Recording of April 1992: Wagner: Parsifal

WAGNER: Parsifal
Siegfried Jerusalem, Parsifal; Matthias Hölle, Gurnemanz; Waltraud Meier, Kundry; José van Dam, Amfortas; Günter von Kannen, Klingsor; John Tomlinson, Titurel; others; Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim
Teldec 9031-74448-2 (4 CDs only). Helmut Mühle, prod.; Jean Chatauret, eng. DDD. TT: 4:16:35

As Wagner once said and almost always proved, his was "the art of transition." Nowhere is this more true than in his last music-drama, Parsifal. The work is virtually all transition. It's difficult to say whether the listener—or Wagner—never arrives or is always arriving at any sort of absolute resolution or cadence of dynamics, harmony, rhythm, even drama. Certainly there are moments more intensely pointed than others, louder than others, slower than others. But if Parsifal is the apotheosis of the Romantic movement, it is also the beginning of Impressionism, as crucial to the eventual disintegration of tonality over the 40 years following its premiere as Wagner's own Tannhäuser had been to the flowering of High Romance 40 years before. In Parsifal Wagner built a vast chromatic cathedral of the simplest diatonic stones, but his intention here was to transcend mere art; he succeeded. To reverse the title of Jessie Weston's classic work about the evolution into art of the Grail and Fisher King legends on which the opera is based, From Ritual to Romance, in Parsifal Wagner returns from romance to ritual.

In almost every bar of Parsifal one can hear Wagner refusing to allow his orchestra to speak in the overpowering, violently cathartic musical language of its direct forebear, Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are almost no sharp edges here, no clear boundaries. As Gurnemanz tells Parsifal in Act I, here time and space are one; Wagner's deliberate confusion and suffusion of tonality, individual instrumental voices, and easily defined tempi create, under the right baton, clouds of glowing sound that drift, float, intermingle, and separate with all the slow, undriven certainty of clouds, waves, tectonic plates, the breath of one in deep sleep; in a word, the steady state of timelessness.

That final metaphor of breath is the most apt, I think. Throughout the 4¼ hours of Daniel Barenboim's remarkable new Teldec recording, I consistently felt I was listening to the deep, slow breathing of some vast sleeping beast—the earth, or perhaps the flux of time and space, matter and energy themselves. I can't tell you how physically restful, peaceful, calming I found this performance, without it being in any way boring or soporific. Usually when reviewing a Wagner opera I end up with pages of scribbled notes cross-referenced to other recordings and performances. This time I wrote barely a page of general comments. Barenboim's may indeed be the first recording of Parsifal which fully fulfills Wagner's intentions of "a stage-consecration festival play," by which he seems to have meant not just another opera, but a catalyst for spiritual (as opposed to merely religious) transformation. At the end of this recording I felt a somewhat different person than when I started. That, of course, is how it should be—what more can one want from a work of mere art?

I broach these issues advisedly; here in the unenviable late 20th century, as we approach the close of two millennia of the Christian paradigm (footnote 1) and before the new dispensation reveals itself, it's difficult to see or speak with much clarity about spiritual issues, though everyone and her brother are trying to. As Yeats said, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity. It makes it no easier that, at the end of his own cycle, Wagner chose to express himself in the images and archetypes of Christianity. But I think it's a profound mistake to read Parsifal, as no less a thinker than Nietzsche did, as a "Christian" opera. Wagner himself was almost as profoundly anti-Christian as he was anti-Semitic, and the words "Jesus" and "Christ" are never once mentioned in this long work ostensibly "about" the Holy Grail and the Holy Spear. Throughout his life Wagner drew from his own complex heritage of a tribal native European people forcibly converted to Christianity 1400 years before. The roots of his ten mature music dramas are evenly divided between Christian (The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal) and non-Christian (Tristan and the four parts of the Ring) sources.

No, in Parsifal Wagner had greater than Christian fish to fry. He seems intent on presenting the Great Mystery—ie, of existence—itself, unrevealed, unanalyzable, unparaphraseable, unnameable, capable only of being embodied or performed, resisted or accepted. Incredibly, he succeeded.

Even more incredibly, so has Barenboim. His is the surest hand to have navigated on record these dark, bottomless waters, but I hesitate to define his accomplishment here in terms of "control"—even though that must, of course, have been exactly what he most exerted in these sessions. It doesn't sound that way. Rather, I get the distinct impression of conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, and engineers simply stepping out of the music's way. It would be so easy to talk, as I usually do, about the performances: how José van Dam is not as passionate an Amfortas as Fischer-Dieskau was for Solti; of how Matthias Hölle as Gurnemanz is not as warm as Hotter for Knappertsbusch, or as strong as Sotin for Levine; how Waltraud Meier, in her third recorded Kundry in six years, just keeps getting better in the part as her voice and dramatic insight mature; how Siegfried Jerusalem, who in recent recordings has turned out to be the heldentenor we never knew we had all along, strikes just the right balance among Parsifal's foolish boyhood energy, the sexual awakening of his youth, and the soul-weariness of a young man far sadder and wiser than his years; how the Berlin Staatsoper Chorus and the Berlin Philharmonic sing and play with seemingly effortless perfection; of how powerful the Karfreitag passages are; how luminous the final scene; how the Grail Bells are the best I've ever heard, sounding immensely huge and distant; how the complex center of Act II—sexuality, spirituality, and incest all inextricably entwined in a male/female mystery beyond morality and mortality—is so clearly stated in all its glassy opacity; and finally, how gorgeously recorded it all is, entirely natural, the walls of Berlin's Jesus-Christus-Kirche fully there before my ears.

It would be so easy, and so misleading; because the power of this performance is in its perfect balance, grace, and symmetry, its immense strength held in reserve, Barenboim's tensionless restraint so confident that it need not overstate itself; all of which allow this Parsifal to effortlessly unfold its inevitable ebb and flow, as natural as life, death, and breath.

One example of Barenboim's genius will suffice: the casting of Waltraud Meier as not only the cursed Kundry, but also as the alto voice that sings Parsifal's most important words—"Through compassion, knowing / the pure fool"—from the top of the dome of the Hall of the Grail at the very end of Act I. This is as close as Wagner got to scoring the voice of God Her/Himself. Kundry is, with the Ring's Wotan, one of the two most complex characters in all of opera: simultaneously blessed and cursed, divine and evil, mortal and immortal, unconscious and inspired. She seems the evil Magician Klingsor's pawn, but her power is far greater than his; and try as he might to be a classic male hero, Parsifal himself cannot find his way back to reunite Spear and Grail except by following Kundry's blind wanderings. Nothing in Parsifal, from damnation through salvation, happens but through Kundry.

Consciously or not, Wagner seems to be saying here that only the complete human being, one who has discovered and reconciled both male and female halves, anima and animus, has any possibility of what Wagner, within the Christian paradigm, called "salvation," and which I, half in and half out of that closing cycle, call living in grace. Barenboim's inspired double-casting of Meier in these two parts perfectly sums up all of Kundry's oxymorons of the soul.

I couldn't decide whether this was the most dramatic Parsifal I've ever heard, or the least. The characters felt far more like real human beings to me than the usual sleepwalking archetypes, and at the same time struck me as simply the collective unconscious given superb voice. Either way, this is the most satisfying Parsifal ever recorded.—Richard Lehnert

Footnote 1: To those devout Christians about to write letters in vociferous disagreement with this statement's assumptions: Be aware that my intuition about "the close of the Christian paradigm" is as much an article of my own faith as the miracle of the Resurrection is of yours. Our differences, though hardly imponderable, are clearly unresolvable. Please don't try.—Richard Lehnert

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