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With some inevitable stage and audience noise, the opening performance (July 23) of the 1961 Bayreuth season Tannhäuser is spaciously and excitingly conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and presented here in raw yet vital sound.The voices, as often in Bayreuth recordings, come over with tremendous immediacy. And they’re quite a team: Wolfgang Windgassen’s tireless (if occasionally sloppy) minstrel, Grace Bumbry’s blazing Venus (her Bayreuth debut), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s considered Wolfram, Victoria de los Ángeles’s impeccable, spiritually slanted Elisabeth (another Bayreuth debutante) and Josef Greindl’s muscular Landgraf. The Venusberg ballet is included. This is not this performance’s first appearance on CD, but it’s one Wagner fans should certainly investigate if they haven’t already.

Four days later (Bayreuth performances started at midday at this period) came the season’s first Die Walküre, in another Wieland Wagner production, this time conducted by the lyrically dramatic Rudolf Kempe, who conjures up an unusually fierce storm in the prelude to Act I. His pacing of the work, throughout, is flexible and authoritative. Again previously available, the set is notable for pointing up the sheer quality of Bayreuth’s casts at this period: in Act I, Fritz Uhl’s burnished bronze tenor Siegmund falls for Régine Crespin’s tender but passionate Sieglinde, with Kempe underlining the act’s emotion- laden content in masterly fashion. Gottlob Frick’s terrifying bass confronts them as Hunding. In Act II, Astrid Varnay announces her impregnable warrior- maiden status with her whiplash-fierce war-cry, urged on by Jerome Hines’s firm Wotan, who is later effectively admonished by Regina Resnik’s dominating Fricka. There are occasional problems with the sound, despite a generally good balance; the sense of focus is intermittently interrupted, especially during the orchestral interludes, by a disturbing sense of blurring. But the performance itself is exceptional both vocally and orchestrally.

Also from 1961 is an example of Hans Knappertsbusch’s legendary Parsifal – generously phrased, lucid in texture, commanding in structure and control of mood; this was, deservedly, the work with which he was more closely associated than any other conductor. Some remarkable casting, again – Gundula Janowitz and Anja Silja sing the First and Second Flower-Maidens respectively (!) – and the mainstays are frequently impressive. Leading the cast are Jess Thomas’s eager if slightly dull of tone Parsifal and Irene Dalis’s careworn, dry Kundry, though it is George London’s conflicted Amfortas, Ludwig Weber’s sepulchral Titurel, Hans Hotter’s detailed Gurnemanz and Gustav Neidlinger’s dark-souled Klingsor that represent the vocal side at its best.

George Hall Read the full review on Agora Classica

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