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WAGNER: Parsifal

CD Button Mödl, Vinay, Fischer–Dieskau, Blankenheim, Greindl, Hotter. Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival, Knappertsbusch. No texts. WALHALL WLCD 0192 (4)

Recordings Bayreuth Parsifal Cover 216

FOR MANY OPERA LOVERS who grew up during the LP era listening to the Decca release of the live 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal, that recording remains the gold standard, and the conducting of Hans Knappertsbusch an ingredient against which the success of any Parsifal is to be measured. Knappertsbusch's broad, mystical tempos match perfectly the scope of the piece and its spiritual nature, and for those addicted to his approach above all others, there are a number of recorded options from which to choose. Between 1951 and 1964, many of the conductor's performances of the opera were documented at Bayreuth, and a number have been released on CD. This one, from 1956, shares some of the virtues of the classic ’51 recording, misses some, and offers alternative riches.

One powerful asset on this set is the Parsifal of Ramon Vinay. While Wolfgang Windgasses's brighter timbre on the ’51 set might be more in line with the character's ingenuousness, Vinay traces beautifully the character's temptation, anguish and enlightenment, employing his baritonal tenor to maximum effect, embracing the text and scoring huge emotional points. As always, his singing is musical but never affected. On the other hand, Dietrich Fischer–Dieskau's Amfortas depends upon his emotional connection manifesting itself in certain demonstrations of pathos and pain in order to score points. Not to take for granted the quality of the work of this exquisite artist, nor the beauty of his voice, but Fischer–Dieskau's way was more about expression that could tend to the mannered, sometimes reducing the ultimate effect. It's hardly fair to compare anyone's performance to the majestically tragic, spectacularly sung Amfortas of George London on the older set, but even on its own terms, Fischer–Dieskau's, while first-rate, is vocally a shade light. Josef Greindl's Gurnemanz is ideally voiced, the portrayal neatly balancing authority and sympathy, and Hans Hotter, still in his prime at that time, offers luxury casting as Titurel. Toni Blankenheim, a celebrated Wozzeck, has the right gruffness of voice for Klingsor, and has a ball with the histrionics—although one isn't made to forget Hermann Uhde. 

Remaining from Knappertsbusch's 1951 Parsifal cast—and several subsequent documented performances of the opera under the maestro at Bayreuth—is Martha Mödl as Kundry. Mödl is one of those artists so imaginative, instinctual, and spontaneous that it’s probably a good idea to hear (if not own) every note and word she uttered, particularly during this period. However, even nearly-blind admiration cannot be deaf to the fact that in the summer of 1956 she was intermittently indisposed and not quite at her best. Her Kundry here possesses all the trademark Mödlisms—myriad vocal colors, penetrating characterization, thrilling attention to text. But the tone is excessively throttled in places, the singing effortful (the final high B of Act II is eschewed in favor of the lower option). Nonetheless, it would be foolish to dismiss it without a listen; she and Vinay, always a great pairing, are thrilling together in the extended Act II duet. 

The Bayreuth orchestra and chorus are in great form. With them, Knappertsbusch is able to create a suspended feel, protracted pacing that still has tautness, and moments of insistence and tension that balance the ethereal. The recorded sound has that typical warm Bayreuth glow, but there is a bit of distortion here and there. As always with Walhall sets, there are track indications, but no synopsis, notes or libretto. —Ira Siff 

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