Wagner: Parsifal - Janowski
PentaTone Classics PTC 5186401 (4 discs)
Classical - Opera
Christian Elsner (Parsifal)
Franz-Josef Selig (Gurnemanz)
Michelle DeYoung (Kundry & Stimme aus der Hohe)
Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas)
Elke Wilm Schulte (Klingsor)
Dimitry Ivashchenko (Titurel)
Clemens Bieber, Tuomas Pursio (Gralsritter)
Michael Smallwood, Timothy Fallon (Knappen)
Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping (Ruping), Lani Poulson, Sophia Klußmann (Klussmann), Olivia Vermeulen, Ulrike Schneider (Blumenmadchen)
Marek Janowski (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - March 19, 2012
The third issue in PentaTone's ambitious project to record ten mature Wagner operas by the time of the composer's bicentenary in 2013 proves to be the finest so far released. The live recording was made on April 8, 2011 in the Philharmonie, Berlin, with an exceptional international cast of soloists under the direction of Marek Janowski and the superb contribution of the Rundfunkchor, Berlin, a vital component in the success of this undertaking.
Unlike the two earlier releases – 'Die Fliegende Holländer' and 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' – 'Parsifal', Wagner's drama of redemption, has competition from two recent recordings on SACD. These are Gergiev's mesmerising account on the Mariinsky label and a finely sung concert performance conducted by Jaap van Zweden on Challenge Classics; both of which are very different from the one under consideration.
In Act 1, the elderly knight Gurnemanz enigmatically tells Parsifal 'Du siehst mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit' ( You see my son, time here becomes space), and for any conductor of this long opera, establishing both convincing tempi and a flexible flow within these chosen tempi is a supreme challenge. Thanks both to this conductor's clear-sighted overview of the piece, born of his vast experience conducting Wagner in the theatre, and his unerring musicianship, Janowski's generally fleet pacing of the work delivered with the utmost conviction is disarmingly convincing.
Comparing Janowski 's timings for each Act with those of Gergiev and van Zweden will perhaps raise a few eyebrows.
Gergiev I 1hr 53m II 1hr 07m III 1hr 19m Total 4hr 19m
Zweden I 1hr 46m II 1hr 05m III 1hr 13m Total 4hr 04m
Janowski I 1hr 37m II 1hr 02m III 1hr 07m Total 3hr 46m
However, the performance history of this work is notable for the wide and often unexpected variations of duration among its many different interpreters. For example, Toscanini took 4hr 48m and Boulez 3hr 39m in performances given at Bayreuth many years apart. The timing comparisons are given here merely to provide some context to the performance under discussion.
From the opening bars of the Prelude one is struck by the luminous and pellucid sonic quality that the engineers have achieved. The ethereal string playing benefits from the unexpectedly spacious acoustic, and when the brass enter they are rich and weighty in tone. Janowski imparts a wonderful sense of purpose to the music and the clarity of execution that he achieves from his orchestra is remarkable. Gergiev's equally valid reverential approach to this prelude unfortunately is marred by his audible mutterings that, on repeated listening, become more irritating.
Janowski's cast has been chosen with great care and is uniformly impressive with no weak links even in the smallest roles. The Titurel of the Russian bass Dimitry Ivashchenko deserves special mention for his well-projected sepulchral tones, and the Blumenmädchen are as bright and sexy a bunch as one could wish for.
Franz-Josef Selig is an excellent Gurnemanz, untiring in this long and demanding part. Whilst he does not possess the tonal beauty of Gergiev's René Pape - who at present does sound rather too young for the role - his refulgent voice and sensitivity to the text yield an authoritative and well-rounded characterisation that never disappoints.
The Parsifal of Christian Elsner is also outstanding. His mellifluous voice and strong Heldentenor projection make him an ideal choice for the opera's title role. Elsner admirably conveys the gradual enlightenment through compassion of his character and, most importantly, he sounds as fresh at the end of the opera as at the beginning – no mean achievement.
Evgeny Nikitin is the Amfortas of choice for both Gergiev and Janowski. His secure and noble bass-baritone is well suited to the part of the suffering king and here he sounds in even finer voice than on his earlier recording as well as displaying a deeper understanding of the role. His Act 1 narration (Disc 2 Tr. 5) illustrates the strength of his interpretation.
Eike Wilm Schulte, that seemingly ageless stalwart of countless memorable Wagner performances over many years, conveys the appropriate malevolence for the magician Klingsor. His voice is incisively projected with exemplary diction, and the bitterness evident in his Act 2 exchanges with Kundry is especially compelling. There may be more villainous sounding Klingsors on other recordings but none better sung than here.
Kundry is one of the most fascinating characters in all opera – part nymphomaniac and part masochist. To convey credibly both aspects of her character is quite a challenge for any mezzo. Michelle DeYoung sounds both suitably youthful and attractively sensuous. At the start of the long Act 2 seduction scene with Parsifal, her voice displays a trace of unsteadiness . However, it quickly recovers its firmness and overall her singing is both radiant and secure with thrilling top notes – altogether a most impressive assumption of this demanding role.
Finally, the lynch-pins in this recording are the Rundfunkchor, Berlin, whose singing displays such power and grandeur in the choruses of Acts 1 & 3, and the Berlin Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester whose marvellously responsive playing illuminates every aspect of the score. The PentaTone recording is superb in capturing an appropriate sense of space and depth. The perspectives of the off-stage voices and brass benefit from the added realism of the surround sound, while the transparent reproduction of the warm orchestral timbres are complemented by Janowski's vital conducting.
Presentation of the 4-disc set is excellent and includes the full libretto in German and English, a thought-provoking essay on the work by Steffen Georgi and biographies of the artists. Access to the discs has been improved by a small change to the packaging.
This dramatic and involving 'Parsifal' raises Marek Janowski's epic Wagnerian journey to a new level of excellence that one hopes will be maintained in the performances and recordings yet to come - an exciting prospect for all Wagnerites!
Copyright © 2012 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net