Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

WAGNER: Parsifal

spacer DeYoung; Elsner, Nikitin, Schulte, Selig; Berlin Rundfunk Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Janowski. Text and translation. Pentatone PTC 5186 401 (4)

Recordings Parsifal Cover 712

Marek Janowski has set himself the enormous task of recording all ten of the canonical Wagner operas in live performances with Berlin's Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra. Presumably, the project will culminate in a complete Ring cycle, so the other operas are appearing out of chronological order. Parsifal, Wagner's final masterwork, is Janowski's third installment, and he has some unusual and provocative ideas about the piece. In this performance, the passage as the dead swan is taken away, midway in Act I, has a peculiarly intense expressiveness. It's as if Gurnemanz were already certain that Parsifal is the redeemer the knights are awaiting. The music for the transformation to the first Grail scene is brisk. It's almost showy, in fact, almost celebratory. The motif of anguish from the prelude is now subsumed into the waves of renewal. Thus Gurnemanz's anger at the end of the ceremony — "You're nothing more than a fool" — makes particular sense. This may lead listeners to expect revelations when the ritual is repeated in Act III, but in the end Janowski lets us down. Even if we accept the odd interpretation of the Act III prelude (it's brisk, almost dizzy, and very vocal in phrasing — perhaps meant to portray Parsifal searching in a frantic way), the rest of the act doesn't cohere. It is action-packed from the start in Janowski's version, with no sense of gradual awakening, or of time having passed. Parsifal's final solo in the temple is not exalted or extended as Wagner asked; rather, it is invigorating and energetic. It seems not momentous but obligatory.

Timings by the clock are not very useful in accounting for the impression given by a performance. Yet it is worth noting that a live recording of the 1985 Bayreuth centennial production of Parsifal was released on the Philips label, and that Janowski comes very close to shaving an entire hour off of James Levine's interpretation on that occasion. If Janowski's version doesn't give the feeling of catharsis or ritual, perhaps we simply are not in the world of the Grail knights for a long enough spell. Janowski's Act II is also something of a misfire, given that the Flowermaidens are a severe, unalluring group, and that Janowski hasn't found the lilt, humor and playfulness in their music that this long opera needs at the midway point. 

But there are compensations in the tremendous playing of the orchestra. The string sections are stocked with virtuosos. The violins are infallible even in the trickiest, quickest passages. There is a little four-note solo for muted violins in Act II that should be framed and hung in the Louvre. The principal clarinetist is so good that listeners are likely to hear previously unnoticed details in this performance. There is a peculiar, highly individual timbre in Parsifal when the massive string sections play fortissimo but with mutes. The effect has never before come off so successfully on recordings. A sensible but uncommon decision has been made to keep the duration of the second disc short, enabling each of the last two acts to fit fully on a single disc. Pentatone, which gave us the rare treat of the first act of Janowski's Meistersinger on a single disc, deserves gratitude for musical acuity.

There is one world-class performer among the singers. Evgeny Nikitin's Amfortas is truly sung. He has a sweet, rounded tone, and indeed some listeners may want more of an edge at first. But this is all the more effective when it suddenly occurs in the great cries of "Erbarmen," and the idea of a beautiful presence cut down in its prime is sad indeed. Christian Elsner's Parsifal is not youthful enough in tone for an audio-only performance, but he does understand the psychological progress of Act II. (The final line to Kundry, "You know where you can find me again," is sung with unusual gentleness.) But Elsner doesn't sound transformed at the end of the opera, and he is heard in an entirely different acoustical context from the other singers on this recording. The Gurnemanz, Franz-Josef Selig, is more comfortable in Act III than in Act I of this long role, but he comes into a real partnership with Janowski by the time they get to the Good Friday meadow. Michelle DeYoung's voice is too thick for Act II, in which her vocal coloration fails to reflect Kundry's psychological progress. Janowski sets up her solo "Ich sah das kind" with naturalness, but she doesn't respond to the sickly, Viennese quality of muted strings and chromaticism. But in Act I she shows a wise, Erda-like low range, which is also effective when she doubles as the solo alto voice at the end of Act I. The recorded sound is refreshingly natural on the whole. One of the many aspects of Parsifal, written for Wagner's own theater at Bayreuth, is that it is a bravura series of acoustical experiments, and as a sonic engagement this recording is awe-inspiring. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6