James Levine
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
July/August 1985
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasSimon Estes
TiturelMatti Salminen
GurnemanzHans Sotin
ParsifalPeter Hofmann
KlingsorFranz Mazura
KundryWaltraud Meier
GralsritterMichael Pabst
Matthias Hölle

Each post-war decade has produced a Bayreuth Festival Parsifal recording. Those from 1951 (Decca—LP only) and 1962 (Philips—issued on CD only in 1986), both conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, and from 1970, conducted by Boulez (DG—LP only), all related to Wieland Wagner’s celebratedly austere production of 1951. This was finally replaced with a new staging by Wolfgang Wagner in 1975. Then, in 1982, for the centenary of Parsifal’s first performances in the same theatre, Gotz Friedrich was invited to produce and James Levine to conduct. Three years later, this recording was made.

By 1985 the Philips engineers knew a thing or two about the Festspielhaus, and the sound-quality is good. Even though a less forward placement of the orchestra might be a truer representation of what most listeners actually hear in the Festspielhaus, the immediacy of the rich orchestral colours is acceptable for domestic listening, as it is in the 1962 Philips recording. This new set also has relatively few extraneous sounds—prompts, audience or stage noise. (It would be interesting to know how many different takes from rehearsals and performances were used for the final mix, but record companies tend on the whole to regard such details as their own business.)

How you react to the performance itself will depend less on acoustics than on Levine’s generally slow tempos and heavy phrasing. Those who found Boulez impossibly brisk may welcome the prospect of an interpretation which, in places, makes even Sir Reginald Goodall on EMI seem fleet-footed. It would be unfair to assert that Levine is unacceptably slow throughout, or that when he is unusually expansive he achieves only stagnation: the marvellous Act 1 transformation music has an inexorable momentum that generates a powerful impact, and the start of Act 2 has a dark intensity that equals the best of the competition. The overall effect is nevertheless one of deliberation taken to extremes. The playing of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra throughout is beyond praise, but one result of predominantly slow tempos and weighty phrasing is that dynamic levels are often very high: Parsifal contains more genuinely soft music than this performance allows.

Like the orchestra the chorus respond magnificently to Levine’s demands: it’s the solo singers who have problems. Those least affected are Franz Mazura—a robust Klingsor who nevertheless shapes his music without shouting and Simon Estes, an Amfortas who conveys anguish without excessive ranting and raving. Waltraud Meier, who is also the Kundry on Goodall’s studio recording, is relatively light in tone for this role: as a consequence she lacks the sheer demonic power to raise the temperature significantly in the later stages of Act 2, and although she has the ideal vocal resources to make a plausible seductress earlier on, she suffers from Levine’s slow-motion pacing of ”Ich sah das Kind”—an effect all the more noticeable since the earlier Flower Maidens’ music is relatively fast.

Peter Hofmann’s voice is grainier than it was when he recorded Parsifal for Karajan on DG—a heavy Wagnerian diet has had its effect—and although I still like the distinctive Hofmann timbre, and his skill at adapting himself as well as he does to Levine’s tempos compels admiration this performance veers unevenly between extremes of detachment and exaggeration. To a large extent this is also true of Hans Sotin’s Gurnemanz. Sotin starts uneasily, then achieves an involving eloquence in the long Act I narrations. However like Hofmann he finds it hard to invest the Good Friday scene with the necessary authority and serenity: here it’s not so much slowness as the sense of local details mattering more than longer-term goals that creates difficulties.

Needless to say, these judgements are being made in the light of the formidable competition this set faces. The only other Bayreuth recording currently available on CD, also from Philips, is decisively superior. This contains far more stage and audience noise: there are moments, in what sounds like a single, unedited performance, where the ensemble is very untidy, and where Knappertsbusch interferes too decisively in pressing on or holding back. In sum, however, his interpretation remains intensely moving and convincing. Hans Hotter and Jess Thomas are the outstanding leaders of an excellent team of singers, and the CD transfer has done wonders for the sound, as well as removing that criminal side-break in Act 2 between ”Amfortas!” and ”Die Wunde!”. Goodall’s performance will be cherished by his many admirers, even though it preserves some of the weaknesses of the Welsh National Opera production. For a studio recording my vote goes to Karajan, yet even this consistently polished and persuasive music-making leaves you very conscious of the difference between singing to the microphone and to an audience in Wagner’s own theatre. A live Parsifal should be on everyone’s shelves, and for the moment Knappertsbusch’s claim to that place remains secure.

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
535 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.1 GByte (flac)
A production by Götz Friedrich (1982)