fri 21/06/2024

Parsifal, CBSO, Nelsons, Symphony Hall, Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Parsifal, CBSO, Nelsons, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Parsifal, CBSO, Nelsons, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Much-loved music director begins his long goodbye with Wagner's ritual drama

From left: Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal), Andris Nelsons, Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz) and Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry, at the margin)Photo: Neil Pugh / DecisiveImaging

This was a very "concert" performance indeed. Across the stage music stands stood like sentinels lest any rash singer attempted to stand out and – surely not – act. Such fears were misplaced (or the stands did their job) in the end, as the music was what mattered and everyone stood and sang, with one outstanding exception, the Kundry of Mihoko Fujimura.

It can be no coincidence that of all the singers on stage she knew her role most intimately, and had worked for some years with Stefan Herheim in his celebrated production at Bayreuth. That said, Burkhard Fritz (pictured below) has sung the title role in later revivals of the same staging, without apparently gaining a focused image of the part, or requiring himself to project an embodied impression of it. Is Parsifal more than an idiot savant Siegfried? Is he ever prepared to be the kind of saviour that Gurnemanz or Amfortas are looking for? This was not the place for answers. Strictly vocal compensation was limited by a dry upper register and the sense of one singing well within his means until he appeared at the back of the stage to save the day with a resplendent “Nur, eine Waffe taugt”.

Fujimura, too, had the unique ability to fill the hall without great apparent effort: there is a rounded, vatic quality to her dramatic mezzo which suggests that it is coming to the listener at the end of a long tunnel. As Gurnemanz, Georg Zeppenfeld most nearly approached her authority, with a scrupulous use of the text to lift his lengthy narratives, and a gently resonant, bell-like bass that fell easily on the ear. Rutherford’s Amfortas also sounded well in the hall, and comfortable, too much so to leave more than a neutral impression of compromised kingship.

Chemistry with her saviour and master in Act Two was never confined by her imagination

The effort to do more than sing must be considerable under the antiseptic conditions of a well-lit concert hall, but Fujimura made it, seemingly with the prop of her Bayreuth experience foremost in mind, since the Kundry of this first act was no wild woman but a stern governess fully in charge of James Rutherford’s Amfortas while simultaneously in thrall to forces of arrogance and shame she is only beginning to understand, knowing rather than wounded in her retort to the impertinent squires (sung by Alexander Sprague and Edward Harrisson), “Are the beasts here not holy too?” Chemistry with her saviour and master in Act Two was never confined by her imagination but by the limited responses of Fritz, and the stolidly sung, gruffly presented Klingsor of Wolfgang Bankl.

Without yet having led a performance from the pit – that time will surely come, and soon – Andris Nelsons has a clear vision for the piece, at least in the first two acts, and after eight years as Music Director, he has the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra right at the end of his baton: the orchestral response was remarkably prompt, and in a neat accelerando back-out of Act One’s communion scene to the knights’ dispersal, he conducted with progressively smaller beat to bring everyone together with him. He is well prepared to pull around the tempo rather than plod through recitative, which made his conservative, three-in-a-bar restraint for Act Two’s ballet-chanté (Parsifal’s great Massenet-moment) “Komm, holder Knabe” the more puzzling, though the solo Flowermaidens (led by Erica Eloff and Alexandra Steiner) floated with individual, unblended delicacy through Klingsor’s magic garden of suspended animation.

Burkhard Fritz in CBSO concert ParsifalAct Three sagged from Parsifal’s entrance (Fujimura having entirely eschewed the screams and groans which, on paper at least, are so prominent a feature of Kundry’s presence) and slowed further in the Good Friday music to a trudge through the Transformation music, and only picked up from Sunday-oratorio solemnity in the closing minutes. This loss of tension also congealed and clotted the instrumental balance which had kept the previous acts flowing and glowing without the cheap odour of incense or turgid simulacra of "depth" that have commonly afflicted the opera: recessed, sweetly modulated strings, brass kept in check except for moments of maximum impact, attention often focused on wind choirs and soloists, notably the clarinet of Oliver Janes.

The men of the CBSO chorus were honest knights of the grail, always good with the words, which made the final act’s burial march for Titurel (the implausibly youthful Paul Whelan) all the more dramatically incomprehensible when sung not as call and lamenting response between two groups but in one mass. The important off-stage female chorus was as secure in ensemble and pitch as I have ever heard it, and contributed significantly to a poised and flowing first-act communion scene. Relatively abstract moments such as this and the second-act prelude, so vividly conveying not generic evil but Klingsor’s fury of sexual agitation, raised the performance from its context and deservedly won the eventual, inevitable standing ovation. It’s clear that Birmingham will miss Nelsons – “Komm, holder Knabe” indeed.

Andris Nelsons has a clear vision for the piece, and the CBSO right at the end of his baton


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article


The only thing I would add is to note how extraordinarily hushed and attentive was the (largely) Brummie audience. And at the end of each act, Nelsons successfully held on to that silence for long periods. It was quite the reverse at the Czech Philharmonic's Mahler 2 in the same hall three weeks before, when an almighty clattering and shouting the second they finished.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters