Parsifal

Fritz Stiedry
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Date/Location
17 April 1954
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
AmfortasGeorge London
TiturelLjubomir Vischegonov
GurnemanzHans Hotter
ParsifalSet Svanholm
KlingsorLawrence Davidson
KundryAstrid Varnay
GralsritterJames McCracken
Osie Hawkins
Gallery
Reviews
Musicweb-International.com (I)

This is an important Parsifal which has also been released on Melodram (LP, 1984) and Adonis previously (1998), plus a download from operadepot.com and on Walhalla, this last commanding quite a price on the second-hand market, so it is wonderful to have Pristine Classical throwing their hat into the ring in this beautifully transferred set, reviewed here from compact disc. It was broadcast by WABC and Andrew Rose at Pristine has achieved miracles of clarity in remastering it.

This is a rapid Parsifal: remember that the total timing given includes an interval talk and closing announcement. There is also the odd cut, including in Gurnemanz’s narratives, from “Unsres Königs Hut” to “Vor dem verwais’ten Heiligtum”. While there are some collectors who rightly see this as illuminating the work of the conductor Fritz Stiedry, it is perhaps for its historical value as presenting the great Hans Hotter’s first Gurnemanz that it is most valuable. There is another aspect that makes it notable: the Klingsor, Lawrence Davidson, was a last-minute replacement for Gerhard Pechner (apparently there was a delay to the beginning of the second act as Davidson prepared to go on).

It is important to note that, while we are a world away from the likes of Goodall in terms of speed here, it is rare that this Parsifal feels rushed; indeed, the Prelude to Act I has a real sense of space. There is real control here, too, particularly the strings at the very end. Stiedry takes his time, too, over the so-called Grail motif; but how he quickens our pulses when Wagner depicts, so graphically, the whirlwind first entrance of Kundry. It is high-octane stuff. The occasional bit of literalism aside (the orchestra around Gurnemanz’s “Jetzt auf, ihr Knaben!”), Stiedry reveals himself not only as an intelligent interpreter of Wagner but as a superlative orchestral trainer.

The great Hotter is simply exceptional as Gurnemanz, full-toned, authoritative; the combination of Hotter and George London’s Amfortas is miraculous and unfailingly moving. However, it is the journey of the Innocent Fool himself which provides the thrust of the Bühnenweihfestspiel, and here we have Set Svanholm. Immediately, as we hear Parsifal boasting of his hunting prowess, we are reminded that Svanholm began his singing life as a baritone before debuting with Stockholm Royal Opera as Radamès (he was to be a regular at the Met from 1946 to 1956). The combination with Stiedry can be dynamite: the outcry “Tod, meine Mutter?” is greeted by an orchestra accurate but ablaze. His stamina is remarkable, but more, he takes us from the boy to the spiritually-enlightened man via a strong, mature interpretation of the title role.

The most overtly dramatic (as opposed to dramatically ritualistic) portion of Wagner’s score is the second act, where Parsifal awakes via the medium of the temptress Kundry’s kiss.

Kundry is a complex figure, her incarnations of sorceresses listed by Klingsor as part of his rousing of her. The kiss, for her, serves to break the binding that controls her in Klingsor’s realm.

Lawrence Davidson makes a fair fist of Klingsor in this second act, occasionally eating his words (Stiedry is rapid, remember) but emanating some authority (“Dein Meister ruf”). He just holds his own in his dialogue with Kundry prior to the seduction, but how the two main roles excel thereafter. Varnay’s singing of Parsifal’s name (the first time we hear it) is magnificent, emerging from the texture and yet inherent within it a sense of power and the inevitability of the seduction. Varnay has real steel to her voice, right from the first act, yet her instrument is malleable enough to convey the myriad nuances of the role. Svanholm’s sense of wonder mixed with confusion at both what is external to him and that which is internal is palpable. His initial answer to Kundry is tender and shows the first inklings of the enlightenment of which she is to be the catalyst. Varnay’s “Ich sah das Kind’ is one of the finest out there, gripping, involving, believable, manipulative. That hint of steel in her voice reminds us there is an ulterior, Freudian motive to her story, that of her seduction of Parsifal vis his memories of his mother. In this act, Stiedry gives Varnay all the time in the world to weave her spell, this “Ich sah das Kind” taken at just the right slowly swinging, hypnotic pace. The sheer power of Svanholm’s pain (“Erlöser, rette mich”) is all-encompassing; Varnay’s plunge from top to bottom of her register as she laughs at Christ on the cross is properly spine-chilling.

Again, Stiedry allows the opening of the final act to breathe. Some choral moments of this act do not go to plan (it is live, after all) but the cumulative momentum crossed with a sense of ritual does convey the desperate majesty of the situation. Stiedry can, it must be said, be bracingly brisk. The choruses themselves (male in the outer acts and of course a group –or whatever the collective noun is, bunch perhaps? – of Flower Maidens in the second act) are excellent in their sound.

Luben Vichy’s Titurel is perhaps not the finest assumption of the role but has gravitas nevertheless. Of the smaller roles, the Squires leave a bit to be desired; but then again, they are in hyper-august company.

The Pristine transfer is remarkable veering towards the miraculous, allowing through huge orchestral detail (try the Transformation Music) while conveying the individual vocal characteristics of the protagonists.

Reviewed from compact discs, Pristine Classical also offers a variety of download options for FLACs and MP3s. While Copies of the Walhall pressing of this performance go for astronomical prices, it is difficult to imagine a finer restoration than Pristine’s (the Walhall included a Walküre Act I with Varnay and Svanholm from the Met in the same year).

There is a lovely quarter-hour interval talk filling out the second disc, which includes Rose Bampton and Charles Kullman in conversation and is presented by Boris Goldowsky, complete with piano examples: Bampton suggests the struggle of good and evil is crucial and focuses on Kundry’s journey to redemption through spiritual love.

It is obviously Parsifal’s time, given the excellence of the recently, posthumously published book by Roger Scruton. Certainly its profundity offers a level of spiritual immersion and reflection necessary in troubled times, while for the aficionado this Parsifal has plenty to offer, particularly from the triumvirate of Svanholm, Hotter and Varnay.

Colin Clarke | July 2020

Musicweb-International.com (II)

The Metropolitan Opera hosted performances of Parsifal at Easter on a mostly annual basis from 1903 (the bootleg U.S. premiere given over the threats, lawsuits, and pleas of Cosima Wagner) to the 1960s. Even when the opera wasn’t in repertory for the season, the house would still trot it out to display to the faithful for one or two performances before returning it to the basement to rest until the following April.

The 1954 broadcast will be of great interest to those who wish to hear Varnay in the role of Kundry, as well as those who might want to hear Hans Hotter in excellent voice for his signature role of Gurnemanz. This broadcast documents Hotter’s final performance at the Met; general manager Rudolf Bing never understood Hotter’s voice, and constantly plugged him into minor roles that were frankly beneath him. For every Flying Dutchman, there was a Grand Inquisitor, and for each Wotan, there was a Pogner or Gunther. Two years previous to this performance, Bing assigned Hotter the role of Amfortas. He sang beautifully as the tortured Grail King in 1952, but Gurnemanz was perhaps a more congenial role for his voice. This recording captures not only Hotter’s final performance at the Met, but also his first-ever performance of Gurnemanz. Although his memoirs credit Wieland Wagner with later teaching him the subtleties of the role, Hotter sings here with great compassion and understanding. He also in much better vocal estate for the New York audience than for the 1962 Bayreuth performances immortalized on Phillips.

Varnay did not often sing Kundry, so it is good to have even this inconsistent souvenir of her interpretation. Her Kundry is at times viscerally exciting, but in a melodramatic manner. The cries at the opening of the second act are the blowsy shouts of an inconvenienced barmaid. The famous “Ich sah das Kind” is matronly rather than sexy, and her slow portamenti recall the barmaid rather than the sexpot who successfully seduced Amfortas. At the same time, she is completely secure vocally, and makes much of the role sound easy, no small feat.

George London’s rendition of Amfortas is as stunning here as it is on the 1953 Bayreuth discs. His shame and suffering is palpable in every bar, and the voice is at its most beautiful. Set Svanholm was 49 at the time of the broadcast, and years of toil in the Wagnerian mines were beginning to take their toll; his performance is stentorian and rather routine. There is some barking in the second act, as well as some moments of iffy intonation.

In the pit, Fritz Stiedry’s bland conducting cannot erase memories of Knappertsbusch. Compared to many modern conductors, the overall tempi are fleet, but Act 1 Scene 1 in particular seems interminable. This is not just a tempo issue, but also a question of shape. What should be massive climaxes in the Transformation music, or in Act 2, are damp firecrackers: all sizzle, no payoff. The orchestra plays well for Stiedry, ensemble is tight, but otherwise, he contributes little of interest.

The booklet notes point out that the Klingsor, Lawrence Davidson, was a last-minute replacement for Gerhard Pechner, the evil-voiced baritone who gave a chilling performance in the 1952 broadcast. In ‘54, Pechner took ill while getting into makeup during Act 1, and Act 2 was delayed to allow Davidson to reach the theatre. Usually relegated to roles like the Jailer in Tosca or Marquis d’Obigny in La Traviata, Davidson was thrust into this major part at the last minute, and to his credit, he did an excellent job. There is little of the skin-crawling characterization one would have gotten from Pechner’s Klingsor, but it is an honorable showing.

It is a delight to hear “Opera News on the Air,” the intermission entertainment featuring Milton Cross, Boris Goldovsky, Rose Bampton, and Charles Kullman. Cross, Bampton, and Kullman speak with charmingly antiquated American accents, the tenor in particular showing off his New Haven roots via his dropped “r”s. Goldovsky demonstrates beautifully at the piano, and we get an excellent overview of the opera. If only the modern Metropolitan thought that this sort of musical thumbnail was necessary for its listeners!

From an audio engineering perspective, this is the most stunning Met broadcast I have ever heard, no doubt thanks to the tender ministrations of Pristine’s Andrew Rose. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a digital stream from a live performance occurring in 2021, rather than a broadcast taped off the air back in 1954. Bravo to Pristine for their hard work on this release.

Richard Masters | August 2021

Rating
(7/10)
User Rating
(4.3/5)
Media Type/Label
Melodram
Adonis, Walhall Eternity, Pristine, OOA, TOL
Technical Specifications
310 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 525 MByte (flac)
Remarks
Matinee broadcast
A production by Richard Ordynski (1920)