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Parsifal

von Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner (1813–1883)

Parsifal

Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel
Libretto: Richard Wagner

Gurnemanz – Kurt Moll
Amfortas – José van Dam
Parsifal – Peter Hofmann
Kundry – Dunja Vejzovic

Siegmund Nimsgern – Klingsor
Victor von Halem – Titurel
Knights of the Grail – Claes H. Ahnsjö, Kurt Rydl
Squires – Marjon Lambriks, Anne Gjevang, Heiner Hopfner, George Tichy
Flower Maidens:
- 1st group – Barbara Hendricks, Janet Perry, Doris Soffel
- 2nd group – Inga Nielsen, Audrey Michael, Rohanzig Yachmi
A Voice – Hanna Schwarz

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

[Recorded: 12/1979, 1/1980, 4/1980 and 7/1980, Philharmonie, Berlin.]

Deutsche Grammophon [1984]. Slipcase. 4CD. 64:52+65:12+60:31+65:13. Liner notes by Lucy Beckett, Stefan Kunze and Sabine Jordahn. Chronological Table. Libretto (Ger+Eng+Fr). Cover: Parsifal, Act I, Salzburg Easter Festival, 1980.

CD 1: Act 1
CD 2: Act 1 (end) + Act 2
CD 3: Act 2 (end) + Act 3
CD 4: Act 3 (end)

======================================

Parsifal is not my favourite among Wagner’s mature works. It has many moments of musical sublimity and not a few strikingly pedestrian passages. It is very static and very slow. It is not really a music drama at all. Rather, it is a symphonic poem with voices and philosophical program. Wagner called it, pretentiously, Bühnenweihfestspiel, a play to consecrate the stage and, possibly, enlighten the audience.

Parsifal has been ludicrously overanalysed. Because Wagner has a reputation of the greatest intellectual and the greatest philosopher among composers, and because his swan song is naturally (if quite illogically) supposed to be the summing-up of his life work, Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians have made Parsifal into just about everything. Bryan Magee has refuted the popular notion that this is a Christian work. To his excellent discussion[1] it might be added that, if Parsifal is a Christian work, it is so because it draws inspiration from Christ himself (never mentioned by name, but obviously implied by “Saviour”, “Redeemer” and “Him on the Cross”), never from Christianity which anyway has nothing to do with Christ but his name.

The Nazi theory is the most amusing one. Time and again Parsifal has been hailed as a mighty call for racial (read “Aryan”) purity[2], never mind that even Hitler didn’t like it and indeed the work was among the least popular in Nazi Germany[3]. Charles Osborne has ingeniously seen a connection between “the monastic homosexuality of the [Grail] knights” and “the not dissimilar fellowship of Ernst Rohm’s troopers”[4]. Mr Osborne is a fine example of the classic Wagner hater. He hates Wagner and his music more than he loves anything else. He hates Parsifal most of all. He delights in quoting Nietzsche’s demented rhetoric on the subject (“a work of malice, of vindictiveness... a bad work... an outrage on morality”), contributes to it in fine style (“a sickly, fin-de-siècle homoerotic fantasy”), and concludes his chapter with John Runciman’s 1905 monograph in which Parsifal is dismissed as “disastrous and evil opera” and the plot is summarised thus:

At Montsalvat there was a monastery, and the head became seriously ill because he had been seen with a lady. In the long run he is saved by a young man – rightly called a “fool” – who cannot tolerate the sight of a woman. What it all means – the grotesque parody of the Last Supper, the death of the last woman in the world, the spear which has caused the Abbot’s wound and then cures it – these are not matters to be entered into here. Some of the music is fine.[5]

As a matter of fact, the philosophical message of Parsifal is simple in the extreme, and not wholly admirable. It is made perfectly clear in the text. Enlightenment through compassion (“Durch Mitleid wissend”) is Wagner’s summing-up after a lifelong reflection on human nature. It seems trite, and indeed so it is, but then so are most great lessons. Somerset Maugham, in the end of his most personal book, The Summing Up (1938), was ashamed to reach “so commonplace a conclusion”, namely that “loving-kindness” – the better part of goodness and rather more encompassing than Wagner’s compassion – is the only virtue that might give life at least some semblance of meaning. Wagner was a man incapable of shame, but I wonder if he secretly considered his conclusion something of a cop-out.

The less admirable aspect is the renunciation of desire, especially but not only sexual desire. This, too, is made as clear as possible in the great duet between Parsifal and Kundry which takes most of the second act, to say nothing of Amfortas whose perennial wound has resulted from the same encounter but with a different outcome. The idea is Buddhist rather than Christian, and it will be remembered that Wagner seriously contemplated a Buddhist opera called Die Sieger (“The Victors” or “The Conquerors”) in the late 1850s but nothing came out of the project. I have little patience with the idea of renouncing everything that makes us human. Today it is sex, tomorrow it might well be reason (assuming we have such thing in the first place), and the day after tomorrow we might return as full-time members of the animal kingdom and live happily ever after. This seems to me a rather undesirable solution of the human riddle.

Anyway, this is supposed to be something like a review of Karajan’s recording, not some ranting on the philosophical value of Parsifal. So, let’s listen to some music. But first, my passion for digressions being impossible to suppress, here is a bit of biography.

Karajan wasn’t a great fan of Parsifal, either. The work stayed in his repertoire for more than 40 years (1940-81), but he conducted it only 17 times, less than any other Wagner work save Der fliegende Holländer and Götterdämmerung. Fortunately for posterity, when he came to stage the work in Salzburg (1980), only the third and last production he conducted after Aachen (1940) and Vienna (1961), Karajan made this studio recording. No footage has survived from the Salzburg production, which was revived in 1981 with the same cast (Gottfried Hornik sang Klingsor on both occasions), but to judge from some spectacular photos[6] it must have been quite an experience in the opera house. The cover gives some faint idea about the pillared Grail Hall in the end of the first act.

Speaking of timings, an innocent parlour game, Karajan is on the slow side. At 4 hours and 17 minutes, he is more or less in the middle between the two famous live recordings from Bayreuth conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, the slower from 1951 (4 hours 33 minutes) and the faster from 1962 (4 hours 10 minutes), both widely acknowledged as the golden standard. This is not to say that Karajan and Knappertsbusch have anything in common. As you can hear from the Prelude, they don’t. One can only wonder how Parsifal must have sounded when Toscanini conducted it in Bayreuth (1931) and stopped the clocks at 4 hours and 42 minutes.

Speaking of Karajan alone, this Parsifal is to my mind one of his greatest achievements. Not even in his (in)famous Ring (1966-70) did he achieve such perfect fusion of steady pace and beauty of sound. The ethereal Prelude setting the mood and pace for the whole work, the Transformation Music and the enactment of the Last Supper (Liebesmahl the knights call it, literally “love-feast”) that conclude the first act, and the Good Friday ceremony in the end are things of absolute beauty. If you can imagine greater orchestral and choral sublimity, you can imagine more than I. When pure drama is required, Karajan delivers with vigour but without bombast. The prelude to the second act (somewhat reminiscent to the third-act prelude of Siegfried) ought to convince you that Klingsor’s Magic Castle, to say nothing of his Magic Garden, is a spooky place. The whole and vastly different second act packs a mighty dramatic punch (excluding the insipid flower maidens), and so do the few moments in the outer acts that break with the serene tone (e.g. Amfortas’ monologues). No wonder even Bryan Magee, hardly a Karajan fan, was impressed[7].

The conductor apart, the success of Parsifal depends mostly on the low male voices. All of them are superb here. All of them show the same dramatic subtlety and dynamic variety as Karajan’s conducting. Kurt Moll is simply magnificent, booming without shouting, whispering with every syllable clearly pronounced, always smooth but never vapid. Gurnemanz, the wise old knight who anticipates Einstein and Relativity (“Raum wird hier die Zeit”), is the most prominent character, and his restrained but intense narratives in the outer acts are among the highlights. José van Dam, a Belgian bass-baritone, was a great favourite of Karajan and that led to some unfortunate miscasting (Dutchman, Escamillo). But this is not the case here. Amfortas captures van Dam in his element. Too bad he doesn’t have much more to sing except two anguished monologues. Siegmund Nimsgern is the most histrionic of the three. But the approach suits to perfection Klingsor, the most underrated evil magician in fiction.

I am less fond of Peter Hofmann and Dunja Vejzovic. Both tend to sound a little strained and even affected in the more robust moments. But both nevertheless do very well in their great scene that takes most of the second act. Hofmann is rather impressive in the “Erbarmen” monologue. I wish Wagner had made more of these characters, especially Kundry. Parsifal is obviously just a peg to hang philosophical fantasies on. But there is much unrealised potential in Kundry. She sings little in the first act and virtually nothing in the last. For that matter, Klingsor could have been more complex and more prominent, too. Then again, Wagner cared nothing for characterisation in this most philosophical among his works.

The only real problem with this recording is the sound. I don’t want to make too much of that, but it’s worth mentioning. As you can hear right from the Prelude, the brass and the woodwinds, like Parsifal and Kundry, suffer from occasional shrillness. The balance is generally fine, but occasionally the singers are either too quiet or too loud. These are not exactly quibbles, but they are not that bad. Considering this was one of Karajan’s very first digital recordings, there is surprising depth in addition to the great clarity and dynamics one is right to expect. So far as I know, the recording has never been remastered (at least not separately, I don’t know about the countless mammoth sets of Karajan recordings), which is a pity because a new remastering might actually improve it. There was a nice opportunity to test this hypothesis some years ago. The Prelude was included on Famous Overtures (2003). But it was not remastered. The ways of record labels are inscrutable.

The presentation of this old “Made in West Germany” edition is handsomely done, slipcase and all. The booklet is thick (132 pages) and contains the complete libretto in three languages (the English translation is Lionel Salter’s from 1970), three original essays, one in English by Lucy Beckett and two in German by Stefan Kunze and Sabine Jordahn (all translated into French), and photo portraits of everybody involved in the recording (including a striking portrait of a youngish-looking Wagner from 1863). Regretfully or not, the libretto is much the most important part of the booklet. I have found Lucy Beckett’s essay superficial, Herr Kunze’s pretentious, and Frau Jordahn’s (on the religious symbolism) far-fetched. Ironically and somewhat surprisingly, if you care to read the libretto and listen to the music carefully, Wagner proves to be entirely self-sufficient.

An interesting bonus track in the booklet is a Chronological Table subtitled “The Background and Realization of the Work”. As usual with Wagner, the genesis was long, complicated and fascinating. The Table traces it back to 1843, Dresden, and an oratorio titled “Das Liebesmahl der Apostel”. This enormously obscure work has been recorded at least once, but none of the Wagner authorities I have consulted mentions the obvious connection with Parsifal. The word “Liebesmahl” is a striking similarity. It is not one of those words Wagner almost coined, but neither is it the usual term for the Last Supper. The first performance was in Frauenkirche and employed 1,200 singers and an orchestra of 100 players[8].

Wagner apparently first read the “Parzival” epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach in 1845 as part of his research for Lohengrin, completed in 1848. (Lohengrin is Parsifal’s son, of course, as the swan hero announces in his famous final narrative “In fernem Land”.) Wagner’s first sketches for a “Parzival” drama were made in April 1857 but have not survived. They postdate the Der Sieger and another drama significantly titled Jesus of Nazareth, neither of which was ever even begun. Two more prose sketches (August 1865, February 1877) and the final poem (April 1877) preceded the actual composition of the music (September 1877 – January 1882).

__________________________________________________​
[1] Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy [2000], Penguin, paperback [2001], pp. 278-83. Mr Magee’s complete chapter, “The Crowning Achievement” (pp. 264-85), is highly recommended to everybody interested in Wagner’s Parsifal, and so is his Appendix on Wagner’s anti-Semitism (pp. 343-80).
[2] For an interesting if not always convincing demolition of this and other Parsifalian nonsense, see Mike Ashman’s essay “A Very Human Epic” in the ENO Guide No. 34, Calder, 1986, reprinted 1999, pp. 7-14.
[3] Magee, op. cit., p. 366.
[4] This brilliant idea seems to have come originally from Robert Gutman’s character assassination Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (1968). Charles Osborne loved the idea so much that he repeated it in the same words in all of his books on Wagner: Wagner and His World, Thames & Hudson, 1977, p. 112; The World Theatre of Wagner, Macmillan, 1982, p. 175; The Complete Operas of Wagner [1990], Gollancz, 1992, p. 271.
[5] Osborne, The Complete Operas, p. 283.
[6] Herbert von Karajan Inszenierungen, Christian Brandstätter, 1983, pp. 176-85. Compare the sparse but timeless beauty of Karajan’s production with the kitsch at the 2013 Festival and you will know how far the art of opera has degenerated in the last forty years.
[7] Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 70. It must be said that Mr Magee’s praise of Parsifal is offset by his dismissal of Karajan’s other Wagner recordings as “impersonal sound”. In his highly unoriginal opinion, “Karajan deliberately sacrificed verbal inflections to evenness of tone, and got the singers to produce sounds of such purity as to have almost no dramatic implications – in effect he used to play operas as if they were nothing but music, gigantic symphonic poems for voices and orchestra.” This criticism became tedious sometime in the late Jurassic. I have never been able to see any sense in it, but everybody is entitled to their opinion. As for Parsifal, Karajan reached “the greatest heights” in this recording because by that time “he was old and ill and had learnt to live with death”. This is almost objective nonsense. I have certainly never heard anybody else express a similar opinion. Karajan’s way with Wagner was fully formed in the early 1960s at the latest, if not by the time of his Bayreuth performances in the early 1950s. You’re welcome to dismiss it as “impersonal sound”, but you have to do so in toto.
[8] The Wagner Compendium, ed. Barry Millington, Thames & Hudson, 2001, p. 314. ( )
1 abstimmen Waldstein | Apr 1, 2020 |
Another one of those very few Grab-On-The-Way-Out-Of-The-Burning-House albums. This is the recording from the Bayreuth Festival of 1951, the first performance of this work at Wagner's own theatre since the Nazi and war years which had hideously validated most of the mature compser's prophecies about our sinful species. Much has been written about this work, much too much of it arrant nonsense both by its detractors and its apostles. Still, with a half-century-plus of experience of life and of this work, I am not reluctant to put my oar in, even though I have written about it at lenghthe in my own HARMONY JUNCTION.
For those who doen't already know, Wagner subtitled this work a "Buehnenfestpiel", meaning two things things simultaneously, one (comparatively modest), a piece for the consecration (i.e. dedication) of a theatre-stage. Recall, as Wagner surely did, that the mature Beethoven had written an overture for the "consecration of the house", the house being, in context, a new theatre in Vienna. So Wagner was not loath to follow on that path, but only a characteristically expanded scale. More to the point, he intended this to be a piece whose very performance would be in itself, aside from any formalities and whoop-de-do, a consectrational act in itself, a sacramental endeavour. A noble, some might claim impossible goal. It is left to each listener-spectator to decide, more correctly, to experience whether this sublimity is in fact achieved. It is not without interest to note that Claude Debussy, who was aestheically, culturally, and spiritually light-years removed from Wagner, gladly called it "one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music." More recently, Fr Owen Lee has written -- and I paraphrase -- that PARSIFAL is like the Grail which it presents -- and by implication, the love, wholeness, and salvation which it represents: it may be seen by many, understood by some, but understood by who knows how many, or how few.
On the comparatively mundane level, this is a well-miked recording, and the singing is excellent, particularly that of the now-legendary Ludwig Weber as the teacher-knight Gurnemanz. Hans Knappertsbush conducts with a breadth and dignity almost incomprehensible to our world of haste and frenzy. In this re-issue, the music which originally occupied six discs is compressed onto five, with no loss of fidelity, and of-course, no musical cuts Includes German text and serviceable English translation by WIlliam Mann.
Listeners who care may like to know that this performance is a available on a CD set which will be listed here on LT in the fulleness of time. ( )
  HarryMacDonald | Oct 27, 2012 |
[Repeated from my Review of the 1968 Richmond re-issue, with a few adjustments.
Another one of those very few Grab-On-The-Way-Out-Of-The-Burning-House albums. This is the recording from the Bayreuth Festival of 1951, the first performance of this work at Wagner's own theatre since the Nazi and war years which had hideously validated most of the mature compser's prophecies about our sinful species. Much has been written about this work, much too much of it arrant nonsense both by its detractors and its apostles. Still, with a half-century-plus of experience of life and of this work, I am not reluctant to put my oar in, even though I have written about it at lenghthe in my own HARMONY JUNCTION.
For those who doen't already know, Wagner subtitled this work a "Buehnenfestpiel", meaning two things things simultaneously, one (comparatively modest), a piece for the consecration (i.e. dedication) of a theatre-stage. Recall, as Wagner surely did, that the mature Beethoven had written an overture for the "consecration of the house", the house being, in context, a new theatre in Vienna. So Wagner was not loath to follow on that path, but only a characteristically expanded scale. More to the point, he intended this to be a piece whose very performance would be in itself, aside from any formalities and whoop-de-do, a consectrational act in itself, a sacramental endeavour. A noble, some might claim impossible goal. It is left to each listener-spectator to decide, more correctly, to experience whether this sublimity is in fact achieved. It is not without interest to note that Claude Debussy, who was aestheically, culturally, and spiritually light-years removed from Wagner, gladly called it "one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music." More recently, Fr Owen Lee has written -- and I paraphrase -- that PARSIFAL is like the Grail which it presents -- and by implication, the love, wholeness, and salvation which it represents: it may be seen by many, understood by some, but understood by who knows how many, or how few.
On the comparatively mundane level, this is a well-miked recording, and the singing is excellent, particularly that of the now-legendary Ludwig Weber as the teacher-knight Gurnemanz. Hans Knappertsbush conducts with a breadth and dignity almost incomprehensible to our world of haste and frenzy. No text is supplied, although there is "A Psychological Diagram, for PARSIFAL" by Wieland Wagner, translated by WIlliam Mann ( )
1 abstimmen HarryMacDonald | Oct 27, 2012 |
Lucia Popp sings one of the flower-maids, a small role in this recording. ( )
  blrtg | Jan 1, 2007 |
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» Andere Autoren hinzufügen (44 möglich)

AutorennameRolleArt des AutorsWerk?Status
Wagner, RichardHauptautoralle Ausgabenbestätigt
Berliner PhilharmonikerCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Christoff, BorisGurnemanzCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Domingo, PlácidoParsifalCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Hofmann, PeterParsifalCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Hotter, HansGurnemanzCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Jose van DamAmfortasCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Karajan, Herbert vonconductorCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Knappertsbusch, HansconductorCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Kollo, RenéParsifalCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Levine, JamesconductorCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Moll, KurtGurnemanzCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Vejzovic, DunjaKundryCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
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