Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth reopened in 1951 with a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony led by Wilhelm Furtwängler followed the next day by a performance of Wagner's Parsifal led by Hans Knappertsbusch. Over the next 15 years, Knappertsbusch led the same work 55 times at Bayreuth, and this four-disc set from Orfeo documents the conductor's last performance of the work there from August 13, 1964.
By any measure, it is an overwhelming achievement. With his pedigree reaching back to the earliest years of the festival, Knappertsbusch was widely regarded as the true heir to the Wagnerian tradition of Parsifal conducting, and his interpretation here could rightly be regarded not only as authentic but perhaps also as definitive. Though tremendously slow -- Act I takes nearly 100 minutes and the whole opera takes a bit more than four hours -- the breadth of detail, the depth of insight, and the height of inspiration in Knappertsbusch's interpretation remains unsurpassed more than 40 years later at the time of this disc's issue. Although some critics complained at the time that newcomers Jon Vickers as Parsifal and Barbro Ericson as Kundry were not as acclimated to their roles as earlier singers, none complained of Hans Hotter's magnificent Gurnemanz or Gustav Neidlinger's wonderful Klingsor, and none raised any objections to Thomas Stewart's stalwart Amfortas. As always, Wilhelm Pitz's festival chorus is virile yet devotional and the Bayreuth Orchestra's sound is rich, warm, and all-enveloping. Recorded in straightforward monaural sound that seemingly captures the experience of being in Wagner's own theater, this Parsifal deserves to heard by anyone with a fondness for the work.