Marek Janowski
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
8 April 2011
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasJewgeni Nikitin
TiturelDimitri Ivashchenko
GurnemanzFranz-Josef Selig
ParsifalChristian Elsner
KlingsorEike Wilm Schulte
KundryMichelle DeYoung
GralsritterClemens Bieber
Tuomas Pursio

Wagner’s last, strangest and deepest music-drama has fared astonishingly well on disc, with almost no dud versions, and the live recordings under Hans Knappertsbusch from Bayreuth are a gold standard. This new performance, also live but given in concert, though quite different from those earlier accounts, takes its place with them in compellingness and emotional depth. It has the spontaneity of something which has sunk so deeply into the performers’ minds and souls that they can throw caution to the wind and still be accurate. 

The first thing to realise about Parsifal is that it is not a religious work: it is about the forces that lead people to be religious, and especially about guilt, desire and compassion. Thanks to its extraordinarily adventurous harmonies, and to that orchestration which Debussy described as ‘being lit up from within’, it has a tentative feel. But at the same time the drama that it enacts is urgent. Marek Janowski, with his superb vocal and orchestral forces, manages to convey all this without false rhetoric or over-emphasis. He realises that the lengthy narrations giving the story’s background are just as dramatic as any of the events we hear taking place in the present. Indeed, it is one of Wagner’s achievements that ‘past’ and ‘present’ are no longer that distinguishable. So Gurnemanz, a veteran Knight of the Grail, sung by Franz-Josef Selig, is as vivid in those narrations as in his actions.

Christian Elsner is a wonderfully sensitive and expressive Parsifal, and his long scene with the Kundry of Michelle DeYoung is the pivot of the drama, as it needs to be but seldom is. But the strongest performance of all is the Amfortas (ruler of the Grail Kingdom) of Evgeny Nikitin, a Russian who can sing German idiomatically, and who realises all the torment, physical as well as spiritual, in this trickiest of roles. The various choruses are excellent, though it’s a pity that boys’ voices weren’t used in the Grail scenes; and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra manages to get all the subtle details of the score across in an unusually rapid account. The recorded sound is sensational, so realistic as to be almost alarming. If Janowski’s planned cycle, of which this is the third instalment, continues like this, it will unquestionably be the finest modern traversal on disc of Wagner’s achievement.

Michael Tanner | 4 July 2012

Opera News

Marek Janowski has set himself the enormous task of recording all ten of the canonical Wagner operas in live performances with Berlin’s Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. Presumably, the project will culminate in a complete Ring cycle, so the other operas are appearing out of chronological order. Parsifal, Wagner’s final masterwork, is Janowski’s third installment, and he has some unusual and provocative ideas about the piece. In this performance, the passage as the dead swan is taken away, midway in Act I, has a peculiarly intense expressiveness. It’s as if Gurnemanz were already certain that Parsifal is the redeemer the knights are awaiting. The music for the transformation to the first Grail scene is brisk. It’s almost showy, in fact, almost celebratory. The motif of anguish from the prelude is now subsumed into the waves of renewal. Thus Gurnemanz’s anger at the end of the ceremony — “You’re nothing more than a fool” — makes particular sense. This may lead listeners to expect revelations when the ritual is repeated in Act III, but in the end Janowski lets us down. Even if we accept the odd interpretation of the Act III prelude (it’s brisk, almost dizzy, and very vocal in phrasing — perhaps meant to portray Parsifal searching in a frantic way), the rest of the act doesn’t cohere. It is action-packed from the start in Janowski’s version, with no sense of gradual awakening, or of time having passed. Parsifal’s final solo in the temple is not exalted or extended as Wagner asked; rather, it is invigorating and energetic. It seems not momentous but obligatory.

Timings by the clock are not very useful in accounting for the impression given by a performance. Yet it is worth noting that a live recording of the 1985 Bayreuth centennial production of Parsifal was released on the Philips label, and that Janowski comes very close to shaving an entire hour off of James Levine’s interpretation on that occasion. If Janowski’s version doesn’t give the feeling of catharsis or ritual, perhaps we simply are not in the world of the Grail knights for a long enough spell. Janowski’s Act II is also something of a misfire, given that the Flowermaidens are a severe, unalluring group, and that Janowski hasn’t found the lilt, humor and playfulness in their music that this long opera needs at the midway point. 

But there are compensations in the tremendous playing of the orchestra. The string sections are stocked with virtuosos. The violins are infallible even in the trickiest, quickest passages. There is a little four-note solo for muted violins in Act II that should be framed and hung in the Louvre. The principal clarinetist is so good that listeners are likely to hear previously unnoticed details in this performance. There is a peculiar, highly individual timbre in Parsifal when the massive string sections play fortissimo but with mutes. The effect has never before come off so successfully on recordings. A sensible but uncommon decision has been made to keep the duration of the second disc short, enabling each of the last two acts to fit fully on a single disc. Pentatone, which gave us the rare treat of the first act of Janowski’s Meistersinger on a single disc, deserves gratitude for musical acuity.

There is one world-class performer among the singers. Evgeny Nikitin’s Amfortas is truly sung. He has a sweet, rounded tone, and indeed some listeners may want more of an edge at first. But this is all the more effective when it suddenly occurs in the great cries of “Erbarmen,” and the idea of a beautiful presence cut down in its prime is sad indeed. Christian Elsner’s Parsifal is not youthful enough in tone for an audio-only performance, but he does understand the psychological progress of Act II. (The final line to Kundry, “You know where you can find me again,” is sung with unusual gentleness.) But Elsner doesn’t sound transformed at the end of the opera, and he is heard in an entirely different acoustical context from the other singers on this recording. The Gurnemanz, Franz-Josef Selig, is more comfortable in Act III than in Act I of this long role, but he comes into a real partnership with Janowski by the time they get to the Good Friday meadow. Michelle DeYoung’s voice is too thick for Act II, in which her vocal coloration fails to reflect Kundry’s psychological progress. Janowski sets up her solo “Ich sah das kind” with naturalness, but she doesn’t respond to the sickly, Viennese quality of muted strings and chromaticism. But in Act I she shows a wise, Erda-like low range, which is also effective when she doubles as the solo alto voice at the end of Act I. The recorded sound is refreshingly natural on the whole. One of the many aspects of Parsifal, written for Wagner’s own theater at Bayreuth, is that it is a bravura series of acoustical experiments, and as a sonic engagement this recording is awe-inspiring. 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN | July 2012 — Vol. 77, No. 1

The Guardian

New recordings of Wagner’s final stage work used to be once-in-a-decade events, but this is the third notable version to arrive in as many years. Part of PentaTone’s project to record all 10 of Wagner’s mature operas with conductor Marek Janowski in time for the composer’s bicentenary next year, this Parsifal is taken from concert performances in the Berlin Philharmonie a year ago. Janowski has impeccable Wagnerian credentials – he was responsible for a fine and rather underrated Ring cycle in the 1980s, the first ever to be recorded digitally – but in Parsifal his directness and sometimes rather abrupt approach seem less convincing, especially alongside the two outstanding recent versions, from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky, and Jaap van Sweden with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra. Janowski has a fine cast, but not an exceptional one: Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz doesn’t make you hang on every word of his narration in the way that both René Pape (for Gergiev) and Robert Holl (for van Zweden) do, while Christian Elsner’s rather forthright Parsifal seems a bit too sure of himself in the first act. Yet the set is beautifully engineered, and the presentation immaculate; it’s just that Parsifal, of all operas, needs that bit more.

Andrew Clements | 29 March 2012

Beautiful, perfunctory Parsifal

This Parsifal is beautiful, well-sung, exquisitely recorded, and overall, superficial. I never thought I’d complain much about this opera being performed too quickly, but Marek Janowski gets through it in 3 hours/46 minutes, half-way between Boulez’s 3:38, which seems to be aiming for an entirely different experience— i.e., the demystification and re-musicification of the opera—and Thielemann’s snippy 3:53, which is just too darned easy going (Grail/Shmail) for its own good. Lest I be accused of having no patience with slow-poke Parsifal conductors, note that my reference recording is Kubelik’s, which is at the slow end of the total spectrum at 4:16, and that I greatly admired Gergiev’s recent 4:18. What holds Gergiev’s back is some of the singing, but the overall impression is wonderfully theatrical and René Pape is a stupendous Gurnemanz. Under Janowski, we don’t feel the drama or the weight. If one notes the loveliness of the playing in the first-act transformation music rather than feeling its torturous burden, something is wrong; similarly, the disillusioned, drained, and draining music of the third-act prelude should be just that and it isn’t. And the second act does not build to Kundry’s mania. This opera is almost more rite than entertainment (that’s why many cannot tolerate it) and should be performed as such.

But Janowski’s singers are impressive. Christian Elsner outdoes Gergiev’s Gary Lehmann in every way, but James King for Kubelik is better than both. Franz-Josef Selig has the exact right sound for Gurnemanz (unlike Pape, who some might argue sounds a bit young) and his humanity is evident in every phrase. He’s tireless as well. Michelle De Young’s Kundry is emotionally world class but I prefer a darker sound; still, she’s not to be ruled out. Evgeny Nikitin repeats his Amfortas and is just as good as he was for Gergiev; Dimitry Ivashchenko’s Titurel is dark and troubling. Eike Wilm Schulte comes close to the hideous perversity of Klingsor, and he does sing every note (rather than barking). The Flower Maidens are stunning.

Orchestra and chorus are ravishing. As I stated above, this set is a beauty. The sound-stage is deep and true; offstage effects are utterly real. But I find the whole show an excellent run-through rather than a sacred play; I was impressed but never moved.

Artistic Quality: 7
Sound Quality: 10

Robert Levine

When I reviewed the most recent release in Pentatone’s Berlin Wagner cycle, I said that they needed to up their game if these recordings were to attract attention in a crowded marketplace. Happily, with this release of Parsifal, they have done so.

  This is the third instalment of the cycle to be released, though the second to be recorded. As with Meistersinger, the first benefit that strikes the listener is the quality of the recorded sound. It’s crystal clear with strong extremities but inner transparency. It’s apparent right from the start of the prelude. The re-statements of the main theme sound bright and ever-so-slightly piercing on the winds. They are buoyed up by a shimmering halo of strings, while the brass statement of the faith theme brings about an outstandingly strong climax. This is repeated with wonderfully atmospheric scenes in the grail temple. Sound quality is important in this opera, and the Pentatone engineers have excelled themselves. This is matched by a vivid performance from the orchestra, who have played Wagner brilliantly throughout this cycle so far. Brass and winds lend kaleidoscopic colour in their contributions. The string playing is even more outstanding, especially in the world-weary prelude to Act 3; even more so, at the moment in the same act where Gurnemanz recognises the mysterious knight as Parsifal. The rich, almost chocolaty hue of the string tone at this moment is something which every orchestra aspires to but few achieve. The chorus play an outstanding role in the proceedings, singing with clarity and direction but always with a good degree of beauty. The engineers do a great job of capturing their dramatic part in the Act 1 temple scene, each layer of sound conveyed in its proper place with the right amount of distance between each component. The only place where this doesn’t quite work is the entry of the Flower Maidens, who are all over the shop in terms of the soundscape, often sounding confusing or poorly thought out. It’s not until Komm, holder Knabe that their sound settles down and when it does so they are appropriately bewitching.

  It helps, too, that Janowski feels much more at home with this score than he did in Meistersinger or Holländer. He evinces a greater sense of the long view and he shapes the unfolding of the music with a more secure eye as to where it is going. The hasty tempi that marred his Meistersinger are here brought under control. The Prelude unfolds naturally from within itself, leading to an account of the first act that is unhurried but dramatically urgent. The Transformation interludes are paced and accented with an eye not only to structural progress but also to musical argument. The temple scenes, always tricky to pace, seem just right, judging the balance between stasis and movement as well as anyone else. His conducting of Klingsor’s music is quicksilver and slippery, as well it should be. This sets the seal on a very strong performance. Not everything is perfect: I want more of a sense of urgency in the orchestral plunge into Amfortas! Die Wunde! and Gurnemanz’s recognition of the spear (O Gnade!) is too fast but on the whole the overall sweep of the work is convincing. Janowski commands the confidence of both his orchestra and his singers and the results are very strong.

  He is partnered by an excellent cast of singers. The Gurnemanz of Franz-Josef Selig is outstanding, anchoring the whole set with gravitas and weight. He sings not only with authority but with outstanding beauty, even more so than he did for Thielemann’s Vienna set. The narrations of Act 1 fly by in their dramatic excitement. Nikitin’s Amfortas is a little gravelly at first but this conveys the character’s agony very well. His interpretation grows in stature as the work progresses. His narrations in the grail temple do not have the poetry or nobility of, say, José van Dam (for Karajan and Barenboim), but they are enormously exciting to listen to and Nikitin is outstanding at evoking sympathy for the plight of the fallen king. Eike Wilm Schulte is wonderfully malevolent as the magician Klingsor but he never over-eggs it and is interpretation is thoroughly musical. Christian Elsner’s voice has a hard-edged, nasal quality that not everyone will love but it shouldn’t put any listener off as he becomes ever more compelling as the recording progresses. His assumption of the role of King is thrilling in the final act. Michelle de Young’s Kundry is outstanding because she gets inside both aspects of the role. In Act 1 her voice has a frenzied, almost manic quality to it which gives way to deflated submission before her exit. The great duet with Parsifal in Act 2 inspires her to find a much more seductive tone which stands her in great stead. The narration where she laughs in the face of Christ is thrillingly successful.

  This disc is well worth picking up. It’s admirably performed with excellent sound, and the packaging is very effective too. As with the other instalments in this series, the four discs are housed in a hardback booklet with full texts and translations and extensive – though somewhat esoteric – notes about the work. It won’t make anyone throw away their recordings from Knappertsbusch, Barenboim or Karajan (whose 1981 Berlin recording is still, for me, the best, despite its evident flaws) but it’s a worthy modern successor. It’s the finest release in this Janowski/Wagner series so far.

Simon Thompson

User Rating
Media Type/Label
PentaTone, CA, Premiere
Technical Specifications
538 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 913 MByte (flac)
Broadcast of a concert performance