Wagner Parsifal

The maestro’s ability to bend the Mariinsky musicians to his will is never in doubt

Author: 
Arnold Whittall
Wagner Parsifal – Gergiev

WAGNER Parsifal – Gergiev

  • Parsifal

In June 2009, just one month after the Hallé’s marvellous concert recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (7/10), St Petersburg followed Manchester as Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky forces tackled Götterdämmerung’s sole Wagnerian successor, Parsifal. This, however, appears to have been much less of a “live” event than the Hallé’s: a concert performance of the opera did indeed take place during the nine days of the project, but, if any takes from that are involved in the final mix, they do not include such obvious indicators of an audience as coughing or applause.If, as a result, the Gergiev Parsifal is more like an old-style studio recording, that need be no bad thing: and it must be said at once that, on grounds of the general excellence of its singers and the cumulative authority of the interpretation, this is a performance to be reckoned with. It boasts not only the peerless René Pape, a Gurnemanz of tireless eloquence and refinement, but Gary Lehman, the formidably gifted American Heldentenor, new to recording, in the title-role. Nor are Violeta Urmana, Evgeny Nikitin or Nikolai Putilin to be found wanting: Nikitin’s Amfortas might project more anger than pain in Act 1 but he makes amends with a superbly judged contribution to Act 3. As for Lehman: some Wagnerites will probably feel that the sheer weight of a voice which has already tackled Tannhäuser and Tristan, with Siegfried soon to come, is less than ideal as far as character goes. But it does no harm for Parsifal to be heroic as well as naive and in any case Lehman’s sensitive way with the text is just as rewarding in, for example, Act 3’s “Good Friday” scene as in Act 2’s hectic exchanges with Kundry. There are occasional hints of a beat in the voice, raising concerns that he might have been singing too many heavy roles too soon: and while both Lehman and Pape cope very well with Gergiev’s often spacious pacing of the score’s long, intricately interconnected paragraphs, Pape’s tendency to fine down the sound to a whisper on a single word risks becoming a mannerism too far.

Mannerism might also be the term for those places in all three acts where Gergiev opts for stateliness rather than flow; deliberation seems to be at war with the impulsiveness evident elsewhere. The earlier stages of Gurnemanz’s Act 1 narration, as well as his lament for the slain swan, Kundry’s most tender music in Act 2 and the lead-up to Gurnemanz’s anointing of Parsifal in Act 3 are held back in ways which seem counterproductively stolid – all the more so since the finest parts of the performance are so compelling: the later stages of Act 2 are as powerfully energised and dramatically gripping as any on disc, while the final apotheosis of the whole work is magnificently sustained. Gergiev’s mastery of the orchestral melos and his ability to bend the Mariinsky musicians productively to his will are never in doubt: rarely, if ever, has the first fortissimo from the brass in the Act 1 Prelude blazed out with such sonorous gravity as it does here. Nevertheless, I wasn’t instantly persuaded by some of the decisions about balance. While the solo singers are always placed well forward, the off-stage music can be distant to the point of near-inaudibility. And such is the burnished strength of the brass, the strings can seem to lack body by comparison, with more restrained passages – Parsifal’s entrance in Act 3, for example – lacking some degree of presence, probably because of the extremely wide dynamic range in use. These are, however, very much first-hearing reactions, which greater familiarity – “learning” the recording, in fact – could change. Gergiev’s Wagner was always going to be different from that of conductors schooled in other traditions, whether German, French or American, and what is beyond question, even at first hearing, is the remarkable effect of the conductor’s interaction with a cast which is not exclusively Russian. Certainly, Nikitin, Putilin and also the hugely imposing Alexei Tanovitski (Titurel) need fear nothing by comparison with their non-Russian colleagues. If this is indeed a “mannered” Parsifal, in the way that those conducted by Knappertsbusch, Kempe, Barenboim or Thielemann are not, it has an imaginative force, overall, which pushes any hints of contrivance to the musical and dramatic margins.

Would a live, staged performance with this cast, conducted by Gergiev, be the same? Perhaps, one day, we will be able to find out.

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