An Interesting Historic “Parsifal”


WAGNER: Parsifal / George London, bs-bar (Amfortas); Arnold van Mill, bs (Titurel); Josef Greindl, bs (Gurnemanz); Ramón Vinay, ten (Parsifal); Toni Blankenheim, bar (Klingsor); Martha Mödl, sop (Kundry); Georgine von Milinkovic, alto (Voice); Paula Lechner, sop (Squire 1/Flower Maiden 3); Elisabeth Schärtel, mezzo (Squire 2/Flower Maiden 6); Hans Krotthammer, ten (Squire 3); Gerhard Stolze, ten (Squire 4); Ilse Hollweg, sop (Flower Maiden 1); Friedl Pöltinger, sop (Flower Maiden 2); Dorothea Siebert, mezzo (Flower Maiden 4); Lotte Rysanek, sop (Flower Maiden 5); Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orch.; Hans Knappertsbusch, cond / Opera Depot OD 10811-4 (mono; live: Bayreuth, 1957)

This famous, or infamous, live recording of Wagner’s last opera has attained something of a legendary status over the decades despite its boxy mono sound, pops, crackles and bad tape noise due to the excellent all-star cast. Primary among these is George London, whose Amfortas is one of the most interesting ever committed to tape or disc, but there is also the super-intense Martha Mödl as the most complex and three-dimensional Kundry. Mödl, who got a late start to her career due to the Nazis (she refused to perform for them after her debut in the early ‘40s), pretty much blew out her voice by the late 1950s. Here she still has her high range—sort of, though not as solid as it was a couple of years earlier—but an incipient wobble has already started to creep in, but no matter when you have such an interesting characterization.

And here is an incentive for obtaining this recording ASAP. For this week only (April 20-27), you can download it for FREE from As soon as you go there you’ll get a pop-up window asking you to sign up for free newsletters and downloads. It’s well worth your time to do so if you really enjoy offbeat performances of mainstream operas. My taste in such is fairly limited, but I have ordered a few items from them in the past and am very pleased with their service.

There are other surprises in the cast as well: Chilean tenor-formerly-baritone-and-soon-to-be-basso Ramón Vinay in the title role, the highly versatile but vastly underrated baritone Toni Blankenheim as Klingsor, the outstanding German soprano Ilse Hollweg as the first Flower Maiden, Leonie Rysanek’s sister Lotte as another Flower Maiden and the great character tenor Gerhard Stolze as one of the Squires. The latter two don’t make that much of an impression in the context of the performance but they’re interesting nonetheless. In addition, Knappertsbusch, despite his slow pacing, conducts here with much more sweep and forward momentum than on his famous 1962 studio recording of the opera or the 1964 live performance with Jon Vickers as Parsifal.

As I say, however, the sound is really grit-level which, in a relatively quiet opera such as this, removes this performance from any serious competition for those who want a great recording of the opera. For that, I still recommend Daniel Barenboim’s outstanding Teldec recording with Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Siegfried Jerusalem as Parsifal, Matthias Hölle as Gurnemanz, José van Dam as Amfortas and Günter von Kannen as Klingsor. But if you turn up the treble on your stereo system, don’t make the volume loud enough to let the sound defects bother you and just let it play, you’ll be completely engrossed in this performance. The only weak performance here comes from veteran bass Josef Greindl as Gurnemanz. He had a rich, powerful instrument that never seemed to tire onstage no matter how long the role, but he was prone to a wobble that was sometimes not too bad (as in the 1955 Keilberth Götterdämmerung) and at other times quite awful, and here it is the latter although, as usual, his interpretation is fascinating as well.

Those who are mostly familiar with Vinay for his various performances of Otello, including those with Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Sir Thomas Beecham and Fritz Busch, it may come as a surprise to know that he also sang Wagner and did so at Bayreuth, but he was an exceptional stage actor and Wieland Wagner was very fond of him. His calling-card role at the Wagner shrine was Siegmund, but he could and did sing other roles as well: Tannhäuser, Tristan (also opposite Mödl) and Parsifal. Next to Vickers, I find his Parsifal the most interesting I’ve ever heard although, also like Vickers and Lauritz Melchior, he had more than a touch of the baritone in his sound. In fact, it was more of a “bari-tenor.” He had a good metallic buzz up top, but also a richness to his sound that permeated the entire range.

So there you have it. As I explained in a reply to one commentator on my blog, I rarely recommend any mono recordings of Wagner unless they are of great dramatic quality and/or historic interest, and this Parsifal qualifies on both counts. Grab it while you can!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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