I spent some fascinating two hours today with the complete Karl Muck Parsifal recordings, from 1927 and 1928.
He recorded the last part of Act 1 and a tiny fragment from 2 in Bayreuth (with the unique sound of the original Wagner bells, destroyed in WWII), then the Vorspiel and an almost complete Act 3 in Berlin.
Problem with such legendary recordings - and specially recordings that require some mental "filling in" because of their less than perfect sound, is that one tends to take their qualities as a given fact, and enjoy them just because everyone's telling you how great they are. So I told myself to be as "neutral" as possible, and tried listening with a critical ear. But soon I was so immersed in the recording that most criticism seemed pointless.
Muck was a truly great conductor and one wishes that he could have given us a complete Parsifal with the then leading Wagner singers in Bayreuth, it would have been the ultimate benchmark. But the fact that we have something like a half Parsifal from him, in an early electric recording from 1927-1928, is a miracle in itself.
The Bayreuth fragments make a rather rough-edged impression, fine for their age, but balances are off and the orchestra sound constricted. The choir comes through well though, and Muck's direction of the Gral scene is awe-inspiring. He seems to infuse some of the tension and drama from the scene's mirror image in Act 3 into the more static and ritualistic proceedings of Act 1. Add this to his natural flowing conducting and you've got a Gral scene that makes most modern versions sound foursquare and boring in comparison. Of course the dark, menacing sound of the original Wagner bells helps a lot. The little Act 2 Flower Maidens scene doesn't add much, we could do without it.
Then we've got the Vorspiel, played with an intensity that most modern versions that use this slow tempo fail to achieve. The sound is already a bit better here.
The highlight of the collection is Act 3 though, recorded in the studio and complete apart from a 10 minutes gap in the beginning before Parsifal enters. The orchestra still sounds rather boxy, but much better than in the Bayreuth fragments. Again it's the voices and choir that come through most natural and telling. A couple of minutes in, and you're completely immersed in Muck's vision, and the limited fidelity doesn't harm your enjoyment in the slightest anymore.
If there's one thing that Muck makes clear is the symphonic nature of the music. The orchestra not only supports the singers, it acts as the drama's motor too, projecting and propelling the drama. There are no idiosyncrasies or extremities whatsoever, and no qualities that would make the interpretation sound dated to our modern ears (apart from some light portamento here and there, which I found charming).
In fact, the recording sounds remarkably modern. Which tells you something - Muck had the complete trust from the Wagner family and he was the immediate successor in Bayreuth of Herman Levi, who conducted the premiere of Parsifal. So if we wonder about what Wagner himself had in mind with his last opera, the most authentic proof that we have is Mucks recorded legacy.
Then the singers. Most impressive is Ludwig Hofmann's Gurnemanz, the perfect narrator and a perfect fit for Muck's musical vision. And what a voice, incredible. There's a long sustained note somewhere at the end of the Good Friday Spell, and the way he effortlessly holds it, with the orchestra swelling behind it... chilling. Another chilling moment - and the one that always activates my tear ducts - is when Parsifal baptizes Kundry and the orchestra seems to mimic her silent sobbing. The way Muck handles this intimate moment is exemplary, bittersweet, subtle and humane.
Parsifal himself (Gotthelf Pistor) I found less impressive. He's very good of course, but it's like he tries to match Hoffman's timbre, and in the long passages where there's just these two guys singing, one really needs more contrast between their voices. And roughly the same goes for Cornelius Bronsgeest too, he's a civilized, restrained Amfortas, with a great voice but without much emotional power. So the lack of contrast between the trio of voices I would say is the only (very slight) blemish on this otherwise incredible and near-perfect recording.