Parsifal

Mark Elder
Trinity Boys Choir
Hallé Youth Choir
Royal Opera Chorus Hallé
Date/Location
25 August 2013
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
AmfortasDetlef Roth
TiturelReinhard Hagen
GurnemanzJohn Tomlinson
ParsifalLars Cleveman
KlingsorTom Fox
KundryKatarina Dalayman
GralsritterRobert Murray
Andrew Greenan
Gallery
Reviews
ClassicalSource.com

The baton-less hands of Mark Elder appeared to pluck wisps of sound from his players and fold them into diaphanous melodic shapes. From the slowest, most rapt of Preludes until the opera’s conclusion six hours later, the Hallé played like a company of angels – a saving grace in an evening that was otherwise low on celestial refulgence.

Wagner’s final opera, essentially a tale of redemption through suffering and the triumph of innocence, is sometimes described as a sacred piece (Wagner portentously termed it a “Festival Play for the Consecration of a Stage”), but in truth its mood of romantic fantasy is closer to Camelot than the Saint Matthew Passion. Parsifal, the “holy fool”, is that classic hero of fiction, the unwitting boy who saves the world and discovers himself along the way. What makes Parsifal a masterpiece (Wagner’s greatest, in my book) is the atmosphere of reverence and wonder that is sustained across several hours of music.

Parsifal’s abstruse spirituality fits it well for concert performance, and the Royal Albert Hall’s heavenly heights accommodated its spatial ambitions to often startling effect. The extended, cod-holy closing section of Act One was overwhelming in its scale and sonic impact as the distantly seraphic voices of the Hallé Youth Choir and Trinity Boys Choir, all outstanding, joined those of Renato Balsadonna’s immaculately-prepared Royal Opera Chorus for the Holy Grail communion scene. This sequence alone was worth the pilgrimage to Kensington Gore; you really needed to be there. If only the same could be said of the solo singers.

Of the principals, Reinhard Hagen gave the evening’s truest and most complete Wagnerian performance, rivalled perhaps by the rich vocal depths of Tom Fox, the American baritone and alumnus of English National Opera’s most recent revival of the opera. It says little for a cast of Parsifal, though, when the vocal laurels are claimed by Titurel and Klingsor. Hagen’s fellow-German Detlef Roth, a last-minute replacement for the ailing Iain Paterson, was another asset: he gave a clean, earnest account of Amfortas, venting great rage against the dying of the light, even though his voice lacked the amplitude to embody the full extent of his character’s suffering.

To judge by the wild applause at the end of Act Two, for most in the audience the shining star of this Parsifal was Katarina Dalayman as Kundry; and, indeed, the Swedish soprano displayed a rich, even voice that did not degrade even under intense pressure and filled the Hall with ease. That might have been enough were her character less complex. Kundry, though, is nothing if not protean, and a psychological approach to the role is essential – which is where Dalayman fell short. I detected no attempt to track her troubled soul’s journey from darkness into light, while in duo scenes (such as at “Hier weile! Parsifal!”) there was little sense of a dramatic connection with her counterparts. Such absence of character depth is always a hazard in concert performances, of course, but that is all the more reason for them to be avoided – or attended to in rehearsal.

Robert Holl’s withdrawal from the dominant role of Gurnemanz, the wise old Grail knight, left a gap that John Tomlinson filled with his commanding presence and larger-than-life dramatic commitment. The great bass’s impeccable articulation of the text was an object lesson to several of his colleagues, not least Lars Cleveman’s underpowered though steadfast Parsifal; but Sir John’s voice was not what it was, loosely controlled in places and fraying under pressure, and it is probably time for him to follow his peer, Robert Lloyd, into less-taxing character roles.

The glories of this Parsifal were to be found elsewhere. A fabulous team of Flower Maidens, Knights and Squires made the ensemble scenes unforgettable, and the Hallé was quite simply world-class. Wagner’s imposing set-pieces came across with unforgettable power, despite the excessive volume of the amplified ‘Parsifal Bells’; and at the opera’s end, when all solo voices were stilled and the ensemble of Boys, Youths and Knights heralded a shimmering orchestral postlude, ecstasy returned and a notion of Heaven was there to be glimpsed.

Mark Valencia | August 25, 2013 Royal Albert Hall, London

The Guardian

Hugo Wolf, avid Wagnerite that he was, considered Parsifal the most beautiful work of art ever created. Not everyone would agree, but few would deny the beauty of Mark Elder’s Prom performance with the Hallé, a fine example of the Wagner tradition he has assiduously nurtured in Manchester over the years.

His approach was notably slow, generating a sense of the numinous in the outer acts that was often breathtaking but sometimes came at the price of tension and momentum. The uneasy darkening of the grail theme near the start and the insidious first appearances of Klingsor’s music didn’t quite register as they should. This was a Parsifal that didn’t fully exert its grip until we reached the grail hall and its ceremonies, where the steady pulse of ritual and the awe of spiritual mystery inexorably drew us in. The central act, meanwhile, in which Wagner pre-empts both musical modernism and Freudian psychology, was thrillingly, dangerously erotic. Throughout, well-nigh faultless playing combined with choral singing – from the Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir and Royal Opera Chorus – of majestic splendour.

The cast was strong. The great performance came from Katarina Dalayman’s voluptuous, self-lacerating Kundry, making the role her own with an extraordinary fusion of vocal and verbal intensity. John Tomlinson’s worldly wise Gurnemanz remains one of the finest, and there was an outstanding Klingsor, bristling with hauteur and sexual frustration, from Tom Fox. Lars Cleveman charted Parsifal’s development from naive innocent to anguished redeemer with considerable veracity, though vocally he showed signs of tiredness towards the end. Detlef Roth’s Amfortas, younger and leaner-voiced than most, was powerfully declamatory in his depiction of the wounded king’s physical and moral agony. Extraordinary, all of it, despite its occasional imperfections.

Tim Ashley | 26 August 2013

The Telegraph

As the last of the seven Wagner operas that have dominated Proms programming in the composer’s bicentenary year – turning the Albert Hall into London’s Bayreuth this summer – Parsifal provided a fitting climax to the whole extraordinary experience. In many ways the most “total” of all Wagner’s “total art works”, his spiritual swansong, with its slow-moving, ritualistic drama, is also the best-suited of all his operas to the style of concert staging offered here.

In the event, this overwhelming performance by the Hallé under Mark Elder actually benefited from more detailed stage direction than the Ring cycle had been given. In charge of both projects, the director Justin Way here not only found economically expressive gestures but engaged with the whole building, conjuring up from the circular Albert Hall, with its columns and dome, a sort of grail temple. Not many opera houses can deliver the ranked choruses required by Wagner, and here the boys’ and youth choirs (perhaps a little too English in tone for this music) were placed up in the gallery alongside some brass to thrilling effect, while the Royal Opera Chorus anchored things down on the stage.

Marshalling everyone with calm assurance – and allowing the music to flow with its own, slow pulse – Elder showed again why his Wagner operas at home with the Hallé in Manchester have been so successful. He and the orchestra wove together a prelude that soon found its spiritual “halo” and, even more crucially, all the essential pain and anguish. The second-act magic garden was sensuously evoked, and unlike some opera orchestras the Hallé showed no sign of tiring at the end of the long evening.

As Kundry, the wild woman who by redeeming Parsifal is herself redeemed, Katarina Dalayman gave an outstanding account of a role perfectly suited to her voice. The Swede’s dusky low notes suggest all the character’s mysteriousness, and higher up she moves effortlessly between voluptuousness and vulnerability. It was a performance to equal her compatriot Nina Stemme’s rapturously received Brünnhilde in the Proms Ring. Another Swede, the tenor Lars Cleveman, was convincing in the title role even without the glowing, open tone ideally required for this “holy fool”. His voice might have sounded bigger were he not singing opposite the larger-than-life John Tomlinson, compellingly authoritative as Gurnemanz. Detlef Roth’s anguished Amfortas was thoughtfully sung and Tom Fox’s snakelike Klingsor brought a well-focused snarl to the performance.

John Allison | 26 Aug 2013

Seenandheard-International.com

Elder’s Majestic Parsifal Spoilt by Cast Weaknesses

My first experience of Parsifal at the Royal Albert Hall was in 1999: I was teaching in Southend, Essex, and I left an after-school meeting and with little time left to get there for the start of that concert performance, arrived faster than I ever had before by car, in not much over one hour, I recall. I only mention this because I was reminded about it because of two former colleagues in Sunday’s audience and the fact that I had been very lucky to get there at all this time, because of a combination of just missing joining some stationary traffic, followed by a long detour throughout the lush verdant Essex countryside.

In 1999, despite evidence of more rehearsal time needed – it was the forces of the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev – the orchestra played well, the chorus sang out powerfully but some of the soloists spoilt the performance somewhat for me. Where have those years gone? Fast-forward to 2013 and it is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’). By ‘it’ I mean those passing years!

What did Wagner want us all to understand from his Parsifal? Not long ago Kaspar Holten, currently director of opera at Covent Garden, explained that he cannot direct the opera because he is not a ‘believer’. So is the self-castrating Klingsor not a Jew now and just an evil sorcerer? If so Wagner’s final work can be reclaimed as a mixture of Christian symbolism, Buddhist philosophy and medieval myth rather than, at best, something worthy of Freudian interpretation or at worst, a treatise on ‘racial cleansing’. Which of the principal characters is redeemed at the end of the work is always a puzzle as it could be any of them especially if we accept it is all more Buddhist than Christian and they are all on the path from ignorance to enlightenment. Perhaps at the end of his life it is Wagner himself who was seeking redemption?

At its simplest it is the Grail with Christ’s blood and the Spear that pierced his side that are the relics the plot hinges on; brotherhood, chastity and sexual desire bring together the elderly and wise Gurnemanz, the wounded king Amfortas, his enemy Klingsor, femme fatale Kundry, and the naive Parsifal, each of whom have their own demons to conquer. With Wagner in concert the audience can concentrate more fully on the words and music as we are spared the concern of unravelling the whims of the latest wunderkind stage director: though concentrating on the words was only really possibly if you were familiar with the libretto as – even though it is 2013 – there are never any surtitles at the BBC Proms. Also, those in the audience who bothered to buy their programmes with the translation noisily turn pages in unison and the sound was as if the dove that is supposed to appear at the end of Parsifal had fluttered in prematurely from time to time!

Actually stage director, Justin Way, was again on hand to marshal all the singers onto, around and off the stage – as I understand he has for all of the Wagner operas at the Proms this season. To be honest, I suspect Way needed to do very little.  John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz was what I have seen him do in Munich, Vienna and London, Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was familiar from the recent Parsifal broadcast from the Met and Detlef Roth – a late replacement for Iain Paterson – repeated his Amfortas from recent years in Bayreuth. Tom Fox’s Klingsor was probably like every other one he has sung. They were all dressed either in rehearsal clothes or formal wear but for some reason Lars Cleveman as Parsifal came on wearing a white tunic and looked like a celebrity chef, and occasionally his gestures did look as if he was chopping food.

The latter wasn’t his fault entirely and he certainly would have benefitted from someone  – in the intervening years since this performance was actually scheduled – visiting a props department somewhere and borrowing a stuffed swan, a couple of spears, a medieval helmet and a large cup of some sort. Alongside a makeshift bow (arrows optional) that Parsifal can happily break, this is all you really need to bring a greater sense of dramatic realism to a semi-staging of the opera. Cleveman’s miming skill were sorely tested throughout the evening and I have to report that when he held his fist up holding his imaginary spear he reminded me more of someone pulling the chain to flush a toilet.

I suspect it was Sir Mark Elder who coordinated everything to do with the music and realised that the Royal Albert Hall makes a good ‘grail temple’. The boys’ and youth choirs were high up in the gallery (with some brass) whilst the always-reliable Renato Balsadonna directed the Royal Opera Chorus on and off the stage bringing a greater meditative atmosphere to the Grail ceremonies than I can ever remember. Something didn’t sound right to me with the electronic bells – but I am often never happy about them and wonder what Wagner wanted here. The Hallé has a good reputation with Wagner in Manchester and it was good to hear them in London; it must be remembered that Hans Richter – one of their first music directors – was a Bayreuth veteran. The orchestra played with great commitment and there was a velvety tone from the strings, mellow woodwind and some suitably burnished brass.

The batonless Elder seems to modelling his Wagner conducting style on the incomparable Reginald Goodall. His memorable slow tempi meant Goodall was able to elicit great clarity from the orchestra that revealed every detail and nuance in the score, dwelling upon it reverently without compromising the impression that he had an overarching grasp of the structure of the work. There was a lot that was similar with much else to admire in Elder’s well-prepared and majestic Parsifal but unlike any Goodall performance that, however slow, never seemed to drag, this performance marginally outstayed its welcome. Indeed it  finished more than 25 minutes after the advertised time – not helped by two ridiculously long intervals!

There was a ska legend called ‘Buster Bloodvessel’ – and with my deep admiration for Sir John Tomlinson – he came into my mind as his grizzled Gurnemanz unfolded in its familiar fashion. It does seem to take a lot out of him, physically, but this is nothing new and I have followed Sir John’s career since he started. Now in his late sixties the lower part of his bass voice is in fine shape but there are higher lines to the music that he struggles with. He also was replacing a previously advertised singer, has recently been singing in Salzburg and may not have had sufficient rest in between. What remains a marvel is how he can communicate the text through his impeccable diction and has the ability to fill the vast auditorium with sound, as well as truly live the role of this Wagnerian patriarch: this is something all younger colleagues should aspire to. Tom Fox in his suit and tie looked like a financial advisor but sang a well-projected and venomous evil magician, Klingsor, though I wish the ‘conjuring up’ of his magical realm in the prelude to Act II had been a little less genteel and more malevolent. For her ‘duet’ with Parsifal it was time for Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry to be, literally, centre-stage. She was obviously a favourite with most of the Proms audience but those who saw Petra Lang’s searing and blistering Kundry at the Proms in 2000 will never forget it and accept Dalayman’s anodyne portrayal of a scorned woman, more suitably to an ordinary Verdi heroine rather than Wagner’s protagonist. To her credit her voice did seem in better shape than some recent reviews would suggest: there was a realistic ‘kiss’ and she stayed in character – and on the platform – throughout the opening to Act III when she could just as easily have retired to her dressing room after her two words, ‘Dienen, dienen’.

Robert Murray and Andrew Greenan were a good pair of knights and Reinhard Hagen made his baleful utterances from the organ loft as Titurel. This leaves me with Lars Cleveman’s Parsifal that lacked the vocal heft, freshness and musicality required. He is someone who can get through the rather short – in Wagnerian terms – tenor role without tiring too much but that doesn’t make up for the fact that he is not a genuine heldentenor. ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’ (‘But one weapon serves’) at the very end of the opera – regardless if you are a ‘believer’ yourself – should really be the summation of all that has gone before and bring an element of transcendence to the final moments. Despite the substantial efforts of Mark Elder, his musicians and combined choirs – because of Cleveman – it all remained a little dispiriting earthbound.

Jim Pritchard | Royal Albert Hall, London 25.7.2013

The Spectator

The Proms season of Wagner operas — pity they didn’t do them all; Die Meistersinger would have been specially welcome, since no one else is doing it either — concluded appropriately with Parsifal, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. The conducting at all these performances has been remarkably good, but in some respects Elder was the most striking of all. Working with his orchestra, the Hallé, he produced an account of this miraculous score which, for a combination of passion and precision, surpassed any other that I have ever heard. Without for a moment stinting on climaxes, Elder and the Hallé explored and expounded the refinements and economies of Wagner’s subtle masterpiece to a point that would have left Boulez open-mouthed with admiration. That meant that tempi were for the most part broad, but so sure is Elder’s grasp that that made the overall structure of the work all the more apparent.

It led, for me at least, to one revelation: the Grail scene in Act I can seem too extended, with the sacramental bread and wine being distributed, angelic voices accompanying, then a rather hearty song of knightly thanksgiving, followed by a drawn-out recessional as the knights withdraw and leave the irritable Gurnemanz to snap at bewildered Parsifal. In this performance, the effect was markedly different. The blessing and distribution of the sacrament were suitably ethereal, but then what followed was a stepwise return/descent to the everyday, with the knights confident of their renewed strength, while the orchestra showed how largely illusory that was, with Wagner musing, musically, on what kind of energising process the ceremony had really amounted to; and with the re-opening of Amfortas’s wound, rendered in hideously graphic dissonances, the answer seemed to be dismal. And Gurnemanz’s bad temper, a Shakespearean touch, just capped the demonstration of how transient any moments of grace that come our way are likely to be.

The overwhelming effect of this performance was achieved with a cast that was for the most part inadequate, the weakest in the series of Proms Wagner. The hero was taken by Lars Cleveman, who has a serviceable but dry voice, and uses it with little expressive intelligence. Gurnemanz, the work’s largest role, was to have been taken by Robert Holl, but in the event it was Sir John Tomlinson. There is no contemporary singer who has so deep a grasp of the role, who can inflect the marvellous narrations to such thrilling effect, and operate so effectively as a prism for the other characters’ feelings. Alas, he was in poor voice, not surprising given his unstinted generosity over getting on for half a century. That did mean that for lengthy stretches listening was nervous or painful, and the Good Friday Music survived only owing to the transcendent accompaniment. Amfortas was also a replacement, Detlef Roth substituting for Iain Paterson. It’s a role that needs careful handling, if Amfortas isn’t to seem pathetic in the wrong way. The Act I big monologue wasn’t a success, but the weary Act III counterpart came off very well.

The largest flaw in the casting was Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry, one of the least effective I have heard. Vocally overparted, she seemed too concerned to get the notes to have any energy or will for the innumerable fine points of interpretation. The enormous Act II battle of wills, for me the trickiest element in the work, where Wagner’s most audacious harmonic inventions and astounding psychological investigations nonetheless combine to produce a curiously old-fashioned effect, failed to make an impact. The two really distinguished vocal contributions were Tom Fox’s electrifying Klingsor, and Reinhard Hagen’s Titurel, a terrifying cameo. The various choruses and choirs were as fine as the orchestra. With an adequate cast, this would have been a performance for the ages.

I began easing my way from Wagner to Britten by going to Welsh National Opera Youth Opera’s production of Paul Bunyan, the early work that was a flop and withdrawn by the composer until he was encouraged to look at the score in 1974, and consented to its resurrection in a mildly revised form. Done expertly, with a first-rate cast of young actor-singers, as it was in Cardiff, the result was a most enjoyable evening, though one which wisely discouraged much thought. Bunyan is a mixture of musical comedy, meditation on what America might be, an experiment, perhaps, for Auden the librettist and Britten to discover how they felt about the country to which they had fled (but before the second world war, not during it, as the programme stated).

It was produced, cleverly, as being on a TV screen, watched by a young boy in bed, so any questions about datedness were forestalled. It’s an amiable, rambling piece, showing what two ultimate professionals can do when they’re not sure they want to do it. It’s such a team work that mentioning individuals would be unfair: one thing that impressed me was the convincingness of the American accents, surely unique in the annals of UK productions of transatlantic works. I last saw Paul Bunyan 16 years ago. That seems to be about the right gap between encounters with it.

Michael Tanner | 31 August 2013

Financial Times

The series of Wagner operas marking the composer’s bicentenary has been the defining feature of this year’s BBC Proms. The last of the seven was Parsifal, appropriately Wagner’s final opera, and the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder, who have done notable service for Wagner in recent years, came down from Manchester for the event.

Alone of his operas, Parsifal was composed specifically with Wagner’s own theatre at Bayreuth in mind. But if he had been thinking of performances outside Germany, the Royal Albert Hall could hardly be less well suited: the domed concert hall might have been built to house the grail scenes of Parsifal and the choruses sung from the gallery create a magical effect. The various choirs here – the Royal Opera Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir and Hallé Youth Choir – sounded glorious, wrapped in the hall’s acoustic halo.

Altogether, there were so many admirable features that it is a shame this performance as a whole only fitfully took wing. Elder has trained the Hallé to cultivate a distinguished Wagner sound (how lovely the blendings of wind solos were early on) and his care to make sure the singers could always be heard was a big point in his favour. It did not matter that the speeds were sometimes very slow (though they were), but there was a certain deadness throughout, an emotional reticence that shied away from giving voice to the opera’s passions.

It did come alive at times, though – especially when Katarina Dalayman’s exciting Kundry held the stage. Few manage to encompass this character’s sensuality and her wild extremes as comprehensively as Dalayman’s first-class singing did. Nor was a word of Gurnemanz’s long role wasted by senior Wagnerian John Tomlinson, no passive teller of stories, but a positive, engaged player in events, wonderfully truculent and full of life. Lars Cleveman was a rather perfunctory Parsifal, though he sang cleanly enough, and Detlef Roth made an effective Amfortas, whose clear singing of the German text was an important virtue. Tom Fox was the strong, solid Klingsor, Reinhard Hagen an imposing Titurel. As the closing chorus echoed down from the dome, nobody could claim that the Proms had failed to do justice to Wagner in this anniversary year.

Richard Fairman | August 27, 2013

voix-des-arts.com

In the long, complicated history of human endeavor, a conundrum with which many societies and intellectuals have contended is the assessment of the true value of art. From a doggedly practical perspective, art fails modern efficiency standards’ litmus test of tangible value by having no effect on the fit, form, or function of man’s existence: art neither fills the lungs with oxygen nor causes the heart to beat. During the darkest days of World War II, as pragmatic a thinker as Sir Winston Churchill argued that art made the ferocious battle to preserve the British way of life worthwhile, however, recognizing art as a manifestation of humanity’s ascent out of barbarity. Who can view Michelangelo’s Pietà, awed by the serene honesty of its emotion, and not believe at least for a moment that the figures are of flesh rather than of marble? Who can gaze at Ansel Adams’s photographs of the American West and not surrender at least for a moment to an unspoiled communion with nature? Whether the medium is sculpture, still life, sonnet, or song, art is a conduit between man and his nature, and few artists have dedicated themselves as completely to facilitating man’s exploration of his own accomplishments and absurdities as did Richard Wagner. After indelibly altering the development of opera in the Nineteenth Century with scores as revolutionary as the politics of his youth, he crowned his career with Parsifal, an opera that fascinates, confounds, and provokes as potently in 2017 as when it was premièred in 1882 at the second Bayreuther Festspiele. Parsifal exerts no influence on the elementary functions of the universe, but hearing such music as the opera contains can convince even the casual listener that there is meaning in the most mundane mechanics of living.

Like many details of Wagner’s self-propagated mythology, the oft-repeated account of Parsifal’s genesis dating to a sun-drenched Good Friday experienced on the Swiss estate of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck in 1857 is equal parts hyperbole and outright fabrication. Impressed by reading first Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, with which he became acquainted in 1845, and, a decade later, the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner indeed resolved in 1857 to adapt the story of the Arthurian Grail Knight Percival to music, but the notion was set aside until 1865, by which time he had completed Tristan und Isolde and drafted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, operas in which the Celtic and Teutonic origins of the Percival legend and its literary incarnations were also evident. Another quarter-century would pass—and witness the composition of the behemoth Der Ring des Nibelungen and the construction of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus—before Wagner again turned his attention to Parsifal. Completing the libretto and composing the music of Parsifal occupied Wagner for more than two years, from February 1877 until his finalization of Act Three in April 1879. Beginning with the Act One Vorspiel in 1878, fully scoring the opera required another three-and-a-half years. After such a vast gestation, the titanic Bühnenweihfestspiel reached the stage of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus on 26 July 1882, with a cast that included tenor Hermann Winkelmann, soprano Amalie Materna (Brünnhilde in the first complete Bayreuth Ring), and Emil Scaria as Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz. Thus began the continuing narrative of one of Western civilization’s most momentous artistic phenomena.

Saying that the demands made by Parsifal on singers, instrumentalists, and conductors are formidable is an understatement of Wagnerian proportions. When scoring Parsifal, Wagner was cognizant of the opera’s literal and symbolic functions as the summation of his life’s work, and he crafted the work with music of incredible complexity and difficulty. Under the sagaciously-wielded baton of Sir Mark Elder, The Hallé’s musicians attain in the first bars of the Vorspiel that precedes Act One an exalted level of excellence that persists throughout this performance, recorded in concert in Royal Albert Hall during the 2013 BBC Proms. The Hallé’s execution of the diaphanous string writing in the Karfreitagmusik and Verwandlungsmusik shimmers with the ethereal mysticism that the dramatic situations require, and the orchestra’s brass and woodwind players, not least the contrabassoon, elsewhere employed by Wagner only in his lone completed Symphony, deliver their parts with exceptional accuracy. The Hallé’s mastery of Parsifal rivals that of the finest Bayreuth orchestras. Their exemplary work is mirrored by the superb singing of the Trinity Boys Choir, the Hallé Youth Choir, and the Royal Opera Chorus, respectively led by Michael Holiday, Richard Wilberforce, and Renato Balsadonna. Not even the most fervent Wagnerian can deny that Act One of Parsifal is a leviathan of Biblical dimensions, one that outstays its welcome in many performances. Likewise, the opera’s final pages can be lost in a treacly haze. In this Parsifal, Elder, the Hallé, and the combined choruses provide the musical and dramatic clarity, continuity, and propulsion that the score needs in order to achieve all that Wagner intended. With virtually no distracting reminders of the provenance of the recording, this performance mesmerizingly conveys the power and poetry of Parsifal.

Epitomizing the hypnotic vigor of this performance is the ensemble of Blumenmädchen, sopranos Elizabeth Cragg, Anna Devin, Ana James, and Anita Watson and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Castle and Madeleine Shaw. The ladies’ euphonious sounds conjure the seductive atmosphere missing from so many performances of their scene. Shaw is also a Stimme aus der Höhe whose words have ramifications, and she is joined by Castle and tenors Joshua Ellicott and Andrew Rees in the quartet of fresh-voiced Knappen. As the Gralsritter, tenor Robert Murray and bass-baritone Andrew Greenan sing handsomely, their exchanges with Gurnemanz and the Knappen phrased with alert handling of the text. In generations past, one could hear voices of the caliber of those of Montserrat Caballé, Hilde Güden, Gundula Janowitz, James McCracken, Kurt Moll, and Kostas Paskalis as Blumenmädchen, Knappen, and Gralsritter in performances of Parsifal. The casting of these parts in this performance recalls those bygone days of Wagner singing.

Further expanding the vocal distinction of this performance is the unexaggerated, truly sung Klingsor of American baritone Tom Fox. Parsifal’s villain is portrayed in many performances as a wheezing caricature with little dramatic impetus—and often with very cavalier approaches to intonation. As sung by Fox in this performance, however, Klingsor is a reptilian conniver who wields vocalism as entrancing as his sorcery. From his first ‘Die Zeit is da,’ Fox traverses Klingsor’s music with focused, flinty tone. When he summons Kundry with ‘Dein Meister ruft dich Namenlose, Urteufelin, Höllenrose,’ the injury of the girl’s shame strikes at the listener’s heart. Fox finds nuances in ‘Furchtbare Not! So lacht nun der Teufel mein, dass einst ich nach dem Heiligen rang?’ that few Klingsors bother to seek, and he declaims ‘Seine Wunde trägt jeder nach heim! Wie das ich euch gönne!’ electrifyingly without bawling. There are suggestions of the defeated but defiant Wotan in Fox’s singing of ‘Halt da! Dich bann’ ich mit der rechten Wehr! Den Toren stelle mir seines Meisters Speer!’ Fox lends Klingsor the intrigue of a fallen and not merely an evil man, and this interpretive imagination allied with his secure vocalism makes him one of the most engaging Klingsors on disc.

German bass Reinhard Hagen—an aptly-named Wagnerian—is a Titurel who evinces the character’s suffering without inflicting it upon the listener with pained, ugly singing. The sorrow, frustration, and exhaustion that shape Hagen’s singing of ‘Mein Sohn Amfortas, bist du am Amt?’ are derived not from the singer’s vocal production but from the text, and the dignity at the heart of the bass’s delivery of ‘Im Grabe leb’ich durch des Heilands Huld’ adds a measure of distinction to his portrayal of a man who is all too often depicted as a whining cipher. Titurel has as much about which to complain as any character in opera, but most winsome is the Titurel whose tribulations are expressed not in ranting but in song, as Hagen exhibits in this performance. When his voice resounds with ‘Oh, heilige Wonne! Wie hell grüsst uns heute der Herr!’ on this recording, Titurel initiates a prolonged catharsis via which the opera’s agonies are ultimately relieved. Like Fox’s Klingsor, Hagen’s Titurel is an atypically detailed characterization that benefits from uncommonly solid singing.

Prior to this BBC Proms performance, Freudenstadt-born baritone Detlef Roth’s Amfortas was heard in five consecutive Bayreuth seasons, an achievement that places him in the company of George London, Thomas Stewart, and Bernd Weikl among the Festspiele’s longest-serving exponents of the part. His singing on these discs confirms that Roth’s Amfortas was as comfortable in Kensington as on the Green Hill. In Act One, Roth sings ‘Recht so! Habt Dank! Ein wenig Rast’ nobly, and the suggestiveness of his ‘Du, Kundry? Muss ich dir nochmals danken, du rastlos scheue Magd?’ intensifies the significance of the relationships among Kundry and the other players in Parsifal’s drama. The baritone gives both ‘Wehe! Wehe mir der Qual! Mein Vater, oh! noch einmal verrichte du das Amt!’ and ‘Des Weihgefässes göttlicher Gehalt erglüht mit leuchtender Gewalt’ the histrionic force that these passages lack in many performances, but the timbre often seems at odds with the music: when brawn is wanted, suavity is supplied. Roth’s Amfortas is an active participant instead of a ceremonial observer in Act Three, his statement of ‘Mein Vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!’ voiced with awe and assurance. The sincerity of this Amfortas’s query of ‘Wer will mich zwingen zu leben, könnt ihr doch Tod mir nur geben?’ markedly enhances the emotional impact of the opera’s final scene. Even in the context of a recording of a concert performance, Roth’s ingratiating singing impressively creates and maintains genuine dramatic presence, but the ears often crave a more robust sound.

There is no question that Sir John Tomlinson is among England’s most distinguished Wagnerians. His portrayal of Hunding in Die Walküre remains remarkable for the menace that the bass conveyed without shouting, and he was the rare König Marke in Tristan und Isolde whose heartbreak was as palpable as his ire. Tomlinson sang Titurel powerfully in Daniel Barenboim’s studio recording of Parsifal and engrossingly depicted Gurnemanz in the 1993 Berlin production, also conducted by Barenboim, that was released on Laser Disc and VHS. Twenty-two years later, the intelligence and insightfulness of his interpretation of Gurnemanz are undiminished, but the intervening decades have exacted an unmistakable toll on the voice. Tones in the middle of the generally range retain the orotundity familiar from the best years of Tomlinson’s career, but resonance is lost below the stave. Pitches are almost always accurate, but notes above B♭3 wobble. The long narration with which Gurnemanz opens Act One is a fearsome test of both a singer’s stamina and his ability to sustain dramatic momentum in music of relative stasis. His first notes in ‘He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr, Schlafhüter mitsammen, so wacht doch mindest am Morgen!’ introduce Gurnemanz as a man of unyielding seriousness of purpose, and Tomlinson enunciates ‘Er naht: sie bringen ihn getragen’ and ‘Ich wähne, ist dies Schaden, so tät’ er euch gut geraten’ with appropriate gravitas. The very different demands of ‘Oh, wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer! Ich sah dich schwingen von unheiligster Hand!’ and ‘Titurel, der fromme Held, der kannt’ ihn wohl’ are met with the understanding that comes only from long acquaintance with the music, and the bass elucidates the mysticism with which Wagner inundated ‘Deine Mutter, der du entlaufen, und die um dich sich nun härmt und grämt.’

Absent from Act Two, Gurnemanz returns in Act Three, wearied by age and calamity, to guide Parsifal to the resolution for which he has hoped. The weight of the years that separate Parsifal’s first appearance from his return to the Domain of the Grail is heard in Gurnemanz’s voice as he sings ‘Von dorther kam das Stöhnen,’ and the immediacy of this Gurnemanz’s utterance of ‘Wie anders schreitet sie als sonst!’ reminds the listener of the human elements of the drama’s metaphysical stakes. ‘So kennst auch du mich noch? Erkennst mich wieder, den Gram und Not so tief gebeugt?’ seems to issue from both the soul and the throat. Tomlinson’s singing of ‘O Gnade! Höchstes Heil! O Wunder! Heilig hehrstes Wunder!’ is deeply moving, the effort in the vocal projection reflecting the character’s long perseverance. With ‘So ward es uns verhiessen, so segne ich dein Haupt, als König dich zu grüssen,’ the bass makes palpable Gurnemanz’s realization that an end to the misery that has surrounded him for so long is nigh. The solemnity of Tomlinson’s voicing of ‘Mittag: Die Stund’ ist da: gestatte Herr, dass dich dein Knecht geleite’ discloses the breadth of the character’s faith. There are flaws in Tomlinson’s singing that, assessed individually, undermine his musical portrait of Gurnemanz. They cannot be ignored or said not to matter, but they are easily forgiven when the cumulative performance is so memorable. Gurnemanz sometimes becomes a curmudgeon who prattles on beyond the boundaries of audiences’ attention spans, but Tomlinson is here a Gurnemanz whose cautionary tales are the lifeblood of a timely parable.

Recently a riveting Fricka in Stockholm’s Ring des Nibelungen, Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman enriches this recording of Parsifal with a Kundry of psychological subtlety and vocal security, one who, complementing Fox’s Klingsor, is refreshingly free of shrieking and silliness. The Kundrys of Kirsten Flagstad, sadly reaching modern ears in complete form through sonic murk, and Maria Callas, whose interpretation of this part that she sang only five times is preserved solely in a RAI concert performance that was sung in Italian, are very different, but there are reminders of both in Dalayman’s London performance. Neither Flagstad’s tonal amplitude nor Callas’s dramatic incisiveness is a natural component of Dalayman’s artistry, but her Kundry is all the more remarkable for rivaling much of what Flagstad and Callas respectively achieved with more voice and more ferocity. In Act One, Dalayman’s Kundry is less insinuating than guardedly introverted, each word seemingly considered before it is uttered. Her ‘Von weiter her als du denken kannst. Hilft der Balsam nicht, Arabia birgt dann nichts mehr zu seinem Heil’ is the pronouncement of a troubled woman, not a treacherous temptress, and the ardor with which she asserts ‘Ich helfe nie’ transcends the all-purpose malevolence in which many singers cloak Kundry. Dalayman phrases ‘Den Vaterlosen gebar die Mutter, als im Kampf erschlagen Gamure’ with vehemence rather than venom.

The contrast between the Kundry of Act One and the woman who hurtles into Act Two is particularly arresting in this performance. Here, too, Dalayman has obviously devoted great thought to her rôle, eschewing the snarling and sneering that are sometimes substituted for interpreting Kundry. The soprano’s stinging ‘Ach! Ach! Tiefe Nacht…’ unleashes in four words the essence of the character, the battle against the fate to which her actions condemned her awakening an animalistic brutality aimed as much at herself as at either Klingsor or Parsifal. The fervor of Dalayman’s account of ‘Oh, ewiger Schlaf, einziges Heil, wie, wie dich gewinnen?’ is heightened by the beauty of her tone. Confronting Parsifal, equally her tormentor and her deliverer, this Kundry launches ‘Hier weile, Parsifal! Dich grüsset Wonne und Heil zumal’ with sure aim. The phenomenal condition of Dalayman’s voice throughout the performance is epitomized by the spectacular top B with which she recalls Kundry’s ridicule of the dying Christ. Reduced in Act Three to cries of ‘Dienen… Dienen…,’ this indomitable woman is nevertheless far more than an apparition on the fringes of the male-dominated society. As depicted by Dalayman in this performance, Kundry claims her rightful place in the lineage of Wagner’s redemptive heroines extending from Senta to Brünnhilde, donning the mantle of a tragic heroine. Joining her Brünnhildes in recorded concert performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung with the Hallé and Elder, Dalayman’s Kundry in this recording is a compelling impersonation by one of today’s most probing Wagnerians of one of Wagner’s most enigmatic characters.

On records and on stage, Parsifal’s music has been sung by a remarkably broad array of voices, ranging from the bronzed sounds of Lauritz Melchior to the pewter-hued effusions of Jon Vickers and the Mediterranean timbre of Plácido Domingo. An impressive Siegfried in the same Stockholm Ring in which Dalayman portrayed the character’s imperious step-grandmother, as well in the Hallé’s Götterdämmerung, Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman is as recorded here a Parsifal whose voice occupies a position near the center of that spectrum. His is a reasonably youthful but muscular sound, and the steadiness of his singing throughout the range and at all levels of dynamics earns appreciation. The bravado of the good-natured but largely doltish Parsifal of Act One rings in Cleveman’s traversals of ‘Gewiss! Im Fluge treff’ ich, was fliegt!’ and ‘Ja! Und einst am Waldessaume vorbei, auf schönen Tieren sitzend, kamen glänzende Männer,’ his demeanor casual but committed. He sings ‘Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit’ boyishly. Like his Kundry, this Parsifal is transformed in Act Two into an altogether different figure. Cleveman communicates the shifting sentiments of ‘Noch nie sah ich solch zieres Geschlecht’ and ‘Ihr wild holdes Blumengedränge, soll ich mit euch spielen, entlasst mich der Enge!’ with pointed diction, and the raw virility of his voicing of ‘Nie sah ich, nie träumte mir, was jetzt ich schau’, und was mit Bangen mich erfüllt’ is exhilarating and illuminating. The zeal with which he sings ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde! Sie brennt in meinem Herzen’ and ‘Auf Ewigkeit wärst du verdammt mit mir für eine Stunde’ adds a facet of virility to his portrayal, increasing Parsifal’s credibility as a Romantic—if not a romantic—hero.

The passive, puerile Parsifal of Act One is metamorphosed by Cleveman into a man of action in Act Three, the tenor’s sinewy singing of ‘Heil mir, dass ich dich wieder finde!’ followed by a steely but expressive ‘Zu ihm, des’ tiefe Klagen ich törig staunend einst vernahm.’ Addressing Kundry with an imaginatively-phrased ‘Du wuschest mir die Füsse, nun netze mir das Haupt der Freund,’ his comportment is softened by tenderness. Matured by experience, this Parsifal voices ‘O wehe, des höchsten Schmerzentags!’ and ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt: die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug’ with personal consequence. The character’s exclamation of ‘Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!’ can seem artificial and slightly foolish, but Cleveman’s delivery grants it credence. Like Siegfried in the Ring, Parsifal can annoy when his man-child mannerisms are overemphasized, but Cleveman fashions a sensible balance between exuberance and sobriety. Most importantly in this gargantuan rôle, he sings attractively and with adequate reserves of hardiness for climaxes.

Since the opera’s first performance in 1882, Parsifal’s merits have been heatedly debated, some listeners perceiving in the score a deterioration of Wagner’s abilities and others deeming it the most perfect product of the composer’s genius. An objective analysis of the score would likely yield an opinion that neither wholly substantiates nor refutes either extremity, but objectivity is not among the earnest Wagnerian’s traits. For that matter, Parsifal is not conducive to compromise, the qualities that define it making it anything but a ‘take it or leave it’ opera. Whether individual listeners love or loathe it, Parsifal’s success in performance depends upon the same factors that allow works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini to sink or soar: cogent conducting, playing, and singing. With all of these factors to its credit, this is a Parsifal that soars.

Joseph Newsome | 03 July 2017

MusicWeb-International.com (I)

It’s satisfying to see the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder maintaining its long tradition of performing Wagner, one that stretches back to the time of its principal conductor Hans Richter (1843-1916), who was a Bayreuth veteran.

In the year that Elder, a stalwart Wagnerian, turns seventy, it’s fitting that the Hallé has released a concert performance of Wagner’s music drama Parsifal, recorded live at the BBC Proms in 2013. Elder has been presiding over the Hallé’s Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, concert Ring cycle with own label releases of Gotterdammerung and Die Walküre performed back in 2009 and 2011 respectively. A Das Rheingold given in 2016 is yet to be released and a concert staging of Siegfried is scheduled for 2018. Though clearly not to everyone’s taste and a matter of some controversy, performances of operas have a place in concert halls, though this is more especially so in the case of works that would otherwise not be performed.

Wagner’s final and most enigmatic score, Parsifal, was written specifically for the Festspielhaus, his self-designed festival opera house at Bayreuth. Based on the Parsifal legend and the knights of the Holy Grail, the primary source for the composer’s own libretto is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic medieval poem Parzival, though he applied his own wide ranging personal philosophy to the ancient narrative. Wagner termed Parsifal a Bühnenweihfestspiel (stage consecration festival play), an apt description as an atmosphere of sacred devotion lays heavily over the work. Countless opinions have been given about the core message contained in the controversial score to Parsifal. I was interested to hear the viewpoint of stage director Uwe Eric Laufenberg who gave a new production of Parsifal at the 2016 Bayreuth Festival, “This piece basically focuses on the religion of Christianity. On one hand, the grail knights in ‘Parsifal’ inhabit a realm of charity, empathy and sympathy, and they come to the aid of the needy. Then there’s the other side: a crucified God, blood rituals and military symbolism. I believe that Wagner wanted to bring out the factors of benevolence and mystery in this work. Not to openly criticize religion, but to enable one to experience it.” To me Parsifal is about enlightenment through compassion as the way to find eternal redemption, a concept that comes through in the finest performances.

Parsifal, a young knight, is sung by tenor Lars Cleveman, who has sung at the Bayreuth Festival. With his delightful ringing tone he gives a fine performance, although ideally I would require a more heroic-sounding tenor. In my mind’s eye, I can’t help thinking back to Stuart Skelton’s shining performance in the role for ENO in 2011. Following the withdrawal of Robert Holl, the part of elderly Knight of the Grail Gurnemanz is taken by Sir John Tomlinson, a seasoned Wagnerian. Defying the years, Tomlinson (then approaching his seventies), is extremely comfortable in this demanding role, which he knows well. Striking are the range of nuances he can produce vocally. Thankfully, his heavy vibrato never intrudes too much. It’s a shame we can’t see Tomlinson’s considerable acting prowess, although we gain some dramatic sense of it vocally, especially of the wizened and dejected knight in act three.

An experienced Wagnerian, Katarina Dalayman (soprano) knows well the Magdalen role of the wild woman Kundry and is dramatically first-rate in her emotional extremes. Here extremely attractive voice has a creamy tone in her low to mid register, but I do find her uppermost reaches slightly uncomfortable and bordering on the indistinct. Excelling as a suitably tormented Amfortas, ruler of the Grail Kingdom, Detlef Roth, a late replacement for Iain Paterson, first sang the role at Bayreuth – one of a number of his Wagner roles. Singing resolutely, expertly articulating the text, Roth’s baritone has both clarity and colour, together with a noticeable but unobtrusive vibrato. As the villainous sorcerer Klingsor, baritone Tom Fox is in fine, durable voice, being clear and expressive. Bass Reinhard Hagen satisfies in the role of Titurel, the father of Amfortas, bringing a dark tone that resonates splendidly.

Employing some of the spatial possibilities of the Albert Hall, the Trinity Boys Choir and Hallé Youth Choir are positioned high up in the gallery together with some brass players. The Royal Opera Chorus is down on the stage with the orchestra. These are creditable performances all round from the unified choruses, adding greatly to the success of the performance. Elder directs proficiently and with assurance, though his choice of speeds is generally too slow for my taste and at times the performance feels a touch laboured. Some have suggested that Elder may have been modelling his performance on the measured tempi of the late Sir Reginald Goodall.

A press release to the album explains that the remastered sound, taken from multitrack recordings of the Albert Hall performance and rehearsals, has been edited to remove audience noise and remixed. I have no problem with the sound quality, which is first-rate, clear and well balanced. At the conclusion of the performance, the audience applause and cheers have been left in. Disappointingly neither sung texts nor any essay about the work itself are provided in the booklet: However, there is a helpful synopsis and a tracking listing which curiously omits to identify the role(s) singing. The notes state that the libretto and English translation can be downloaded free from the Halle website. Invaluable is my copy of the original Parsifal text and English translation published by G. Schirmer.

The recording of Parsifal that I have the most affinity for is the classic live 1962 Bayreuth Festival account of distinction conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch with George London (Amfortas), Martti Talvela (Titurel), Hans Hotter (Gurnemanz), Jess Thomas (Parsifal), Gustav Neidlinger (Klingsor) and Irene Dalis (Kundry), released on Philips – see review by Tony Duggan. This Hallé recording of Parsifal under Sir Mark Elder doesn’t quite have the distinction to place it alongside the haunting and profoundly spiritual Knappertsbusch account but it’s a fine achievement, a credit to all concerned.

Michael Cookson

MusicWeb-International.com (II)

Although before 1973 all the recordings of Parsifal in the catalogues came directly from live performances, these were also all compendia drawn from a number of different takes made over the course of several evenings and edited together. To issue on CD a complete performance of the work, deriving entirely from one single concert performance, without any opportunities for editing or patches, might seem like a recipe for disaster in the case of an extended score like Parsifal¸ and that it succeeds in a performance like this is in itself a major cause for congratulation, even when some individual elements call for adverse comment. In the first place, the audience is commendably silent, far less obtrusive than the Bayreuth coughers in Knappersbusch’s 1962 recording for example (where one offender actually interrupts the final bar of Act Two, completely ruining the effect of the timpani diminuendo). But that, of course, is what we expect at the Proms most of the time. Secondly, the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall lends itself to the Temple of the Grail more naturally than any studio or opera house, even the Bayreuth Festival Theatre. The choirs, with a strong admixture of boys’ voices, sound exactly right in their disembodied and distant delivery than the unsteadily feminine opera choruses, which sometimes introduce a female element in Montsalvat’s supposedly all-male environment (but then where did the Grail Knights recruit their boys from?). Thirdly, every effort is made to accommodate the effects that Wagner asks for – less demanding than in the Ring, but nonetheless important – even the thunder indicated in the score at the moment of the earthquake at the end of Act Two, exactly as Wagner specifies and as so many performances simply omit or relegate to the background (CD3, track 13). And best of all, bells in the right octave, something which even conductors keen to point out the manner, in which they adhere to the instructions in Wagner’s score persist in getting wrong. I am not sure what sort of bells are used here – they do not sound like the electronic ones employed at Bayreuth and on Goodall’s studio recording during the period 1975-85 or so – but they have the proper deep tone although perhaps they could have been more forward in the orchestral mix (as indeed they are during the funeral march in Act Three, CD4 track 12).

Indeed it is the internal balance of the sound, which raises the most immediate queries with this issue. Sir Mark Elder gets a pretty well ideal balance internally within the orchestra (one might have liked slightly more string tone in the opening prelude to Act Two), but the BBC engineers have clearly opted to keep their microphones quite close to the solo singing voices – not to the extent of providing a false balance against the orchestra, since the give-and-take is generally excellently managed – but at a cost in the loss of the ideal resonance on the tone of the individual singers. This might not be so serious a problem, were the solo singers able to withstand such close observation, but although the Flower Maidens and those taking minor roles – the Knights and the Squires – leave little to be desired, unfortunately many of the principal singers fall short in various different degrees and ways.

Wieland Wagner once observed that in Parsifal his grandfather had shown himself to be more sympathetic to the problems of singers than in his other mature music dramas, but that by no means implies that the roles are any less problematic to cast. The longest single part, that of Gurnemanz, is often undertaken by retired Wotans, who one would imagine would have become accustomed to pacing themselves through the course of a long evening; but here the distinguished ex-King of the Gods Sir John Tomlinson, responsive as he is to every nuance of the text and action, simply no longer can command the steadiness of tone that the upper reaches of the role demand. Towards the end of the evening, indeed, it appears that his conductor, in a rare lapse of judgement, allows himself to accelerate the speed of the final peroration in the Good Friday music, clearly seeking to minimise the vocal difficulties, which Tomlinson is experiencing. Two of the other principals also give evidence of problems with steadiness or pitching; Lars Cleveman in the title role at times allows himself to sit on the flat side of notes, distressingly so in places during his final Nur eine Waffe taugt (CD4, track 14), where again tiredness may have been a factor at the end of a long evening. On the other hand Detlef Roth lacks the sense of baritonal depth which the singer of Amfortas should ideally command, and pushes himself sharp in the opening of his Act One lament (CD2, track 5), although he avoids the sense of strain that can enter into deeper voices during the high-lying closing stages of this passage. Tom Fox as Klingsor has plenty of solid tone at his command, but he fails to make much of the character. Admittedly Wagner gives him a limited amount to work with, but moments of introspection like Furchtbäre Noth! (CD3, track 3) pass without the sense of inner reflection that other singers can summon here. The firm-toned Reinhard Hagen as Titurel simply sounds too young and too healthy, and Wagner’s instruction that his voice should resonate “as if from within a tomb” does not appear to have troubled the BBC engineers too much. Of the solo singers the most impressive is Katarina Dalayman as Kundry, a role that over the years has caused immeasurable difficulties for sopranos – to the extent that Karajan in the theatre actually assigned the part to two different individual singers in Act One and Act Two. For some thirty years the ideal exponent of the “wild woman” was Waltraud Meier, a mezzo-soprano with rock-solid upper reaches to her voice; she was preceded by Christa Ludwig, who had a similar kind of approach but sung the role all too rarely. But in general I have preferred the sound of a soprano who can command the lower passages and at the same rise to the climax of Ich sah’ das Kind (CD 3, track 8) as the best-fitted kind of voice – a sort of Brünnhilde, in fact, as Dalayman is. Her guttural utterances at the beginning of Act Two don’t come across too solidly here (probably the lack of the stage dimension) but otherwise she comes close to the ideal, and for once she justifies the interpolation of a high B-flat at the end of her curse (CD3, track 13).

Nonetheless it must be observed that despite a superlative overall performance, it is the contributions of the chorus and orchestra under the inspired direction of Sir Mark Elder, which remain the touchstone of the excellence in this concert performance. I have observed with approval in the past Sir Mark’s willingness to allow a composer’s directions for extremely slow tempos to make their full effect – for example, in Elgar’s The Apostles – and although Wagner eschewed the use of metronome marks in his later scores, the pacing allows the long pauses and pregnant ritardandi to make their full effect – for example, in the transition to the voices in the dome at the beginning of the Temple Scene of Act One (CD2, track 4). Elder’s conducting is definitely in the honourable tradition of Goodall rather than Boulez (I think of the Goodall live performance from Covent Garden, now on CD, rather than his studio recording with Welsh National Opera), and is all the more effective for that. He never allows himself, as some conductors in the ‘Goodall tradition’ have done, to equate simple slowness with profundity, but allocates full weight to the orchestral sound as required – and his players respond to him magnificently.

The cover of the set gives due credit to the Hallé and Elder without mentioning the singers, as indeed would seem to be appropriate, given my reservations expressed earlier. But the performance, despite those reservations and the unflattering balance given to the voices by the BBC engineers, remains one which one would be extremely happy to encounter live, when incidental flaws could be easily forgiven in the heat of the moment. Whether the listener could tolerate the waywardness of some of the vocal pitching on repeated hearings is a matter for the individual listener to decide, and those anxious to hear these particular voices will need no recommendation to purchase this set. The booklet indicates that texts and translations are available on line, but the synopsis provided by Barry Millington perpetrates one slip, when it describes Gurnemanz as an “elderly squire” instructing “two young knights” rather than the other way about (oddly enough the German and French translations get it right); and the outline fails to explain the reason for Klingsor’s hatred of the Grail Knights in his original desire for holiness. Nonetheless the cheers of the audience at the end find a ready echo in this listener, even though when I want to spend an evening in the company of Parsifal ,I will probably turn to the Bayreuth DVD conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, which I reviewed with such enthusiasm a couple of years ago. Archiv currently lists 53 alternative recordings (some of which are duplicates of each other), so we are hardly spoilt for distinct choices, among which can be found further performances by Dalayman, Fox and Tomlinson.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Rating
(5/10)
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Media Type/Label
Hallé Concerts Society, Premiere, PO
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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 592 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
Broadcast (BBC)
Concert performance from the BBC Proms (#57)