Jaap van Zweden
State Male Choir ‘Latvija’
Groot Omroepkoor
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest
11 December 2010
Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasFalk Struckmann
TiturelAnte Jerkunica
GurnemanzRobert Holl
ParsifalKlaus Florian Vogt
KlingsorKrister St. Hill
KundryKatarina Dalayman
GralsritterBrendan Gunnell
Thilo Dahlmann
Stage director
Set designer
TV director

Remember when recordings of Parsifal were rare? There were a handful of Knas, then Solti, Barenboim, Karajan, and Kubelik. Now every Tom, Dick, Gergiev, and Zweden are throwing their hats into the ring. Gergiev’s, released last year, was stunning–full of both anguish and ecstasy–and for the most part was very well cast, with an outstanding René Pape as Gurnemanz. This new set, from Challenge Classics, a concert performance from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam recorded in December, 2010, is one to reckon with as well, but in a very different way and with one central problem. It’s obvious that conductor Jaap van Zweden has consciously opted to play down the story’s pomp and stress the piety. He does not make the climaxes swell in a way that reach the theatricality that Gergiev and Kubelik bring to the opera. It is not a lack of impetus that causes this; his tempos are wisely judged, on the quick side (the whole opera takes about four hours and five minutes), and each scene melds properly into the next. We get playing of amazing warmth–a soothing bath of sound that implies godliness, devotion, and tranquility. The choirs are otherworldly and the orchestra plays beautifully.

This Parsifal never gets too loud; it may just be the most lyrically spotless, smoothest reading the opera has ever had. String playing shimmers at all times and the winds breathe. The Transformation and Grail Hall scenes are given gravity by their weight and noticeably slower tempos rather than by the Godunov-like bells we normally hear: you practically feel the weariness; you fear the exhaustion of the repetition of the Rite.

This more intimate approach, if it can be called that, is clear in Zweden’s choice for the title role. I was crazy about Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin (on Opus Arte video, under Kent Nagano) even though he had, I thought, a Tamino voice. But Lohengrin is not Parsifal, where phrasing and simple beauty can make up for stature. So light is his tone that his entrance in the first act goes virtually unnoticed; suddenly it sounded as if one of the knights or squires was singing Parsifal’s music. I assumed he would eventually put more weight into the voice as Parsifal the innocent became Parsifal the knowing–perhaps at the situation-changing Kiss in Act 2–but I was wrong.

He sounds overwhelmed by Kundry in Act 2 and, sorry to say, almost silly at the opera’s close, where suddenly some kid becomes a leader. It seems almost arbitrary. Not everyone has to be Vickers, but neither Jerusalem nor Kollo had large voices and they still have the desired effect. Vogt’s tone and phrasing may be lovely, musical, and intelligent but they aren’t right for Parsifal.

The Gurnemanz of Robert Holl, heavier and older-sounding than Pape’s for Gergiev, is a wonder of wisdom and insights; he breathes the role in a long arc and we hang on his every utterance. He’s entirely persuasive and doesn’t sound as if he’s trying. Katarina Dalayman goes from truly seductive to crazy-wild in Act 2; her Kundry is a towering performance. Falk Struckmann’s Amfortas is a truly damaged soul, his anguish the work of a truly great singing actor. I’m not certain about Ante Jerkunica’s Titurel; it seems a bit youngish-sounding to me. The closest Zweden comes to whipping the orchestra into a frenzy is at the opening of Act 2–no piety here–but Krister St. Hill does not reach the evil, loony heights of the best Klingsors. The Flower Maidens, singing at quite a clip, sound wonderful.

And so this is almost an alternate view of Parsifal–not exactly light (that would be impossible), but reserved and dutiful. The sound is similarly warm and spacious. For sheer beauty it is miraculous, but there is no way to explain a Parsifal with such little vocal heft or depth, regardless of artistry.

The boxed set, with German-only libretto, includes an 81-minute DVD of excerpts from the concert performance. It’s a good bonus. But to hear the opera with its desired effect, the Kubelik is still a first choice unless you’re devoted to Kna’s 1962 Philips recording, with Hotter as Gurnemanz, Neidlinger as a terrifying Klingsor, and Jess Thomas in the title role.

Artistic Quality: 7
Sound Quality: 10

Robert Levine | 10/10/2011

The Guardian

Valery Gergiev’s recording of Parsifal, taken from concert performances in St Petersburg, was one of last year’s outstanding new releases, and was the first version in years to stand comparison with the recordings from the middle decades of the 20th century. Now, extraordinarily, another equally fine alternative comes along. As with Gergiev’s, there are shortcomings to Jaap van Zweden’s performance, which was recorded in concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam last December (though inexplicably that date is not included in the sleeve notes), but they are more than outweighed by its virtues.

Van Zweden’s conducting takes pride of place; on this evidence he is a remarkable Wagnerian, obtaining playing from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic of great transparency and expressive warmth, and shaping the arcing paragraphs of the music drama with total certainty. It provides the perfect platform for Robert Holl’s outstanding performance as Gurnemanz, even more eloquent and beautifully shaped than René Pape’s for Gergiev, if that’s possible, and making every word of his narration totally compelling. With a Kundry from Katarina Dalayman that is, for once, genuinely seductive, it’s only Klaus Florian Vogt’s performance in the title role that disappoints. His singing is always a model of good taste, but while his rather bland, bleached tone is ideal for the holy fool of the first act, there’s no sense of his development, acquiring the experience to be the leader of the Grail Knights in the final scene. The set is still, though, a wonderful achievement.

Andrew Clements | 18 August 2011

Parsifal on SACD – ears prick up! This recording has many virtues, not least of which is the sound quality, which is very fine indeed. It is a great performance too, not perfect, but what Wagner recording ever is? It is well cast, well paced, and imparts a real sense of theatrical drama, despite being taken from a live concert recording. 

The event it records was a concert performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in December 2010. As well as the four hybrid SACDs, the box also contains a DVD of highlights from the event. From a musical point of view, the DVD suffers from the bleeding chunks syndrome – just as you’re getting into the music it stops and cuts to something else – but video does give an idea of the sheer visual splendour of the hall. It also shows that this was strictly a concert performance, with no “semi-staged” element. The size of the choir can come as a surprise on the audio recording (there are more Flower-maidens than I’ve ever heard before), but the sound of the ensemble makes more sense when you can see them all lined up on the stage.

  Before listing the recording’s many merits, there are two issues which I suspect are going to make it contentious. The first is Jaap van Zweden’s interpretation, which could best be described as matter-of-fact. Better that, I suppose, than going too far the other way, but this is a no-nonsense reading, with strict tempos and very few indulgences in the phrase shaping. Just listening to the first pages of the Prelude gives you an idea of what is to come. Zweden imparts solemnity to the music through his rigorous tempi, but with at a cost to the music’s emotional engagement. This is more of an issue in some places than others. The Flower-maidens’ music and the quiet opening of act three feel far too rigid, at least to me, while the Grail ritual at the end of act one and the dramatic conclusion to act two both come off better.

  The other major sticking point is the number of slips in the orchestral playing. No recording dates are given in the liner, but these localised problems suggest that, unusually, the recording was made at a single event, rather than the more usual two or three plus patch session. If so, that is perhaps to be lauded from the point of view of the coherency of the result. But Parsifal is a work with a long history of note-perfect recordings, so the splits and wrong notes from the orchestra really do stand out. In fairness, there aren’t all that many of them, perhaps ten in the whole opera. The woodwind and brass are the culprits. The brass also struggle at times to play together. And the vibrato on the first horn solos isn’t to my taste, although I suspect that is a trademark of Dutch orchestras.

  But those provisos apart, everything else on this recording is excellent. The casting is based on the principle that if you have world-class singers in the roles of Parsifal and Gurnemanz, everything else will fall into place. Klaus Florian Vogt and Robert Holl both have enviable reputations as leading Wagnerians, and their performances here are as good as any Wagner recording either has made before. Vogt has an instantly recognisable tone, intimate and sometimes narrow, but always with enough penetration to carry over the orchestra. Holl has all the vocal authority he needs for Gurnemanz, with plenty of support for the lower notes and impressive clarity of diction throughout.

  The rest of the cast is a wrung below these world-class talents, but still delivers the goods. The best of them is Krister St. Hill, whose Klingsor is among the most sinister on record, but whose icy clarity of tone is curiously seductive. Not being a big fan of heavy vibrato, I found Falk Struckmann’s Amfortas and Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry both a little wobbly, but in all other respects they are both ideal for their roles. Ante Jerkunica sounds appropriately distant and drained as Titurel. His pitching sometimes veers towards the approximate, but again it is a performance that is ideal for the dramatic context.

  The sound quality is excellent, and anybody who has heard the recent Concertbegouw Orchestra recordings on their own label will know how well the hall responds to SACD reproduction. There is a curious paradox here, in that the hall’s acoustic is so well represented that it is immediately clear that we are not in an opera house. Perhaps the hall is a little too resonant for the singers, although it is absolutely ideal for the orchestra, but whichever way, the sheer sense of atmosphere that it imparts is very seductive.

  The release draws inevitable comparisons with Gergiev’s offering with the Mariinsky last year. Both are SACD recordings of concert performances of Parsifal. The comparisons go further still, in that both Zweden and Gergiev conduct the work in idiosyncratic ways. Both come from outside of the core German tradition, which may be the reason. Like the Gergiev recording, this one isn’t going to be for everybody. Personally, I prefer Zweden’s interpretation, I prefer his cast too. But they both have their merits, so any Wagner fans who are feeling flush will be buying both. 

Gavin Dixon

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
720×406, 1.5 Mbit/s, 3.6 GByte (MPEG-4)
Concert performance
Also available as audio recording