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 Recording of the Week  Wagner's Parsifal from the Mariinsky and Gergiev

The subject of today’s newsletter has devoured a lot of my time over the past few weeks - a new recording of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus. Although the Mariinsky Theatre has a long association with Wagner’s music (the composer himself conducted his own music there in 1863), Parsifal itself fell out of favour for much of twentieth century and when Gergiev first performed it there in 1999 it had not been heard in the theatre for eighty years. Since then Gergiev has performed a lot of Wagner and even taken the Ring cycle on tour (to mixed reviews admittedly) but this is his first recording of a Wagner opera.

Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev

The recording took place in June 2009 in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St Petersburg, incorporating live concert performances. It is the best of both worlds really as you gain the added spontaneity from performing to an audience but, with such an acoustically perfect concert hall and the time to re-do any necessary passages, it sounds like a studio recording. The orchestral playing is out of this world and has a wonderfully vivid theatricality about it.

This theatricality is matched by the characterisation of the singers. For example Nikolai Putilin (who sings Klingsor - the evil magician) has a superb nasty snarl to his voice, while Evgeny Nikitin’s agonised Amfortas (who suffers throughout the opera from a painful wound which will not heal) is right up there with the very best on record.

For the three big roles, Gergiev brings in some true international stars - Gary Lehman (Parsifal), Violeta Urmana (Kundry), René Pape (Gurnemanz). Gary Lehman trained as a baritone before becoming a tenor and this power stands him in good stead here. Violeta Urmana’s voice is one of the most remarkable around, and while I wish she could sound a bit more seductive when trying to seduce Parsifal in Act II there are still plenty of fireworks and emotional extremes to impress. The star for me though is René Pape’s outstanding Gurnemanz. He has authority, power and great characterisation and is vocally and musically superlative throughout. Arguably the finest performance of the role now on disc.

Apart from René Pape the other real reason to look at this set is Gergiev himself who seems to get the pacing and moods of the music just right. The spiritual moments have a real ethereal glow about them, while the manic bits sparkle with excitement. It never sounds too slow or too fast and the tempo changes all sound natural and well judged.

I gather there are more recordings of Wagner operas to come in the years ahead from Mariinsky and if they can get anywhere near the standard of this set, there is much to look forward to.

In short, a must for both Wagner fans and an excellent choice for those looking to add this great opera to their collection.

Wagner: Parsifal

Gary Lehman (Parsifal), Violeta Urmana (Kundry), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas), Alexei Tano Vitski (Titurel) & Nikolai Putilin (Klingsor), Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus, Valery Gergiev

Available Format: SACD