I thought that the Karajan was unbeatable until I discovered this recording, long held in the DG vaults for reasons of petty jealousies and politicking. It is superior to every other account by virtue of Kubelik's masterly pacing; he achieves both a spiritual dimension even beyond (what now seems now, by comparison) Karajan's exquisitely played and rather more polished achievement.
Kurt Moll possessed surely the most beautiful post-war Wagnerian bass and he is caught here in his absolute prime; there is more nuance, more resonance and more drama than in his slightly later assumption of the role with Karajan. The orchestra are superb and although other reviewers have found the sound wanting, I do not; it seems to me incomparably clear and spacious. Again, some reviewers have found fault with the singing; I find that Minton's Kundry, one or two strained top notes apart, achieves the perfect balance between vulnerability and animal passion. King achieves the miracle of making believable Parsifal's transition from boyish oaf to a hero, enlightened by compassion; he is very careful in how he enunciates and inflects the text and sings both softly and heroically. Frank Mazura's Klingsor sounds uncannily like Gustav Neidlinger's Alberich in the famous Solti "Ring" - and that is meant to be a high compliment. The Flower maidens, headed by Lucia Popp, are a seductive bunch; perhaps the only slight disappointment comes from Weikl's rather exterior Amfortas, but his was a fine voice at that time - not too much of the bleat which now intrudes - and he makes a fine job of the three climactic utterances of "Erbarmen" in his big aria.
I stll miss the sheer beauty of Van Dam in Karajan's set, or perhaps the heft of London - a different approach from Van Dam's inward, lyrical interpretation, but mightily impressive, nonetheless - but as a whole this recording is by far the most moving, authoritative and absorbing of this towering masterpiece.
The Kubelik. This has to be the most beautiful Parsifal that I have heard - it was such a surprise even bearing in mind what others had said about it across the internet.
The mix is just right, the orchestra never too heavy, never overwhelming the voices. The singers are remarkable, singing their hearts out - the orchestration it is plain to see that every note is thought about before performance leading to a land mark in recording.
Just take the first act and I am sure that you will be like me totally taken aback by its beauty and dear I say it this is close to perfection. Tears will flow. This is now the one I play the most from my collection of Parsifal.
Look at the price, buy it and run!
I cannot see that this recording will stay at this price - take a leap of faith and buy it. You will not be disapointed. Matchless. 10 stars.
Who are the great post-War Wagner conductors? Knappertsbusch? Krauss? Solti? Karajan (if that's your taste)? Barenboim? Goodall? For the connoisseurs, perhaps, there's Kempe and Keilberth. Maybe even Jochum. But the list seldom includes Kubelik. Yet on disc there's a wonderfully conducted Lohengrin, let down by Gwyneth Jones on one of her squallier days, but enhanced by a beautiful Elsa from Janowitz. There's what is probably the best all round Meistersinger on disc which is again wonderfully conducted. And there's this Parsifal.
This is Wagner conducting of the first order on practically all counts. First, orchestral balance. Kubelik is wonderfully sensitive to the combinations and colours of Wagner's score, inspired by the unique acoustic the composer had created at Bayreuth. To take just the Prelude, the balance between strings and clarinet, followed by the addition of the cor anglais in the opening theme is judged to perfection. Then the repeat of the same theme on the trumpet over pulsing 3+2 chords in the upper woodwind and arpeggio strings cuts through just as it should. Come the development section the addition of Horn 1 to Horn 3 at the top of the arch of that same melody enriches the texture perfectly. And so it goes on right through the opera.
Then the pacing. Overall, Kubelik strikes a happy median between Knappertsbusch and Boulez. But he understand the ebb and flow of the piece so well, the mastery of what Wagner called 'the Art of Transition'. So the profounder moments in the Grail Castle have all the space and air they need while much of Act 2 is taken at an urgent, exciting pace. Indeed, unlike most conductors, Kubelik seems to see the Second Act as the crux of the piece. (In this he goes along with Wieland Wagner whose graphic chart of the Parsifal Cross showing all the action radiating from the kiss is well worth investigating.) In retrospect, the whole opera under Kubelik seems to be one great, balanced arch with the Kiss as its keystone. And this is the most comprehensive and fulfilling performance of this Act that I know.
Finally, Kubelik really brings out the modernity of the piece to the full. Harmonically, much of Parsifal and especially Act 3 mark a huge advance over anything in Tristan. And here you also have all those stark juxtapositions of the chromatic (e.g. Klingsor's and Kundry's themes with the squarely diatonic (e.g. the Faith motif and the Dresden Amen theme). What I've never noticed before listening to this performance is how advanced it is rhythmically as well. So many of those chromatic themes and motifs involve syncopations and tied notes across bar-lines that totally do away with the tyranny of the bar. It is often as hard to tell where you are rhythmically as it is harmonically. Which, of course, is exactly what Wagner intended
The singers, it has to be said, are not quite in the same league as their conductor. The outstanding performance here is Yvonne Minton's Kundry. One of the best 'Ich sah das Kinds' I know; a very sexy, seductive lead into the kiss; true tragic angst as she recalls laughing at Christ; hair-raising and scary when she starts threatening. Her intonation is also wonderfully exact in all those creepy chromatic phrases, slipping up or down by semitone steps. Moll's performance is streets ahead of what he gave under Levine's lethargic direction, but he still can't quite stop Gurnemanz turning into a bit of a bore with his Act 1 narration in a way that a Weber or a Hotter always avoided. King is a sound Parsifal (as he is for Boulez) while never raising the hairs on the back of your neck as Vickers could at points like 'Amfortas! Die Wunde!'. Weikl is good but not great. Mazura sings Klingsor's part most musically (no barking), but only Hermann Uhde seemed able to turn the character into something more than a pantomime villain. Salminen's Titurel is impressive but unremittingly forte. The Flowermaidens can be a bit shrill with the exception of the lovely Lucia Popp.
The sound (from a Bavarian Radio recording of 1980) is not top flight by today's highest standards, but more than good enough to hear all of Kubelik's mastery of this score. And make no mistake. This is masterly conducting, well worth hearing.
Five stars are not enough for this sublime studio version which lay buried for many years since it was recorded in 1980 and was only released recently, since when, not surprisingly, it has been gaining increasing plaudits among Wagnerians. It was recorded at roughly the same time as Karajan's version, but it is far superior and sells at almost about half the price. Karajan's recording was let down by his tendency to take the drama out of the work by presenting it as a series of beautiful tableaux and his cast was compromised by the Parsifal of Peter Hoffmann. In this Kubelik version, on the other hand, James King's Parsifal is superb: his tone is mellifluous but he brings intense drama to the role, particularly in his exchanges with Kundry in Act II, and he is able to differentiate his voice so that he sounds very youthful in Act I but suitably more mature by Act III. He is certainly the equal of Windgassen in the 1951 Knappertsbusch or of Jess Thomas in the 1962 Kna. Gurnemanz is sung by Kurt Moll (as in the Karajan). His voice has almost the fulness of tone of Ludwig Weber in the 1951 Kna, but there is more drama. For instance, in his aside to the knights on the subject of Kundry in Act I scene 1 ('Ja, wann oft lange' etc), he drops down to almost sotto voce before rising to an almost frightenening exhortation to Kundry herself ('He! Du! Hor mich und sag..'). Truly, a marvel. The Kundry of Yvonne Minton is more than adequate to the task, though perhaps no-one will ever match Martha Modl in the Kna '51. However, Yvonne Minton certainly knows how to vary the character of her voice so that she sounds almost like an alto and suitably unhinged in Act I, but more like a kind of super Flowermaiden in her exchanges with Parsifal in Act III. Perhaps Amfortas is the only weakness in this cast. Bernd Weikl never seems to bring off the full agony of the character; his suffering never truly alarms, but this is at least made up for by the superb orchestral accompaniments. One does miss George London in this role. But Matti Salminen as Titurel is superb. All of the relationships between the singers are incredibly dramatic and only the complete lack of stage or audience noise gives this away as a studio performance. As for the choruses, these are all of the highest standard and the Tolzer Knabenchor are particularly ethereal in Act I, where also the recording engineers have beautifully represented the different heights of the voices of youths and boys issuing from within the Grail dome. The orchestral playing is faultless throughout in terms of ensemble and tonal beauty and the players respond to every nuance in the text. The engineers have caught the sound of the orchestra most vividly and much can be heard of the score that is not apparent in many other recordings. The balance between singers and orchestra and choruses and orchestra is always just right. The bells, too, are thoroughly convincing. Finally, to the conducting of Rafel Kubelik. He avoids making the music too pretty at the expense of the drama, like Karajan and he avoids making the religious music of Act I (and particulary the Transformation Music) sound too histrionically ecstatic, as in the Solti version. However, his approach differs from that of Knappertsbusch, who adopts throughout a slow, reverent pulse, particularly in 1951 that gives the work a kind of transcendental organic unity. In this Kublelik version, there is just as much unity but it is more dramatic than transcendental, although it would be hard to find a more 'transcendental' sounding Act I scene 3 than this. Somehow, Kubelik gives the impression of knowing exactly where he is going with this music from the first bar. Yet unlike a Bohm, who achieves unity with consistently very fast tempi, or a Knappertsbusch, who achieves it with consistently very slow ones, Kubelik performs the truly miraculous feat of being able to maintain an overarching sense of structure and line while varying the tempi considerably and paying due attention to every detail throughout. In this connection, Kubelik gives an idea of how a Parsifal might have sounded under Furtwangler. In short, this must rank surely as the best available studio version of Parsifal and is a rival even to the famous Knappertsbusch Bayreuth performances.
So glad this Parsifal.has been released. Everything about this recording is beautiful. The singers are great, the orchestra and choir are amazing. Why this took more than 20 years to be released, (it was recorded in 1980) is a complete mystery. But luckily it is out in the world and if you love Parsifal do get this one. It's simply gorgeous
This recording has a magical quality that is somewhat absent in the previous two I have in my collection. The pace, dynamics and of course the singing is absolutely superb - almost like hearing the work from new. Until now, I was a major fan of the Solti version (in particular I was impressed by Frick's Guernamanz). I also have von Karajan which to me was disappointing and overrated on many forums. Hoffman was a bad choice for Parsifal. If Kubelick's recording had been available back in the 90's it would have stood alone on my shelf for a long time!
David Nice surveyed recordings of Wagner's Parsifal . He chose this recording as his First Choice recommendation:
WAGNER: Parsifal Kurt Moll (Gurnemanz), James King (Parsifal), Yvonne Minton (Kundry), Bernd Weikl (Amfortas), Franz Mazura (Klingsor), Matti Salminen (Titural), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Tolzer Knabenchor, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Rafael Kubelik (conductor) ARTS ARCHIVES 430272 (4CD mid-price)