Parsifal, Wagner's last masterpiece, has some of the most sublime music he ever wrote, including the "Karfreitagszauber" (Good Friday magic) and the final scene. I have heard three recordings: Barenboim's, Knappertsbusch's (1951), and this Solti. This in almost all respects is a magnificent performance from Solti. He has an ear for balances and textures, bringing out, for instance, the miraculous interweavings of woodwinds, strings and brass in the Prelude. His transitions flow effortlessly, and he gets some glorious, sumptuous playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, first choice for Wagner. Above all, his conducting is more emotional than I have ever heard from him. Instead of either being detatched or only partially involved, he is here totally committed. All the same, the last scene and the Good Friday scene could be the slightest bit more spiritual, which I think has something to do with his tempi. They keep the music moving, which is very important in this work, but very occasionally, I feel like he is rushing a little bit, instead of letting this sublime music flow and unfold. I must stress again, though, that for the most part this is a magnificent reading, and certainly one of the best things he's ever done. He has the best orchestral and choral forces in the world: the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Boys Chorus, and Philharmonic. He is slightly less fortunate with his singers, however. Gottlob Frick portrays Gurnemanz movingly, but he was in his sixties at the time of this recording and is showing his age, wobbling a little bit. Anyway, I'm not sure his voice is very well suited to Gurnemanz. It is quite resonant, but it has a sinister edge - another reviewer said he sounded like a crocodile! (I agree) - which is well suited for Hagen and Hunding but NOT for Gurnemanz, who should have a mellow, beautiful voice. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is (yet again!) miscast in a Wagner role (Amfortas). Weren't his Gunther, Wotan (especially that!) and (to a lesser degree) Telramund and Kurwenal enough to make people see his is just not a Wagner voice? Clearly not - he went on to sing Hans Sachs four years after this recording. Here, as usual, his intelligence and sensitivity just can't compensate for a light, lyric baritone. Compare him to George London or the magnificent Hans Hotter in these roles, and the point will immediately be taken. Hotter appears as Titurel; here is the mellowness wanted for Gurnemanz, along with the magnificent volume, resonance and richness of his voice. It must be admitted that he was over sixty at the time of this recording (1972), but I have to say that hearing Hotter in the autumn of his career has never bothered me nearly so much as other people. He has a bit of a wobble, but nothing serious. He and Frick (the older of the two) should have switched roles. Zoltan Kélémen lacks the firm, biting, intensity of voice essential for Klingsor; Hermann Uhde on Knappertsbusch's first recording (Bayreuth 1951), is magnificent. Christa Ludwig, on the other hand, gives us an intense, dramatic yet sumptuously sung Kundry, maybe the best I have heard. René Kollo is Parsifal, and unfortunately, it is he more than anyone else who sinks the set. He is both unsteady and dry of voice. Compare him to the young Wolfgang Windgassen (Kna 1), at his liquid-toned, honeyed peak, and he makes an almost painful contrast. Like the others, though, he is an intelligent singer and makes the most of what he has.
My favorite recording of "Parsifal" remains (you guessed it) Knappertsbusch's 1951 Bayreuth account. Despite the mono sound, he A) holds the work's structure together better than anyone; B) reaches ecstatic, spiritual heights in the Good Friday Music and the final scene, and C) has an outstanding cast, including Windgassen, Mödl, Weber, London and Uhde. It is available on Teldec at mid price. If you must have modern sound, he made a later recording (1962) in stereo, with Thomas, Dalis, Hotter, London and Neidlinger, which I have not heard, but sounds extremely promising. But if Knappertsbusch does not convince you, Solti must, and his recording is much easier to find than Knappertbusch's two. Happy listening!