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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal – opera in three acts (1882) [258:35]
Parsifal – Gary Lehmann
Kundry – Violetta Urmana
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Amfortas – Evgeny Nikitin
Klingsor – Nikolai Putilin
Titurel – Alexei Tanovitski
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
rec. 5-13 June 2009, Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg. DSD
MARIINSKY MAR0508 [4 CDs: 68:55 + 43:32 + 67:29 + 78:39]

I came to this set from the wrong end, so to speak. Gergiev’s Parsifal was released in 2011 but it rather passed me by at the time. I was inspired to seek it out after hearing his recent Walküre, which bowled me over, and I wanted to hear if I was missing anything with Parsifal. It’s fascinating to compare them side by side. For me, they share strengths and make very interesting companions.
The first thing you notice is the shimmering, transparent quality to the recorded sound. This really helped to open up the textures of Walküre and expose things that I never knew were there before. Sound quality is even more important in an opera like Parsifal, and the Mariinsky Hall and engineers triumph in these hybrid SACDs. Every orchestral detail is clear and evident, right from the earliest, shimmering repeat of the “love feast” theme at the start of the Prelude, and the power of the orchestral climaxes - bells and all - resonates thrillingly in the big moments in the Grail Hall. The differing perspectives for the grail scenes work very well too, especially the voices entering “from the apex of the dome”, for example, and the echo surrounding Titurel’s appearance is equally effective. It all helps to create a sound-world that fits the opera perfectly. As I said, this is more important for Parsifal than it is for many operas and we should be grateful that the Mariinsky engineers (led by producer James Mallinson) have done such a good job.
None of this would count for much were it not capturing a musical performance of great distinction. For a start, the playing of the Mariinsky orchestra is superb. They understand fully that this is a work that inhabits a number of different worlds and interpretations at once, and they shade their playing to match that. For example, in Gurnemanz’s great narrations in Act 1 they play in a fairly four-square way to match his story of the order’s history, but as soon as he mentions Klingsor’s magic or alludes to Kundry’s enchantments, a more slippery, ill-defined quality enters the sound, and later on they dart hither-and-yon as the music enters Klingsor’s castle at the start of Act 2. This chameleonic quality is something that is found in the very best Parsifal orchestras, and with Gergiev at the helm, and with such excellent sound, they can give any of their western colleagues a serious run for their money.
The cast are excellent too. Anchoring the set is the richly authoritative Gurnemanz of René Pape. He sings the role with gravitas and a grizzled sense of stature, but never a hint of age or of being past it. This is a knight who, in the first act at least, is still vigorous and capable of heroic deeds. At times during the main narration in Act 1 the top notes challenge him a little, though this could be his vocal acting as he remembers, with a stab of pain, the shame that has now fallen on the brotherhood. He remains a great singing actor too, and sounds genuinely appalled when he berates Parsifal for shooting the swan. By the time of the third act we feel as though this is a Gurnemanz who has aged and declined, but he is still dynamic and compelling, and the anointing scene is exultant in both its drama and its musical power.
As Parsifal, Gary Lehmann grows admirably into the role as he personifies its different stages. His fragmentary contributions to Act 1 sound delicate, even childlike at times, as does his encounter with the Flower Maidens, but after his moment of enlightenment there is more strength, and he comes across as weary at the start of Act 3, having suffered from his long pilgrimage. His voice is not a naturally beautiful one, though, and there is a hint of gravel that grates a little on the ear, and a not dissimilar problem affects Violetta Urmana’s Kundry. She is brittle and wounded in Act 1, rising impressively to her histrionic utterances at the start of the act, then delicately withering away towards the end of her scene. She is repeatedly impressive in the great dialogue of the second act, but her voice lacks the luxuriant aspect needed to really convince us that Kundry is the great sexual temptress. The greatest Kundrys, such as Waltraud Meier (Barenboim) or Christa Ludwig (Solti) manage to transform the character into a sensual aural feast for the second act. Urmana can’t manage that, but she has clearly thought about the words and she charts the character’s emotional trajectory very successfully.
Nikitin’s Amfortas is a wounded, damaged creature. In this recording at least, the voice is not beautiful, but the gravelly character helps to underline the king’s suffering, and he manages singing of heroic scale and stature for the two great scenes in the Grail Hall. He encompasses the full scale of the character’s sufferings in the final act, reminding us that Wagner was taking this character to the furthest extremes of experience, and his pathetic sense of deflation is very impressive for his collapse at the end of the Act 1 monologue. Nikolai Putilin is a brilliant Klingsor. His brief appearances capture all the character’s nastiness, but he does so in a vigorous, interesting way. We are repelled by the sorcerer but fascinated by him at the same time, and he is very exciting to listen to at the start of Act 2. The Mariinsky Chorus also do a great job as the Knights and Flower Maidens, and the recording helps us to hear the inner textures of the choral lines admirably.
At the centre of it all is Gergiev, and here he shows himself to be a master with this score, every bit as much as in Walküre. He conducts with surety but is also unafraid to impose his own individuality onto the score. The prelude, for example, begins fairly quickly as the first theme unfolds, and then again when the suffering theme first emerges, but Gergiev isn’t afraid to broaden out expansively for the first appearance of the “faith” theme. Some might think that this sounds wilful or that it holds up the progress of the musical flow, but I found it enormously exciting and it resonated with me in a way that made the music come alive rather than jar. Gergiev’s individual touches come up again and again in the work, reminding us that he is a highly skilled dramatist as well as a superb if controversial musician. Listen, for example, to the way the lower strings lean into the downward phrase at the first appearance of Amfortas, underlining the king’s agony and emphasising his pain, or the meandering, care-worn manner with which the conductor shapes the Prelude to Act 3. A genuine question mark seems to hang over the orchestra upon Parsifal’s entrance in Act 3, but this is then released in a deeply moving wash of string sound when he removes his visor and reveals his identity. Touches like this show us that Gergiev has thought deeply about this score and, while they may not put him in the same league as Knappertsbusch or Thielemann, they confirm that he is an opera conductor of the highest league. The only fly in the ointment is a tremendous amount of groaning which, I assume, comes from the conductor himself, and which you have to learn to tune out.
The Parsifal pantheon is a large and distinguished one. Few collectors will want to be without Knappertsbusch at Bayreuth (twice) or Thielemann from Vienna. I have enormous affection for Solti and for Karajan’s Berlin recording - still my favourite, even though it has fallen out of favour for many. More recently Marek Janowski has also argued a very convincing case for his own reading of the opera, but I think that Gergiev is worthy to stand alongside him. This recording of Wagner’s final music-drama is a revelation and well worth exploring. It helps, by the way, that full texts and translations are included in an attractively packaged box.
Simon Thompson