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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Recording Review: The Luxury Grail Package

The Herbert von Karajan Parsifal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
King of the Grail: Peter Hofmann (center) takes over in the Herbert von Karajan recording
of Parsifal. Art © 1980 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG. 
The first notes of the Prelude seem to float out of the speakers: a rising figure for cellos and bassoons, later ornamented with shimmering strings and the lilt of harps. There are no coughs, no rustles of cloth, and when the orchestra stops, the silence is absolute. This is the opening of Herbert von Karajan's 1979-80  recording of Parsifal, Wagner's last opera. It could be argued that this Deutsche Grammophon release, which has enjoyed 35 years in the catalogue, is the finest of the Austrian conductor's nine studio recordings of the major Wagner operas.

Conflating Christian imagery and at least two medieval epics, Parsifal is Wagner's last opera, an epic work as famed for its leaden pace as for its orchestration. The story is that of the "pure fool", Parsifal who is tasked by the Brotherhood of the Holy Grail with retrieving the Spear that pierced the side of Christ. Parsifal confronts the evil magician Klingsor and his pet seductress Kundry, retrieves the spear and eventually heals the wounds of the Grail King Amfortas, restoring major-key bliss to the brotherhood in a wash of carefully orchestrated redemption.

This recording, which has sat in my collection for a number of years (I bought a used copy without the booklet or the slipcase from our old friends at Academy Records) is  an artifact of a time when this conductor commanded the Berlin Philharmonic and the digital recording process and the compact disc were in their relative infancy. It remains a fine example of the technology at the time of its making. The brass of the Berlin Philharmonic are firm and resonant, the strings lush or sere as needed, and the bells that announce the journey into the temple of the Holy Grail are huge. In the first act, they inspire awe; in the third, terror.

Tenor Peter Hofmann (left) discusses a scene in Act III of Parsifal with conductor Herbert von Karajan.
Photo from the Salzburg Easter Festival and the collection of Fritz Hofmann. 
Karajan recorded this Parsifal in 1980, during preparations for a production at the Salzburg Easter Festival using  the same cast. The set is one of German tenor Peter Hoffmann's better recorded efforts, with the title character's relatively light duties carried off without seeming effort. He is plaintive in the first act, anguished in the second and regal in the third, although one wishes for a little more bloom at the bottom of an already narrowing instrument in big moments like "Nur eine waffe tagt." (Eventually, the singer, who died in 2010 would stop singing opera and move on to pop records and roles like the Phantom of the Opera.)

This is the first of three Wagner recordings that Dunja Vejzović made with Karajan. She has an expressive if not particulary beautiful voice, with great depth of feeling, capturing the wild woman of Wagner's first act.Her utterance of the name "Parsifal" and subsequent seduction show why Karajan cast her: she sings each syllable with pointed meaning in her quest to ensnare the young hero. She trips up on the big dramatic interval leaps in the last third of Act II, which sound strained and on occasion, yelped. While this expresses the idea of Kundry rapidly losing her cool in the light of her failure to seduce Parsifal, the effect is unintentionally comic.

Baritone José van Dam sings Amfortas with great musical intelligence but not enough grit. His great cry of "Erbarmen!" does not sound like he's at all wounded, and his vibrato is more pronounced when pressured. . Kurt Moll's Gurnemanz is not the most interesting performance of the part (that's Hotter or Frick) but he knows how to be warm, fatherly and slightly bumptuous. His long narration in Act I is compelling, driven forward by Karajan's sure conducting. Bass-baritone Siegmund Nimsgern is a delicious and characterful Klingsor. Victor Von Halem, his voice treated with a special acoustic to sound hollowed, is a spooky Titurel. The bouquet of Act II Flower Maidens include Barbara Hendricks and Janet Perry among its brightest blossoms, and the choral singing (from the fellas in Act I and III and the dames in Act II is commendable and well-recorded.)

The biggest stars of this opera are Karajan and his Berliners, who were embarking on an odyssey to re-record much of their classic discography for the digital era. The playing here is extraordinary in its detail, from the careful quasi-recitative built from leitmotifs that accompanies Gurnemanz' speech to the thunderous entry into the Grail temple. Karajan is also very detailed with his strongs, from the Beethovenian triplets that couch the Flower Maidens to the screech of angry violins at Parsifal's entrance (s. They do awe-inspiring moments too: the woodwinds seeming to sing the "Dresden Amen" every time it pops up in the score, and the oboes and bassoons sound like pipes on Bach's own organ. And again, there are those bells.
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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.