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Wagner: Parsifal
Richard [Classical] Wagner, Christian Thielemann, Bühnerorchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Wagner: Parsifal
Genre: Classical


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Radiant performance amid the clatter of stage noise
S. Lachterman | Hillsdale NY | 08/02/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This new Parsial is a truly visionary performance by Christian Thielemann who never fails to amaze. His reading is both pointillist in his illumination of score's mosaic of tone colors and, at the same time, contrapuntally aware of the music's complex layers. The set's only drawback is the unusual amount of stage noise that not only has been allowed to exist, but has been weirdly amplified rather than digitally squelched. Perhaps DG's engineers wanted an "Amfortas Effect" by lancing this ethereal performance with a shaft of the palpably metallic. What are those sounds? (on-stage swords?, an hare Krishna procession? ). For Parsifal fans like me, who love to bathe in the grandeur of the bell-brass-timpani processions of Act I, the shock of hearing "kling soars," like so many pieces of fallen silverware, is irritating enough to retire the entire set on a first hearing. I've since gotten over this distraction, but it has taken time and patience. As to the singers, this set offers an unconventional package. Placido Domingo, in spite of his odd accent, is a heartfelt and satisfying Parsifal. Throughout the four hours, the other singers give a fresh perspective to the expected role casting. One never finds Franz-Josef Selig's Gurnemanz tedious or terminally vatic. His varied and athletic voice has a light upper register and an affectingly rich lower one. Waltraud Meier's Kundry is also full of surprises. Unexpected tenderness, and, turning on a dime, hysteria. In all, one never thinks of this Parsifal as the sanctimonious German Easter Parade that one sometimes hears. Thielemann effectively revitalizes this work without sacrificing an ounce of it's rich beauty. Keep this set with your Knappertsbusch and your Boulez."
Good modern sound and very good value
Nick D. | Montreal, Quebec | 05/31/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I bought this mainly on price -- it was fifty dollars in my local record store, on promotion. I've been looking for a Parsifal set for a while, and I know everyone says the 1962 Knappertsbusch one is "the" one to get, but still... The choice these days seems to be between either "historic" old live recordings or modern live ones (and to compare them is almost like comparing apples and oranges, given the changes in vocal and recording styles). This is a modern live recording from June 2005 at the Vienna Staatsoper. So it fits in with the current vogue for live classical recordings, with the modern technology making for a pretty decent sound. The recording was made by Austrian radio -- so the sound is like a very good modern radio broadcast without any of the limitations of FM radio. (It's at least as good (sound-wise) as that Don Carlos on EMI from the Chatelet, e.g.) This means there is a fair bit of stage noise (which is nicely atmospheric most of the time, but becomes a bit too much during the grail-supper scene at the end of Act One). I must say I am very impressed overall -- I've seen Parsifal three times, twice at the Bastille and once at Covent Garden, so I know what a good performance is supposed to sound like (although I've not seen it at Bayreuth, alas). I saw Domingo as Parsifal at the Bastille and he is somewhat ridiculous in this role, but thankfully this opera is (for me) all about Gurnemanz. I've seen Rootering and Tomlinson in that role, but Franz-Josef Selig is really good in a very different way -- I only knew his Bach recordings before this, but I found his Gurnemanz a pleasure to listen to -- clear, not too heavy, and often (not always) with a warmth and ease to the voice. Waltraud Meier is also good as Kundry. Falk Struckmann's Amfortas is also worth hearing. Overall the vocal style is lighter than on the older recordings, as you'd expect from a recording made last summer. And there's a realistic balance between the voices and the orchestra, which I like (i.e. voices get lost slightly in forte passages). The recording was edited from more than one performance (as is normal now), but on the whole I'd say this is a realistic image of a performance, rather than an ideal studio version. Thielemann is less "in your face" as a conductor than, say, Rattle (whose Covent Garden Parsifal was really startling, almost too interesting -- and why was that never released as a live recording?) but he still manages to bring out nuances in the score (for me at least). Although it will surely not be regarded as a classic recording, this release represents good value for money (at the 50-60 dollar range) and presents a modern and perfectly listenable alternative to both the insipid early-digital recordings and the somewhat boxy sound of those revered late 50s/ early 60s recordings. ( I've given it 5 stars because of the value-for-money factor)."
A Parsifal of Interest, but Not an Unqualified Success.
L. Lubin | NY, NY | 09/11/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"There was a time, not too many decades ago, when musicians did not dare to record the greatest, most difficult works until they were deeply experienced and had already proven they had something to say about the work. Here we have a perplexing mix of the veteran and the neophyte, not always to best effect.
Christian Thielemann has proven himself to be one of the Great Wagner-Strauss conductors of our time, although our times are not especially fertile in that regard. Still, he is highly persuasive: his sense of pace is excellent, his attention to detail is exceptional. (I do not know how many times he had done the opera previously. His first Bayreuth Ring a year later was extraordinary.)While he is a modern conductor in his primary attention to overall orchestral blend, he is not afraid to seperate choirs and solo lines to vary textures. No other conductor I have heard in this work brings out the quotation from Act III of Die Goetterdaemmerung during Amfortas' Act I scene 1 arioso. Ha! Never knew there was one, did you? Neither had I noticed it until I heard this performance. (If you must know, at the words "wohl labt mich auch die Welle" there are two bars of Rhinemaiden music, the harmony inverted.)

Placido Domingo has made quite a name for himself as a Wagner tenor, despite the fact that he has only sung three roles on stage; the rest were learned for recordings. He was singing Lohengrin in the Sixties in Germany. (Tapes of a Hamburg production have circulated on and off for years, demonstrating his odd mix of german and latin vowels. I have it on the authority of an assistant conductor on the production that on opening night he forgot the words and ran offstage in tears.)His Siegmund was rightly well regarded, and suited him like a glove. Alas, he has outgrown both roles by now. Parsifal is also an excellent fit for him, as is well documented in various CD and DVD recordings. By now his molten golden voice has darkened to a gorgeous burnished bronze, and his German has improved considerably, but there is a sense of greater effort (not strain) in his singing. He is wholly in command of the role, and yet is not completely convincing. He no longer can portray a callow youth at this point, and sometimes overplays a point to compensate, but in Act III he is magnificent, rising to the climaxes with real grandeur. Yet he never attains the palpable spiritual transport of Melchior, Jess Thomas or Jon Vickers.

Waltraud Meier owns the role of Kundry in every house were she has sung it, undoubtedly the successor to Christa Ludwig and Yvonne Minton. She, too, has recorded the role many times, including her very first. In this performance her voice sounds a little tired and pinched, always a danger of live recordings. I find her more successful as the Act II seductress, where her natural sensuality (have you seen this woman on stage?) more than compensates for any signs of strain. She is vocally just a little too tame as the "loathely damoiselle."

Wagner wrote the role of Gurnemanz with great understanding of the stamina required: Gurnemanz sings nearly uninterrupted for 45 minutes of the hour and a half he is onstage in the 1st act. Then he has time for a shower and a nap before the 3rd act, where he sings for most of another hour, ending with the massive Good Friday's Spell. Much of the music is quiet, with little intrumentation, in a quasi-recitativo style that blossoms into broader arioso singing and retreats back again, often in the same measure. Only rarely at climactic moments does the singer fully open up. The real trick for the artist is to find the balance, since there is no effective change in the notation of the music, it is inherent in Wagner's musical grammar as the melodic line drifts from one leitmotivic fragment to the next.

Unfortunately, Franz-Josef Selig does not always get this. There is much to admire in his work here, but it seems to me to be a beginner's performance. He has a lieder-singer's sense of detail, shaping each syllable, sometimes overdoing it. And he seems overly careful of his top notes, lightening the voice to avoid pulling up too much weight. There is an inherent thickness in his voice that he seems be fighting against. All of this is fine in good measure, but one wearies of listening to him being careful, attacking each line softly and swelling the volume a little. And there come the times where one must just open up and SING! dammit! and that doesn't happen. Nor can he produce the kind of pianissimo to float the visionary and prophetic passages. Gurnemanz is not a role for young voices. One can begin learning it when young, and gradually learn to sing it, so that when one is vocally and artistically mature enough to present it to the world one can do so without fear. Herr Selig has the materials to be a great Wagner bass, but he is not there yet.

Falk Struckmann(not Felix, as another reviewer has identified him) is a marvelous singing actor, a great Wozzeck, and Thielemann's Wotan at Bayreuth. Here he is a bit unsteady at first, probably because he's lying on a litter. In the temple scenes he's stronger, although the slow tempo of "Wehvolles Erbe" softens the convulsive qualities of Wagner's spiky vocal line. He holds out the high G just enough (Wagner wrote an eighth note) to avoid distorting the phrase. There is great variety in the vocal color, too. In the third act he rises to tragic heights.

Ain Anger sings Titurel's few lines well, but his voice sounds so far forward in the aural spectrum that he sounds like he's perched on the prompter's box, so Wagner's specified effect of a "voice from the grave" is ignored. Amfortas sounds much farther away.

Wolfgang Bankl as Klingsor and the Flowermaidens are handled compentently, if unremarkably. The ensemble is a little ragged compared to a studio recording. The four squires and two knights are also handled well enough by Vienna's younger singers, except for the more experienced John Dickie as the 2nd Knight, they sound like they are trying too hard. The Vienna Staatsoper chorus is, of course, one of the great choruses of the world, and continue that tradition.

The much-commented on clanking of the Grail Knights' armor is as much a fault of the designer as of the engineers. Knights do not wear armor to refectory, and certainly not to the Holy Presence of the most sacred relic of Christendom! As Gurnemanz tells Parsifal in Act III "Quick, doff thy armor! Sicken not the Lord who today bars every weapon; his Holy Blood bids to atonement every sinner!" However, the engineers seem to be amplifying certain features selectively. In point of fact, the New York Times ran an article about this feature of the recording. Parabolic microphones, the equivalent of follow-spots were used to keep individual voices front and center. This also has the effect of a camera pan-and-tracking shot: the foreground remains stationary while the background moves. At times, this causes the orchestra to seem to move, too. I find it irritating.

So I would not say this is a must have Parsifal, but there is much of value for the specialist or collector.