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Thirty-five years on, it still leads the field
on 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.