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Friday, April 6, 2012

Recordings Guide: Time Becomes Space

A Guide to Parsifal recordings.
by Paul Pelkonen
Act III of Parsifal from Bayreuth 1971. 
Franz Crass (standing), James King (seated) Gwyneth Jones (kneeling)
Wagner's final opera (or as he dubbed it: "stage consecrating festival drama")  was written for the unique acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theater designed and built by Wagner In 1876 for the first performances of the Ring.

With a libretto concerned with sin, suffering self-denial and salvation, (not to mention a final act that takes place on Good Friday) Parsifal finds its way into a lot of CD players and iPods this time of year. Here's a quick guide to the best of the many recordings in the catalogue. And yes, three of them are from Bayreuth.

Bayreuth Festival 1951, 1962 cond. Hans Knappertsbusch
"Kna" was one of the greatest Wagner conductors of the 20th century, with a special affinity for this opera. From the depths of the Bayreuth pit, he lent the music a majestic weight, power and sense of pacing. There are two commercially available recordings, the mono 1951 set on Teldec, and the stereo 1962 set on Philips. Both have well-deserved legendary status, but the Philips set has better sound, despite the audible coughing in the audience.

Bayreuth Festival 1971 cond. Pierre Boulez
Boulez conducts the fastest Parsifal on record, getting the opera in at three and a half hours. He has an excellent cast, with James King, Franz Crass and Gwyneth Jones (on a good night) giving stellar performances. This is a delicate performance, with transparent textures that offer a whole new way of listening to the score.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik 1980
Shelved by Deutsche Grammophon in favor of the award-winning (but overrated) Berlin set conducted by Herbert von Karajan, this is the hidden gem among Parsifal recordings.

The Czech conductor is blessed with a strong cast, headed by James King (again) and Kurt Moll. This conductor has a unique understanding of the opera, and it is a shame that this brilliant set languished in the vaults for 23 years.

Bayreuth Festival 1985 cond. James Levine
James Levine has recorded Parsifal twice. This live set from Bayreuth (recorded in 1985) is the better one, and features Waltraud Meier's earliest appearances as Kundry, the role that has come to define her career. (She's recorded the role four times and appears in four live videos of the opera.)

Levine adopted ultra-slow speeds and an ultra-romantic interpretation of the score, chosen by the conductor to clash with the controversial staging by Götz Friedrich. Currently available as part of a large Wagner box set containing all the operas in recordings made at Bayreuth.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Daniel Barenboim 1991
The first of Daniel Barenboim's Wagner cycle, this is a strong reading of the opera featuing the Israeli maestro's unique, elastic way with the score. This is a studio recording, with fine, crisp digital sound. Siegfried Jerusalem is a keeper in the title role, and has good chemistry with Waltraud Meier.

Hans Knappertsbusch conducts Parsifal at Bayreuth.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.