03 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner — PARSIFAL (L. Cleveman, K. Dalayman, J. Tomlinson, D. Roth, T. Fox, R. Hagen, R. Murray, A. Greenan; Hallé CD HLD 7539)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner - PARSIFAL (Hallé CD HLD 7539)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Parsifal, WWV 111Lars Cleveman (Parsifal), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Sir John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Tom Fox (Klingsor), Reinhard Hagen (Titurel), Robert Murray (Erster Gralsritter), Andrew Greenan (Zweiter Gralsritter), Sarah Castle (Knappe, Blumenmädchen), Madeleine Shaw (Knappe, Blumenmädchen, Stimme aus der Höhe), Joshua Ellicott (Knappe), Andrew Rees (Knappe), Elizabeth Cragg (Blumenmädchen), Anita Watson (Blumenmädchen), Ana James (Blumenmädchen), Anna Devin (Blumenmädchen); Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, Royal Opera Chorus; The Hallé; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK, on 25 August 2013; The Hallé CD HLD 7539; 4 CDs, 258:35; Available from The Hallé, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the long, complicated history of human endeavor, a conundrum with which many societies and intellectuals have contended is the assessment of the true value of art. From a doggedly practical perspective, art fails modern efficiency standards’ litmus test of tangible value by having no effect on the fit, form, or function of man’s existence: art neither fills the lungs with oxygen nor causes the heart to beat. During the darkest days of World War II, as pragmatic a thinker as Sir Winston Churchill argued that art made the ferocious battle to preserve the British way of life worthwhile, however, recognizing art as a manifestation of humanity’s ascent out of barbarity. Who can view Michelangelo’s Pietà, awed by the serene honesty of its emotion, and not believe at least for a moment that the figures are of flesh rather than of marble? Who can gaze at Ansel Adams’s photographs of the American West and not surrender at least for a moment to an unspoiled communion with nature? Whether the medium is sculpture, still life, sonnet, or song, art is a conduit between man and his nature, and few artists have dedicated themselves as completely to facilitating man’s exploration of his own accomplishments and absurdities as did Richard Wagner. After indelibly altering the development of opera in the Nineteenth Century with scores as revolutionary as the politics of his youth, he crowned his career with Parsifal, an opera that fascinates, confounds, and provokes as potently in 2017 as when it was premièred in 1882 at the second Bayreuther Festspiele. Parsifal exerts no influence on the elementary functions of the universe, but hearing such music as the opera contains can convince even the casual listener that there is meaning in the most mundane mechanics of living.

Like many details of Wagner’s self-propagated mythology, the oft-repeated account of Parsifal’s genesis dating to a sun-drenched Good Friday experienced on the Swiss estate of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck in 1857 is equal parts hyperbole and outright fabrication. Impressed by reading first Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, with which he became acquainted in 1845, and, a decade later, the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner indeed resolved in 1857 to adapt the story of the Arthurian Grail Knight Percival to music, but the notion was set aside until 1865, by which time he had completed Tristan und Isolde and drafted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, operas in which the Celtic and Teutonic origins of the Percival legend and its literary incarnations were also evident. Another quarter-century would pass—and witness the composition of the behemoth Der Ring des Nibelungen and the construction of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus—before Wagner again turned his attention to Parsifal. Completing the libretto and composing the music of Parsifal occupied Wagner for more than two years, from February 1877 until his finalization of Act Three in April 1879. Beginning with the Act One Vorspiel in 1878, fully scoring the opera required another three-and-a-half years. After such a vast gestation, the titanic Bühnenweihfestspiel reached the stage of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus on 26 July 1882, with a cast that included tenor Hermann Winkelmann, soprano Amalie Materna (Brünnhilde in the first complete Bayreuth Ring), and Emil Scaria as Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz. Thus began the continuing narrative of one of Western civilization’s most momentous artistic phenomena.

Saying that the demands made by Parsifal on singers, instrumentalists, and conductors are formidable is an understatement of Wagnerian proportions. When scoring Parsifal, Wagner was cognizant of the opera’s literal and symbolic functions as the summation of his life’s work, and he crafted the work with music of incredible complexity and difficulty. Under the sagaciously-wielded baton of Sir Mark Elder, The Hallé’s musicians attain in the first bars of the Vorspiel that precedes Act One an exalted level of excellence that persists throughout this performance, recorded in concert in Royal Albert Hall during the 2013 BBC Proms. The Hallé’s execution of the diaphanous string writing in the Karfreitagmusik and Verwandlungsmusik shimmers with the ethereal mysticism that the dramatic situations require, and the orchestra’s brass and woodwind players, not least the contrabassoon, elsewhere employed by Wagner only in his lone completed Symphony, deliver their parts with exceptional accuracy. The Hallé’s mastery of Parsifal rivals that of the finest Bayreuth orchestras. Their exemplary work is mirrored by the superb singing of the Trinity Boys Choir, the Hallé Youth Choir, and the Royal Opera Chorus, respectively led by Michael Holiday, Richard Wilberforce, and Renato Balsadonna. Not even the most fervent Wagnerian can deny that Act One of Parsifal is a leviathan of Biblical dimensions, one that outstays its welcome in many performances. Likewise, the opera’s final pages can be lost in a treacly haze. In this Parsifal, Elder, the Hallé, and the combined choruses provide the musical and dramatic clarity, continuity, and propulsion that the score needs in order to achieve all that Wagner intended. With virtually no distracting reminders of the provenance of the recording, this performance mesmerizingly conveys the power and poetry of Parsifal.

Epitomizing the hypnotic vigor of this performance is the ensemble of Blumenmädchen, sopranos Elizabeth Cragg, Anna Devin, Ana James, and Anita Watson and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Castle and Madeleine Shaw. The ladies’ euphonious sounds conjure the seductive atmosphere missing from so many performances of their scene. Shaw is also a Stimme aus der Höhe whose words have ramifications, and she is joined by Castle and tenors Joshua Ellicott and Andrew Rees in the quartet of fresh-voiced Knappen. As the Gralsritter, tenor Robert Murray and bass-baritone Andrew Greenan sing handsomely, their exchanges with Gurnemanz and the Knappen phrased with alert handling of the text. In generations past, one could hear voices of the caliber of those of Montserrat Caballé, Hilde Güden, Gundula Janowitz, James McCracken, Kurt Moll, and Kostas Paskalis as Blumenmädchen, Knappen, and Gralsritter in performances of Parsifal. The casting of these parts in this performance recalls those bygone days of Wagner singing.

Further expanding the vocal distinction of this performance is the unexaggerated, truly sung Klingsor of American baritone Tom Fox. Parsifal’s villain is portrayed in many performances as a wheezing caricature with little dramatic impetus—and often with very cavalier approaches to intonation. As sung by Fox in this performance, however, Klingsor is a reptilian conniver who wields vocalism as entrancing as his sorcery. From his first ‘Die Zeit is da,’ Fox traverses Klingsor’s music with focused, flinty tone. When he summons Kundry with ‘Dein Meister ruft dich Namenlose, Urteufelin, Höllenrose,’ the injury of the girl’s shame strikes at the listener’s heart. Fox finds nuances in ‘Furchtbare Not! So lacht nun der Teufel mein, dass einst ich nach dem Heiligen rang?’ that few Klingsors bother to seek, and he declaims ‘Seine Wunde trägt jeder nach heim! Wie das ich euch gönne!’ electrifyingly without bawling. There are suggestions of the defeated but defiant Wotan in Fox’s singing of ‘Halt da! Dich bann' ich mit der rechten Wehr! Den Toren stelle mir seines Meisters Speer!’ Fox lends Klingsor the intrigue of a fallen and not merely an evil man, and this interpretive imagination allied with his secure vocalism makes him one of the most engaging Klingsors on disc.

German bass Reinhard Hagen—an aptly-named Wagnerian—is a Titurel who evinces the character’s suffering without inflicting it upon the listener with pained, ugly singing. The sorrow, frustration, and exhaustion that shape Hagen’s singing of ‘Mein Sohn Amfortas, bist du am Amt?’ are derived not from the singer’s vocal production but from the text, and the dignity at the heart of the bass’s delivery of ‘Im Grabe leb’ich durch des Heilands Huld’ adds a measure of distinction to his portrayal of a man who is all too often depicted as a whining cipher. Titurel has as much about which to complain as any character in opera, but most winsome is the Titurel whose tribulations are expressed not in ranting but in song, as Hagen exhibits in this performance. When his voice resounds with ‘Oh, heilige Wonne! Wie hell grüsst uns heute der Herr!’ on this recording, Titurel initiates a prolonged catharsis via which the opera’s agonies are ultimately relieved. Like Fox’s Klingsor, Hagen’s Titurel is an atypically detailed characterization that benefits from uncommonly solid singing.

Prior to this BBC Proms performance, Freudenstadt-born baritone Detlef Roth’s Amfortas was heard in five consecutive Bayreuth seasons, an achievement that places him in the company of George London, Thomas Stewart, and Bernd Weikl among the Festspiele’s longest-serving exponents of the part. His singing on these discs confirms that Roth’s Amfortas was as comfortable in Kensington as on the Green Hill. In Act One, Roth sings ‘Recht so! Habt Dank! Ein wenig Rast’ nobly, and the suggestiveness of his ‘Du, Kundry? Muss ich dir nochmals danken, du rastlos scheue Magd?’ intensifies the significance of the relationships among Kundry and the other players in Parsifal’s drama. The baritone gives both ‘Wehe! Wehe mir der Qual! Mein Vater, oh! noch einmal verrichte du das Amt!’ and ‘Des Weihgefässes göttlicher Gehalt erglüht mit leuchtender Gewalt’ the histrionic force that these passages lack in many performances, but the timbre often seems at odds with the music: when brawn is wanted, suavity is supplied. Roth’s Amfortas is an active participant instead of a ceremonial observer in Act Three, his statement of ‘Mein Vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!’ voiced with awe and assurance. The sincerity of this Amfortas’s query of ‘Wer will mich zwingen zu leben, könnt ihr doch Tod mir nur geben?’ markedly enhances the emotional impact of the opera’s final scene. Even in the context of a recording of a concert performance, Roth’s ingratiating singing impressively creates and maintains genuine dramatic presence, but the ears often crave a more robust sound.

There is no question that Sir John Tomlinson is among England’s most distinguished Wagnerians. His portrayal of Hunding in Die Walküre remains remarkable for the menace that the bass conveyed without shouting, and he was the rare König Marke in Tristan und Isolde whose heartbreak was as palpable as his ire. Tomlinson sang Titurel powerfully in Daniel Barenboim’s studio recording of Parsifal and engrossingly depicted Gurnemanz in the 1993 Berlin production, also conducted by Barenboim, that was released on Laser Disc and VHS. Twenty-two years later, the intelligence and insightfulness of his interpretation of Gurnemanz are undiminished, but the intervening decades have exacted an unmistakable toll on the voice. Tones in the middle of the generally range retain the orotundity familiar from the best years of Tomlinson’s career, but resonance is lost below the stave. Pitches are almost always accurate, but notes above B♭3 wobble. The long narration with which Gurnemanz opens Act One is a fearsome test of both a singer’s stamina and his ability to sustain dramatic momentum in music of relative stasis. His first notes in ‘He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr, Schlafhüter mitsammen, so wacht doch mindest am Morgen!’ introduce Gurnemanz as a man of unyielding seriousness of purpose, and Tomlinson enunciates ‘Er naht: sie bringen ihn getragen’ and ‘Ich wähne, ist dies Schaden, so tät’ er euch gut geraten’ with appropriate gravitas. The very different demands of ‘Oh, wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer! Ich sah dich schwingen von unheiligster Hand!’ and ‘Titurel, der fromme Held, der kannt’ ihn wohl’ are met with the understanding that comes only from long acquaintance with the music, and the bass elucidates the mysticism with which Wagner inundated ‘Deine Mutter, der du entlaufen, und die um dich sich nun härmt und grämt.’

Absent from Act Two, Gurnemanz returns in Act Three, wearied by age and calamity, to guide Parsifal to the resolution for which he has hoped. The weight of the years that separate Parsifal’s first appearance from his return to the Domain of the Grail is heard in Gurnemanz’s voice as he sings ‘Von dorther kam das Stöhnen,’ and the immediacy of this Gurnemanz’s utterance of ‘Wie anders schreitet sie als sonst!’ reminds the listener of the human elements of the drama’s metaphysical stakes. ‘So kennst auch du mich noch? Erkennst mich wieder, den Gram und Not so tief gebeugt?’ seems to issue from both the soul and the throat. Tomlinson’s singing of ‘O Gnade! Höchstes Heil! O Wunder! Heilig hehrstes Wunder!’ is deeply moving, the effort in the vocal projection reflecting the character’s long perseverance. With ‘So ward es uns verhiessen, so segne ich dein Haupt, als König dich zu grüssen,’ the bass makes palpable Gurnemanz’s realization that an end to the misery that has surrounded him for so long is nigh. The solemnity of Tomlinson’s voicing of ‘Mittag: Die Stund' ist da: gestatte Herr, dass dich dein Knecht geleite’ discloses the breadth of the character’s faith. There are flaws in Tomlinson’s singing that, assessed individually, undermine his musical portrait of Gurnemanz. They cannot be ignored or said not to matter, but they are easily forgiven when the cumulative performance is so memorable. Gurnemanz sometimes becomes a curmudgeon who prattles on beyond the boundaries of audiences’ attention spans, but Tomlinson is here a Gurnemanz whose cautionary tales are the lifeblood of a timely parable.

Recently a riveting Fricka in Stockholm’s Ring des Nibelungen, Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman enriches this recording of Parsifal with a Kundry of psychological subtlety and vocal security, one who, complementing Fox’s Klingsor, is refreshingly free of shrieking and silliness. The Kundrys of Kirsten Flagstad, sadly reaching modern ears in complete form through sonic murk, and Maria Callas, whose interpretation of this part that she sang only five times is preserved solely in a RAI concert performance that was sung in Italian, are very different, but there are reminders of both in Dalayman’s London performance. Neither Flagstad’s tonal amplitude nor Callas’s dramatic incisiveness is a natural component of Dalayman’s artistry, but her Kundry is all the more remarkable for rivaling much of what Flagstad and Callas respectively achieved with more voice and more ferocity. In Act One, Dalayman’s Kundry is less insinuating than guardedly introverted, each word seemingly considered before it is uttered. Her ‘Von weiter her als du denken kannst. Hilft der Balsam nicht, Arabia birgt dann nichts mehr zu seinem Heil’ is the pronouncement of a troubled woman, not a treacherous temptress, and the ardor with which she asserts ‘Ich helfe nie’ transcends the all-purpose malevolence in which many singers cloak Kundry. Dalayman phrases ‘Den Vaterlosen gebar die Mutter, als im Kampf erschlagen Gamure’ with vehemence rather than venom.

The contrast between the Kundry of Act One and the woman who hurtles into Act Two is particularly arresting in this performance. Here, too, Dalayman has obviously devoted great thought to her rôle, eschewing the snarling and sneering that are sometimes substituted for interpreting Kundry. The soprano’s stinging ‘Ach! Ach! Tiefe Nacht...’ unleashes in four words the essence of the character, the battle against the fate to which her actions condemned her awakening an animalistic brutality aimed as much at herself as at either Klingsor or Parsifal. The fervor of Dalayman’s account of ‘Oh, ewiger Schlaf, einziges Heil, wie, wie dich gewinnen?’ is heightened by the beauty of her tone. Confronting Parsifal, equally her tormentor and her deliverer, this Kundry launches ‘Hier weile, Parsifal! Dich grüsset Wonne und Heil zumal’ with sure aim. The phenomenal condition of Dalayman’s voice throughout the performance is epitomized by the spectacular top B with which she recalls Kundry’s ridicule of the dying Christ. Reduced in Act Three to cries of ‘Dienen... Dienen...,’ this indomitable woman is nevertheless far more than an apparition on the fringes of the male-dominated society. As depicted by Dalayman in this performance, Kundry claims her rightful place in the lineage of Wagner’s redemptive heroines extending from Senta to Brünnhilde, donning the mantle of a tragic heroine. Joining her Brünnhildes in recorded concert performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung with the Hallé and Elder, Dalayman’s Kundry in this recording is a compelling impersonation by one of today’s most probing Wagnerians of one of Wagner’s most enigmatic characters.

On records and on stage, Parsifal’s music has been sung by a remarkably broad array of voices, ranging from the bronzed sounds of Lauritz Melchior to the pewter-hued effusions of Jon Vickers and the Mediterranean timbre of Plácido Domingo. An impressive Siegfried in the same Stockholm Ring in which Dalayman portrayed the character’s imperious step-grandmother, as well in the Hallé’s Götterdämmerung, Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman is as recorded here a Parsifal whose voice occupies a position near the center of that spectrum. His is a reasonably youthful but muscular sound, and the steadiness of his singing throughout the range and at all levels of dynamics earns appreciation. The bravado of the good-natured but largely doltish Parsifal of Act One rings in Cleveman’s traversals of ‘Gewiss! Im Fluge treff’ ich, was fliegt!’ and ‘Ja! Und einst am Waldessaume vorbei, auf schönen Tieren sitzend, kamen glänzende Männer,’ his demeanor casual but committed. He sings ‘Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit’ boyishly. Like his Kundry, this Parsifal is transformed in Act Two into an altogether different figure. Cleveman communicates the shifting sentiments of ‘Noch nie sah ich solch zieres Geschlecht’ and ‘Ihr wild holdes Blumengedränge, soll ich mit euch spielen, entlasst mich der Enge!’ with pointed diction, and the raw virility of his voicing of ‘Nie sah ich, nie träumte mir, was jetzt ich schau’, und was mit Bangen mich erfüllt’ is exhilarating and illuminating. The zeal with which he sings ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde! Sie brennt in meinem Herzen’ and ‘Auf Ewigkeit wärst du verdammt mit mir für eine Stunde’ adds a facet of virility to his portrayal, increasing Parsifal’s credibility as a Romantic—if not a romantic—hero.

The passive, puerile Parsifal of Act One is metamorphosed by Cleveman into a man of action in Act Three, the tenor’s sinewy singing of ‘Heil mir, dass ich dich wieder finde!’ followed by a steely but expressive ‘Zu ihm, des’ tiefe Klagen ich törig staunend einst vernahm.’ Addressing Kundry with an imaginatively-phrased ‘Du wuschest mir die Füsse, nun netze mir das Haupt der Freund,’ his comportment is softened by tenderness. Matured by experience, this Parsifal voices ‘O wehe, des höchsten Schmerzentags!’ and ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt: die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug’ with personal consequence. The character’s exclamation of ‘Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!’ can seem artificial and slightly foolish, but Cleveman’s delivery grants it credence. Like Siegfried in the Ring, Parsifal can annoy when his man-child mannerisms are overemphasized, but Cleveman fashions a sensible balance between exuberance and sobriety. Most importantly in this gargantuan rôle, he sings attractively and with adequate reserves of hardiness for climaxes.

Since the opera’s first performance in 1882, Parsifal’s merits have been heatedly debated, some listeners perceiving in the score a deterioration of Wagner’s abilities and others deeming it the most perfect product of the composer’s genius. An objective analysis of the score would likely yield an opinion that neither wholly substantiates nor refutes either extremity, but objectivity is not among the earnest Wagnerian’s traits. For that matter, Parsifal is not conducive to compromise, the qualities that define it making it anything but a ‘take it or leave it’ opera. Whether individual listeners love or loathe it, Parsifal’s success in performance depends upon the same factors that allow works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini to sink or soar: cogent conducting, playing, and singing. With all of these factors to its credit, this is a Parsifal that soars.