Thursday, January 31, 2013


PARSIFAL (Concert with Historical Instruments) 
Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble and Choirs
26 January 2013 
Simon O’Neill, Parsifal 
Kwangchul Youn, Gurnemanz 
Angela Denoke, Kundry 
Matthias Goerne, Amfortas 
Johannes Martin Kränzle, Klingsor 
Victor von Halem, Titurel 
Hermann Oswald Marek Rzepka, Gralsritter 
Virgil Hartinger Manuel Warwitz, Knappen 
Katja Stuber Gunta Davidcuka Antonia Bourvé Tanya Aspelmeier Heike Heilmann, Klingsors Zaubermädchen 
Marion Eckstein, Klingsors Zaubermädchen, Stimme aus der Höhe 
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund am Konzerthaus Dortmund 
Thomas Hengelbrock, Dirigent 
Parsfal Bells 1882 (Archive)
In case you haven’t heard yet, devotees will be celebrating Richard Wagner's 200th birthday on 22 May. The festivities have already begun. Ring Cycles, new productions, revivals everywhere. 

Among the novel events of the bi-centennial is a concert performance of Parsifal featuring an array of instruments that were used around the time of the opera’s 1882 premiere at Bayreuth. Wagner grew keen on selecting instruments that would produce the sonic qualities he heard in his mind’s ear. So whenever existing instruments failed to come up to snuff, he had them custom-made.  Ergo the Wagner-Tuba,  Wagner oboe, Beckmesser harp, thunder machines, temple bells, etc.

The Wagner period instrument project is the brainchild of Thomas Hengelbrock, who is taking the opera-cum-historical instruments on a tour to Dortmund, Essen and Madrid with the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Choir and Boy’s Chorus of the Dortmund Choral Academy.    
In addition to performing with instruments, most of which were being used at the time of the premiere, though not necessarily at the event on 26 July 1882 in Bayreuth, Hengelbrock is conjuring an aural impression, insofar as possible, of the musical  conditions of the period, including the use of gut strings and lowering the general pitch to A=438 from today’s A=443.  Conspicuously missing from the instrument list, though, was the “gong piano” that Wagner had built to represent the sound of temple bells. Instead, Hengelbrock used a combination of Thai and Java gongs played in unison with plate bells and tam-tams. 
French Erards; Left 1880. Right 1907
Also, only a precursor of the larger of two harps used by the Balthasar-Naumann Ensemble  might have been played at the premiere.  It is a French Erard “Gothic” model that dates from about 1907. The smaller harp (an Erard “Grecian” model) was built around 1880, but its like was probably too small for Wagner's demands. Still, the Meister had no aversion to doubling instruments when he found it necessary, and he may even have ordered tripling the harps at the premiere performances: on top of having the entire orchestra of the Munich Court Opera put at his disposal by his patron King Ludwig II, at least three harpists (Lockwood and Zwerger A. Wiedemann and H. Vitztum) were also engaged by the Festival in 1882, 1883 and 1884, when only Parsifal was presented. Hengelbrock sticks to using just two harps called for in the score.

You might think such details are precious at best and would make little difference to the total sound picture. But the effect Hengelbrock and the Balthasar Ensemble managed to produce, albeit approximate, was quite remarkable, though it took some getting used-to. The brass section in the Prelude, for example, seemed too aggressive, and the winds sounded at first excessively reedy -- the sort of mash you might expect from a high school band rehearsal. But once the ear settled into the sonic pool that gathered warmth and flow with each succeeding measure, the edginess of the winds and brass took on a mellow glow of their own. 

As pleasing as it all sounded in Essen's Philharmonie, it was both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how the orchestra might sound emerging from the covered pit of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, whose acoustical properties are inimitable and little changed over the past century. 

But taking pleasure in the sound of these instruments was fleeting.  

At the performance I attended on 26 January in Essen, Hengelbrock conducted the performance so fast -- the first act in less than one hour, 30 minutes -- that the special sonorities afforded by these historic instruments became overwhelmed by the sheer velocity of his tempi. Wagner often railed against dragging the music, yes. But even allowing some wiggle room for the meaning of “the right tempi,” Hengelbrock’s pacing was arguably hyperactive compared to the well-known duration of Act One at the World Premiere in Bayreuth under Hermann Levi: one hour, 47 minutes. 

Coincidentally, throughout several conversations I had with the now legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall (1901-1990), he stressed his need to resist “rushing” tempi in late Wagner, so that the inner voices of the harmonic construct could be given what he believed to be their proper due. Recordings of his live performances support his view: new details egress with every hearing. I should add, that Goodall’s comments were no exclusive disclosure to me. He expressed them whenever the subject of tempo came up in interviews. 

Nonetheless, Hengelbrock’s lapidary treatment utimately proved exciting last Saturday, especially in the latter part of the second act, in which Kundry tests Parsifal’s resolve to fulfill his destiny. For the first time in the 40-odd performances of Parsifal I have attended, these moments broke free from the dream-world warp that usually imbues this scene and pulsated with real-time drama. 

Could Hengelbrock have achieved the same urgency simply using contemporary instruments? Hmnn... 
Hermann Winkelmann, Amalie Materna (Archive)
Which brings me to the cast. Hengelbrock has assembled about as fine a vocal ensemble for his grand experiment as can be found these days. But did the vocal qualities of the singers remotely match those of the original cast?   A number of recordings in circulation today purport to purvey the voice of Amalie Materna (1844-1918), the original Kundry.   But the only bona-fide vestiges of the first Bayreuth cast have been left by tenor Hermann Winkelmann (1849-1912), who recorded several tracks commercially around 1905. While his voice is in evident decline at this point in his career, the characteristics Wagner often stated he wanted from his singers are still clearly audible: power, expressive cantilena and italianate warmth. Some critics carp at the plaintive timbre that marks Winkelmann’s voice, but the authority of his articulation nonetheless piques the listener’s imagination.
Left-Right: Thomas Hengelbrock, Angela Denoke, Simon O'Neill
Given how Wagner singing has evolved throughout the past century, there is no reason to expect any tenor to sound like Winkelmann, even in a performance where other aural conditions of the premiere are being approximated. New Zealander Simon O’Neill mercifully makes no attempt at Sutherland-esque exercises in reviving performance practices at Bayreuth circa 1882. His is a big, bright and forward-pitched Heldentenor that projects Parsifal’s visceral energy from start to finish. Its tonal breadth may strike some as monocromatic, but his capacity for subtle shading within a modest compass commands the listener’s interest. The role is far from the longest in the Wagner canon, but its technical pitfalls have made kiwis of many tenors.  O’Neill is not among them. 

Angela Denoke has continued to maintain freshness in her characterful soprano over the past decade since I first heard her as Sieglinde in the so-called Stuttgart Ring. Her voice has darkened somewhat, though, which may explain why she ran afoul of some notes above the staff, throughout the treacherous passages following Kundry’s monologue “Ich sah das Kind...” That said, Denoke is indisputably a major Wagner singer, and she hopefully will be in better form by the time the series of performances wraps up in Madrid this coming weekend.

If the glue that binds Parsifal is Gurnemanz, Kwangchul Youn brought soulful cohesion to the role in the heartfelt manner that also distinguishes the portrayals of Matti Salminen and Rene Pape. Youn sounds like he is evolving into seasoned maturity every time I hear him, and it is gratifying to listen to him now at the peak of his form. Matthias Goerne rendered a tortured Amfortas, whose remorse over the weakness that caused his wound makes his physical agony all the more unbearable. He was particularly moving in the passage following his desperate outcry, “Nein! Nicht mehr! ha!...” Despite being in possession of a voice that is too attractive for the part, Johannes Martin Kränzle offered a deeply embittered Klingsor, whose every phrase betrayed a Lucifer in living Hell. An undervalued singer. 

The chorus was in fine form and lost none of its sheen in the upper register despite the sharply lowered pitch. 

The last performance of the series takes place in Madrid on 2 February. 

By the way, one of the leading Wagner tenors of our time (whose controversial voice bears absolutely no resemblance to Hermann Winkelmann’s) will be presenting what’s being billed as an “Exclusively in Germany" Concert on 4 February at Cologne’s Philharmonie.  Klaus Florian Vogt will be appearing with the North-West German Philhamonic under the direction of Marco Comin in a program of Verdi, Mozart, Bizet and, of course, Wagner.

 Photos (unless otherwise noted), graphics and post-production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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