Wagner: Parsifal, ’80/Kubelik

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

This splendid set, recorded commercially in 1980 but held up due to contractual problems, here makes (to the best of my knowledge) its first appearance on CD. Entirely tic-, quirk-, and eccentricity-free, this performance’s translucence is one of its great virtues, and there are very few drawbacks. Tempos are ideal, buildups natural, peaks never overstated. Paying the most scrupulous attention to dynamics I’ve ever heard, Rafael Kubelik keeps the mood mysterious and pious. Parsifal himself, as sung by James King in Act 1 and the start of Act 2, is boyish and tentative. At first it’s easy to think he’s merely undersinging and saving himself–or that he’s simply under-powered; but in fact, it’s a brilliantly thought-through and executed performance. The Kundry/Parsifal encounter in Act 2 is so suggestive, so whispered, so intimate, that when Parsifal finally explodes with awareness (“Amfortas! Die Wunde!”) it is truly his awakening. From there until the act’s end he grows in stature (and voice), and with spear in hand, he’s truly magnificent and fearsome in his new-found strength. His potent calmness in Act 3 is palpable and by the close he is truly worthy of the Grail. It’s a nuanced, brilliant performance.

Kurt Moll, with his big cavernous sound, keeps it in check for all but the most extroverted, extravagant moments (recognizing Parsifal in Act 3, etc.), and if he never quite sounds as weary in Act 3 as Hans Hotter does, he certainly sings the role more beautifully than anyone else in memory. He also exudes true authority and a type of cosmic calm when he must–his voice is in perfect condition and his pianissimos are beautiful. In all, no complaints about his excellent performance.

Yvonne Minton’s Kundry is a mixed bag: she’s brilliantly insightful and expressive, and at low volume (most of the role, the way Kubelik plays it) she’s remarkable. But in the rare forays into forte and above the staff, the tone is hard and unhappy. She’s no Christa Ludwig (perfect for Solti) or Waltraud Meier (her only decent recorded performance, for Barenboim) or Mödl (loony but irresistible for Knappertsbusch in ’51) or Jessye Norman (gorgeous, with Levine), but she certainly is not a problem and uses her undersized voice with blazing passion. Matti Salminen’s vibrato-free sound as Titurel is oddly commanding, and Bernd Weikl is a suitably agonized Amfortas. Franz Mazura’s Klinsor is a nasty, snarling piece of work, wonderfully corrupt. The rest are very good, with Lucia Popp’s First Flower Maiden particularly seductive. The chorus is just about perfect, as is the orchestra; they sing and play with luster and at times a type of dreaminess I’ve never encountered before.

There’s a stillness, a sense of timelessness to this reading that is unmatched by any other I’ve heard (even Karajan’s), and it’s not only appropriate, it’s hypnotic. Solti’s may be more awe-inspiring and Knappertsbusch’s more fanatically Wagnerian, but this is something otherworldly. The recording is early digital, and a boost to the treble brings it more forward–just to the right place. This is a performance that chills and warms just where it should. Highly recommended.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Knappertsbusch, '51 (Teldec), This one


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