Friday, 29 November 2013

Parsifal: crystal bells, magic garden



Those great bells which sound four notes so solemn-jubilant in Act One and so doomy-despairing in Act Three of Wagner's Parsifal are making a discreetly joyful sound in my head now that I've sent over the script for Radio 3's Building a Library. It's by no means the end of the quest, which will happen once I've declaimed the holy text in the studio on Tuesday morning. But three months of listening and watching which have never been anything but revelatory, though very tiring, have now come to an end. The grail among recordings seemed to me quite obvious once I'd heard them all, though more than that I can't say before broadcast on Saturday 14 December's Christmas edition of CD Review.

Anyway, the cumulative Parsifal week, which began so delightfully with the wonderful Mark Wigglesworth's visit to the ninth of my City Lit classes on the subject, isn't over yet: tomorrow is the first night of the new Royal Opera production, which I'm lucky enough to be reviewing for The Arts Desk*. I'll write up the Wigglesworth chat in due course, but I'm a bit behind and still haven't sifted the transcription of Richard Jones's Gloriana talk back in June.


Above is where I'd like to be instantly transported now that I've earned a holiday - the garden of the Villa Rufolo in heavenly Ravello, a quarter of a mile above the Mediterranean near Amalfi. The postcard I saved and had scanned for reproduction up top offers a musical quotation from Gurnemanz's Act 1 monologue:  'there he [Klingsor] awaits the knights [of the grail] to lure them to sinful joys and hell's damnation'. Give me more of that, which I so enjoyed - or nearly did - back in 1984 in the company of a beautiful young Los Angelene and fellow InterRailer called Marc.

That's quite a curious story in itself: we shared a room in Atrani; he told me how he liked to look at women but not to touch, much as they pursued him; after two days of our walking everywhere together he disappeared with a German girl for a night and then I heard him outside the door at 1 in the morning telling his tearful, beseeching young Kundry how coming back was 'like crossing the Red Sea'. I affected sleep and didn't ask him what he meant - the unanswered question I soon regretted I hadn't posed.

Next morning Marc was off on a train to Brindisi and Greece, and I to Sicily, before we could meet and talk (I thought we'd catch the same bus to Salerno together but he was nowhere to be seen). Truth to tell, he was probably a bit of an unholy fool himself, but cut quite a Parsifal figure standing under the arch of the Bar Klingsor in Ravello's main square (it's still there, I'm told) and wandering shirtless around the even lovelier Villa Cimbrone where Walton composed his Violin Concerto. Anyway, that's certainly not the only tale of unrequited desire on the Amalfi coast.

The gardens, as you can see, are beautifully situated but rather tamely planted as they were when the Wagners visited in May 1880: not quite the luxuriance one expects of the magician's enchanted domain; if anything the cloister with Moorish touches on the capitals is more redolent of the outer acts' Monsalvat.


The Russian artist Paul von Joukowsky met Richard and Cosima in Naples that January, and was there sketching away at the Villa Rufolo; he later designed the sets and costumes for Parsifal. I was looking for his vision of the garden and found it, serendipitously, on my dear friend Jonny Brown's Villa Parasol website, so I hope that given that link he'll be happy with me reproducing the much more luxurious imagining of Joukowsky here.


How to present the magic garden's inhabitants, the fair Flowermaidens with their curious mixture of playfulness and threat, innocence and debauchery, remains a perennial problem for directors. Perhaps the best solution is Harry Kupfer's: in his Staatskapelle Berlin production they all appear soft-porn style on a multitude of television screens. That at least lets Kundry - in that staging on DVD, an incredibly sensual Waltraud Meier - upstage them in her entrance. I've never found the voice alone that impressive, but you tend to forget it when you watch her. This clip gives a last glimpse of the TV Blumenm├Ądchen and plenty of Meier.


You'd have thought it was easier to get the Monsalvat castle bells right. But Bayreuth had problems during Wagner's life and after it. For much of the following, I'm indebted to a page on the Monsalvat - Parsifal website, though we had both turned to Selected Letters of  Richard Wagner translated and edited by Stewart Spencer and my good, loyal friend Barry Millington for the first source. There you'll find the request sent by Wagner to Edward Dannreuther, the British Wagner Society founder who'd discovered a dragon in London to be shipped out for the Bayreuth Siegfried and whom he now requested to obtain a set of Chinese tamtams, which I assume to be the same as this sort of temple gong.


So the effect was clearly never going to be the 'gentle ringing, as of crystal bells' mentioned in Wagner's 1865 prose draft. Evidently the tamtams fell short of the ideal  and were succeeded by metal drums and then a 24-string piano with four keys. From the late 1880s until 1929 these metal canisters were used, pictued below as on the Monsalvat - Parsifal site courtesy of the Richard-Wagner-Gedenkst├Ątte. You can hear them on one recording only, and a very splendid one: the set of extracts recorded - in a big venture for the time - by HMV in Bayreuth shortly after the advent of electrical recording, and conducted by the great heir to a tradition Karl Muck. His company was the first to introduce the Ring to Russia in the 1880s (a visit which had a huge impact on the composing style of Rimsky-Korsakov, chief among awestruck musicians).


The conducting is grand but masterful, setting the trend for the Knappertsbusch style which I sometimes find de trop in my quest for the golden mean, and it sounds amazing for the time. The bells were clearly a bit flat by 1927, but their resonance is never in doubt. Here's the Grail Scene from Act 1 minus Gurnemanz's interjections, Amfortas's tormented monologue and the final scene of Gurnemanz's reproach to Parsifal. The bells emerge loud and clear at 5'58.


The bells were silent, then, from 1929 until the Second World War, when they were melted down for obvious reasons. I wondered what on earth I was hearing on the 1962 Knappertsbusch-conducted Bayreuth recording. It sounded like a weird kind of synthesizer, and it was, the very first, namely the: Mixtur-Trautonium invented in Berlin in the late 1920s. You hear it on all three of Knappertsbusch's recordings (1951, 1962 and 1964) so I wonder when it was phased out - none too soon, as the results bear witness. You'll be able to hear them, followed by the 'Muck originals', on the programme.

I could easily have devoted an entire Building a Library to the question of the 'Parsifal bells'. But that's quite enough here. What we really ought to end with is Alexander Kipnis's magnificent role as Gurnemanz in the Act Three Good Friday Music. I was going to reference here the excerpt conducted by Siegfried Wagner, but then I discovered that the inexhaustible treasure-trove of YouTube had Kipnis with a sadly rather flat Max Lorenz and - this is the heilig hehrstes Wunder - Strauss conducting in 1933** (the infamous year in which he perhaps too readily stepped in for the much more admirable Toscanini). Did Gurnemanzes ever get any better than this? Tune in Saturday week - at the end of Radio 3's seven-days Wagnerfest, which also includes my excellent and incredibly hard-working producer Clive Portbury's Sunday Feature: The Invisible Theatre - to find out.


30/11 My colleague Jasper Rees just sent me a link to the interview he conducted with me - one of many, the others featuring much more distinguished figures like Waltraud Meier, Robert Carsen and Sir John Tomlinson - for the K T Wong Foundation in association with the Beijing Festival, which has had what I can only call the misfortune to share Michael Schulz's Salzburg production. It's on YouTube but it seems there's no means of embedding it as yet, so here's the link.


*1/12 It turned out to be repulsive and disappointing, with fitful musical treasures in the mud: read my Arts Desk review of the Royal Opera Parsifal here. Image above by Clive Barda, who makes the production look better than it was.

**7/12 That great Wagner expert Mike Ashman kindly emailed to tell me it most likely ISN'T Strauss conducting here: 'As far as I know (and Ray Holden the Strauss conductor expert also thinks) what's in circulation, although it is those named singers, is not from the performances actually conducted by Strauss. It apparently existed once but was lost, like many Bayreuth things, in the war'.

17 comments:

Howard Lane said...

These Parsifal bells have an odd sound, and may well be temple gongs like the one in the picture (beautiful engraving), but not tam tams which have a flat surface without a central boss and don't produce a defined note like the temple gong (think Turangalila which has some serious gonging in it). I was hoping to get one for the finale of Bohemian Rhapsody but no luck, and will have to console myself with a pair of clashing cymbals for a bit of extra dramatic operatic effect. All this and Parsifal too - can't wait!

David said...

Are you referring to the 1927 recording, Howard? Those are the 'drum' bells as depicted. Wagner's 'tam tams' don't seem to have survived, but they were definitely pitched so must have been Chinese gongs. Strauss uses temple gongs in Die Frau ohne Schatten. There's also an amazing effect for Elektra's collapse where he asks the percussionist to stroke a tam tam with a triangle stick. Limitless possibilities, really.

David Damant said...

Surely the original Parsifal bells were replaced a few years ago by a generous donor? Father Andrew will know

Gavin Plumley said...

Interesting post about the bells on the ROH website http://www.roh.org.uk/news/ringing-the-changes-in-parsifal-the-bells-of-the-grail-hall

David said...

Holy redeemer, he replies somewhat testily, isn't the information here - and the link to a fascinating article - good enough? David, I was writing about then, not now, but you've told me that before and it's true. There may well be more on the Royal Opera site, Gavin, I'll take a look.

I like it that people bring information to bear on a blog, and 'nice post' is just boring, but sometimes a little acknowledgment of what's there rather than what isn't doesn't go amiss.

Probably I'm in a snarky mood after the mostly repellent experience of the Royal Opera Parsifal last night.

Howard Lane said...

Yes the 1927 recording. Are they those huge metal canisters? Amazing although not particularly bell-like. Shame your Parsifal immersion ended so disappointingly. I feel all my prejudices about modern re-interpretations stirring up.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I wanted so much to write sooner, but I knew it was important to have sufficient quiet time to read, listen, and think. I’ve only finally come upon that time today—and even now (as for me is true with Parsifal in general), I recognize I’ve only just begun.

From your first words—actually, from the sunlit tinted postcard that begins the post and the story of the InterRailer you met in Ravello—you take us on the most lovely and intelligent of journeys, both personal and cultural. It is continually remarkable to me how much you know, and how deeply felt your understanding is. There are few things more fulfilling than delving into something, searching in all the corners one can get to, making one’s own discoveries—and that you not only do so, but also share what you know and what you’ve learned with us all is a great gift.

And not only the post itself, but all the avenues you send us down: The video interview is wonderful, from your story of the first eager listening to The Ring in BBC installments to your rich understanding of Wagner’s works today. On TAD, I was so struck by this: “Your attitude to all this will depend on whether or not you feel, as I do, that the director’s first duty is to honour the moments of grace amidst all the apocalyptic darkness – and it isn’t just a question of having a grail cup and a shining light.” And the remarkable sound of the bells in the 1927 performance, ringing down from history to us today.

You’ve more than earned a return to sunlit Ravello, it seems to me. For myself, I look forward enormously to listening to the broadcast that is the result of all your brilliant labor—and to finding out which Parsifal you most recommend.

David said...

As if on cue to my gripe (fanfare), Sue. But I hope I know her well enough to accept what she says with a good grace, for she's a fair but stern critic too.

Howard, I'm conscious that in reviewing this and the Complicite Magic Flute I'm beginning to look as if I'm on the side of the fogies. Regietheater, personenregie especially, has so much still to offer. But I increasingly think less is more in Wagner especially.

As Sir David and Father Andrew have both just been round, FrA was able to confirm that it was a sponsor of the Peter Stein/Abbado Parsifal visit to the Edinburgh Festival who had bells along the lines - and here the legend is vague - of the Bayreuth originals, or their successors. What's for sure is that she paid £300,000 for them. And where are they now, I wonder?

For that matter, WHY isn't there a DVD of Stein/Abbado? From that conductor, this is the one recording we must still have. Curious that one of Furtwangler's two big projects in prospect at the time of his death, so aforementioned friend Jonny tells me, was Parsifal (Beethoven's Missa Solemnis being the other). What a great might-have-been is/was that.

Susan Scheid said...

David: how stern or fair, I don't know, but what I do know is that Iwas moved by this, all of it. That I can say for sure.

David said...

Then, again, I must learn to say sincere thanks without a 'shucks'. But tell me, since I haven't seen it and the DVD hasn't been released as quickly as advertised, how the grail ritual was handled in the Met production with Kaufmann? With a serious nod, I hope, to the transcendence of the music at that point? There's only one DVD - of a radically spare production, but I'm not allowed yet to say which one it is since the DVD choice on BaL runs alongside the CD - where the director seems to know what to do with it, and the effect is overwhelming.

Susan Scheid said...

David: well, here's the sad truth of it: I don't remember. Since I'd never seen Parsifal, I had little idea what might be important or what to look for. Kaufman didn't make the impression on me that he probably should have. Rather, it is the image of Mattei's Amfortas suffering that remains with me today. As you can see, I have much to learn.

David said...

I value your candour, Sue. And in return I must admit that I can't remember how the 'ceremony' was done either in a dreadful old production from the 1970s I saw in Munich - old men with long beards and gowns, the rite greeted with silence bar a few claps which were hissed down - or in the staging I've valued the most, David Alden's in Graz (where I have a feeling it must have been another negative representation). Funny thing, that. Whereas the Hollman light + monolith on the Zurich DVD and the spatial effects in the Albert Hall semi-staging will remain with me for ever.

Roger Neill said...

So much looking forward to your Parsifal Building a Library, David.

This is the truth: as a confirmed Wagnerite, I've been scrabbling at the North Face of this work for decades, but never really connected. I've seen it a couple of times - long ago - and have four complete recordings (Knappertsbusch 1951, Goodall 1971, Karajan 1981 and Levine 1985). I'm going to spend Advent listening to them (again). With your BaL as a centrepiece!

Maybe this time...

David said...

Perhaps, dare I say it, Roger, you've never connected because - and I hope I give nothing away here - it might not be the Everest those conductors make of it but something more welcoming (which the Royal Opera production certainly doesn't make it). Tune in...

wanderer said...

Hi David,

Kim here. John showed me your discussion on the Parsifal bells that brought back some memories. In the 70’s I started a company to design a synthesiser that became (accidentally) the first computer-based keyboard capable of playing natural sounds that were ‘sampled’ into it - the Fairlight CMI.

Von Karajan heard it somehow or other in the early 80s and wanted to use it for the Parsifal bells using sampled and repitched church bells. The BPO threatened to strike but the show did go on - with the Fairlight. Herbie tended to get his way!

The start of Parsifal is one of my all time favourite pieces of music.

Best regards
Kim, Sydney

David said...

Mein Gott, Kim, from the horse's mouth! Had I had more time to play Karajan (on which the sound is truly awful - but I did have two specimens of mush lined up, which got chopped), that news would have been enriching to the script. On the programme you do get to hear the Bayreuth bells-wot-got-melted-down (Muck) and the Trautonium synth on Knappertsbusch 3 (awful if you ask me.)

wanderer said...

Yes head the Trautonium version that you posed (at 5' 59" from memory) sounds bizarre but quite an achievement for the 1930s
Kim