Rudolf Kempe
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
16 June 1959
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasEberhard Waechter
TiturelForbes Robinson
GurnemanzGottlob Frick
ParsifalKarl Liebl
KlingsorOtakar Kraus
KundryGerda Lammers
GralsritterEdgar Evans
Joseph Rouleau

Having allowed a decent interval to elapse since releasing its revelatory recording of Rudolf Kempe’s 1957 Covent Garden Ring cycle (8/08), Testament has now issued this Parsifal from two years later. It is at its finest during the first part of Act 3, where the conductor’s eloquent steadiness, that feeling for the long line that never settles into mere rigidity, is matched by the outstanding blend of sensitivity and strength in the singing of Gottlob Frick.

Frick sang Gurnemanz in Georg Solti’s less-than-ideal studio recording from the early 1970s, when his voice had lost some of the flexibility evident here, and it is fortunate that the recording favours Frick throughout, giving him just the right degree of prominence, even though the balance with the orchestra is variable. There is no disguising the limitations of the mono sound: it is generally unflattering to woodwind and brass, and often deprives the strings of some of the bloom that surfaces now and again under Kempe’s warmly solicitous direction.

Sonic limitations apart, however, it is good to have such an impressive alternative cast to the standard Bayreuth line-up normally heard in recordings from this period. Like Frick, Eberhard Wächter sang his role in a later recording, though the 1961 Vienna State Opera performance under Karajan (not issued until 1991) has many drawbacks and Wächter hit his most compelling form at Covent Garden – impassioned but never hectoring. In June 1959 Karl Leibl was keeping the title-role warm for Jon Vickers: his voice lacks the youthful edge that Parsifal needs, at least before the middle of Act 2, but he avoids the stodginess and blandness that often afflict singers in the part. It’s a pity that the recorded sound, or his positioning relative to microphones, detracts from the impact of the final monologue.

Gerda Lammers is an admirably un-gutteral Kundry, and to have Covent Garden stalwarts Otakar Kraus and Forbes Robinson in the cast reinforces the special qualities of this performance. If you can discount the sonic deficiencies and are prepared to allow a little time for the Kempe touch to make its very particular effect, you will be richly rewarded.

Arnold Whittall

Opera News

What a recording this might have been! Rudolf Kempe’s 1959 Parsifal is the latest chapter in the Testament label’s documentation of the storied postwar period at Covent Garden, and even more than such recent issues as Kempe’s Ring and the Rafael Kubelik Trojans (the latter with the young Jon Vickers), this set is fraught with technical challenges that make the performance sound as if it predates the 1950s.

Kempe’s intimate, supple approach to Wagner, the strong cast of principals and the support of the Royal Opera House chorus and orchestra are nearly enough to justify the enterprise. But the listener has to be resourceful with balance adjustments on the home stereo and patient with painfully distorted brass and some woodwind lines that seem to come from instruments not yet invented on earth or long since obsolete. Devotees of this opera will find elements of the recording a great treat, but even they will surely use it sparingly.

In Karl Liebl we hear a bright, pliant Parsifal (before the strains he encountered in heavier Wagner at the Met in the 1960s) that I find preferable to the more common heldentenor treatment. His timbre suggests innocence, and he achieves great sensitivity in the final act’s addresses to Kundry, well matched by the conductor’s dedication to character delineation and effective dialogue. The other male principals also lean toward minutely calibrated rather than stentorian effects. We expect this from Eberhard Wächter, whose artistic Amfortas also graces Karajan’s live Vienna recording from 1961, but it’s more surprising in the wonderful Gurnemanz of Gottlob Frick, usually cast as “black-bass” villains, although he recorded the avuncular monk later under Solti. Otakar Kraus, recalled as Stravinsky’s original Nick Shadow, makes a nicely mercurial Klingsor.

A soprano who missed the big time, Gerda Lammers projects fiery desperation with her brilliant high notes, especially in those fast, rising triplets near the end of Act II that rarely succeed so well in live performance. It’s too bad Kempe didn’t allow or compel her to hold the high B longer on the word “lachte” before the two-octave drop (a moment made famous more recently by Waltraud Meier). Lammers’s lack of engagement in lower passages is partly temperamental but also a matter of range, serving to remind us why Kundry is often cast with a mezzo-soprano.

According to Michael Tanner’s interesting liner note, some London critics in 1959 faulted Kempe for slow tempos, an accusation that’s hard to justify. Of the six versions I’ve explored, only those by Pierre Boulez and Christian Thielemann are quicker (i.e., briefer), and in qualitative terms Kempe’s approach is musical, flexible, alert — anything but ponderous.

DAVID J. BAKER | Issue SEPTEMBER 2010 — VOL. 75, NO. 3

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Testament, Treasures of the Earth, OD, OOA, PO
Technical Specifications
271 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 493 MByte (flac)
Broadcast (BBC 3)
A production by Herbert Graf (1959)