Above: Pierre Boulez
While we were discussing The Met's recent new production of PARSIFAL, my friend Dmitry asked me if I'd ever heard the "fast PARSIFAL...": the Pierre Boulez commercial release of the opera as performed at the 1970 Bayreuth Festival. He told me that "...it fits on three discs!" I had to admit that I was unfamiliar with it.
I've never had any problem with 'slow' PARSIFALs. My first experience of hearing this opera live was a Met broadcast in 1966 conducted by Georges Pretre; I finally experienced it in-house in 1974, conducted by William Steinberg. I suppose both of these performances would be considered 'standard' in terms of speed and duration.
In 1979, James Levine conducted PARSIFAL at The Met for the first time. Reviews and personal experience indicate his performances felt a bit slower than what we'd been used to experiencing, but not unconventional. In 1988 Maestro Levine conducted PARSIFAL at Bayreuth and the New York Times described his conducting as: "...slow, but the performance was coherent, caressing and dramatic." Levine's 1991 Met performances were considered "languorous", but a decade later when he conducted the opera (with Violeta Urmana making a stunning Met debut as Kundry) he seemed to be moving away from the hyper-extended feeling.
The 2001 performances were the last ones Levine conducted (to date) at The Met. Valery Gergiev and Peter Schneider led revivals in 2003 and 2006 respectively; their conducting was not considered extreme in any way. Daniele Gatti in the 2013 new production at The Met favored slow tempi which were sustained by a marvelous sense of mystery.
It was just after hearing the Gatti and Asher Fisch performances at The Met that Dmitry gave me a copy of the Boulez. I must say from the moment I began to listen to it, it really seized my imagination. Far from feeling over-hasty or superficial, it seemed to me to give the opera a great sense of the underlying passion and commitment of the Grail knights. Although in the opera the brotherhood have fallen on bad times, with an ailing Titurel and a wounded Amfortas in charge, their devotion to the Grail is steadfast as they wait for the 'holy fool' who will be their savior. In the Boulez recording we get a real sense of the vitality of the fraternity, beneath the layers of piety and encroaching despair. PARSIFAL, which can seem preserved in amber sometimes, here acquires a great feeling of urgency.
I played the first act several times before I was able to pry myself away from the Grail temple and reach Klingsor's magic garden. Boulez's Act I is in fact somewhat addictive, for me anyway. I've played the first act probably ten times now; for a while I was playing it every day.
Franz Crass (above) was an important singer who never sang at The Met. He worked with and recorded for major conductors but never seems to have developed the type of memorable career in Wagner bass roles that bassos like Gottlob Frick and Ludwig Weber attained. Of more recent singers of Gurnemanz, Kurt Moll's resplendant richness of voice (the voice of God!) or Rene Pape's gorgeously modulated vocalism might make Crass's recording here seem merely workmanlike. But the more I listened to it the more I liked his Gurnemanz. His long monologs dominate the opera's opening scene, and they are very beautifully accomplished by Crass and Boulez.
The second act - the operatic act - opens with an impetuously-paced prelude, and Klingsor is sung with vivid dramatic intensity by Donald McIntyre. Dame Gwyneth Jones and James King spend their voices lavishly in a grand-scale performance that also finds them both turning subtle phrases when the words inspire them. The seduction scene smoulders and the tenor's rejection of Kundry's love as he recalls the suffering of Amfortas is powerfully expressive. Her plan gone awry, Kundry turns against Parsifal with thrilling cries of "Irre! Irre!" from Dame Gwyneth, and then Mr. King destroys the magic garden with the climactic phrase "Mit diesem Zeichen bann' ich deinen Zauber!", ringingly delivered. On this recording of PARSIFAL all of King's singing is as I always remember it from many experiences at The Met: steady and true. And in the third act his long interchange with Gurnemanz becomes increasingly poetic: excellent and affecting vocalism from both James King and Franz Crass.
Dame Gwyneth is a singer you will either like...or not. For me, whatever problems of wavery tone or notes slow to stabilize she may experience on a given night are offset by the volumious, feminine warmth of her singing. She sings with prodigious tonal allure and can be very subtle verbally. Her singing of the long Act II narrative is suffused with an unsettling erotic glow.
Above: Thomas Stewart (costumed for WALKURE) with conductor Herbert von Karajan
Thomas Stewart was a great favorite of mine during his long career at the Met (from 1966 to 1993, with a break between 1984 to 1991). He was my first Dutchman, Kurwenal, Jochanaan and Amfortas, and a memorable Wotan in RHEINGOLD, Ford in FALSTAFF (with his wife Evelyn Lear as his wife Alice Ford), Balstrode in GRIMES, Sprecher in ZAUBERFLOETE, four villains in HOFFMANN and the Music Master in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS. His sound was house-filling and carried a deep sense of humanity. Initially I felt that the voices of Stewart and Crass were not as vividly differentiated in this Boulez PARSIFAL as I would have hoped; but repeated listenings brought out the distinctiveness of both.
Donald NcIntyre is a dastardly Klingsor, full of venom, and Karl Ridderbusch a distinguised Titurel.
I feel that I have re-discovered PARSIFAL with this recording. It seems to me refreshingly 'alive'. The long conversational scenes seem free of a sense of being over-burdened while the scenes of ritual do not lose any of their profundity; the opera is as moving and grand as it has ever sounded to me. Boulez's realization is more about pacing than tempi; he has an instinctive feeling for weight, proportion and orchestral textures. And so this recording is a welcome addition to my collection and serves as a vivid counterbalance to the
more conventional - and marvelous - versions of Wagner's final opera that I'm familiar with.
The principal cast of the Boulez recording:
Amfortas: Thomas Stewart
Titurel: Karl Ridderbusch
Gurnemanz: Franz Crass
Parsifal: James King
Klingsor: Donald McIntyre
Kundry: Dame Gwyneth Jones
More information about PARSIFAL: scroll down once you reach this link for comparative timings of various recordings and high-profile performances of the opera.
You can purchase the Boulez recording of PARSIFAL here.