Classical Reissue Reviews

WAGNER: Excerpts from The Ring & Parsifal with many soloists & orch./ cond. by Karl Muck – Pristine Audio (2 CD-Rs.)

A glorious restoration of the 1927-1928 Parsifal recordings led by Karl Muck, considered master of this opera’s especial ethos.

Published on March 24, 2014

WAGNER: Excerpts from The Ring & Parsifal with many soloists & orch./ cond. by Karl Muck – Pristine Audio (2 CD-Rs.)

WAGNER: Das Rheingold: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla: Woglinde – Maria Nezádal (soprano); Wellgunde – Minnie Ruske-Leopold (soprano); Flosshilde: Charlotte Müller (alto); Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries (Act 3) -  Gerhilde – Ellen Overgaard (soprano); Ortlinde: Henriette Gottlieb (soprano); Waltraute: Erika Plettner (alto); Schwertleite: Maria Peschken (mezzo-soprano); Helmwige: Ingeborg Holmgren (soprano); Siegrune: Minnie Ruske-Leopold (soprano); Grimgerde: Charlotte Müller (alto); Rossweise: Charlotte Rückforth (alto);   Act 2: Komm’! Komm’! Holder Knabe! (Flower Maidens Scene); Flower Maidens – Ingeborg Holmgren (soprano); Anny Helm (soprano); Minnie Ruske-Leopold (soprano); Hilde Sinnek (soprano); Maria Nezádal (soprano); Charlotte Müller (alto) Bayreuth Festival Chorus (Chorusmaster: Hugo Rüdel)/ Bayreuth Festival Orch.; WAGNER: Parsifal Act 3: Prelude; Heil mir, dass ich dich wieder finde! O Gnade! Höchstes Heil! So ward es uns verhiessen (Good Friday Spell); Mittag: Die Stund’ ist da (Transformation Music); Geleiten wir im bergenden Schrein; Ja, Wehe! Wehe!  Nur eine Waffe taugt  ·  Parsifal – Gotthelf Pistor (tenor); Gurnemanz: Ludwig Hofmann (bass); Amfortas: Cornelius Bronsgeest (baritone)/ Berlin State Opera Chorus (Chorusmaster: Hugo Rüdel)/ Berlin State Opera Orch./ Karl Muck;  WAGNER: Parsifal – Act 3 So ward es uns verhiessen (Good Friday Spell) – Gurnemanz – Alexander Kipnis (bass); Parsifal: Fritz Wolff (tenor) /Bayreuth Festival Orch/ Siegfried Wagner – Pristine Audio PACO 103 (2 CD-Rs) TT: 2:31:42 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassics.com] *****:

While Hermann Levi led the Wagnerian Bayreuth tradition at the turn of the century, it was Karl Muck (1859-1940) who maintained the style and the standard in fourteen festivals, spread over the next thirty years. Hans Knappertsbusch would assume much of Muck’s authority, especially in Parsifal, after 1940. Unfortunately, Muck left no permanent record of a complete performance of the operas, but he did manage to inscribe almost half of Parsifal between 1927-1928, the excerpts of which have been hailed as “the Parsifal for all time,” including “the most uplifting, superbly executed reading of Act 3 in the history of recording.”

Parsifal (1882), the last of Wagner’s operas, intends to combine Wagner’s concept of the all-embracing artwork, incorporating music, literature, graphic art, and theology. For Wagner, only the especially-constructed theater at Bayreuth could provide the proper element for Parsifal production, whose Christian drama he called a Buhnenweihfestspiel, a consecrating festival stage-play. Whether Parsifal represents an artistic sell-out (Nietzsche’s view) or an ecstatic evolution of operatic form, we do not seek redemption from this score.

The exquisite music, happily, transcends Wagner’s “metaphysical” eccentricities. The two orchestral excerpts Karl Muck and others perform, the Prelude and Good Friday Spell, remain austere, noble, and beautiful in their vastness. Integral to Wagner’s operas are his rich chromaticism and harmonies, ingenious orchestration (Wagner designed some of his own instruments), and intensive development of thematic leitmotifs. The Prelude begins with the Motif of the Sacrament, reverently rising and falling in the clarinet and bassoon over muted strings and pulsing winds. The gently swelling Grail Motif is heard next in the trumpets. Soon after comes the Motif of Faith, a dignified theme in the brass. The development of this motif builds to one of the most powerful moments in the opera.

The Good Friday Spell embodies the baptismal scene in the third and final Act. After years of wandering, Parsifal finally returns to the Grail Castle on Good Friday. One of the Knights explains to him the regenerative significance of that holy day and tells him that it is also the funeral day of the Grail King, Titurel. Recognized as the Chosen One, Parsifal is elected to succeed Titurel and is baptized. Beginning with regal fanfares, a transformative set of modulations draws the mood and music back to the Motif of the Sacrament. Parsifal, in his purity and innocence, takes a moment to remark on the beauty of the blooming mountain meadows, as the clarinet sings the lovely Good Friday Meadows Motif. Having revisited some of the other themes, the music winds down to a softly tender ending.

Editor and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn assembles a dramatically integral set, prefacing the Karl Muck contributions with those Franz von Hoesslin and Siegfried Wagner. Muck’s Wagner belies any notion of unnatural or “old-world” slowness of tempo, though his Act I Prelude is broad, even by the standards of Knappertsbusch and Furtwangler. Despite severe cuts and an absence of Kundry, along with the elision of Gurnemanz’s entry scene in Act III, we have an incandescent reading, quite attentive to color detail, even including the original Wagner bells – destroyed in WW II -  in the Transformation Scene. I must confess to having been won over by the warm graciousness of Ludwig Hofmann’s Gurnemanz. The individual choruses, too, totally beguile in their vocal power and excitement. But I am no less in awe of Alexander Kipnis in the addendum led by Siegfried Wagner. Much of this set originally appeared on Pearl and had a short life as a cassette from The Connoisseur Society, but the level of intensity and the “spiritual” power of these interpreters has never sounded so phenomenally resonant as here.

—Gary Lemco




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