People who know me well know that my fondness for Wagner is limitless. I have multiple recordings of each of the great Wagner operas and when you consider that each averages about 3 to4 hours in length and therefore 4 to 5 CDs each, this amounts to quite a considerable outlay. The other day I mentally totted up how much I have spent on Wagner – it’s four in the morning, what else is there to do – and let’s just say it would have funded a pretty decent family holiday in Australia or a modest sports car. Or famine relief in Africa. It would probably have gone a fair distance towards putting a man on Mars.
Put like that the expenditure seems extravagant. My father questioned whether I needed one recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen let alone a plurality. I remember as eyes rolling heavenward when I let slip that I had bought a second recording of the Ring (Karajan) in addition to my much worn copy of Solti’s landmark recording from the 1960s. Indeed many of my friends were askance even at that, costing as it did £50 give or take a shilling, back in 1971. And £50 was quite a lot of money then. To shell out that kind of moolah on music by Wagner was evidence of clear insanity. It put me in the same psychological bracket as Hitler. At least in my friends eyes.
But I should like to go on record as saying that, no matter how passionate I am about Wagner I have never felt the need to goose step into Poland or to annex the Sudetenland. Besides Hitler’s favourite Wagner opera was Rienzi so his judgement was flawed anyway. Rienzi I ask you. What a twat.
My father believed that Wagner was best in the parts where the people weren’t singing. In other words in the overtures, preludes and finales, those glorious bits where the orchestra blazes away, brass rasping, strings shimmering and woodwinds struggling to be heard. That was my father’s idea of Wagner – bleeding chunks excised from the mother work. And of course there is plenty of Wagner to fit that bill.
All my attempts to make Wagner accessible to him fell on stony ground. Goodall’s recording of the Ring, sung in English, was just the ticket, I thought, to immerse him in the drama. He listened conscientiously, gradually began to fidget and eventually asked me to turn it down which, as we all know, is the polite way of saying turn it off. “I don’t mind what language it’s sung in” he said “as long as it’s one I don’t understand”. Case closed.
Mercifully he went to his grave largely oblivious of the extent of my Wagner habit. I had long since stopped telling him each time I bought a new recording. Rolling eyes, and a look at benign indulgence gradually gave way to outright incomprehension. And at that stage I had only added Furtwangler’s live recording from La Scala in 1950. A stellar cast, unachievable today, led by Kirsten Flagstad trying to make themselves heard over the notoriously rude Italian audience. With the incessant coughing – it was obviously recorded during a tuberculosis epidemic – and I could begin to see my father’s point.
Gradually over time, and don’t forget I’ve been collecting Wagner for nearly 50 years, I have added Rings by Knappertsbusch, Goodall, Haitink, Barenboim, Bohm, Janowski, Kempe and heaven knows who else. A total of 26 different recordings, each on average 14 CDs. When I put it down on paper like that, I can’t quite believe it myself. Perhaps it’s time I turn up to a session at Wagnerholics Anonymous. “I’m Jon Stamford and I’m a Wagnerholic”. There, I did it. They say admitting the problem is the first step on the road to cure.
But I don’t want to be cured. And I certainly don’t expect to be. Especially today, Good Friday. With a significant part of its drama set on Good Friday, there is only one opera for today’s listening/viewing. Parsifal. Wagner’s final opera and one in which even hesitated to call it an opera it was a Buhnenweihfestspiel, or in plain English, “a festival play for the consecration of a stage”. Wagner was never good on plain English (or plain German for that matter). Three acts and a mere four hours in length one critic once described it as “the kind of music where you sit down in the opera house at 6 PM, listen to 4 hours of music, then look at your watch and see it’s only 6:15 PM”. But that’s just rude although I will concede that it is one of Wagner is more static operas. I prefer to think of it as majestic rather than bombastic, measured rather than dragging.
It took me a long time to come to Parsifal. I already had multiple recordings of many of the other Wagner operas and I knew, or at least I thought I knew, what to expect from Parsifal but somehow I put off buying a recording for ages. I think it was a tacit acceptance that, beyond Parsifal, there was nothing else. It was like the best novel imaginable. You don’t want to read that final chapter because then the stories in the past tense and there is nothing further to look forward to. Same with Parsifal. I don’t mean “nothing further to look forward to” in a morbid sense. Get a grip – at the end of the day it’s just music. But when I did finally steel myself to buying Solti’s sublime 1973 recording, I immediately realised that this was not the ending of the journey but the beginning of another.
So today I have a tough choice – 29 separate recordings of Parsifal and only 24 hours in the day. Which one gets the nod?