Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 31 October 2011

Parsifal: van Zweden, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal – Klaus Florian Vogt, Gurnemanz - Robert Holl, Kundry – Katharina Dalayman, Amfortas – Falk Struckmann, Klingsor – Krister St. Hill, First Gailknight - Brenden Gunnell, Second Grailknight - Thilo Dahlmann, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, State Male Choir 'Latvija'
Jaap van Zweden conductor
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 11 December 2010 Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD
Challenge Classics CC72519 [63:22+42:56+66:00+73:46] + DVD 81:00

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Parsifal on SACD – ears prick up! This recording has many virtues, not least of which is the sound quality, which is very fine indeed. It is a great performance too, not perfect, but what Wagner recording ever is? It is well cast, well paced, and imparts a real sense of theatrical drama, despite being taken from a live concert recording.
The event it records was a concert performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in December 2010. As well as the four hybrid SACDs, the box also contains a DVD of highlights from the event. From a musical point of view, the DVD suffers from the bleeding chunks syndrome – just as you're getting into the music it stops and cuts to something else – but video does give an idea of the sheer visual splendour of the hall. It also shows that this was strictly a concert performance, with no "semi-staged" element. The size of the choir can come as a surprise on the audio recording (there are more Flowermaidens than I've ever heard before), but the sound of the ensemble makes more sense when you can see them all lined up on the stage.
Before listing the recording's many merits, there are two issues which I suspect are going to make it contentious. The first is Jaap van Zweden's interpretation, which could best be described as matter-of-fact. Better that, I suppose, than going too far the other way, but this is a no-nonsense reading, with strict tempos and very few indulgences in the phrase shaping. Just listening to the first pages of the Prelude gives you an idea of what is to come. Zweden imparts solemnity to the music through his rigorous tempi, but with at a cost to the music's emotional engagement. This is more of an issue in some places than others. The Flowermaidens' music and the quiet opening of act three feel far too rigid, at least to me, while the Gail ritual at the end of act one and the dramatic conclusion to act two both come off better.
The other major sticking point is the number of slips in the orchestral playing. No recording dates are given in the liner, but these localised problems suggest that, unusually, the recording was made at a single event, rather than the more usual two or three plus patch session. If so, that is perhaps to be lauded from the point of view of the coherency of the result. But Parsifal is a work with a long history of note-perfect recordings, so the splits and wrong notes from the orchestra really do stand out. In fairness, there aren't all that many of them, perhaps ten in the whole opera. The woodwind and brass are the culprits. The brass also struggle at times to play together. And the vibrato on the first horn solos isn't to my taste, although I suspect that is a trademark of Dutch orchestras.
But those provisos apart, everything else on this recording is excellent. The casting is based on the principle that if you have world-class singers in the roles of Parsifal and Gurnemanz, everything else will fall into place. Klaus Florian Vogt and Robert Holl both have enviable reputations as leading Wagnerians, and their performances here are as good as any Wagner recording either has made before. Vogt has an instantly recognisable tone, intimate and sometimes narrow, but always with enough penetration to carry over the orchestra. Holl has all the vocal authority he needs for Gurnemanz, with plenty of support for the lower notes and impressive clarity of diction throughout.
The rest of the cast is a wrung below these world-class talents, but still delivers the goods. The best of them is Krister St. Hill, whose Klingsor is among the most sinister on record, but whose icy clarity of tone is curiously seductive. Not being a big fan of heavy vibrato, I found Falk Struckmann's Amfortas and Katarina Dalayamn's Kundry both a little wobbly, but in all other respects they are both ideal for their roles. Ante Jerkunica sounds appropriately distant and drained as Titurel. His pitching sometimes veers towards the approximate, but again it is a performance that is ideal for the dramatic context.
The sound quality is excellent, and anybody who has heard the recent Concertbegouw Orchestra recordings on their own label will know how well the hall responds to SACD reproduction. There is a curious paradox here, in that the hall's acoustic is so well represented that it is immediately clear that we are not in an opera house. Perhaps the hall is a little too resonant for the singers, although it is absolutely ideal for the orchestra, but whichever way, the sheer sense of atmosphere that it imparts is very seductive.
The release draws inevitable comparisons with Gergiev's offering with the Mariinsky last year. Both are SACD recordings of concert performances of Parsifal. The comparisons go further still, in that both Zweden and Gergiev conduct the work in idiosyncratic ways. Both come from outside of the core German tradition, which may be the reason. Like the Gergiev recording, this one isn't going to be for everybody. Personally, I prefer Zweden's interpretation, I prefer his cast too. But they both have their merits, so to any Wagner fans who are feeling flush, I'd recommend buying both.

This Review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

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