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Casual Friday

The symbolism and themes of suffering and redemption in Parsifal have provided catnip for more than a few oddball stagings filled with Regie excesses.  What better then, than a live concert performance ahead of Easter to refocus one’s senses on the music?

The latest installment of Marek Janowski’s Wagner cycle on PentaTone Classics is an April 2011 performance in Berlin that brings plenty of transparency and detail to this “stage-consecrating festival play.” In his previous outings with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,  Janowski has taken an almost chamber music-like approach to Wagner scores that emphasizes textural clarities and counterpoint over rich, majestic sonics. 

While such careful detail work can reveal new things about a well-loved piece, it doesn’t cover all the bases, especially in a work so laden with mythical elements, in which time often seems to stand still. Janowski knows his way around the score and is capable of injecting fire into a climactic scene. But there’s not enough dramatic shaping of phrases or sensitivity to transitions to capture the layers of mysticism or spiritual radiance  here—a problem that left me guiltily eyeing the dusty Hans Knappertsbusch account of this work on the shelf in my den.

That’s kind of a shame, because this Parsifal has some standout vocal performances. Franz-Josef Selig is an especially sensitive Gurnemanz, using his deep, soft voice and scrupulous diction to bring extra depth to the character’s long monologues and emit palpable sense of communal spirit. His only shortcoming is some strain in the upper register when singing at full volume, most evident in moments like the Act 1 transformation scene.

American mezzo Michelle DeYoung downplays Kundry’s screams and unhinged laughter for the concert format, instead emphasizing the character’s sensual qualities with a dark-hued voice that effortlessly soars in the Act 2 scene when she recounts mocking Christ on the cross. She’s matched, maybe even surpassed, in intensity by Evgeny Nikitin, the go-to Amfortas these days, at least judging from his appearance in the same role on Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theatre concert performance. Secure in the idiom if a little strained in his top notes, Nikitin lays out a wonderfully anguished “Ja, Wehe! Weh’ uber mich!” near the end of Act 3, begging the knights of the grail to end his misery with death.

Next to these two, Christian Elsner’s lyric heldentenor is pleasing but a little vanilla in the title role, lacking the passion to make his Act 2 rebuffs of Kundry sound really convincing. Among others in the cast, Eike Wilm Schulte is a suitably chilling Klingsor while Dmitry Ivaschenko‘s huge bass resonates impressively as Titurel.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin is sharp, responsive and wonderfully balanced,  consistently nailing the big ensemble scenes and repeating the success it achieved in Janowski’s concert recording of Die Meistersinger. The same goes for the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, whose members seem totally committed to Janowski’s concept and bring wonderful surface effects to the opera’s serene moments, especially in Act 3. Though maybe not a first-tier band, there’s a nice chemistry between musicians and conductor that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The performance is not only neat but fleet, clocking in at 3 hours 46 minutes.

Three installments into this cycle, one takeaway from Janowski’s work appears to be that you don’t need distinctive “take” on Wagner to deliver a successful performance. Indeed, many will find his account a refreshing break from the saturated soundscape of say, a James Levine. The alternate view, I suppose, is one should also expect more depth and musical story-telling in an opera with myriad riches and interpretive possibilities. If you’re looking for a backup recording with most of the pieces in place that’s still a little light on the “wow” factor, this could fill the order.

5 comments

  • Maury D says:

    I guess what would be even better would be to sit in silence reading a copy of the score, truly freed from people’s pesky attempts to foul the purity of the composer’s intent with the interpretive villainy we call performance. This is an awfully well written review, but did it really have to start out with a formulaic jab at the straw-regisseur?

    The symbolism and themes of suffering and redemption in Parsifal have provided catnip for more than a few oddball stagings filled with Regie excesses. What better then, than a live concert performance ahead of Easter to refocus one’s senses on the music?

  • phoenix says:

    A very sastisfying review, Adriel, of my favorite contemporary recording of Parsifal. This is IMO the best concert broadcast so far yet in the Janowski Berlin series and you have pointed out most of the reasons why. I also have a few dusty tributes to Parisfal conducted by Knappertsbush, a great conductor who never lost his grip on the dynamic undertow propelling this work -- there is nobody else who could quite keep my attention to the drama the way Knappertsbusch did.
    - But what Janowski had here that Knappertsbusch did not always have available is a consistent first-class lineup of soloists, particularly (as you mentioned) Franz-Josef Selig (Guernemanz) and Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas). Christian Elsner’s Parsifal is certainly no competition against Wolfgang Windgassen or Jon Vickers, but Elsner sings very well in the best performance I have heard yet from him. Likewise, Michelle DeYoung is no Régine Crespin nor is she able to mesmerize with the terrifying depths of tragedy Barbaro Erickson could summon up. Yet for me DeYoung’s very personal, simple yet elegant ‘tröstlich’ Kundry is top notch, the best I have heard in almost 2 decades.
    - Janowski’s arms may be a little too short to box with God, but along with that comes the great comfort of his aesthetic sensitivity to the audial soundworld of this score, which he never breaks. Many thanks Adriel.

  • danpatter says:

    I’ve been reacquainting myself with Janowski’s RING from long ago, which is peopled with young, healthy-sounding voices and is really quite a pleasure to listen to. This was the first digital recording, and the sound is honest and direct (with none of the over-engineering which sometimes scuttles other versions). To call Janowski’s conducting efficient is not a back-handed compliment. He does keep things moving, and definitely knows where he’s going. He’s inspiring, too. The big pluses, to me, are Siegfried Jerusalem’s Siegmund and Rene Kollo’s Siegfried, both captured in their early days. Jessye Norman is a glorious Sieglinde, spontaneous in a way she was not for Levine. Jeanine Altmeyer’s Brunnhilde is lovely, and so young sounding, which really adds to her credibility. Theo Adam and Yvonne Minton are the “oldsters” here, I guess, but both sing very well. The slight wear on Theo Adam’s Wotan compared to his younger self in the Boehm RING merely adds to his character.

    At thirty-eight dollars and change (from Amazon), you really can’t beat this version for value. I will always be a fan of Birgit Nilsson’s two RING recordings (Solti and Boehm), but listening to Janowski’s early effort gave me real respect for his accomplishment.

    • Baritenor says:

      I’d like to add my recommendation to yours, Dan, though I am not really a fan of Altmeyer’s voice. Still, her Brunnhilde is on the whole a success. The rest of the cast is impeccable, though, and I’d like to give a shout out to Peter Schreier as the Siegfried Mime: it’s his best performance on record. There’s also a phenomenal Rheinmaiden Trio led by Lucia Popp as Woglinde.

      • danpatter says:

        You’re right about Schreier -- he is excellent, easily the best Mime on records. The casting of the subsidiary roles is really excellent throughout this inexpensive RING. What I like about Altmeyer is that she doesn’t make ugly sounds and some of her phrasing is in fact exquisite. When she sang “What have you decreed that I should suffer?”, I actually backed up disc to hear it again, so striking was it -- sung softly, fearfully and incredulously. So many Brunnhilde’s bellow it out in sheer terror -- and that’s certainly valid too -- that Altemeyer’s choice quite caught me by surprise. The terror comes when the decree is known.