Reviews for Parsifal 1937/1946 (IPCD 1006-3)
Richard Wagner: Parsifal
PARSIFAL: Act One (Complete) Teatro Colon (September 22 and 25, 1946); Acts One and Three (Excerpts) Covent Garden (April 27 and May 3, 1937) and Vienna State Opera (1949), R. Wagner.
Principals: Torsten Ralf (Parsifal, 1937, 1946 and 1949) and Herbert Janssen (Amfortas, 1937 and
1946), Ludwig Weber (Gurnemanz, 1937 and 1949), Emanuel List (Gurnemanz, 1946), Robert
Easton (Titurel, 1937), Jorge Danton (Titurel, 1946), Rose Bampton (Kundry, 1946); Erich Kleiber,
conductor (1946), Fritz Reiner, conductor (1937), Rudolf Moralt, conductor (1949).
Also 78 rpm Recordings From All Acts with Ivar Andresen, Alexander Kipnis, Frida Leider, Lauritz Melchior,
Gotthelf Pistor and Fritz Wolf (3 CDs) Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society IPCD1006-3.
Every so often Richard Caniell, head honcho of the Canadian-based Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society, comes through with a new issue that simply must be called to the attention of Wagnerites everywhere, but especially to those with an abiding interest in historic performance
perspectives. That he invariably does so while using his considerable sound restoration talents to
achieve previously unimagined heights of sound reproduction legerdemain is not a peripheral issue,
since much of what he issues has been available in previous incarnations, sometimes often so, and
what he achieves in this area may often be the main reason for acquiring a performance yet again on
his label. And he is not the least bit averse to (let us say) “tweaking” performances a bit - a deletion
here, an addition from another performance there - in order to make them all that they should have
been to better reflect a prevalent standard that for whatever reason was not quite captured on the
day of a particular broadcast performance. For most who have heard these excursions into a kind of
Wagnerian Dreamland (his most famous production was called THE DREAM RING), the ends
almost always justify the means, and only an occasional pedant is to be heard crying in the
wilderness that all may not be quite kosher on the Rhine, or in Cornwall, Nuremberg and Monsalvat.
Since the very concept of kosher is pretty much alien to all of those places anyway, let's just say that
Mr. Caniell's track record to date in this regard has been just about perfect, and then spend the rest
of our time examining this new issue which, while benefiting somewhat from only a bit of quite-
justified tweaking here and there, is mostly devoted to a performance which has had no previous
history on records, augmented by one that should not have had any in its previous state of imperfect
sound reproduction, and with judiciously chosen bits and pieces added to make a whole definitely
greater than the sum of its parts. Intrigued? Read on.
From the above heading, one might consider this a “bleeding chunks” PARSIFAL, but it is
considerably more than that, for while we get no Act Two at all, we do get a full Act One from the
Teatro Colon and half of Act One (Transformation Scene to the end of the Act), and half of Act
Three (from the Good Friday Scene to the end of the Act) from Covent Garden 1937 and Vienna
1949. What with a couple of interpolated Act One Preludes (one of them downright magnificent),
and seven terrific 78rpm recordings by some other prime exponents of the leading roles, a purchaser
should feel that he's more than gotten his money's worth when purchasing this set (especially if he
can augment it with Mr. Caniell's superlative Guild reissue of Act Two from a 1938 Met broadcast
with Flagstad, Melchior, and Arnold Gabor as a memorably nasty Klingsor).
Is there a pressing need for this issue in your collection? If you are performance-oriented, I would
say yes, for the main interests here are 1) a composite-but-complete performance of Amfortas as
sung by one of that role's greatest interpreters, Herbert Janssen, 2) a substantial portion of the title
role by one of its leading interpreters of the postwar years, Torsten Ralf, 3) some inkling of Rose
Bampton's Kundry (possibly her most important operatic assumption), 4) an even better example of
Ludwig Weber's near-definitive Gurnemanz than the Bayreuth one we have been enjoying for
almost sixty years now, and 5) welcome exposure to both Kleiber's and Reiner's way with this score.
To the details. Amazing things are starting to show up from the Teatro Colon Radio Archives
(Society members will recall last year's program on that very subject by Gary Thalheimer and Seth
Winner). Unfortunately, this complete Act One is all that remains of the 1946 PARSIFAL
performances from which it was taken (and even the Prelude had to be added in from a 1946
Kleiber-led NBC Symphony broadcast), but it is important for preserving our only glimpses of
Bampton's Kundry and Kleiber's conducting of this score, and, along with the 1937 Covent Garden
excerpts, our only exposure to Ralf's Parsifal and, most important of all, Herbert Janssen's
Amfortas, a role of which he was arguably the world's leading interpreter at the time, and one which
he pretty much owned at the Met after Schorr's departure in 1943. That London performance also
gives us an idea of Reiner's way with the music and highlights a (perhaps not totally appropriate)
youthful Ludwig Weber's Gurnemanz.
So, how does it all stack up? Well, taking sonics first, in order to dispense with them and get to the
interpreters, the Teatro Colon part does have its occasional problems. The placing of the singers is
sometimes such as to make them a bit indistinct, but that is not typical. Mostly, their voices are out
there and totally audible. While the recorded sources are in excellent condition, there are any
number of pitch problems throughout, the majority of which Mr. Caniell has dealt with very well,
and he is totally forthcoming in his notes on those few that proved more difficult to master.
However, this is a set that is of primary interest to people who are not put off too much by that kind
of thing, and they will not be disappointed in the Teatro Colon portion of this set. The better news is
that the Covent Garden performance comes from EMI acetates that were originally recorded from
stage performances with the thought of commercial issuance, so that the sound on these, even
though they date from nine years prior to the Colon set, is truly excellent throughout. When EMI
decided not to issue this on 78, many of the masters were destroyed. This set contains everything that
remains from that undertaking, and in both Acts One and Three, wherever something is missing, the
recording is then augmented by a 1949 Moralt-led Vienna performance. Despite what you may be
thinking, these patched-in segments are undetectable, even when Mr. Caniell points them out very
specifically. Indeed, in the “bonus” 78rpm material (which I will deal with later), he runs the famous
Melchior-Ormandy “Nur eine Waffe taugt” from 1938 right into the Moralt-Vienna 1949 Choral
Finale and, even though I knew exactly where the splice occurred, I could not detect it aurally in
several repeated hearings. Those familiar with Mr. Caniell's work will not be surprised by this.
As for the performances, well, it is hard to imagine that Herbert Janssen's voice ever sounded any
better than it does throughout these two performances - which do give you the entire role of
Amfortas. Janssen, whose baritone voice was essentially lyrical, may have been unwise to acquiesce
to the Met's importuning that he sing all three Wotans upon Schorr's retirement (Hans Sachs was
already more than enough of a stretch for him), but though his voice did turn dry and ill-focused
in time, had he not done so there would have been several years with no MEISTERSINGERS or
RING operas at all at the Met, and as heard here, there really is no evidence of a falling off in vocal
quality in the nine years separating his Colon and London performances of Amfortas. The voice is
lovely in quality throughout, and although to these ears he doesn't get the last bit of tragic suffering
out of this role (as did, say, Hotter or London), we would kill for an Amfortas who sounded like this
today. (The beautiful photo of him on page 4 of the CD booklet shows him looking not so much
anguished as simply forlorn.)
Based on his postwar broadcasts (both Met and otherwise) and on his Columbia recordings of that
period, Torsten Ralf's best days were behind him when he arrived at the Met in late 1945 (the
recordings are dry and somewhat labored, and a broadcast of OTELLO half shouted rather than
sung), but he sounds just fine in the relatively non-demanding vocalism required of Parsifal in Act
One from 1946, and not much different in the 1937 Covent Garden outing. In 1937, he was arguably
one of the world's great tenors, and you would infer nothing else when hearing him here. His more
lyrical approach to dramatic tenor singing served him well, particularly in a role like Parsifal. If he
misses the fervor that Melchior brought to the role, he is perhaps even more of a “guileless fool”
thanks to that ingrained vocal lyricism, and this is a lovely (and instructive) performance.
Bampton was always an underrated singer, especially in her soprano years, and Kundry may have
been her best assumption at the Met. As with Janssen's Amfortas, Bampton was pretty much the
Met Kundry in the mid- and late 1940s (only Varnay sang the role as often at the Met during that
general period, but her then-career at the Met extended well into the 1950s, whereas Bampton left the Company after the 1949/1950 season). It's a lovely voice, and a relatively gentle presence, and it
would have been interesting to hear what she might have conjured up for her big scene in Act Two.
As it is, however, she impresses in the daintier side of Kundry's character, but that is no little thing
in a role that invites more than most the chewing of scenery.
Mr. Caniell has this thing about Emanuel List being old and wobbly, or at least sounding old and
wobbly, and never ceases discussing it in his various notes. I listened to Act One and he sounded
okay to me, not the most beautiful bass singing I've encountered, but pretty honorable throughout.
Unfortunately, I then heard several of the same excerpts, plus more from Act Three, sung by Ludwig
Weber, and I had to come down on the producer's side, because Weber sounds just fantastic in all his
scenes. Of course, Weber was in his late thirties in 1937, whereas List was pushing sixty in 1946. I
could make an argument that Weber sounds too healthy for Gurnemanz, as it is generally thought
that the character is perhaps eighty when we first meet him. Mr. Weber does not sound eighty, but
Mr. List might pass. While this may be dramatically appropriate (and he's pushing ninety in Act
Three), I have to admit that you are still left longing to hear more of Weber and less of List as the set
progresses. And, of course, you do, since all of List's Teatro Colon performance precedes even the
beginning of Weber's Covent Garden one. One cannot say enough for Mr. Caniell's programming!
Despite a few rushed tempos on Kleiber's part, he seems to be conducting a well-thought-out
performance; the question is, Would we know that this PARSIFAL was being conducted by one of
the major conductors of his time if he had not already been identified to us? I'm not certain of the
answer. Still, outside a few cuts which were surely standard back then, he certainly doesn't let us
down anywhere, and his opening Prelude (tweaked in, and with the NBC Symphony) has a certain
stateliness to it, but doesn't everything in PARSIFAL? It may just be the recording ambience, but
Reiner seems to me to conduct a livelier and more resonant performance (God knows that neither
Act One nor Act Three would be where you really want to repair in PARSIFAL for liveliness!), and
I'm sure that my thoughts on this are reinforced by a simply gorgeous Act One Prelude which Mr. Caniell has added in from a most unlikely and fascinating source. It appears that back in 1938
Reiner and the New York Philharmonic had anonymously recorded the Prelude for a label called
THE WORLD'S GREATEST MUSIC, which was an undertaking by, of all entities, the New York
Post, to acquaint readers with “better” music at substantially discounted prices. (They were soon
producing something a little closer to our hearts with THE WORLD'S GREATEST OPERAS, and
using the anonymous talents of the likes of Eleanor Steber, Leonard Warren, Armand Tokatyan,
Arthur Carron, etc., etc.) Since these were recorded by RCA Victor, they were obviously state-of-
the-art for 1938, and Reiner's truly impressive version of this piece does rather push Kleiber's later
version into the shadows. And from what we can hear of that oft-underrated conductor, Rudolf
Moralt, and of his Vienna performances that are tweaked in here and there, always to excellent
effect, he need not have taken a back seat to either of his two more famous colleagues. No, there's
really nothing amiss with the conducting at any stage of these performances.
Really worth waiting for, and closing out the third CD, are about 45 minutes of some of the very
finest recordings from PARSIFAL made during the second quarter of the last century, these
presented in the order in which they appear in the opera. First off is the Transformation Scene, with
Ivar Andresen and Gotthelf Pistor (a much underrated Wagner tenor of the period); then a Karl
Muck-led Flowermaidens Scene (the ladies anonymous); after which we get four of the most famous
vocal recordings of all time, Frida Leider's “Ich sah' das Kind”, followed by the Lauritz Melchior-
Eugene Ormandy “Amfortas! - die Wunde!, then the Good Friday Music with Alexander Kipnis and
Fritz Wolf, and finally the Melchior-Ormandy “Nur eine Waffe taugt” which, as mentioned above,
leads so seamlessly into the Moralt-led Finale. There isn't anything much one can say about any of
these performances, other than that the vocal solo ones have not been surpassed in the ensuing 72 to
85 years since they were made, but it is a sobering thought that in, say, 1935, the world had Ivar
Andresen, Ludwig Weber, Alexander Kipnis, Ludwig Hoffmann, Michael Bohnen and Emanuel List
to do the Wagnerian bass honors at the world's great opera houses and that, at least up to that time,
only Bohnen had been a star of the magnitude of such non-Wagner basses as Ezio Pinza, Tancredi
Pasero and Feodor Chaliapin! Did I say sobering? It is crushing!
As is always the case with both Guild and The Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society, Mr.
Caniell's notes are informative, comprehensive and, quite honestly, treasurable. And although they
are a bit shorter than is usually the case with these issues, we still get lengthy to quite lengthy articles
on PARSIFAL, then on Wagner and PARSIFAL, then a six-page Synopsis of the opera taken from
the 1914 Victor Book of the Opera (you've never read a better one), then excellent biographical notes
on the singers and conductors and, finally, six pages of “Recording Notes” (the latter very important
in the context of this set). They could hardly be better written and arranged, and might well serve as
models for other reissuing companies to emulate. As is usual with such reissues, there are no texts,
but as is equally usual with the Wagner Society, who needs them?
Anyhow, there you have it all. I would say that this is not a set that automatically recommends itself
to all Wagnerites (it is too specialized for that), but as I stated up front, if you have any interest in the
performance history of Wagner in general, and of PARSIFAL in particular, this is, like almost all of
Mr. Caniell's recorded projects, a set that really does automatically recommend itself. I do, too.
President, N.Y. Vocal Record Collector Society
Opera Quarterly music critic
Richard Wagner: PARSIFAL
PARSIFAL: Act One (Complete) Teatro Colon (September 22 and 25, 1946); Acts One and Three (Excerpts) Covent Garden (April 27 and May 3, 1937) and Vienna State Opera (1949), R. Wagner. .
(3 CDs) Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society IPCD1006-3.
Immortal Performances stands as a solitaire in the world of music: a discographic institute supported by private sponsors as well as public moneys granted by the Canadian State – issuing archaic sound documents – mostly from the period between the two world wars – as re-releases – often first-time releases – all intended not for profit, gratia artis [also because the partnership with Naxos and Guild Hall did not really lead to fruition] - now under the seal of its own label IPRMS: Immortal Performances Recorded Music society. Its publicity motto "The Ultimate in Broadcast Recordings" is not just a phrase but true to fact.
Now we have 3 CDs containing memorable performances of Parsifal: one with Erich Kleiber from 1946 in Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colon. Torsten Ralf is Parsifal, Emmanuel List Gurnemanz and Herbert Janssen Amfortas. Kleiber’s conducting fulfills all our high expectations completely: his Parsifal is all of one unified concept despite dramatically varied tempi - and under the southern sun of Argentina hues of sound become evident, specially in the brass, which had long been lost in the fog of Bayreuth. Richard Caniell who restored the tapes deserves laurel wreaths for eliciting from this kind of archaic material ever so many points of finesse – among them the most subtle tremolo (blurried intonation in the orchestra notwithstanding).
The second, similarly fantastic sound document: Fritz Reiner conducting Parsifal in Covent Garden 1937: again Torsten Ralf as Parsifal, Herbert Janssen Amfortas, Ludwig Weber Gurnemanz. This recording is 9 years older than Kleiber’s Argentine conducting. Measured by the technical standards of the thirties, the tone quality is very respectable. Similar to Kleiber, Reiner too produces lean, trim fluidity, not shunning fiery outbursts. What applies to both conductors: so far as emotional alertness and polyphonic clarity as well as phrasing are concerned, they are far superior to most testimonies emanating from Bayreuth’s Wagner cult.
At this point let us not intone a lament about the decline of Wagnerian singing. Suffice it that the threesome Janssen, Ralf and List are very close to reaching the Non Plus Ultra of the standards of that time, let alone those of today; all this due to their vocal ability, technical control and clarity of diction supported masterfully by Kleiber and Reiner’s qualities and experience in opera accompanying as well as their ability of subduing the orchestra. (Let us contrast this to Simon Rattle’s valiant attempts of performing Wagner in Berlin which all too often degenerate into brilliant orchestra studies.)
Immortal Performances round out this double Parsifall with short, at times stupendous sound excerpts of half a dozen Parsifal recordings of the twenties and thirties from London, Philadelphia, Vienna and Bayreuth including Karl Muck and John Barbirolli, Frida Leider and Alexander Kipnis to mention a few in order to point to the exceptional discographic and musical qualities of these encores.
Dr. Daniel Krause