DURING THE last several months Herbert von Karajan's first three digital recordings have been issued, none of them the expected orchestral showpieces, all of them operatic. Following the superb remakes of Mozart's "Magic Flute" from Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon and Verdi's "Falstaff" from Vienna on Philips, we now have his first recording of Wagner's "Parsifal," again from Berlin on DG (2741.002, five discs; cassettes 3382.002). It not only is the most stunning of these three stunning productions, but perhaps the finest operatic recording of Karajan's career.
This is not a remake. Karajan apparently never performed "Parsifal" until the end of 1979, when this recording was begun in Berlin prior to his staged production at last year's Salzberg Easter Festival (where it was repeated this year). His is not a ceremonial concept of the work, but an intensely dramatic one, and he has found singers who not only conform to his vision but amplify it gloriously.
Peter Hofman sings the title role. Kurt Moll is the splendid Gurnemanz; Jose van Dam, Amfortas; Siegmund Nimsgern, Klingsor, the Yugoslav mezzo Dunja Vejzvic, Kindry. Glaes H. Ahnsjoh and Kurt Tydl are in the Knights of the Grail, and American soprano Barbara Hendricks heads up the excellent group of Flower Maidens. The chorus is that of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the orchestra, of course, Karajan's own Berlin Philharmonic.
The spaciousness and brilliance of the recording which not only allows every one of Wagner's effects to be realized as never before on records but also reveals many usually obscured inner voices in the orchestra, enhance a performance which in its own right challenges its most formidable predecessors. The breadth and compassion in Knappertsbusch's two Bayreuth recordings, and the probing intensity of Solti's more recent one from Vienna, are no less persuasive now than when those respective sets were new, and of course there is some marvelous singing in them, by the likes of Hans Hotter, Hermann Uhde, Martha Moedl, Rene Kollo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, et al, Not all of Karajan's singers outshine, or even measure up to, their respective predecessors; but the overall effect is nevertheless of outstanding conviction as well as irresistible dramatic sweep and sheer tonal beauty throughout the new set.
Any number of individual felicities might be cited: the exalting effect of Hanna Schwar's brief but critical contribution as the solo voice at the end of Act 1; the heady yet curiously ingratiating voluptuousness of the Flower Maidens' scene -- and the unexpected vitality of the second act as a whole; Kurt Moll's magnificent performance in every aspect of his role; the well-judged balancing of the various ensembles; the tasteful handling of the bells and other effects. However, while each of these and many other points might be singled out for special praise, it is the way they coalesce into the glorious whole that makes this recording such a treasure.
"Parsifal" has generally been regarded as a stodgy pseudo-religious ceremony, to be endured and revered perhaps when Good Friday comes around, but hardly to be really enjoyed at any time. Knappertsbusch and Solti (to confine oursevles to recordings) have shown how erroneous a notion that is, but Karajan and the DG engineers have succeeded more brilliantly than any previous team in capturing the atmosphere, the exaltation and the not inconsiderable sensual dynamism of this work.
The earlier recordings offer abundant glories of their own (and William Mann's comprehensive essay on the work must be counted one of the glories of the Solti set), but I can't remember when five solid hours of music passed so quickly or so happily as in listening to Karajan's "Parsifal."