Top critical review
23 people found this helpful
NOT what it's all about!
on 3 June 2005
I really can't see this as a serious contender in the Parsifal stakes. It's all surface gloss without any depth or understanding. Karajan, as was his wont, went for beauty of texture and sound, an obvious temptation in this, the one opera Wagner wrote with the unique sound of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus already in his mind. And it has to be admitted that Karajan achieved it. The Berliners play like a dream. If that's all you look for in this opera, then fine.
But Parsifal is a much more elusive animal than that. It has to do with being able to see the piece as a whole - it has its own rhythms, the way different rates of breathing, as it were, relate to each other, that goes way beyond mere tempos and metre. Knappertsbusch at Bayreuth in 1951 has it at very slow speeds. Toscanini, of all people, was the slowest in the Bayreuth records. Levine at slow speeds is just tedious. Boulez, with lighter textures and consistently faster speeds had it. Karajan doesn't.
Then there are the singers. A dull lot for the most part. None of them would be first choice for any of their parts. Hofmann is too wobbly, van Dam too 'beautiful' for Amfortas' anguish, Moll too pedestrian - Gurnemanz can be a dreadful bore if he's not sung off the text with real conviction - Vejzovic sounds as if she's from another production. The most consistent cast is probably Knappertsbusch in 1951 again (a youthful Windgassen, a dedicated Weber, a no-holds-barred Modl and a really scary Uhde) or Solti (Frick, Ludwig and Fischer-Dieskau standing out plus a Premier Division team of Flowermaidens that includes te Kanawa and Popp). It's a great shame that Vickers never recorded the part of Parsifal - he was the best I've ever heard on stage (with Goodall no less) - does the BBC have a tape?
The sound, too - no doubt supervised by Karajan in dictator mode - strives too hard for beauty at the expense of integration and depth. This, as I've said, is the one opera specifically written for the unique Bayreuth acoustic. To hear the first notes of the Prelude emerge from the silence and the darkness in that house is a special experience. Wagner's own design allows the instruments to blend and merge in an almost impressionistic way before they're thrown into the stage by the hood over the orchestra, there to blend with the voices (not create a wall in front of them) before they emerge into the auditorium. Strings acquire a special bloom: the heavy brass, buried deep down under the stage, do not get the strident edge so popular with modern producers. Kanppertsbusch's later Bayreuth performance for Philips probably captures this sound best, but his 1951 (mono) performance, recorded by Decca, is not a bad second.
All in all, then, a disappointment on most fronts - unless you just want to wallow in the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic.