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Subject: Parsifal - Nezet-Seguin, Levine, Gatti
From: David H Spence <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:David H Spence <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 5 Mar 2018 04:02:01 -0500
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I post this late, because the weekend Nezet-Seguin's was on, I spent five hours on Parsifal 
without ever hearing a note of Act Three of it, but twelve hours after finishing Act Two of 
the Met broadcast, segued over to a broadcast I found over on youtube of, from the 
Bayreuth Festival, such as issued on Philips, by James Levine and listened to the entirety of 
Act One with Levine, but lasting about fifteen minutes longer than Nezet-Seguin's, but 
seldom feeling any slower than it somehow.

Richard Strauss, but i argue to be taken within the context of his modernist view of Wagner, 
weighed in on taking Parsifal ever too slowly, with the music in its note values, symmetry, 
what have you, is already written slow.  Another article I've read cites Levine and Gatti 
having tied with themselves for the longest Parsifal ever at 265 minutes.  They in fact have 
several other rivals, such as in Arturo Toscanini, Reginald Goodall, and Christoph 
Eschenbach.  I found the idea of attending a Robert Wilson staging of Parsifal as conducted 
by Eschenbach back in 1992 unbearable, so i stayed away, but i gather from what i heard 
about it the playing time was very close to 280 minutes.  

Anybody who took the trouble to listen to the Bayreuth Parsifal from 2008 probably has 
experienced Daniele Gatti twice with this work thus far.  With little assistance from the 
singers, except from Fujimura and a little ways from Kwangchul Youn, Gatti's sounded 
lumbering, lacking in dramatic and musical tension - perhaps in part distracted by all the 
historical related clutter going on on stage that year.  I felt deeply suspicious with the 
reports of universal acclaim for the new production that year, when the two most brilliant 
productions of the Ring to have opened the festival in the past nearly fifty years were both 
heavily booed the year each were unveiled - and they are the only two I own on dvd.  
Relatively speaking, an ersatz-Ken Burns approach was just not going to cut it for me.
I tried enduring one or two acts of this and then quickly lost interest.  

It was with considerable relief that the Met movie-cast in early March of five years ago went 
so amazingly well - as it did, a performance overall I found to have only lost focus 
momentarily one or two times during the Second Act.  Kaufmann, Mattei, and Pape were all 
magnificent and Dalayman nearly as much so.   Kaufmann freely let go of a generic 
baritonal huskiness to his vocalism (try his Radames with Pappano for instance) to provide 
wonderful musical and dramatic focus to all he did and gorgeous soft singing, especially 
during Act Three.  Who could have forgotten this?

None of this is to take into account the contributions of Muck, Knappertsbusch, and then 
later on most notably Karajan in their renditions of Parsifal, but one can feel the influence at 
least of the latter two in some of what has come about in this past generation or so.

A certain fluidity, elasticity with the unendliches melodic line of Wagner should almost be a 
pre-determined pre-requisite for being able to do Parsifal justice from the podium, not to 
mention variety of dynamics and the right relationship between singers and the pit.  Most of 
this i found unformed as of yet from Nezet-Seguin, to the point of there not being quite any 
clue of what concept there may be in mind of the work, even in a work-in-progress sense 
thereof.  Act Two i found more convincing than Act One, except for having to endure 
Herlitzius and Vogt.  The acting chops, clearly audible, of the former, do not compensate 
near enough for the unstable top, frequently evident this time. Vogt, in lyrical size and 
impetus might have been a little better at pulling it off in Wagner in both a smaller house 
and with a little more bloom to the sound when at least several years younger than he is 
now, but all that to compensate, it seems, is just simply not there anymore.   Back to 
Herlitziius, the nearly two octave leap on 'lachte' got undercut by inattention to the 
dynamics from Nezet-Seguin and his bass clarinettist.  (With Levine dragging the tempo too 
much at this point, the problem on his is lack of being able to slow down for the same 
moment - to the same deleterious effect).  The waltz of the flower-maiden, almost ideally 
lilting and light under Levine (1985 again) sounded lumbering two weekends ago.  

It must have been quite a different aural perspective that one heard more intensity from 
Mattei and Pape than i had available to me on this occasion than under Gatti five years ago.
One critic commented upon Nezet-Seguin's ties in the past with Giulini as possibly having 
influenced his interpretation of Parsifal.  Hints of a tonalist approach to Wagner are also 
remindful of Gergiev, whose Wagner thus far I've found uneven, between two each of 
Parsifal, Walkure and perhaps Hollander as well, and a good Mariinsky Rheingold.  The 
Marrinsky Walkure i find highly unconvincing.  What got me, even stuck in my craw a little 
about the N-Seguin Parsifal is that with Nezet-Seguin leaning so heavily on phrasing things, 
Mattei and Pape both sounded as though relegated to singing their parts as obbligato to the 
orchestral line.  Subtle warning of this becoming a problem was already evident to me 
during the prelude to Act One.  Eschenbach, as prime example of handling soloists in this 
manner, immediately came to mind.  Ultimately, recalling what i said about all this two 
weeks ago, Nezet-Seguin sounded like an almost sight-reading by Ormandy, with some 
Eschenbach and Gergiev thrown in, and perhaps a litttle of Giulini as well.

It was then with a little trepidation I approached the Levine, having already enjoyed though 
his 1992 (or 1993) dvd from the Met with Meier, Jerusalem, Weikl, etc.  The 1985 Philips 
set from Bayreuth had, after all, received bad reviews for tempi too slow and, as reported, 
the parlous state of Hofmann's voice.  Standards were a little higher back then too.  
Somewhere around the verwandlungsmusik i found that Levine was coming almost too 
much to a standstill.  However, the fastidious preparation of his forces, the ease and 
translucence of maintaining line and the overall sound almost more than make up for it.  I 
wondered if, late at night, I would not be compelled to give up half or two-thirds through, 
but decided to stick it out to a not at all bitter end.  

Yesterday I listened to all of Act One again and then Act Two and i found a little heaviness 
in Act One a little more obvious, with the Nezet-Seguin no longer in my ear at all.  Hofmann 
at times does resort to a little barking during Act Two, but i still found his overall vocal 
profile easier to deal with than what little Vogt has to offer.  Of course, Hofmann suffers by 
comparison with himself five years earlier in Berlin on DGG.  The least satisfactory part of 
the 1985 Levine is the second half of Act Two, with a few almost screamed high notes from 
Waltraud Meier, but most of all kind of a sleepy, leaden pace through portions of it.  This 
was a live performance, so could have Levine been saving his energy, resources for Act 
Three.  Perhaps so.  There is no lack of excitement to the last eight to ten minutes of Act 
Two with Levine.

It was Act Three tonight that came as quite increasingly a great shock to me.  It is utterly 
magnificent.  The kind of earthly quality of a Solti approach to this (such as heard from 
Adam Fischer in Vienna few years ago) is there, such as one would associate with Levine in 
the 1970's and 1980's at times on some things, but coalesced with all the spiritual quality 
for all of the most lyrical, radiant passages as well, all unified in a very noble, magisterial 
command of the line. Attention to dyanmics and textures, and also sustaining the pacing 
through the so gradual breaking out of sunlight in Act Three is simply exemplary to the 
highest degree.   Hans Sotin hardly need fear comparison with any of some of the best 
Gurnemanz's to have preceded him, and Simon Estes, at least in Act Three, is no less fine.
Even Petr Hofmann relaxes his voice for the most poetic moments in his lines, and even 
when less than ingratiating, tonally, still for the most part sustains the line he is singing.  
Hans Sotin, it is reported, due to artistic differences, walked out on Eschenbach's only 
Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2000.


Levine very obviously was working under very ideal conditions at Bayreuth at the time.
I've never heard Levine this convincingly impassioned in his Wagner from this phase of his 
career.  How could I have ever guessed this might be the case?   Later on, with Parsifal, the 
sound and command of line, and more moderate tempos with the Met orchestra are lovely, 
but the vehemence, passion, tonal variety are perhaps a little wanting, as though having 
started to be air-brushed away from how Levine had things at Bayreuth.  Even through the 
DGG recordings of Rheingold and Walkure, his attempt at infusing so much emotion into 
what he is doing, breaks up the line, along with the hollow middle of Behrens, to the point 
of everything sounding choppy,   Matters would improve later on, that this would turn out to 
be less the case.  A broadcast of Norman and Domingo singing Act Two with Levine, and 
probably a little slower than on the dvd, I found mostly annoying, unconvincing, with Jessye 
Norman's mannerisms, not all, but most of all.

From a conducting perspective, the very finest Wagner I've ever heard from Levine is the 
1997 Gotterdammerung from Bayreuth, a work he had already been quite successful with 
from the Met on DGG as well.  Wolfgang Schmidt, while not being pleasing to the ear, to my 
ears, is not as bad as I anticipated - or as he was very unfortunately under Muti at La Scala 
a year or two later. Eric Halfvarson, as Hagen, perhaps gives the performance of his career, 
as Hagen.  I've never heard him better than on here.  Did I expect the 1985 Parsifal, in 
terms of clarity, command of line, even at times emotional urgency to rival this 
Gotterdammeurng?  Most certainly, i have been very much taken by surprise.

In closing, Levine eventually may have expressed some dissatisfaction with the Goetz 
Friedrich production that first saw the light of day in 1982, again with Levine in the pit.  
Keep in mind too that Levine had already conducted Jon Vickers in the title role of Parsifal at 
the Met several years earlier.  The set design for it was some 'turtle-farm' type of concept?  
How did perhaps a certain infusion of expressionism in Friedrich's concept of Parsifal work?  
It is a shame we do not have a record of this on dvd, to compare for instance with the Otto 
Schenk, good at being literal minded in laying  essential things out, but so bland a concept, 
in places where it absolutely should not be (second half of Act Two).  The aural pleasures to 
be had with this Parsifal go a little more than half the distance to make up for this.  

Any comments in response to mind ahead of time are very well appreciated.  Come to think 
of it, I have yet to enjoy any broadcast of the Met I've tuned into this season.  With Norma 
and Trovatore, during the past couple of months, I found them impossible to stay with past 
the start of intermission.  The Norma was particularly execrable, Norma a score Wagner 
would have both singers and conductors alike to learn from in approaching his own music.

In loving memory of Jesus Lopez-Cobos, what a terrible loss for all of us, i turned my 
attention over to Parsifal the past day and a half.  May he rest in peace and his very fine 
legacy remain with us for some time.  A 1982 Walkure (Friedrich production again?) of his 
from Berlin, starring Simon Estes again and Julia Varady, is on youtube.

David H Spence

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