Who are the great post-War Wagner conductors? Knappertsbusch? Krauss? Solti? Karajan (if that's your taste)? Barenboim? Goodall? For the connoisseurs, perhaps, there's Kempe and Keilberth. Maybe even Jochum. But the list seldom includes Kubelik. Yet on disc there's a wonderfully conducted Lohengrin, let down by Gwyneth Jones on one of her squallier days, but enhanced by a beautiful Elsa from Janowitz. There's what is probably the best all round Meistersinger on disc which is again wonderfully conducted. And there's this Parsifal.
This is Wagner conducting of the first order on practically all counts. First, orchestral balance. Kubelik is wonderfully sensitive to the combinations and colours of Wagner's score, inspired by the unique acoustic the composer had created at Bayreuth. To take just the Prelude, the balance between strings and clarinet, followed by the addition of the cor anglais in the opening theme is judged to perfection. Then the repeat of the same theme on the trumpet over pulsing 3+2 chords in the upper woodwind and arpeggio strings cuts through just as it should. Come the development section the addition of Horn 1 to Horn 3 at the top of the arch of that same melody enriches the texture perfectly. And so it goes on right through the opera.
Then the pacing. Overall, Kubelik strikes a happy median between Knappertsbusch and Boulez. But he understand the ebb and flow of the piece so well, the mastery of what Wagner called `the Art of Transition'. So the profounder moments in the Grail Castle have all the space and air they need while much of Act 2 is taken at an urgent, exciting pace. Indeed, unlike most conductors, Kubelik seems to see the Second Act as the crux of the piece. (In this he goes along with Wieland Wagner whose graphic chart of the Parsifal Cross showing all the action radiating from the kiss is well worth investigating.) In retrospect, the whole opera under Kubelik seems to be one great, balanced arch with the Kiss as its keystone. And this is the most comprehensive and fulfilling performance of this Act that I know.
Finally, Kubelik really brings out the modernity of the piece to the full. Harmonically, much of Parsifal and especially Act 3 mark a huge advance over anything in Tristan. And here you also have all those stark juxtapositions of the chromatic with the squarely diatonic (e.g. the Faith motif and the Dresden Amen theme). What I've never noticed before listening to this performance is how advanced it is rhythmically as well. So many of those chromatic themes and motifs involve syncopations and tied notes across bar-lines that totally do away with the tyranny of the bar. It is often as hard to tell where you are rhythmically as it is harmonically. Which, of course, is exactly what Wagner intended
The singers, it has to be said, are not quite in the same league as their conductor. The outstanding performance here is Yvonne Minton's Kundry. One of the best `Ich sah das Kinds' I know; a very sexy, seductive lead into the kiss; true tragic angst as she recalls laughing at Christ; hair-raising and scary when she starts threatening. Her intonation is also wonderfully exact in all those creepy chromatic phrases, slipping up or down by semitone steps. Moll's performance is streets ahead of what he gave under Levine's lethargic direction, but he still can't quite stop Gurnemanz turning into a bit of a bore with his Act 1 narration in a way that a Weber or a Hotter always avoided. King is a sound Parsifal (as he is for Boulez) while never raising the hairs on the back of your neck as Vickers could at points like `Amfortas! Die Wunde!'. Weikl is good but not great. Mazura sings Klingsor's part most musically (no barking), but only Hermann Uhde seemed able to turn the character into something more than a pantomime villain. Salminen's Titurel is impressive but unremittingly forte. The Flowermaidens can be a bit shrill with the exception of the lovely Lucia Popp.
The sound (from a Bavarian Radio recording of 1980) is not top flight by today's highest standards, but more than good enough to hear all of Kubelik's mastery of this score. And make no mistake. This is masterly conducting, well worth hearing.