The most consistently satisfying aspect of this Parsifal is Sir Mark Elder’s conducting and the Hallé’s playing. This concert performance was the final event in the BBC Proms’ lavish celebration of Wagner’s bicentenary, and the recording handsomely conveys the quality of the orchestral and choral forces. The concert was expertly staged, in a way that drew attention away from any misgivings about the soloists, who inevitably in a recording are exposed, sometimes mercilessly.
Elder – who has established a formidable Wagnerian reputation with the Hallé – is in his element in the suffering, longing and rapture of Parsifal, and he not only illuminates Wagner’s thematic tapestry ‘as if lit from behind’, he also has the knack of bringing out the leitmotif potential of instrumental timbre – in this respect the trumpet sound is an anguished presence throughout. Elder is marvellous at building up orchestral identity and drawing out a shimmering depth and size of sound, and he is just as on form in his rapport with his soloists. The audience was so caught up in the whole thing, and therefore very quiet, that this might almost be a studio recording, and in terms of Elder’s majestic overview of colour, scale and distance, this release can only add to our appreciation of Wagner’s painful, elusive, monumental achievement.
The singers are more variable. In the title role, Lars Cleveman starts out with the sort of appealing, Italianate sound better suited to lighter, earlier Wagner, but as he reaches for a larger sound, so he risks any Heldentenor credibility. You need innocence and wonder from Parsifal, and they do not register here. He is at his best in the Act Two exchanges with Kundry, but doesn’t raise much in the way of quiet ecstasy in Act Three.
John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz has been the guiding principle in many a Parsifal for decades – he is the only Gurnemanz I’ve ever experienced who can create a wry smile in his exchanges with the knights in Act One. Yes, his voice spreads and some top notes are a bit of a stretch, but he brings a remarkable humanity and ardour to the role that takes you to the centre of the drama. In Act One, Elder and the Hallé meet him more than halfway in their spellbinding narration, and, if anything, Tomlinson is even more overwhelming in the weariness and wonder of Act Three. There are two recordings of him in Parsifal currently available (one on CD, one on DVD, both with Barenboim) from the 1990s, and three decades on he is the integrating factor in this Hallé set.
Detlev Roth brings an almost onomatopoeic, unvaried effortfulness to Amfortas’s suffering. Tom Fox’s Klingsor, paradoxically, is more powerful and three-dimensional as recorded than he was at the Prom. Along with Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz, Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was the Prom’s other clinching performance, and, equally vividly, it jumps off the recording. Her voice projects Kundry’s weird, conflicted psychology brilliantly, and with Elder’s support, steers us through the complexities of Act Two very satisfactorily. Perhaps her anguish is rather generic, but with her girl-gang of Flower Maidens she is alarmingly seductive. The big choral passages are overwhelming, especially in Act Three when you think that the sound can’t get any louder but it does, and Elder delivers a visionary conclusion.