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 Blumenmädchen 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-Gedenkstätte. 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'.