Speaking of Parsifal
I am a latecomer to Rafael Kubelík's 1980 Parsifal, but I am a convert, too. I might say that this recording, originally made for Deutsche Grammophon but shelved to protect Herbert von Karajan's recording of the same, is the best studio version of the score. Hans Knappertsbusch's 1962 recording for Philips has the live title, and it might have the overall title - but I'll get to that in a minute. Kubelík is, to my mind, one of the greatest and most under-appreciated conductors of his age. Like Karl Böhm, he was overshadowed by his Deutsche Grammophon colleague, Herbert von Karajan; again like Böhm, he was responsible for some of DGG's greatest records. Kubelík's Mahler (both on DGG and in contemporary live recordings now out on Audite) has a good reputation among the Mahler fanatics. His Mahler 1st is still a reference recording of that score.
Still, Kubelík's reputation as a Wagner conductor is not what it should be. He manages to wring a great performance out of the Bayerischen Rundfunks forces. This recording digs in and lets the music do the talking - the only Parsifal longer in my collection is Barenboim's. Like the greatest Wagner conductors, though, Kubelík suspends the rules of time. What should be four-hour tour through Wagner's densest and most complicated single opera flies by the listener when it's supposed to and slows to an ecstatic crawl when it's supposed to. Kubelík makes it work. He has a superb sense of tempo, phrasing, and the long line. Really, the only person who bests Kubelík is Knappertsbusch. It has been pointed out, though, that Knappertsbusch's Wagner style could trace a direct line of descent to Wagner - through one stop with two tracks: Hans Richter and Siegfried Wagner. If I wanted to be glib, I could say that Knappertsbusch's Wagnerian grandfather was Richard Wagner himself. It's hard to beat that.
Kubelík's cast, too, is probably the best of its age. James King sings Parsifal, as he did for Pierre Boulez in 1970, with the same echt-Heldentenor tone and phrasing that he had at his best. King, as I have said before, bore the torch of Melchior - a deep, baritonal tenor that had ringing power and reasonable security at both ends. His Parsifal was wonderful for Boulez and better for Kubelík, who wasn't rushing things. Bernd Weikl is a solid Amfortas, though George London for Knappertsbusch or Falk Struckmann for Thielemann might be preferable. Kurt Moll was no Hans Hotter, who is - to my mind - one of the six or seven really great Wagnerian basses; still Moll is a sensitive and powerful Gurnemanz. At the time, and until René Pape records it, he was and is probably the best available. Franz Mazura's Klingsor is probably the best of the modern interpretations, too. Sinister and powerful, in his own way. He was over the hill for Gunther in 1980 (Boulez), but had the voice for Klingsor. He knows how to make wizard with the poor judgment the figure of fear and revulsion he is to the Grail knights. Yvonne Minton's Kundry does the job, and is miles ahead of Gwyneth's "interpretation" or Waltraud Meier. Irene Dalis was fine for Knappertsbusch, but there's a tendency to take Kundry in a direction that tends too much in the "too far" camp. Matti Salminen was Titurel. No more needs to be said on that account. The only other modern Wagner bass who comes close is John Tomlinson, who was singing for Barenboim ten years later. Well, and René Pape. I'd like to see more from Pape on record, too.
This Parsifal is idiomatic, beautifully sung (despite my criticisms, it is probably the best cast post-Knappertsbusch), and directed by someone with enough respect for Wagner to let Wagner do the talking. Kubelík never got what he really deserved, which was a chance to get the support Herbert von Karajan did and make some really great records. It's in early digital, so it might not be as warm and genial as later recordings, but it is certainly a very well done 1980s-vintage sound. Deutsche Grammophon has, though, in my estimation, often lagged a bit or been downright weird in its sonic side.
In any event, this record - like Keilberth's Ring - is one that was recognized too late. Classic choices for Parsifal come down to this and Knappertsbusch, while modern ones are Barenboim and Thielemann. Choose any one of them, and you'll be fine.