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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 2 January 2016
I have some twenty recordings of this miraculous work but this one was the first I ever listened to on its release back in 1981 and it has always set a gold standard for me acoustically, if not artistically, too. Certainly it leads the field sonically amongst stereo recordings; as much as I love versions by Kubelik, Barenboim and Jordan, and am happy to go from the extremes of Levine's marmoreal timing to the propulsion of Boulez and Kegel, when it comes to choosing one desert-island stereo recording this earliest digital account by Karajan remains my first choice. The spatial effects of the tolling bells and the distant boys' choir up in the dome of the abbey are extraordinarily atmospheric and there are several spine-tingling moments in this reading which are unequalled; I think particularly of the Transformation Music, the Good Friday Music and the moment of Parsifal's baptism when Gurnemanz intones the anthem "Gesegnet sei". Karajan achieves a cumulative intensity and, yes, a sense of spirituality which no other conductor, not even my beloved Knappertsbusch, engenders. This set was not remastered until its issue recently as part of the big Karajan Opera box; presumably DG saw no reason to do so given the depth, richness and balance of the sound achieved by Karajan's regular team of producers and engineers headed by Michael Glotz and Günter Hermanns. Oddly, nowhere in the booklet, despite its comprehensiveness, including many photos, essays and a libretto, are the recording dates and venue given: they are December 1979 and January/April/July 1980 in the Philharmonie.

Speaking of Kna, my favourite among his many live recordings is the last 1964 performance from Bayreuth with Jon Vickers on the Orfeo label, but that is,sadly, even at this late stage, in mono and this is an opera which ideally demands that time and space be conveyed via the stereo medium. Furthermore, no orchestra rivals the Klangand virtuosity of the BPO under Karajan at their peak.

Some of the singing here is ideal, too: Kurt Mol's warm, resonant, buzzing sound effortlessly conjures up the nobility and avuncular wisdom of Gurnemanz; his dark bass is far steadier than Ludwig Weber, never gusty or wobbly, and more similar to my other favourite bass in this role, Robert Lloyd. He is matched by José van Dam's agonised yet searingly beautiful singing of Amfortas; he does not have George London's power but his intensity of his suffering, when conveyed in such a lovely tone, is almost disturbing.The other low male voice is Siegmund Nimsgern, who uses the slight break in his vocal production to suggest that Klingsor is himself cracked. Controversy regarding Karajan's casting usually centres on Dunja Vejzovic and Peter Hofmann. It is true that she is tremulous and sometimes shrill but her vocal acting is superb and she effectively conveys Kundry's constant hysteria and torment more effectively than any other singer apart from Callas in the Italian version under Gui and Yvonne Minton, another seasoned Wagnerian who is unafraid to writhe vocally and scream. Hofmann's tenor is always threatening to begin wobbling but hit is still mostly under control here,even if a times you can hear the strain; he is certainly no worse than, say, Kollo, and nowhere near as bad as his detractors claim, even if he is no Vickers. His "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" is actually very good: clean, clear and heroic. It is not even a very long part, in any case. The supporting cast, headed by an imposing Titurel from Victor van Halem, is very good; I love Barbara Hendricks' sultry sex-kitten of a First Flower Maiden.

Perfect this is not but it is still a deeply satisfying, profoundly moving account in first rate sound.
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on 5 July 2012
After six detailed reviews, there is little I can add to the wise (and not so wise) words already written about this release above, so I won't ! Instead, this is what the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter had to say about it:

"An exceptionally successful release from Karajan. Here he reveals some remarkable insights. Time itself seems to be conducting the music ... What grandeur Karajan is capable of achieving! It's enough for him to will it so. What humanity and depth! Thank you for this third act! This was the real Wagner." (from: Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations ).

Who am I to disagree ?! As for that Third Act, the aural recreation of the bells of Montsalvat, doom-laden and terrifying, echoing through the corridors and halls of Titurel's castle have to be heard to be believed. Remarkable.
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on 5 October 2004
I will make this a brief review, as much of the strong points have already been covered in the rest of the reviews of this item. I will focus on the singers.
I will just take a moment to praise the basses in this performance. Kurt Moll and José van Dam are perfect as Gurnemanz and Amfortas. Especially Moll is superb as the fatherly, all-knowing Gurnemanz. Sigmund Nimsgern is also very good.
I usually find Peter Hoffmann a bit of a let down as Heldentenor, and although this is better than his Erik in "Holländer" for Karajan, he is by no means up there with the likes of Wolfgang Windgassen or René Kollo. Dunca Vejovic is an interesting Kundry, although her very dramatic voice doesn't really blend well with the rest of the cast.
This is very good indeed. Moll and van Dam alone makes up, what Hoffmann lacks (again, as with the Karajan "Holländer". These two basses suit each other brilliantly in Wagner). Even the smaller parts are cast with such magnificent forces as Inga Nielsen (Blumenmaid), Hannah Schwarz (Stimme) and Georg Tichy (Knappe).
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on 1 April 2001
I'm not a big fan of Karajan but I love his DDD recording of Wagner's great Eastertime opera. The libretto is more repellent than usual but the music is certainly Wagner's most exquisite. It's an extraordinary work filled with music of such intense beauty it's almost painful. The last Act is simply amazing from beginning to end and the contrast between Act One and Three and the central act set in Klingsor's castle is extremely effective. The only reservation I have about the singers is Hoffman's sometimes wobbly Parsifal but all the rest are superb. For a sample listen to the 'seduction scene' in Act Two between Kundry and Parsifal or the final, transcendent chorus in Act Three. The BPO play in THE most ravishing way imaginable and the sound quality is faultless. Maybe Karajan DOES focus more on the music than the drama but the overall effect is riveting.
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on 6 December 2014
. . . a great conductor and orchestra take central roles . . . Karajan's performance is fitful in its dramatic conviction.

Mike Ashman, Peter Quantrill, William Mann, Gramophone (London) / 01. May 2010

. . Karajan is one of the greatest conductors -- it's an extraordinary recording.

Charles Simonyi, Gramophone (London) / 01. June 2012
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on 3 March 2001
Wow! This recording has to be one of the most beatiful recordings of a Wagner opera ever made.
Herbert von Karajan is renound for producing beautiful sounds in just about every piece he recorded, but here he created something very special. His tempo is fairly slow, but this is precisely what this opera requires to bring out its majesty and beauty. The recording is DDD and the sound is understandably wonderful and clear.
The cast is fantastic all round. Peter Hoffmann plays the title role, and he gives a magnificant performance as 'the innocent fool, enlightened by compassion'. Van Dam is brilliant as Amfortas. Nimsgern as Klingsor and Vejzovic as Kundry are wonderful (Vejzovic gives a particulary fantastic account of Kunsdry's manic laugh!). The Berlin Philharmoniker are on their usual top form in the orchestral playing and the Chor der Deutchen Oper are stunning in some of the most beautiful choral sections ever written for opera.
I listened to these CDs as if under some sort of spell cast by the music. Every section seemed to glow in beauty. From the exquisitly crafted and beautifully played prelude of Act I to the final chorus of Act III which seems to lift its sounds beyond earth and to heaven itself, this is an awe inspiring set. I listened to all 4 CDs in one sitting, unable to stop and not wanting to be deprived of the music.
Wagner's music in Parsifal is very spiritual. It was the last opera he wrote and listening to it you can here his thoughts and feel his emotions as he wrote this final encapsulating piece.
I urge, implore, and beseech whoever reads this review to buy this recording. It is truly a beautiful set. I am sorry to use the word beautiful so often, but it is really the only word which describes this music and this recording. Wonderful!!!
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on 11 February 2009
Quite possibly the greatest opera recording ever made. At least to my mind. I feel sorry for those men and women who think that the point of Parsifal is to ramp up the drama, when the truth of the matter is that Wagner has created something here quite extraordinary. He has created a spiritual journey that leads a path into our very own hearts and minds. As a well seasoned opera enthusiast I find no better interpretation for spiritual depth than Karajan. This guy seems to find a zen like calm, much like Amfortas's leafy glade which in this recording is both compelling and beautiful in equal measure. P.S - I'm still bemused by the plaudits DG Thielmann's Parsifal received. It was a hopeless, bland run through, just like Boulez, who for my money is quite possibly the worst Wagner conductor ever.
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on 13 August 2016
Never mind how great a conductor can be - and Karajan undoubtedly is a great conductor - it is impossible to deliver and create a memorable performance without strong singers. Now, knowing Karajan's often peculiar choices in terms of singers, one could argue that he must have had his good reasons for assembling this cast. However, let's be honest, here no one is up to the job, quite simply. I totally agree with Klingsor Tristan's review (3 June 2015): 'a dull lot for most part'. Peter Hofmann... well we all know what kind of career he had. Here is a singer who was 'invented' in the mind of someone, who decided he was to become a heldentenor. His voice has no body and his vocal 'technique' is non-existent (he is perhaps slightly better in the Bayreuth live performance with Levine). Vejzovic - another Karajan's personal discovery who disappeared from the opera scene after Karajan's death - often produces the most unpleasant and hollow sounds (the E5 of 'Gelobter Held' literally makes me sick) and sounds more like a wild cat on heat. Van Dam's beautiful timbre is - as always - terribly self indulgent. He will be remembered here for portraying the most boring Amfortas on record: even in the wonderful solo at the end of the third act he is sleep inducing where he should make the listener want for more. Moll is merely passable (I remember Sawallisch once said that Moll sang Wagner without having the vocal prerequisites to do so) but he tends to be rather nasal when singing high notes. Nimsgern is the only one who stands of, at least, bringing something new to the character: pain and sufferance. He is not the usual villain and evil magician but the man who could not serve the Graal as his lust wouldn't allow him. Karajan also does strange things, starting from the Prelude: why on earth would want to make the 32 notes of the strings almost inaudible, when Wagner wanted them to create a golden glimmer like that of the mosaics in St. Mark in Venice? The often raved about 'vertical stereophony' of the beginning of the Graal scene can perhaps be heard on high end equipments but not on what ordinary people own. I am giving 3 stars only for the prestigious conductor Karajan was and the BPO.
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on 8 June 2013
According to some, this triumph should have been thrice impossible.

Who would have thought that Wagner would so successfully tinker with the yarns of the Old Firm, much to the disgust of his buddy Freddy Nietzsche who unleashed Greek Fire in response? The assimilation is so acute as to be scary. Wagner becomes the Fifth Evangelist in his exposition of damnation, redemption and transfiguration. For the duration of the opera, who can resist such kerygma?

Who would have thought that Herbert von Karajan, Mr Slick Brilliance in the eyes of some, would venture so far into the realm of the spiritual? In actual fact, the question is a furphy. His Bruckner was passport. In his quest, Herbie is assisted no end by the Berlin Philharmonic, still at the peak of its powers. The Transfiguration Scene, cavernous as it is, is one of the wonders of the world.

And who would have thought that at the dawn of the digital age, the DG engineers would so nail this recording, made in the dreaded acoustic of the Philharmonie? It has never been remastered since 1980; one can understand Deutsche Grammphon's reluctance to do so. Why bother?

The performance is anchored by the magisterial Gurnemanz of Kurt Moll - I love the gruffness he brings to proceedings - and Jose van Dam's Amfortas which is the very definition of anguish. Dunja Vejzovic might be an acquired taste for some but one could argue that hysteria is inherent to Kundry as a character. No-one is going to pretend that Hofmann is the greatest singer in the world; here, he does not fail: the wobble is minimised. His lack of projection notwithstanding, he does convey Parsifal's "bug-eyed wonder". Siegmund Niemsgern as Klingsor brings Dennis Hopper to mind: more crazy than evil. He sings well.

I suspect that the greatest Parsifal in existence is the Kna from 1951. If sonics rule that inadmissable, this performance will see you out.
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This recording is almost worth buying for the booklet alone. How many recordings of Parsifal have you come across which include photos of the entire cast, even the flowermaidens? Better still, there is a quite superb English language essay, 'Parsifal' by Lucy Beckett. Very insightful.

And Karajan's much admired, award-winning recording? Well, it's better than Barenboim's with the same orchestra, and that's in spite of the fact that Karajan's account of Act One is irredeemably dull. Unless I counted wrong it's only a couple of minutes longer than the Knappertsbusch version (1962) but it feels infinitely longer. It only occurred to me in the third hour what might in fact be happening. Wasn't Karajan's Pelleas et Melisande (EMI) accused by some of sounding too Wagnerian? Well, here it is the reverse.

Parsifal made to sound too Debussyian.

Kurt Moll's Gurnemanz, whispering so many of his lines in Act One, is quite tedious and very meek, as if Karajan had decided Gurnemanz was an old monk, not at all an old knight. Considerably more animation, more emotion, is achieved by Knappertsbusch in the theatre than Karajan under studio conditions: conditions which render his interpretation maybe too reverential. Things begin to improve in the temple scene; a real sense of cathedral ambience, but is it the ambience of the empty cathedral visited by a tourist? Van Dam does manage to conceive some sense of drama, and overall the final scene works well.

It was probably as early as the sixties that commentators began talking of the 'predictable' splendour of HvK's Berlin Phil, as of a thing overfamiliar and dangerously close to beside the point. They are of course mightily impressive here - the opening Prelude extremely beautiful and almost requiring an interval to follow - though I did wonder whether the conductor was deliberately holding them back in Act One to compensate for his singers' whispering. The early digital isn't quite consistent but, as I said before, better than Barenboim's where dynamics shift rapidly from inaudible to "Bloody Hell!!!"

More problematic for anyone who has heard a live theatre recording of Parsifal is the very palpable sense here, especially in the Flowermaidens scene, of singers not singing to each other; not being characters responding to each others words. Just voices passing in the night. Vejzovic and Hofmann are very good, though certainly not great, as Kundry and Parsifal, but the second act has unsurprisingly more life in it, including a curiously sympathetic Klingsor (Nimsgern). Yet still, things become rather dreamily-bland with the maidens and even with Kundry's appearance as seductress - I got the distinct impression mezzo and conductor were trying to summon the pure voice of G. Janowitz (an odd choice). There are times when the reading becomes a tad melodramatic: there's an awkward pause before Parsifal's "Erlosung, Frevlerin, biet' ich auch dir". Pitching into the conflict, the orchestra's massive sonority a bit over-emphatic. By the final act I was starting to tire of what was by then sounding rather precious and self indulgent.

It is a recording well worth hearing and one that gives you the fullest appreciation of the orchestral score, if not the best interpretation of it. The best studio Parsifal I've heard, but not even the best by Karajan: check this out - Wagner: Parsifal. I think DG should put the performance of the opening Prelude with the contents of this CD Wagner: Tristan und Isolde; Tannhäuser; Die Meistersinger - Orchestral Music. All or nothing performances! Even on the back of Salzburg performances the cast and conductor can't summon the dramatic intensity, beauty of interpretation, spirituality and sense of purpose which is the hallmark of the very best and when it comes to Wagner's Parsifal, nothing less than Knappertsbsuch will do: Wagner: Parsifal
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