Hans Knappertsbusch
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
July/August 1951
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasGeorge London
TiturelArnold van Mill
GurnemanzLudwig Weber
ParsifalWolfgang Windgassen
KlingsorHermann Uhde
KundryMartha Mödl
GralsritterWalther Fritz
Werner Faulhaber

Knappertsbusch conducting; “not only the best Parsifal that I have ever seen or heard, but one of the three or four most moving spiritual experiences of my life” — Ernest Newman, the distinguished critic and musicologist, after attending this fabled opening (1951) of Wieland Wagner’s Neu Bayreuth production; Windgassen/Moedl provide great excitement, deep commitment and some vocal compromises — Windgassen, for one, is occasionally a bit raw; but the entire cast is still musically solid; they may not have the nth degree of musicianship, but they cohere as an ensemble under one of the greatest musicians ever: Hans Knappertsbusch, known affectionately as “Kna,” whose conducting shows an unequalled understanding of this work; he combines profound inwardness with an instinct for narrative drive that yields an eminently theatrical reading, even in Wagner’s problematic first act — a rare mix of depth and untramelled flow; despite the occasional musical slip-up from an otherwise assured cast, Kna alone makes this already special, and Wieland Wagner’s sure grasp of character development captures the listener’s imagination throughout; in excellent Mono, conveying a vivid sound picture of Wagner’s score as it was meant to be heard in the Bayreuth Festpielhaus acoustics.

Geoffrey Riggs

What incredible treasures Naxos offers the collector here!  The Knappertsbusch live recording of Parsifal, the first complete recording of the work, was made in 1951 at Bayreuth for Decca, produced by John Culshaw, engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson.  Casting is perfect pairing some superb younger singers (Wolfgang Windgassen and George London) with established Wagnerians (Hermann Uhde, Ludwig Weber and Martha M–dl). The occasion was historic—the first post-war Bayreuth season which had opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Wilhelm Furtw”ngler conducting, a performance that has never been out of the catalog since its first issue. It is suggested Wieland Wagner chose Parsifal, with its theme of purification and redemption, as an appropriate way to cleanse the Festspielhaus after the disgrace of the Third Reich when Hitler had been an honored guest in the House. Although Philips made a live stereo recording of Parsifal with Knappertsbusch at Bayreuth eleven years later, the earlier recording is considered to be the conductor’s finest Wagnerian recording. John Culshaw, in his book Setting the Record Straight, mentioned that Wilkinson solved acoustic problems by suspending a microphone high in the roof of the auditorium and blending that sound with closer microphones, mentioning they taped the general rehearsal and two performances—although in his book Ring Resounding Culshaw states they recorded two general rehearsals “plus four or five public performances.” 

Mark Obert-Thorn has worked his usual miracles in this transfer, pointing out some of the problems with the original recordings—all of which he has solved with the greatest craftsmanship.

David Breckbill

Musicweb-International (I).com

In my survey of major Parsifal recordings, I diverge slightly from the received opinion in expressing a few reservations, especially about Ludwig Weber’s assumption of the role of Gurnemanz but also concerning the inevitably constricted mono sound. I drew some flak for some quarters for daring to poke a sacred cow; I reproduce part of my findings here:

“The adulation accorded this recording in previous reviews and elsewhere mystifies me; it strikes me that some of it is couched in terms which approach the obsessively unhinged. Don’t misunderstand me; I love Wagner and do indeed find Parsifal to be a truly spiritual experience, even (especially?) on disc – but this recording is not the one to do it for me. First, it’s in slightly dim, but perfectly listenable mono. Fine; I listen happily to many recordings of lesser sonic quality – but if I can have a Parsifal in beautiful, clear, stereo sound, I’d prefer it. Furthermore, I prefer a Gurnemanz of the kind delivered by Kurt Moll, whose beauty of voice, tonal splendour and understanding of the text inevitably put the wobbly Ludwig Weber in the shade. He is on stage for so long that this role is really crucial to our enjoyment – and I find Weber’s vocal failings and unsteadiness a bit of a trial when I have the aural image of Moll’s sonorous bass in my head. Windgassen, too, is perfectly adequate, but he always sounded elderly even when he wasn’t, whereas … no-one except perhaps Thomas Stewart and, to a lesser extent, José van Dam, matches George London’s great anguished, black-voiced Amfortas but that’s the only real casualty if, for example, you opt for Kubelik on the Arts & Archives label.”

An expert remastering of a classic mono recording can of course do one of two things – or perhaps a combination of both: reveal it in revitalised splendour or lay bare any flaws which dimmer, more distant sound obscured – although Andrew Rose has always been very good at remedying as far as possible any such unwelcome manifestations without undue intervention. His remastering of the famous Furtwängler Tristan und Isolde was for me a revelation and I almost invariably find that the Pristine treatment pays rich dividends, so I looked to this latest reincarnation of another classic Wagner recording to see if it would work the same magic for me. Probably the best previous issue was on Naxos but I have been satisfied with the set I have on the Zyx label, which is the basis of my comparison here.

From the very first bars of the Prelude, the transformation worked by Pristine is startling and I am hooked. Richer, deeper, more spacious, the embodies the profundity and spirituality of Knapperstbusch’s vision more completely than any predecessor. It completely puts to bed my first objection regarding the quality of sound – even if it does indeed reveal more overtly some of the flaws and imprecisions in intonation and ensemble in the Bayreuth orchestra – but it scarcely matters in a performance of such conviction and concentration. I have never heard the brass come across so clearly, with such bite and sonority, as they do here and balances seem both better and closer. At times, the orchestral sound is almost sumptuous – no mean feat for so venerable a live recording.

My second reservation concerns Weber’s assumption. The much-improved sound gives his voice more body and bite even the intermittent unsteadiness remains apparent. My favourite passage in the work begins in Act III with Gurnemanz’s “Gesegnet sei, du Reiner, durch das Reine” and while Weber still cannot touch Kurt Moll for vocal splendour his delivery certainly comes across better here in this sonic refurbishment.

Pristine rightly put artwork depicting George London’s noble, anguished, bronze-voiced Amfortas on the cover of this new issue, as his is the greatest, most memorable contribution to this performance – but Martha Mödl as a sexy, searing Kundry is not far behind him, while Hermann Uhde is also a superb Klingsor, febrile, hysterical and malicious. Nothing will make Windgassen sound like a callow, muscle-bound youth but his stamina and musicality are admirable and his voice rings out at key points.

I do like Pristine’s conversion to packaging in slim, cardboard slipcases with some vivid coloured portraits of the main singers inside. Anyone wanting this celebrated performance would be well advised to acquire in Pristine’s latest remastered issue – it is far superior to anything which has gone before.

Ralph Moore | June 2022

Musicweb-International (II).com

The 1951 post war reopening of the Bayreuth Festival ushered in Wieland Wagner’s concept of a “New Bayreuth”. This involved staging the operas in a more stylized way using the sparest of sets and costumes and stage direction that focused on the epic nature of the dramas. It was a sort of knee jerk response to the Nazi era’s manipulation of the detailed imagery that was present in Wagner’s works. Wieland made a deep commitment to cleanse the productions of the Hitler era’s obsession with iconography and in the process he revolutionized opera productions in general for a generation. The opening production of that year was the present Parsifal. It was believed to be an event of importance significant enough for the Decca Company to send a top recording team to Bayreuth to capture the event live. This now 71-year-old recording receives a fresh transfer from the skilled hands of Pristine Audio’s sound engineers.

While Wagner’s new approach to staging his grandfather’s operas was controversial among the public and critics of the day, they were nearly unanimous in their praise of the high musical standards achieved at that first festival. The Parsifal performances were especially singled out for their general excellence. The first thing that strikes me while auditioning this set is the aura of electric excitement that sustains throughout the proceedings. Parsifal is an opera in which the concentration can easily lag throughout its lengthy perambulations but Knappertsbusch was galvanized by this score to produce his two most successful recordings, this one and the 1962 stereo version he recorded for Phillips. There is not a musical phrase during these 4 hours where his intense concentration and sense of discovery are not immediately apparent to the listener. While the total timing of this version makes it one of the lengthiest Parsifal’s on record at no point does it ever occur to this listener that it is being excessively drawn out. Knappertsbusch came closer to achieving complete transcendence on these discs than he would ever attain again. It is certain that his superb 1962 recording (review) doesn’t quite approach the searing intensity of this one despite having a more disciplined orchestra at his disposal 11 years later.

One of the chief glories of this cast is the remarkably three dimensional characterization of Gurnemanz by Ludwig Weber. Parsifal is unique in that it contains roles in which singers with slightly fallible voices actually do more to illustrate the character than do those with more perfect instruments. Kundry, Amfortas and especially, Gurnemanz become more interesting and believable when slight vocal flaws enhance the symbolic archetypes they represent. Weber’ s detailed word pointing combined with the occasional weakness in his vocal line make this Gurnemanz so much less remote than any other assumption of the role on recordings. Hans Hotter’s, equally fallible voice on Philips is the only other singer who comes anywhere close to Weber’s riveting portrait. Time and again the rough humanity that Weber conveys in purely aural terms draws in the listener. This Gurnemanz is quite human and resists becoming a bore as so often happens in this opera.

Martha Mödl’s Kundry inspires a similar fascination. In Act One she allows a rough hoarseness to creep into her voice which is commensurate with the wild woman of the natural world that she is presenting. Just the way she spits out “Ich- helfe nie” to Gurnemanz has no rival on any other recording. The layers of meaning that she conveys when she laments for no one to ever wake her again after Parsifal attacks her is truly unforgettable. Her seductive turn in the Act Two is no less successful although some of the higher phrases of the role begin to display her limitations. For example the highest passage of “Ich sah das Kind” hasn’t the lush sound of Irene Dalis, Christa Ludwig or Jessye Norman but none of those estimable singers hypnotize the listener in the way that Mödl does.

Wolfgang Windgassen’s assumption of the title role is tempered by a hint of waspish tone; still, he has plenty of heroic ring on offer throughout. He supplies a fascinating catch in his tone at the point when he sings his own name in the seduction scene after Kundry reminds him who he is. The original recording team captured a thrilling moment at “Amfortas. Die Wunde” when his voice echoes through the Festspielhaus. It remains a pulse quickening moment 71 years later.

George London’s tortured Amfortas was one of his finest roles. His deep luxurious tone is enhanced by the hint of an edge which provides a nap to his vocal velvet and an aural sense of the suffering that Amfortas endures. In the 1951 recording he is captured at the peak of his powers, which were just beginning to decline when he recorded the role again on the 1962 version. José van Dam provides a more roundly polished sound for Amfortas on two rival versions but it comes at the expense of the vivid illustration of the knight’s agony. Although the shorter role of the malign Klingsor has been successfully sung on several other recordings it is Hermann Uhde’s multi-faceted portrayal and expressive tone that is generally acknowledged to be the finest vocal representation of the fallen knight yet recorded. His scene with Mödl’s Kundry hasn’t been bettered on any rival version.

This recording has been released twice before on CD. Originally issued on Teldec, it had a later iteration on Naxos drawn from an immaculate vinyl copy, as is this current version. What Pristine offers on their new version is a beautifully expanded soundscape thanks to the wizardry of their XM remastering process. There were one or two barely detectable moments of overloading noted during the opera but these were present on the original LP transfers and not the fault of Pristine’s engineers. Pristine has also developed an attractive new gatefold cardboard casing which I understand is of limited availability for their initial CD run. Ultimately one really should have one of the stereo recordings of Parsifal on the shelves of one’s collection. There are several recommendable sets to choose from with the Philips set recorded live at Bayreuth being the most recommendable. However; this 1951 Knappertsbuch set, caught live from the re-opened Bayreuth Festival is an equally essential purchase, if only to hear the most intensely galvanized Parsifal ever put on disc. While those with the Teldec or Naxos editions needn’t rush out to replace them, Pristine’s edition is definitely the first choice among the three.

Mike Parr | July 2022

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Media Type/Label
Decca, Richmond
Decca, Naxos, Teldec, Membran, TIM, Zyx, Line, Pristine, TOL, OOA
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Technical Specifications
587 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.1 GiB (flac)
From the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (1951)