The titular hero of Wagner’s final music drama has long been one of Jonas Kaufmann’s signature roles – he sang it in Australia, for example, back in 2017.

This live recording was captured during a run at the Vienna State Opera in 2021, and very good it is too, bar caveats, more of which anon.

Suffice it to say, Kaufmann and fellow soloists Elina Garanča and Ludovic Tézier offer some of the finest Wagner singing around right now.

Parsifal, which premiered in 1882, the year before the composer died, is a complex mix of Christian and Buddhist thought, Feuerbachian philosophy and high-German mythology. With typically Wagnerian themes of sin, guilt, punishment and redemption, there’s plenty to get you head around, but fortunately the drama moves at a leisurely pace over four hours with lengthy opportunities to pause for thought. It should never feel long, however, setting conductors the challenge of keeping the drama on the boil while exploring the prevailing mood of religious debate, worship and ritual.

Herein lies this set’s drawback. Philippe Jordan is an experienced Wagnerian, and he draws some lovely playing from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, who are a real asset. There’s no lack of attention to instrumental colour and the phrasing is generally thoughtful and detailed. And yet, too often in Act I and the earlier part of Act III, the drama lacks a sense of musical purpose. Incidental moments come off well, but musical matters sometimes grind to a halt without feeling for the dramatic throughline. Act II picks up considerably, though some of the Flower Maidens are a little shrill.

Fortunately, the principal cast saves the day. Kaufmann is a fine Parsifal, his tone darker than it was, which affects some of the character’s naivety in the first half, but he has the heft required for Acts II and III, plus a sensitivity to textual nuance that draws the listener in. His account of the great Act II ‘love scene’ is full of imaginative shading and his awakening sense of wonder in the Good Friday scene is palpable.

On this hearing, Garanča must be counted the finest Kundry of the past 30 years. The voice is rich and velvety with sensitively produced bottom notes and spine-tingling top notes in Act II. The great cry of “Ich sah Ihn – Ihn – und – lachte…” (I saw Him, and laughed) reverberates like a punch in the gut. Eschewing the vocal grunts and groans of some of her illustrious predecessors, she nevertheless creates a fully rounded and highly sympathetic portrait of this most wretched of operatic souls in torment.

Ludovic Tézier shares all of those virtues as Amfortas, singing with sumptuous and focussed tone. Master of the long phrase, and with an engaging way with the words, he’s both pitiful and commanding in the temple scenes and has no trouble with the role’s upper-register demands in Act III.

As Gurnemanz, Georg Zeppenfeld is a little light of voice, lacking the appropriately cavernous tone of the finest inhabitants of the role (I’m thinking Ludwig Weber, Gottlob Frick, and more recently Kwangchoul Youn). There’s also a slight granularity to the timbre, though he makes up for much of it with peerless diction and a Lieder singer’s attention to detail.

Wolfgang Koch’s Klingsor is, as you’d expect, superbly black of heart and voice, Stefan Cerny is a resonant Titurel, and the Wiener Staatsoper Chorus is outstanding. The live recording has decent depth with a fine feeling for texture in the score’s more diaphanous passages.

There are some outstanding recordings of Parsifal in the catalogue – Knappertsbusch (on several occasions), Solti, Karajan and Barenboim, for example. Jordan may not match them for architectural understanding, but collectors will want this set for Kaufmannm, Garanča and Tézier.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Wagner
Work: Parsifal
Performers: Jonas Kaufmann t, Elina Garanča ms, Georg Zeppenfeld b, Ludovic Tézier bar, Wiener Staatsoper/Philippe Jordan
Label: Sony 19439947742 (4CD)

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