A Wagnerian of the Past Remains Unmatched in 'Parsifal'

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 25 December 2018 | 4:08:00 pm

An article in the New York Times from 1993.


The conductor Hans Knappertsbusch had an unmatched way with Wagner's "Parsifal." Now two important recorded documents of that mastery have reappeared in the record stores: the old Decca/London album of the 1951 Bayreuth Festival production, which reopened that shrine after World War II, and an account of a 1943 (or 1942; the notes are contradictory) Berlin performance of Act III with the same Gurnemanz, Ludwig Weber.

I heard Knappertsbusch conduct "Parsifal" at Bayreuth, but I never saw him there. At Bayreuth, the sunken orchestra pit masks both conductor and orchestra, and after "Parsifal" there are no curtain calls. So my favourite Knappertsbusch sighting remains one from 1962 in the Prinzregenten Theater in Munich, a wooden structure modelled after Bayreuth but without the sunken pit.

The opera was Wagner's "Fliegende Hollander," whose overture begins full tilt, plunging into a mid-oceanic maelstrom of furiously sawing strings and thundering brass. As the lights dimmed, the audience settled down, awaiting the stately arrival of the conductor -- who was, after all, 74 years old. (He died in 1965.)

Suddenly there was a loud bang -- the sound of the door through which Knappertsbusch had emerged slamming shut. The conductor, all six feet, four inches of him, was forging through the startled players, brushing them aside as if he did not even see them. Baton held high, he gave the downbeat when he was still a good 15 feet from the podium, and the musicians hurled themselves onto Wagner's stormy seas in the most thrilling beginning to an opera that I ever hope to hear.

Knappertsbusch is legendary today as one of the last Teutonic musical mystics, conductors who protracted Wagner's ruminations to extreme length but sustained a solemn rituality that brisker modern maestros miss. That was true, although both Arturo Toscanini and James Levine have conducted "Parsifal" even more slowly at Bayreuth.