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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882)
Set Svanholm (Parsifal); Astrid Varnay (Kundry); George London (Amfortas); Hans Hotter (Gurnemanz); Lawrence Davidson (Klingsor); Luben Vichey (Titurel); Jean Madeira (Voice from above); Genevieve Warner, Mildred Miller, Paul Franke, Gabor Carelli (Squires); James McCracken, Osie Hawkins (Knights); Lucine Amara, Maria Leone, Hertha Glaz, Heidi Krall, Jean Fenn, Margaret Roggerro (Flower Maidens)
Chorus & Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Fritz Stiedry
rec. live broadcast performance April 17, 1954, Metropolitan Opera, New York
Includes interval radio discussion [15:40] and closing announcements [1:07]
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO171 [4 CDs: 264:04]

This is an important Parsifal which has also been released on Melodram (LP, 1984) and Adonis previously (1998), plus a download from and on Walhalla, this last commanding quite a price on the second-hand market, so it is wonderful to have Pristine Classical throwing their hat into the ring in this beautifully transferred set, reviewed here from compact disc. It was broadcast by WABC and Andrew Rose at Pristine has achieved miracles of clarity in remastering it.

This is a rapid Parsifal: remember that the total timing given includes an interval talk and closing announcement. There is also the odd cut, including in Gurnemanz’s narratives, from “Unsres Königs Hut” to “Vor dem verwais’ten Heiligtum”. While there are some collectors who rightly see this as illuminating the work of the conductor Fritz Stiedry, it is perhaps for its historical value as presenting the great Hans Hotter’s first Gurnemanz that it is most valuable. There is another aspect that makes it notable: the Klingsor, Lawrence Davidson, was a last-minute replacement for Gerhard Pechner (apparently there was a delay to the beginning of the second act as Davidson prepared to go on).

It is important to note that, while we are a world away from the likes of Goodall in terms of speed here, it is rare that this Parsifal feels rushed; indeed, the Prelude to Act I has a real sense of space. There is real control here, too, particularly the strings at the very end. Stiedry takes his time, too, over the so-called Grail motif; but how he quickens our pulses when Wagner depicts, so graphically, the whirlwind first entrance of Kundry. It is high-octane stuff. The occasional bit of literalism aside (the orchestra around Gurnemanz’s “Jetzt auf, ihr Knaben!”), Stiedry reveals himself not only as an intelligent interpreter of Wagner but as a superlative orchestral trainer. 

The great Hotter is simply exceptional as Gurnemanz, full-toned, authoritative; the combination of Hotter and George London’s Amfortas is miraculous and unfailingly moving. However, it is the journey of the Innocent Fool himself which provides the thrust of the Bühnenweihfestspiel, and here we have Set Svanholm. Immediately, as we hear Parsifal boasting of his hunting prowess, we are reminded that Svanholm began his singing life as a baritone before debuting with Stockholm Royal Opera as Radamès (he was to be a regular at the Met from 1946 to 1956). The combination with Stiedry can be dynamite: the outcry “Tod, meine Mutter?” is greeted by an orchestra accurate but ablaze. His stamina is remarkable, but more, he takes us from the boy to the spiritually-enlightened man via a strong, mature interpretation of the title role.

The most overtly dramatic (as opposed to dramatically ritualistic) portion of Wagner’s score is the second act, where Parsifal awakes via the medium of the temptress Kundry’s kiss.

Kundry is a complex figure, her incarnations of sorceresses listed by Klingsor as part of his rousing of her. The kiss, for her, serves to break the binding that controls her in Klingsor’s realm.

Lawrence Davidson makes a fair fist of Klingsor in this second act, occasionally eating his words (Stiedry is rapid, remember) but emanating some authority (“Dein Meister ruf”). He just holds his own in his dialogue with Kundry prior to the seduction, but how the two main roles excel thereafter. Varnay’s singing of Parsifal’s name (the first time we hear it) is magnificent, emerging from the texture and yet inherent within it a sense of power and the inevitability of the seduction. Varnay has real steel to her voice, right from the first act, yet her instrument is malleable enough to convey the myriad nuances of the role. Svanholm’s sense of wonder mixed with confusion at both what is external to him and that which is internal is palpable. His initial answer to Kundry is tender and shows the first inklings of the enlightenment of which she is to be the catalyst. Varnay’s “Ich sah das Kind’ is one of the finest out there, gripping, involving, believable, manipulative. That hint of steel in her voice reminds us there is an ulterior, Freudian motive to her story, that of her seduction of Parsifal vis his memories of his mother. In this act, Stiedry gives Varnay all the time in the world to weave her spell, this “Ich sah das Kind” taken at just the right slowly swinging, hypnotic pace. The sheer power of Svanholm’s pain (“Erlöser, rette mich”) is all-encompassing; Varnay’s plunge from top to bottom of her register as she laughs at Christ on the cross is properly spine-chilling. 

Again, Stiedry allows the opening of the final act to breathe. Some choral moments of this act do not go to plan (it is live, after all) but the cumulative momentum crossed with a sense of ritual does convey the desperate majesty of the situation. Stiedry can, it must be said, be bracingly brisk. The choruses themselves (male in the outer acts and of course a group –or whatever the collective noun is, bunch perhaps? – of Flower Maidens in the second act) are excellent in their sound.

Luben Vichy’s Titurel is perhaps not the finest assumption of the role but has gravitas nevertheless. Of the smaller roles, the Squires leave a bit to be desired; but then again, they are in hyper-august company.

The Pristine transfer is remarkable veering towards the miraculous, allowing through huge orchestral detail (try the Transformation Music) while conveying the individual vocal characteristics of the protagonists.

Reviewed from compact discs, Pristine Classical also offers a variety of download options for FLACs and MP3s. While Copies of the Walhall pressing of this performance go for astronomical prices, it is difficult to imagine a finer restoration than Pristine’s (the Walhall included a Walküre Act I with Varnay and Svanholm from the Met in the same year).

There is a lovely quarter-hour interval talk filling out the second disc, which includes Rose Bampton and Charles Kullman in conversation and is presented by Boris Goldowsky, complete with piano examples: Bampton suggests the struggle of good and evil is crucial and focuses on Kundry’s journey to redemption through spiritual love.

It is obviously Parsifal’s time, given the excellence of the recently, posthumously published book by Roger Scruton. Certainly its profundity offers a level of spiritual immersion and reflection necessary in troubled times, while for the aficionado this Parsifal has plenty to offer, particularly from the triumvirate of Svanholm, Hotter and Varnay.

Colin Clarke

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