Parsifal; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jansons – review

Barbican, London; Lucerne, Switzerland

The Barbican's brutalist ziggurat, one might suppose, bears little resemblance to Monsalvat, Wagner's imagined castle of the Holy Grail which is the setting for Parsifal. It provided a monumental challenge for Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Opera of St Petersburg to render this concrete modernity into a place of misty Arthurian legend. That they all but succeeded in Tuesday's concert performance, also given last week in Cardiff and Birmingham, is cause for untrammelled admiration.

Leaps of fantasy are all part of a good night out in the concert hall of course, but Parsifal poses unique sonic difficulties. Wagner wrote it for his own purpose-built opera house in Bayreuth, where it was premiered in 1882. The famous secret of that theatre is the pit: the orchestra is completely hidden beneath the stage, the sound emerging in an all-encompassing entity which supports rather than fights with the singers.

Without that obliging acoustic, the Mariinsky orchestra took time to find the right integrated sound, and the prelude to Act 1 did not bode well, with ensemble uneven and bumpy, the slow chord-changes messy. As the evening progressed, however, the Russian players settled down and proved themselves tireless heroes of this five-and-a-half-hour marathon: strings were precise and disciplined, brass offered a thrilling amalgam of tonal variety, from thundering trombones to glistening, seraphic trumpets. The opening to Act 2, set in the debauched domain of Klingsor (the castrated sorcerer, you may recall), is bolder, faster and less cruelly exposed for the players. Even though the orchestra was not enormous, I'm not sure I have heard this music played louder, which is not necessarily a compliment but it certainly manacles your attention.

The same could not be said for all the singers. Unsatisfactorily, they were placed either side of the stage. If that helped in terms of audibility, it dashed all hope of dramatic sense or focus. Russian pronunciation of German – and yes, we are fine ones to talk – can be particularly hazardous for singers, but was not bad on this occasion. The best singing came from the almighty Larisa Gogolevskaya (Kundry), whose voice seems to break in at least three parts and is often not beautiful but who puts her very soul into each note.

Nikolai Putilin's Klingsor showed comparable force and strength. Yury Vorobiev had an attractive voice as Gurnemanz but, like Avgust Amonov in the title role, seemed text-bound and dull, making the long exchange in Act 3 between the pair well nigh interminable. As Amfortas, Evgeny Nikitin looked restless and even bored until he opened his mouth and sang, with strident conviction, of the agonies and shame of that suspicious wound of his that won't heal.

Gergiev was unhurried in his pacing, but as his recent recording demonstrates, he has a formidable grasp of this work and the longueurs were not of his making: he was cheered wildly at the end. Wagner, hunger, some dull singing and the prospect of a late journey home were as much to blame.

Parsifal culminates in the overwhelming "Good Friday Music". In German-speaking countries the work remains associated with performances on that day, often given in an atmosphere of hallowed, if ecumenically pagan religiosity: sex, disease and death play as large a part as proto-Christianity, Buddhism and Schopenhauer. To err is human but it feels divine, as Mae West might have explained the goings-on in Parsifal. The six flower maidens provided good aural light relief and visual colour in this spooky male-brotherhood world.

Janácek was no more conventional in his religious belief than Wagner. His Glagolitic Mass (1926), set to a suspect version of Old Church Slavonic, was apparently written in a mood of religious ecstasy which could have had something to do with his late-flowering passion for a much younger married woman. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera called it "more an orgy than a mass". That scalding clash of sacred and profane was expressed in a blistering performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under their chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, at the Lucerne Easter festival last weekend.

Moscow-born soprano Tatiana Monogarova as the "maiden-angel" led the soloists in this intense work, with its uncomfortably high-lying tenor and brass writing, which creates an atmosphere of endless nervous pressure and release. Perhaps Kundera was right. Near the end, the solo organist lets rip orgiastically. The superb Latvian virtuoso Iveta Apkalna, who studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, brought rare glamour to the organ loft, visible on high in Lucerne's contemporary white auditorium.

This was a star event, one of three concerts by this outstanding Munich-based orchestra who are now among the leading ensembles in the world. Their style is generous, warm and big-hearted, their relationship with Jansons one of mutual adoration. In these programmes of Brahms (Symphonies 2 and 4) and, under the baton of Bernard Haitink, Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, the timpanists and principal horn were notably dazzling. Maria João Pires was the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466, sensitively accompanied by Haitink and the orchestra. Her account was entirely about Mozart, not a jot about her. Few performers are more wholly at the service of the composer than this marvellous and modest Portuguese veteran player.

Lucerne's Easter festival, increasingly a rival to the recently troubled Salzburg one, attracts only the best: this past week András Schiff conducted Bach's B minor Mass, the King's Consort and the Hilliard Ensemble sang requiems by Mozart, Palestrina and Victoria, and the week opened with an appearance from the near-mythical Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart, who will be back for Lucerne's summer festival.

The atmosphere is scarcely penitential but there is a distinct mood of artistic fervour among the audience. As the festival director, Michael Haefliger, who founded the event in 1988, has said, these Easter concerts are a way of bringing together all sensibilities: "the orthodox and the heretics, the doubters and the God-fearing". Wagner, who had a decidedly non-God-fearing lakeside ménage in Lucerne when Parsifal was only a dream on his artistic horizon, could hardly have expressed it better.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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