Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky Theatre Chorus and Symphony Orchestra
5 – 13 June 2009
Concert Hall Mariinsky Theatre St Petersburg
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasJewgeni Nikitin
TiturelAlexei Tanovitsky
GurnemanzRené Pape
ParsifalGary Lehman
KlingsorNikolai Putilin
KundryVioleta Urmana
GralsritterJuri Alexejew
Juri Worobiow

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.

Arnold Whittall

The Guardian

Valery Gergiev has not been associated with Wagner, despite a much travelled Ring which came to the UK but was not admired. It was felt he hadn’t engaged with the over-arching scale of the music. This mesmerising Parsifal, his first complete Wagner recording, should banish that prejudice. The cast is outstanding, with impressive performances from the brilliant René Pape (Gurnemanz) and Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas). This is a mostly live performance from St Petersburg, with some weaknesses from Gary Lehman’s Parsifal and Violeta Urmana’s Kundry. But the orchestral playing is alive, warm and incisive, the tempo spacious but never dragging. This is a landmark for Gergiev and, at mid-price – or even if it were full-price – worth every penny.

Fiona Maddocks | 15 September 2010

Valery Gergiev’s visits to Wagner, at least on evidence of the Mariinsky’s world tour of the Ring a few years ago, have been scrappy and ill-judged. This Parsifal is different, and on the whole very successful. It runs four hours and 18 minutes, which, for those of us who keep score, is within two minutes of Knappertsbusch (1964), Solti (Decca), and Kubelik (Arts Archives), and nowhere near Levine’s turgid 4:39 or Thielemann’s let’s-get-this-over-with 3:53 (let alone Boulez’s 3:38). And Gergiev makes some very individual choices within.

The Transformation music in Act 1 is slower and heavier than I’ve ever heard it; the effect is one of great agony–very apt–and so is the ensuing Grail Scene. The Prelude to Act 3 is properly weary; the Good Friday music is luminescent and slow; and the whole final scene has a weightiness that makes it seem longer than it is. On the other hand, Parsifal’s entrance in Act 1 is almost precipitous, and the Flower Maidens rock onto the scene with real purpose. The languid Kundry/Parsifal scene strikes me as just right, going from languid to manic at just the right speed.

What I’m saying is that this recording, taken from live performances in June, 2009 in St. Petersburg, is marvelously theatrical, with the situations dictating tempo and flow. The spiritual moments glow in a way that is rarely achieved, and the Mariinsky Orchestra plays magnificently from start to finish.

Besides Gergiev’s leadership and the orchestra’s playing, the other crucial thing about this set is René Pape’s Gurnemanz. Hans Hotter fans will think he sounds too young; I disagree. The voice has weight and authority and enough flexibility to caress some phrases and create quite a grand effect with others. His attention never flags, and he looms over the proceedings as rightly he should; wisdom, piety, and justice never sounded this good. When he comes across Kundry again in Act 3 it’s quite an event.

If beyond Pape and Gergiev the set goes downhill, it doesn’t ever skid into an abyss. Violeta Urmana’s Kundry, like all of her work, is vocally remarkable: there’s not a weak spot in her voice, even in this difficult-to-cast part. But she misses the telling touches that define both Kundry’s seductiveness and her self-loathing. Gary Lehman’s Parsifal is a bit worn–he already has sung Tristan–but the voice is not unappealing and the slight beat in his tone can be overlooked. His attention to the text is more than worthy and he captures the wondrous quality in the role. He’s no Vickers, however, for sheer intensity, or Jerusalem for sheer tone.

If I had never heard George London’s agonized Amfortas or Martti Talvela’s Titural, I might have greater praise for Nikitin and Tanovitski; as it is they’re quite good, if only lacking in the greatest gravitas. Nikolai Putilin handles Klingsor’s weird music with great strength and an audible sneer. The chorus is good without entirely distinguishing itself, and the Flower Maidens range from luscious to, once or twice, frightful.

In summation, I would not do without this set for Gergiev and Pape, but if you own, say, the Kubelik (despite a weakish Kundry), that should suffice. But this one has both a theatricality and loftiness that are hard to beat.

Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 10

Robert Levine | 9/15/2010

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

A handsome black steed bows its head, eyes open, peering into the darkness around it.

This is the image chosen for the box cover of a new studio recording of Wagner’s Parsifal, from the Mariinsky Opera forces, led by Valery Gergiev. The somber beauty of the artwork, with lettering for the credits in shades of gray (except for the conductor’s name in white) captures both the admiration provoked by the quality of the performance inside, and some discombobulation provoked by the performance as well. For surely the animal most closely associated with Parsifal is a swan, and the corresponding color scheme would be white. So why this horse caught in ebony, as striking as it is? And under Gergiev’s leadership, why does Parsifal feel so tense and charged, with a strong forward momentum, yet also so barren of spiritual depth in the outer acts or sensuality in act two?

Gergiev’s conducting presents the score as a taut (though, of course, extremely elongated) rumination on pain and internal conflict. Of course, there is a lot of that in Parsifal, and so much of this performance works very well. But there is more in the music — the sick sensuality of act two and especially the tender reconciliation and redemption of the final act. Gergiev is less successful at conveying those qualities. The last chord of the score embodies this. Instead of gently ebbing, letting the tension flow away at the drama’s resolution, the chord lingers on in almost grim determination, and then suddenly cuts off.

It is, however, the outer acts that are most impressive, and much of the credit must go to the outstanding performance of René Pape as Gurnemanz. This character and his extended monologues can wear anyone’s patience down in any merely adequate performance. Such is the sheer tonal gorgeousness of Pape’s voice and the sensitivity and conviction of his line readings that Gurnemanz becomes what he is surely meant to be — the soul and essence of the opera’s world. Pape’s performance alone will make this set an essential listening experience for lovers of the opera.

The rest of the cast is strong but not at Pape’s level. Violeta Urmana as Kundry sings every note with beautiful control, but the underlying conflict of her character is not conveyed. In the lead role, Gary Lehman shows why his late-blossoming career found its most fertile soil in Wagner’s opera. His tenor has dark colors, yet still easily attains higher notes. He only lacks that elusive quality which makes a voice easily distinguished from all others. Evgeny Nikitin transmits the agony of Amfortas, while Nikolai Putilin’s Klingsor growls and cajoles with aggressive unpleasantness. `

The admirable packaging has a separate sleeve for each of the four discs. The booklet offers a guide for “Reading the Russian Libretto,” which is fascinating but somewhat confusing in its aim, as the libretto is also available in English, German and French, and surely those who opt for the Russian version already know how to read the language…

The sound picture is beautifully captured, and overall this studio recording impresses. When Pape is singing, the selection for the cover of a dark steed makes sense — something noble, powerful, yet pensive and sad is captured inside. Touched with that greatness, this is a Parsifal deserving of attention.

Chris Mullins | 12 Aug 2011

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