WAGNER, R.: Parsifal
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Parsifal
The stirring Celtic myths of King Arthur and his knights and the quest for the Grail have fascinated European writers from the Middle Ages onward. The publication of Cervantess novel Don Quixote in the early seventeenth century served to keep the idea of an age of chivalry alive, even though he poked gentle fun at it. In the nineteenth century two great artists were obsessed with these myths: the poet Alfred Tennyson naturally concentrated on them from an English angle, while the composer Richard Wagner came to them from the Teutonic viewpoint. Wagners primary source was the thirteenth-century poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose writings he encountered in 1845. Having toyed with the idea of creating an opera round the holy fool Parsifal (also known as Parzival or Perceval), he ended up writing one about Parsifals son Lohengrin; and it was not until 1857 that he again started thinking seriously about the project, although he did consider introducing the character of Parsifal briefly into Tristan und Isolde. He wrote out a sketch (which is lost) for a three-act drama, and in 1865 he was able to give his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria a fairly good impression of what the opera would be about. All this time, as he occupied himself with The Ring and Die Meistersinger, his concept of Parsifal was evolving, acquiring more and more layers of symbolism. For instance, Wolfram and other early writers were not too sure what the Grail actually was; but Wagners further reading drew him to the conviction held by later authors that it was the chalice used at the Last Supper and then employed by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood that flowed from the spear wound in the side of Christ on the Cross. The concept that the spear which plays a large part in the drama would be the very weapon with which the centurion Longinus inflicted that wound, was an even later discovery for him.
Wagner wrote his libretto in the spring of 1877, in the knowledge that this would be his farewell to the stage, and began composing the music that August. Interestingly, the noble Prelude to Act I was sketched first, which shows that Wagner already had a complete vision of the interlocking motifs which would resound through the work, and it was performed under his direction in a concert at his Bayreuth house, Wahnfried, in 1878. By Christmas 1881, when he had promised to have the score of the opera ready for his wife Cosima to see, only a few pages remained to be orchestrated. Wagner conceived the work from the start in terms of his theatre at Bayreuth, where it was given its first sixteen performances under Hermann Levis baton in the summer festival of 1882. Only under his own close supervision, Wagner felt, could the deeply religious element of Parsifal be realised. Performance anywhere else was forbidden and even after Wagners death, his heirs banned any stage presentation until the copyright ran out in 1914. A production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1903 was seen by them and other Wagnerians as a betrayal. The Prelude and Good Friday Music, however, were quickly established in the concert hall. Parsifal has had no successors, although it clearly influenced Pfitzners Palestrina, and it remains, with its rapt religiosity, the most difficult of the Wagnerian music dramas to stage, especially in an increasingly sceptical and secular society. The preponderance of slow music and bass voices also makes it hard to bring off in the theatre. It is the ultimate challenge for a Wagnerian conductor, but it is full of beautiful music, especially in the harmonically rich third act, and it contains strikingly individual characters. Klingsor may be the archetypal villain and Parsifal the usual Wagnerian tenor, but Gurnemanz represents the epitome of operatic nobility, the tortured Amfortas is never forgotten, once seen, and in Kundry, with her intriguing dual nature, Wagner created his most exceptional female protagonist.
The production enshrined in this live recording was one of the epoch-making theatrical events of the twentieth century. The new broom at Bayreuth in this first post-war season, the composers grandson Wieland Wagner, chose Parsifal, with its themes of purification and redemption, as the ideal vehicle for cleansing the Festspielhaus after the disgrace of the Third Reich, when Wagners music had been adopted by the Nazis and Hitler himself had been an honoured guest at Bayreuth. In keeping with this ethos of newness, Wieland swept away all the old-fashioned ideas of production and presented a stark, almost empty stage picture, sombrely lit. In such a simple setting, acting and characterisation assumed primary importance, so the singers were meticulously rehearsed in the psychological implications of their rôles. The production was revived countless times and its impact is still being felt today; but it was also momentous on the musical side, bringing forward such new men as Windgassen, van Mill and London alongside established stars such as Mödl, Uhde and Weber. In charge of these wonderful singers and the handpicked chorus and orchestra was the craggy figure of Hans Knappertsbusch, who never did anything finer than this set, the first complete recording of Parsifal. Bayreuth that year was also a magnet for the record companies. EMI was there to record the Ninth Symphony under Furtwängler and Die Meistersinger under Karajan, while Decca was doing the first Ring cycle (of which only the last part was actually taped) and Parsifal. The engineer Kenneth Wilkinson made various experiments and finally slung a single microphone high up in the auditorium, blending the sound from that vantage point with the output from closer microphones. The result was a sound of immense atmosphere, helped by the famous cowl which at Bayreuth veiled the orchestra. The Festspielhaus, in which the singers could advance over the orchestra and therefore always be heard, played its part. The recording, with an almost ideal blend of warmth and clarity for its time, still sounds amazingly good; and the interpretation, edited by the producer John Culshaw from the general rehearsal and two performances, has stood the test of time.
 The Prelude to Act I establishes the sacred nature of what is to follow, making use of motifs associated with the Last Supper, including shorter elements connoting Salvation, the Wound and the Spear, heard at the opening. This leads to motifs of the Holy Grail, introduced by the trumpet, and of Faith, heard first from horns and trumpets.
Act I  Gurnemanz, an older knight, and two young squires are asleep in the woods in the realm of the Holy Grail. They wake, pray and prepare for the bath of King Amfortas, to whose wounds the remedy brought by Gawan has given no comfort. There is only one who can bring any relief.  The wild-haired Kundry rides galloping in, dismounting to give Gurnemanz a salve for the King, before casting herself down on the ground in exhaustion.  Amfortas is carried in. He knows that only a pure fool, made wise by suffering, can cure him, accepts the salve that Kundry has brought and is carried towards the lake.  The young men wonder about Kundry, but Gurnemanz explains that she may be bewitched, but, at all events, her absence seems to bring misfortune.  He recalls how Amfortas had been attracted by the vision of a beautiful woman to the castle of Klingsor and how he had been wounded by the Spear that Klingsor had seized.  In a fuller account, he tells how Titurel had been given the task of guarding the Holy Grail, the chalice of the Last Supper, and the Spear that had pierced the side of Christ on the Cross and how Klingsor had tried to lure away the Knights of th