It is good to have so many recordings by Rudolf Kempe available on compact disc, far more recordings available now than when he was alive. One reason may be that Kempe spent much of his later career in East Germany, putting himself beyond the reach of most Western record companies. Another possible explanation is that there is simply more room for Kempe now, because when he was alive, giants roamed the earth. When this live performance of Wagner's Parsifal was made in 1959, for example, Knappertsbusch, Klemperer, Walter, Reiner, Karajan, Böhm, and Szell were active and Furtwängler, Kleiber, and Krause were only recently deceased. There are few modern conductors who can measure up to any of them, and Kempe inevitably looks better in comparison.
The cast of Kempe's 1959 Convent Garden performance of Parsifal is for the most part fine. Gottlob Frick's superbly characterized Gurnemanz is especially strong, but Karl Liebl is quite weak in the title role; he makes Parsifal sound less like the pure fool that Wagner intended and more like just a fool. For the most part, the Covent Garden Orchestra is in good shape, though the string tone is not ideally smooth and the brass are not particularly well-blended. Most importantly, though, Kempe is in good form, delivering a beautifully shaped and expertly paced performance that is neither too slow in the long first act nor too quick in the third act's climax. As a whole, this performance cannot compare with the great Parsifals of the 1950s -- Knappertsbusch's and Krause's, for instance -- in terms of depth, insight, and spirituality. This latter quality, of course, can be debated, but comparing the three performances, Knappertsbusch and Krause seem to have it, and Kempe doesn't. Recorded in sepia-toned monaural, this set should interest listeners already converted to Kempe, but others may want to stick with Knappertsbusch or Krause.