Wagner: Parsifal

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Mariinsky
WORKS: Parsifal
PERFORMER: Gary Lehman, Violeta Urmana, René Pape, Evgeny Nikitin, Alexei Tanovitski, Nikolai Putilin; Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: MAR0508 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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When the Mariinsky gave its first post-Soviet staging of Parsifal at the 1997 Savonlinna Festival, I was deeply impressed. One might have expected the company’s Wagner tradition to have languished under the Soviets, yet here in Olavinlinna castle courtyard was a performance of international quality and high individuality.

The freshness of Valery Gergiev’s reading left the strongest memory, along with the wholly un-Teutonic radiance of the St Petersburg brass, and the Russian cast’s not-quite idiomatic German. These qualities may be found in this new recording, made last year at the Mariinsky concert hall, although the cast here is much more cosmopolitan.

Violeta Urmana’s rich dramatic soprano shows signs of wear here, particularly thinning tone at the top, but her nervous intensity and creamy mid-range make her a still credible seductress and penitent. Her Parsifal, American tenor Gary Lehman, displays a nearly ideal voice, youthful and steely, but is rather less intense, noticeably in Act II duet; ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ could sound more anguished.

Bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin offers a vocally robust, finely acted Amfortas, his German decent enough for the stage but rather exposed in sound alone. Likewise baritone Nikolai Putilin’s veteran Klingsor is powerful and charismatic but just as fuzzy as at Savonlinna.

The most distinguished performance here is bass René Pape’s Gurnemanz, less rich-toned and gravely benevolent than Hans Hotter for Hans Knappertsbusch or Solti’s Gottlob Frick, but deeply felt and toweringly forceful, never falling into the usual boredom traps. Bass Alexei Tanovitski is an appropriately awesome Titurel, and lesser roles generally fine.

What really distinguishes this, though, is Gergiev. His reading is vivid and luminous, generally expansive but with fluidly shifting tempos, unashamedly guilty of theatrical excitement. Yet he evokes a rapt quality which does convey an authentic spirituality – passionate ‘Russian soul’, perhaps, rather than sombre Germanic brooding, but if so, so much the better.

Many conductors have sought to free Parsifal’s textures from the sludgy Teutonicism that’s often mistaken for the composer’s ideal, with varying success. Boulez, in his Bayreuth recording, resorts to headlong tempos, sacrificing too much of the music’s detail and atmosphere. Armin Jordan, in his soundtrack to the Syberberg film, aims for a more poetic approach, but loses focus and grandeur.

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Gergiev, however, with the vigorous Mariinsky chorus and orchestra, achieves a glowing translucency in both choral and orchestral textures – well brought out by the airy SACD recording. For me, Gergiev kindles Parsifal’s inner light more effectively than Boulez or Jordan, and though he doesn’t utterly displace Knappertsbusch’s account I’ll listen to him at least as often. Michael Scott Rohan