough echo to suggest the domed space of the Grail temple. But forest, garden and meadow sound a bit boxed in.
Overall, this is the most satisfying studio performance of Parsifal I have heard. This, and the '64 Bayreuth Kna with Jon Vickersas a live counterpart.