In my opinion, a true Parsifal can only be realized in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, given the fact that Wagner wrote the opera with his theater's acoustics in mind. Wagner's architecture allows the music to resound magically from the sunken orchestra pit, and this allows Parsifal's beautiful score to come to full bloom. Despite the wonderful studio recordings that one can buy in the market (such as Karajan's magical Berlin recording, Kubelik's magnificent Bavarian recording, and Solti's acclaimed Vienna production), Bayreuth Parsifals have always been more exciting. The conductor in this recording is Hans Knappertsbusch, a maestro who keeps with the holy traditions of the grail-infused score and gives the music a breadth, gravity, and clarity absent from most new conductors. His most famous recording from Bayreuth was a 1951 recording with Martha Mödl, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London, and Ludwig Weber. I think that is one of the most inspired Parsifals ever committed to disc. This recording, made eleven years later, is just as inspired and beautiful as the 1951 account, with better sound, a more magnificent cast, and in ways, much better judged tempi than the glacial 1951 recording.
In my opinion, the crowning glory of this set in Hans Hotter's Gurnemanz. Full of gravitas and wisdom, despite what people say about his voice, Hotter is my favorite Gurnemanz. His large, commanding, godlike sound is perfect for the role of the warrior-knight who keeps the traditions of the grail, and his third act is perhaps the best on disc. His qualities as a lieder singer allow the sensitivities of Wagner's complex text to emerge, and I would say that despite the fact that other Parsifals with him are better (1964, same theater, same conductor, but with Jon Vickers! as Parsifal), this recording captured him in the best conditions.
The Parsifal in this recording is Jess Thomas, who is perhaps the most youthful and beautiful heldentenor voice ever to take the part. I find that his intelligence in his interpretation, while nowhere near as grand as Vickers, is a merit to this recording. He has the most beautiful voice for the redeeming fool. He is partnered by the Kundry of Irene Dalis. My favorite Kundry is Gwyneth Jones, who in her prime recorded Parsifal with James King, Thomas Stewart, and Franz Crass, and if she were the Kundry in this recording, I would definitely throw heaps of money on this for being the best recording ever. Irene Dalis does a good job of Kundry nonetheless, and has the perfect balance of seduction and demonic ferocity to make the role credible.
Amfortas is sung by the aging George London, who in a few years, would forever lose his magnificent voice. Here, he repeats his marvelous performance from 1951, and while the voice is less than fresh, his interpretation has undoubtedly grown in depth and intensity. A reference Amfortas for any generation. The direction by Wieland Wagner is inspiring, and is perhaps the reason why this Parsifal is such a benchmark performance.