WAGNER: Parsifal (complete opera) – Gary Lehman (Parsifal)/ Violeta Urmana (Kundry)/ Rene Pape (Gurnemanz)/ Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas)/ Alexei Tanovitski (Titurel)/ Nikolai Putilin (Klingsor)/ Mariinsky Soloists, Orchestra, and Chorus/ Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky multichannel SACD 0508 (4 SACDs), 258:35 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Wagner’s mythic-religious opera Parsifal torments some people and lifts others straight to heaven—I am one of the latter. In this work he was able to consolidate all of the harmonic tricks he had learned in Tristan and blend them into a smooth, unified whole of great power and incomparable emotive presence. True, this is a slow work—with the exception of a few places the work is not meant to inspire pulses to race and become the equivalent of a thrilling page-turner. This is a piece that has to be digested bit by bit and learned “in the moment”—only the patient will be able to fully appreciate it. That being the case, I have always thought that the best way to hear this is through the medium of a recording, not a video, despite the fact that apparently there is a Blu-ray out by Kent Nagano (who doesn’t thrill me much) that has garnered some good reviews.
Of course it is Hans Knappertsbusch who has pretty much “owned” this work on recordings, his Philips rendition at the Bayreuth Festival in 1962 with Hans Hotter, Jess Thomas, and Gustav Neidlinger earning every bit the classic status it has attained, and many would say that if you are having only one Parsifal then this is the one. However, I am bucking the trend for a little more controversial recording, that on DGG with Karajan and Berlin with José Van Dam, Kurt Moll, and Dunja Vejzovic, a reading that has been lauded by many and equally criticized, but which I find enthralling with orchestral work as molten and moving as any ever laid down in a studio.
And along comes Gergiev…I have to admit that ever since his wonderful set of Prokofiev symphonies (and not everyone agrees with me on that one) I have been waiting for him to impress me. His Mahler I find stultifying and that doesn’t inspire me to look backwards to Wagner. But—surprise! It appears that Gergiev has been conducting a lot of Wagner in these last ten years, and that the Mariinsky Orchestra has a long tradition with him, as Wagner himself conducted there in 1863. This was the first thing that took me unawares, the very “Wagnerian” sound of this Russian orchestra—you would never know that they weren’t in Bayreuth, except for the fact that they sound better than Bayreuth, which often has some problems on recordings. This orchestra really knows how to play this music.
Gergiev interpretatively takes his time with this, and he should—a fast Parsifal ends up being a ridiculous Parsifal, and though any conductor must be very careful when upping the tempo as only certain parts respond well to this in this opera, a lot of skill and endurance is needed to hold back until those moments. Gergiev does this. Best of all, he is very sympathetic to the singers in a way that even Karajan was not in this work. Since the late German maestro’s tenure at the BPO it has almost become common parlance that Wagner really didn’t mean his singers to be heard, but as part of the overall orchestral fabric. Gergiev is having none of this, and I am with him—the singers are clear as a bell.
The cast is very good, though Violeta Urmana’s Kundry lacks a little of the temptress that one might like to hear in the role. The main men are superb—both Gary Lehman’s Parsifal and Rene Pape’s hefty Gurnemanz are up to snuff, though I have seen some reviews that question the fortitude of the former—don’t you believe it. This is a winning cast that brings about all you could wish for to these roles, and the addition of Super Audio sound that is rigorously structured and beautifully captured—the first Parsifal to be recorded like this—makes this a must-have for audiophiles and a severe temptation to all others. As a note, this is taken from concert performances, not a staged event.
— Steven Ritter