Andris Nelsons
CBSO Chorus
City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
17 May 2015
Symphony Hall Birmingham
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasJames Rutherford
TiturelPaul Whelan
GurnemanzGeorg Zeppenfeld
ParsifalBurkhard Fritz
KlingsorWolfgang Bankl
KundryMihoko Fujimura
GralsritterAlexander Sprague
Andrew Greenan
The Guardian

Nelsons delivers exceptional, mature Wagner

Operas in concert have been an annual feature of Andris Nelsons’ tenure as the City of Birmingham Symphony’s music director. Parsifal is the third work by Wagner that Nelsons has conducted in Symphony Hall and, like his Lohengrin five years ago, it gave the Birmingham audience a chance to hear what the Bayreuth festival will enjoy next year, when he conducts the new production there.

Even before his interpretation reaches the theatre for which Parsifal was conceived, though, it is already a reading of immense stature, with a maturity and unerring sense of how to shape such a huge musical edifice that’s hard to credit from a conductor still in his mid 30s. There is urgency, spaciousness and radiance in Nelsons’ approach, and a total understanding of how the climaxes of both of the outer acts build like series of overlapping waves of ever increasing amplitude. The CBSO played out of their skins for him, as if all too aware of what they will lose when he steps down in two months’ time. The Transformation Music in both acts had spine-tingling power and grandeur, the Good Friday Music sustained lyrical beauty, and the choral set pieces, with the CBSO Chorus making full use of Symphony Hall’s spatial effects, had fabulous clarity and precision. Perhaps the numbed prelude to the third act was less bereft, less intensely tragic than some great conductors make it, but in Nelsons’ hands it was still intense and mysterious.

Despite its swan shooting, magic garden and hovering spear, not to mention time becoming space, Parsifal loses less in a concert performance than most operas, and this was not simply a sumptuous orchestral and choral treat. The soloists were outstanding, every one an experienced, totally assured Wagner singer, and the drama was fiercely etched. Burkhard Fritz was Parsifal; he was a little stolid in the first act, perhaps, but gained steadily in presence until his assumption of authority in the final scene became utterly authentic. Georg Zeppenfeld was the Gurnemanz, noble, never histrionic and making every word of his first-act narration crystal clear. James Rutherford was Amfortas, stoically resilient in his great lament. And while there was nothing remotely vampish about Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry in the second act, her control, even beauty of tone, and musical poise proved startlingly effective alongside Wolfgang Bankl’s fiercely stentorian Klingsor.

But then, every detail of the performance had been meticulously thought through, and the results were exceptional. This was a great Wagner performance; the upward curve of Nelsons’ career shows no signs at all of flattening out.

Andrew Clements | 18 May 2015

A transcendent Parsifal from Nelsons and the CBSO

It’s probably best not to think too hard about the philosophical messages behind Parsifal, especially in a concert performance stripped of any concepts overlaid by a director: the misogyny, glorification of racial purity and general religious weirdness leads you to places that are disturbing at best and downright loathsome at worst. But the music is utterly transcendent and Birmingham Symphony Hall provided the best possible environment in which to hear it, while Andris Nelsons and the CBSO assembled an impressive array of Wagnerian singing talent to display the music at its best.

Birmingham Symphony Hall has one of the very best acoustics in the world, one of very few to provide resonant warmth (almost to the level of a stone church) at the same time as having so much clarity that your ear can pick out clearly the timbre of any individual instrument of your choice. Nelsons played the hall like a master, displaying countless details of the score to best advantage. In the prelude, a trumpet call rose sublimely above the richness of the simple, underlying harmony. The female section of the CBSO Chorus provided some extraordinary moments: a diminuendo that died gradually to near nothingness – but still audible – followed by high strings and high trumpet again, and then a remarkable sound coming from off-stage in the high gallery. Well tamed when playing behind the singers in Act I, the CBSO’s full forces were unleashed in the orchestral-only parts, the weighty brass pinning us to the back of our seats. Timpanists Niels Verbeek and Barnaby Archer had an incredible evening, providing the driving impulse behind many of the music’s most impressive moments.

Individual vocal phrases were also brought through with the full richness of their character. When Burkhard Fritz’s Parsifal cries out the he feels Amfortas’s wound, we feel the stab of heart-wrenching pain. When Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry tells us that she is forever cursed because she laughed at Christ, her scream of “ich lächte” rips through the hall. At the end of Act II, he tells Kundry that she knows where she can find him, his near-whisper drips with derision.

Acts I and III are the domain of the elderly knight Gurnemanz, and Georg Zeppenfeld gave a performance of exceptional lyricism, bringing out the fundamental kindness and nobility of the man with a timbre that is smooth and powerful all the way down to its lowest notes, and phrasing that continually added splashes of sympathetic colour. His voice is somewhat young for the role, especially in Act III (there’s a degree of grizzled world-weariness in the role that such a lyrical sound can’t really achieve), and it’s a surprisingly Italianate sound, but this is a voice that I can happily listen to for hours on end.

Fritz and Fujimura were relatively subdued in Act I, but came to the fore in their huge scene in Act II, both of them singing superbly. Fujimura’s powerful mezzo achieved just as much smoothness and control as Zeppenfeld, spanning the far greater emotional range demanded by her role. Fritz excels at the heldentenor technique for long notes, in which a single note develops in colour and dynamics as it progresses. His attractive voice transmits great feeling for this music.

The supporting cast were uniformly impressive. Wolfgang Bankl sang Klingsor with much power and venom, employing a lot of parlando in a way that provided a total contrast to Zeppenfeld’s lyricism. James Rutherford gave us particularly well-rounded phrasing as Amfortas, while Paul Whelan’s Titurel, sung from high above the orchestra near the organ, was especially powerful. Amongst a fine set of flower maidens, Erica Eloff was especially notable with a voice that soared high above the orchestra.

But the performance’s high point came from Nelsons and the orchestra. The music in Act I for Parsifal and Gurnemanz’s ascent to the Grail castle was delivered with an immense degree of measured power. It’s music of incredible rapture whose effect was even palpable on the performers: Fritz could be seen blinking back the tears in his seat.

The same heights, I’m afraid to say, were not reached in Act III: the orchestra achieved a good degree of Nordic darkness – you could see why Sibelius got accused of being too Wagnerian – but the music did begin to drag. Nelsons did, however, conjure up a fine ending, reminding us emphatically of how transcendent Wagner’s music can be.

David Karlin | 18 May 2015

This fleet, magical performance of Wagner’s Parsifal in the warm generous acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall enjoyed the highest musical values allowing those present to revel in glorious playing and singing without the distractions of a director’s ‘know it all’ interpretation. From the start of the Prelude the CBSO produced playing with sheen and bite, with warm string sound, punchy brass and some superlative playing from the woodwind soloists. Using the spatial possibilities of the Hall to maximum advantage the off-stage chorus was above and behind the bulk of the audience, and the off-stage brass behind the stage. The tricky integration of the Bells of the Grail Temple was superbly realised. The atmosphere when the composer’s intentions were properly considered and realised was about as perfect as one could imagine.

Andris Nelsons’s Wagner was alert and energetic, yet the sense of architecture and purpose felt unerringly correct. It was also very dramatic and intelligent. The Prelude was an instance, where the initial appearance of the chorale associated with the rituals of the Grail Knights had an indefinable coolness to it, perfectly delineating their spiritually uncertain state. Only in the final pages of the entire score did these themes finally get the full glow as Parsifal takes control and harmony is restored. Likewise Klingsor’s restless motifs were very obvious in the first Act where he does not even appear. In the middle Act there was sensuality with a touch of detachment – again perfectly appropriate.

The cast was extremely fine and balanced. Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry is well-known – she has performed it at Bayreuth and on other of the world’s great stages. Although she had the score it was rarely used. Her voice is mellow and she has those ringing top-As and -Bs in her armoury as well. The wild, almost two-octave leaps downwards at the end of the second Act were thrilling. She was matched by the generous, lyrical and unforced heldentenor of Burkhard Fritz who delivered a musically satisfying account of the title-role. He sang with intellect and with full appreciation of the import of the text. Wolfgang Bankl’s Klingsor was sappily voiced yet full of malevolence and bile. Paul Whelan was a sonorous Titurel. Best of all was Georg Zeppenfeld’s unusually youthful Gurnemanz, which was tireless, and majestic in its restraint. He looks set to make the role his own as others such as Kurt Moll, Hans Sotin and Matti Salminen have done. British bass-baritone James Rutherford, woefully underused by the companies in his homeland, was a forthright Amfortas; Nelsons took his music at a fair lick but Rutherford rose to the challenge. This Amfortas was indeed a desperate soul.

There were ravishing Flowermaidens, Erica Eloff and Alexandra Steiner intertwining their florid lines beautifully, the garden a place of allure. Strong Knights and Esquires too. Praise also to the CBSO Chorus. What a shame there were no microphones present to broadcast or preserve this special occasion.

Alexander Campbell | May 17, 2015 Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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224 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 378 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording of a concert performance