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.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin

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.

Mihoko Fujimura © R&G Photography
Mihoko Fujimura
© R&G Photography
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.

****1