Christian Thielemann
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
23/26/30 June 2005
Staatsoper Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasFalk Struckmann
TiturelAin Anger
GurnemanzFranz-Josef Selig
ParsifalPlácido Domingo
KlingsorWolfgang Bankl
KundryWaltraud Meier
GralsritterBenedikt Kobel
In-Sung Sim

Christian Thielemann conducts Wagner’s letzte Karte like a psychological thriller.He revels in the broken fragments of arioso and recitative (so influential on the beginning of Mahler’s Ninth and Sibelius’s Fourth) with which, in Act 1, the composer depicts the struggles of Gurnemanz and the Squires to come to terms with Amfortas’s humiliating loss of face and Klingsor’s theft of the holy spear. His tempi range from a Boulez-like swiftness for the knights’ ‘Zum letzten Liebesmahle’ and the tricky, march-like celebration of communion, to finely sustained stillness for sections of Amfortas’s lament ‘Wehvolles Erbe’ and Gurnemanz’s ‘Das ist Karefreitagzauber, Herr’. All are related to the words and mood of the drama with the acuity of a Kempe or Furtwängler. Pauses are important too – the one after Kundry’s confession about mocking Christ lasts for ever but is seamlessly integrated into the act as a whole. At one and the same time this is a beautiful Parsifal (but never for its own sake, like Karajan’s on DG, 10/84, or RCA, 8/99), a modern Parsifal (surprisingly more so than Boulez’s, DG, 9/92) and a new look at Parsifal, informed by Thielemann’s experience and knowledge of a great tradition.

It has to be said that neither of the new set’s most bankable stars – Domingo and Waltraud Meier – are in their primest vocal condition, and both sound understandably mature. The German language can still sound effortful from this tenor, although his commitment to the role is undiminished and his understanding of the text is superior to earlier recordings under Levine (DG, on CD, 11/94, and DVD, 11/94R). The high-ranging vocal landscape of Kundry’s final attack on Parsifal in Act 2 pushes Meier to the limit, but her phrasing and characterisation are now of almost Hotter-like perception. Her use of different voices to catch the stages of Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal in Act 2 is imaginative and distinctive too. In short, you will find these roles literally better sung elsewhere (and the achievements of Wolfgang Windgassen and Martha Mödl for Knappertsbusch – Naxos, 8/93R – cast a long shadow), but Domingo and Meier, offering other subtleties, come through well.

Elsewhere among the principals comes a similarly intense musico-dramatic understanding. Selig is a youngish Gurnemanz, more the narrator/evangelist than the old warrior (although his frustration at Parsifal’s not knowing anything is quite ferocious), who phrases with rare beauty. Struckmann is on something of the form he showed on Opus Arte’s Barcelona DVD of Walküre, singing strongly, riding the emotions clearly, lacking only that special neurotic bite that Fischer-Dieskau (for Solti on Decca, 9/86, or Knappertsbusch, various) brought to Amfortas’s impotence. Bankl’s Klingsor, rather like Meier, employs a wide set of vocal colours to map this dark lord’s frustrations. The various Viennese choirs, Squires, Knights and Flower Maidens (‘Komm, holder Knabe’ is ravishingly floated and phrased) contribute strongly.

It’s easy to take the high standards of orchestral work in recordings from this opera company as read; here the VPO are attentive and flexible to every novel requirement, the winds (a crucial part of Thielemann’s sound world for this opera) a colourful and seductive joy. The ‘live’ recording does the dynamic range of the interpretation and the various unseen effects proud. This new set is both a major release and (if we have to see it in these terms) an equal contender with Knappertsbusch, Barenboim (Teldec, 10/91) and the lengthy pre-war extracts conducted by Karl Muck (Naxos, 11/99) which, perhaps, it most closely recalls.

Mike Ashman

The Guardian

Taken from stage performances in Vienna a year ago, this is the fourth commercial recording of Parsifal in which Waltraud Meier has taken the role of Kundry, and Placido Domingo’s second in the title role. Since that first version, which was conducted by James Levine, Domingo’s handling of the German text has improved, but his singing sounds effortful now, just as Meier’s best days in a role that she has inhabited like no other contemporary soprano are behind her. Yet both remain compelling performers and the rest of the cast are equally rewarding.

What distinguishes the set above all is Christian Thielemann’s superb conducting. His sense of the work’s vast architecture is faultless and the dramatic certainty that informs every detail of the score is a reminder that Thielemann belongs in the highest echelon of today’s Wagner conductors.

Andrew Clements | 2 June 2006

The New York Times

When the Ear Luxuriates in What the Eye Can’t See

A few years ago in these pages, I mocked a composer turned record producer who had presumption enough to bill himself equally with the musician he was recording. The people who set the microphones, twiddle the dials and generally stage-manage a recording command considerable musical sophistication and engineering skills, but the ones I know happily acknowledge that their jobs are to keep the path clear between musician and listener.

Listening to Wagner’s “Parsifal” as presented on Deutsche Grammophon’s recent four-CD release makes me wonder whether indeed electrical sound manipulation must somehow be added to the composer-title-performer credits stamped on the labels of compact discs.

This is a performance taken live from the Vienna State Opera House and dated 2006. Christian Thielemann conducts. Plácido Domingo and Waltraud Meier are among the principals. “Taken from” are the operative words; this “Parsifal” may have been taken from the opera house but it has been put somewhere else: the listener does not occupy a fixed seat in a public space, but instead wanders from one point of interest to another.

For the Prelude, where the orchestra rules, the ear seems crowded against the conductor’s podium and inches from the players. The impression is powerful and sometimes claustrophobic. Mr. Thielemann conducts with muscle and intelligent calculation. We assume that the Vienna State Opera’s first-string orchestra (a k a the Vienna Philharmonic) is in the pit. The trumpet part soars and expands. We are made to hear with unusual clarity Wagner’s glistening, high-pitched violin arpeggios. The pounding processional drums in Act I, scene 2 literally shake the listener’s bones.

When singers start to sing, however, we have walked away and left the orchestra subdued and at our backs. First we meet Gurnemanz (Franz Josef Selig); later, Kundry (Ms. Meier), Parsifal (Mr. Domingo) and Amfortas (Falk Struckmann). They sing to us as if making musical conversation across a table. We seem to march alongside the male chorus as it makes its stirring entrance. Sometimes the orchestra sounds in front of us, a partial obstruction of the singers just beyond — it’s like having to look over the backyard fence to see what the neighbors are doing.

This is not a complaint but simply the noting of a distinction. We are hearing a different way to present opera and, who knows, perhaps a better one. But “live from the opera house” should be received with caution. Austrian Radio’s unnamed engineers are not simply taking in and regurgitating an opera-house experience; they are using raw material to construct something new.

Gathering the personnel and technical wherewithal for opera recordings like this is an enormous expense, and shrinking classical music budgets, together with rising costs and salaries, make them luxuries bordering on folly. This “Parsifal” — well cast and directed — was happening, anyway, so why not let an evening in the opera house be massaged by another set of hands? Symphony orchestras, with the London Symphony Orchestra as an example, are also issuing recordings of performances originally meant for subscribers.

Live, as opposed to studio, recordings promise spontaneity, but most “live” recordings having more than one performance are amalgams of best moments, not unadulterated first takes. And in this instance, the opera house plays a part. Being less than half the size of the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Opera House gives singers a smaller space to fill, so Ms. Maier, for instance, sounds more relaxed, less flat-out devastating than she did at the Met last season. Wagner gives Mr. Domingo’s tenor a more angular, hard-working quality, but here it floats more easily. His intonation is a wonder, with a purity worthy of the “pure fool” he depicts.

A “Parsifal” that we do not see can be a blessing. The other day I watched a decently sung “Tristan und Isolde” on DVD starring vastly overfed principals who soon made me wish I had left my eyes in the other room. I like the luxury of attaching my own Ingrid Bergman or Laurence Olivier to whatever voice I please. On the other hand, a sufficiently dignified stage presence can make a wobble or two from Amfortas or Gurnemanz easy to forget.

Met audiences, accustomed to James Levine’s languid tempos and infinite delicacy, will be sat up straight by Mr. Thielemann’s forward march and burly manner. Yet his approach is the generally accepted one, and Mr. Levine’s the exception. Mr. Thielemann’s great skill is manifest in, among other places, the opera’s climactic chords. Wagner sends them shooting straight up, like multiple fireworks that take on new colors, new details and new breadth as they rise. I can’t remember hearing this series of eruptions so well articulated.

Debussy hated Wagner, or at least the idea of Wagner, but he could not resist “Parsifal.” Few of us can. The sinking chromatic figure that accompanies Amfortas seems to carry the entire weight of human unhappiness on its back. The redemptive theme at the final curtain, with its rising sixth and stepwise descent, bypasses the usual cognitive defenses and occupies our insides for days to come.

Harmonically, “Parsifal” is the most elusive and yet the most satisfying of Wagner’s operas. German formalism was a kind of musical government. It occupied a territory, drew boundary lines and set up administrative headquarters to uphold them. The Wagner of “Parsifal” hovers overhead, casting shadows or admitting light as it moves, like a cloud that never touches ground.


It’s become almost customary to refer to famous opera recordings by the conductor, as in ‘Toscanini’s Otello’ or ‘Furtwängler’s Tristan’, and this new Parsifal may well fall into that custom. It’s not that the singers are second best – perish the thought – but operas on a huge scale, like this one, need such careful phrasing and tempo management, to say nothing of orchestral and vocal balance and control, that the conductor really can be the make-or-break of ultimate success. Thielemann has many detractors – and I have not always been convinced, as in his Schumann Second Symphony for DG – but there’s no doubt that his superb conducting is one of the main sources of pleasure here.

  In one sense I felt I knew what to expect, as I’ve always taken great pleasure from one of his better DG discs from the 1990s, a selection of Wagner chunks, of which two were the Parsifal Act 1 Prelude and an orchestral version of the Good Friday Music. These were recorded with a glowing Philadelphia Orchestra and the pacing was suitably leisurely. Here we have a just-as-glowing VPO but the tempo has picked up and the inner voices of the texture are just that bit sharper and more defined. In the Prelude, as throughout, the wind voicing and colouring is a joy and the rich carpet of string sonority enhances the ethereal atmosphere.

  Whatever you feel about the questionable philosophy at the core of the opera – and at least one opera guide describes it as ‘morally repugnant’ – you quickly find yourself sucked into Wagner’s voluptuous musical sound-world, which very often reaches a state of stasis-like contemplation where silence is as telling as sound. This is Thielemann’s great contribution here, controlling the ebb and flow of tension and release, not afraid to move proceedings on with lightness and even force where required. He so obviously comes from the Karajan tradition but has learnt from other sources (Boulez?) that not everything in this piece has to resemble a religious experience, whatever Wagner thought.

  The casting is certainly of international stature, but don’t expect the sort of depth of quality you find on the classic Knappertsbusch Bayreuth recordings. Domingo is supremely intelligent, as is Meier, and they both show what artistry they are capable of, as they did in last year’s Proms Walküre. The fact can’t be ignored that neither sounds young enough for their respective parts, but on disc this is less of a problem than on DVD. Both have performed and recorded these parts before, particularly Meier, who sounds obviously fresher on the 1991 Barenboim studio recording, but here she brings even greater insight to the text. Listen to the way she phrases ‘Nein, Parsifal, du tör’ger Reiner!’ during the long Act 2 seduction scene with Parsifal, a model of dramatic cogency, though in the cruelly high tessitura she is no match for Martha Mödl on the 1953 Knappertsbusch set (Naxos). Domingo paces himself well, drawing on his considerable reserves for the later, heavier scenes of Acts 2 and 3. He may not be the ‘pure, young fool’ of the 39 year-old Windgassen on Naxos, but his experience and musical intellect reveal many subtleties and his contribution is deeply satisfying.

  The other roles are also well cast without erasing memories of earlier portrayals. I particularly like Struckmann’s neurotic Amfortas, even if he does sometimes gain a rough edge to the voice when pushed. Selig’s dark-hued Gurnemanz is another commanding characterisation, while Bankl’s Amfortas is suitably villainous without descending into whining caricature as can sometimes happen. The various choruses of Squires, Knights and Flower Maidens contribute strongly, always alert to the subtle shifts in Thielemann’s ultra-flexible tempos.

  The recording is good rather than great, but the orchestra is warmly captured and voices emerge with clarity and presence. Given the fairly static nature of the work, stage noise is never too intrusive and ‘patching’ from the three nights is not obvious. This new set has been given a generally warm welcome which I would echo, and it is certainly worth it to bask in Thielemann and the VPO’s sumptuous orchestral radiance. It is retailing at full price, so it is still worth pointing out that both classic Knappertsbusch sets are substantially cheaper, as are Boulez (DG) and Goodall (EMI), so these alternatives should still be investigated given the relatively lucky history of this opera on disc.

Tony Haywood

This Parsifal surprised me somewhat. My dislike for Thielemann’s Tristan was pretty fierce and I expected little better here–but in fact, his reading is without many grievously bad habits, icy moments, or tics. He keeps the action flowing and brings the opera in at four hours and three minutes; Barenboim and Knappertsbusch and a few others are slower (Kna slower by more than a half hour in the 1951 recording!), the Nagano on DVD is whiplash faster (and much finer in all ways), and Boulez is faster yet. Thielemann’s sense of line is fine enough so that we know we’re hearing a long, well-constructed story, and he knows how to give the Transformation Scenes a weary weight. He emphasizes the wind writing and so we get lots of internal voices, and the brass play gloriously for him. However, Thielemann does odd things with Wagner’s pauses, occasionally drawing them out to ridiculous proportions–the one after Kundry’s “Lachte!” is so long that I thought my CD player had conked out (it’s 12 seconds long–I’m not kidding). Of course, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra you’re hardly going to get bloopers, but the sheer beauty of the playing is worth mentioning. And so, it isn’t the conducting that takes this out of the running for top-three Parsifals. Rather, it is some of the singing. Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz is young and baritonal and he knows how to play into the text to bring out the character’s discontent, piety, gratefulness–and most vividly, anger and impatience with Parsifal’s ignorance. The problem of course is Hotter: once heard, comparisons, odious or not, are impossible to avoid, and Selig comes up very short. Falk Stuckmann expresses Amfortas’ torment to great effect and Ain Anger’s Titurel is dark and potent without erasing memories of Martti Talvela. The Klingsor of Wolfgang Bankl is a bit light, but boy, does he sound snide and vile! The chorus is, along with the orchestra, a true glory of this recording. The drawbacks are the tenor and mezzo. Placido Domingo is still remarkable at 64, but there is no denying that his voice sounds worn and almost all of his forte singing is somewhat strained. In the opera’s last moments, when Parsifal enlightens the Grail Knights, a tenor like Jon Vickers (or even with less voice, Windgassen or Siegfried Jerusalem) can bring such exquisite resolution to their suffering with his grace that the entire opera falls into place; here, and elsewhere, Domingo is simply trying too hard. And Waltraud Meier, in what seems like her 400th recorded Kundry, finally has hit the skids: the voice never could pass for lovely or alluring, but by now it’s one big rasp. Her insights into the character remain vivid, but she’s hard to listen to. Aside from a lot of stage noise–swords? trash bins?–and an occasional tendency for the orchestra to overwhelm the singers, this set is beautifully recorded. You may want to hear it once for its sheer orchestral beauty, but I can think of a bunch of recorded Parsifals that are more satisfying.

Artistic Quality: 7
Sound Quality: 8

Robert Levine

Parsifal sous néon

Quelle tradition germanique ? Thielemann, souvent rangé parmi les repreneurs de la maison Furtwängler, livre ici une lecture assez proche de ce que ferait – eût fait – un Abbado.

Transparence, délicatesse arachnéenne des contours mélodiques, absence voulue de toute noirceur, de toute profondeur du son, partout lumière et clarté. Le Prélude de l’Acte I est une splendeur dans le genre. Comme les autres préludes, d’ailleurs. L’Acte II, avec ses mélismes étranges et ses sortilèges fleuris, est souvent – orchestralement – enchanteur. Cet allègement permet de travailler la dynamique de façon subtile et contrastée, d’exaspérer la fièvre de certains passages (Acte II, encore).

Ainsi exposé à une lumière plus crue, Parsifal perd toutefois ses bonnes couleurs sombres et de ces mordorures qui, associées à cette odeur de soufre et à ce parfum entêtant d’encens, font aussi son… charme ?… sa… séduction ? disons : son style. L’Acte I, avec tous ces bons chevaliers en armures qui se lamentent gravement et à l’infini sur les temps qui s’en vont (Gurnemanz : -« Tout fout le camp » / Amfortas : – « C’est juste. Et moi-même je ne me sens pas très bien »), ne peut décemment se défendre que dans un énorme sfumato de fin du monde, avec des ombres menaçantes, des bas-reliefs noircis par le feu des batailles, quelque chose de sculptural et de pourri. La lumière jetée par Thielemann sur cette parcelle de royaume qui sent la pierre humide et la barbe de malade est certes très intéressante stylistiquement, mais elle est un peu trop propre, un peu trop clinique. C’est un néon dans la sacristie. A l’Acte III, cela s’arrange : Thielemann lâche la bride un peu plus et fait sonner Vienne un peu façon Berlin (enfin : celui d’avant Abbado et Rattle). C’est heureux et très beau mais c’est un peu tard.

Du reste, il n’y a pas que Vienne qui sonne trop Vienne : il y a les chanteurs. Filles-Fleurs, Titurel, Gurnemanz, et surtout Klingsor, ont des voix jeunes, claires (clairettes), sans relief, bonnes pour la vocalité de Weber tout au plus. Est-ce voulu ? Alors dans ce cas, pourquoi convoquer Placido Domingo, qui sonne audiblement comme le doyen de l’affaire, et Waltraud Meier, qui a quelques centaines d’années certes, mais qui sonne désormais – sauf son respect – comme la mère de Kundry (on n’entend aucune sauvagerie dans cette voix pleine et mûre) ? Paradoxe dans le paradoxe : ces deux-là sont à l’évidence ceux qui sont le plus concernés par la partition de Wagner, que les autres déclament avec la placidité de seconds couteaux contents de l’être. Domingo peine pourtant à animer son allemand : ce n’est pas une question de prononciation, comme on l’a souvent lu, mais seulement de sentiment de cette langue. Falck Struckmann est un cas à part. La voix a de beaux restes, qui sont parfois de simples (beaux) lambeaux, mais il y a là à force de grisonnement et de baisses de tension vocale de véritables limites de caractérisation – à la scène, c’est autre chose, naturellement.

D’où la question : mais qu’a-t-on voulu faire ? Chaque protagoniste est à peu près clair dans ses intentions, qui ne correspondent pas à celles de l’autre. C’est assez frustrant. Trop de routine chez les uns, trop d’inexpérience chez les autres, et cette espèce de volonté d’innover par la clarté et l’extase lumineuse chez Thielemann, qui tombe à plat faute de voix adéquates et d’interprètes adhérant au schéma manifestement voulu. Il eût fallu que tous communiassent dans une sorte d’extase immatérielle et céleste – dont nul ici n’a les moyens, sauf Thielemann justement (parce que, bon : quel grand chef !).

Il nous reste à écouter avec une attention toute particulière les beautés réelles que le chef tire de son orchestre – pour nous, la source d’une jouissance gentiment décadente, bien wagnérienne en somme – avant de retourner à nos Mödl, Hotter, Vinay, ou même Van Dam, London, Moll, Norman, Crespin, et autres, au pays où les chevaliers ont des armures en acier trempé, où les Kundry ont des yeux de folle, et les Parsifal des voix pleines d’adolescente ardeur.

Sylvain Fort

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531 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 947 MByte (flac)
A production by Christine Mielitz (2004)