CLASSICAL MUSIC: Wagner / Simon Rattle: Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture
Selling points for concerts proliferate. The Barbican's programme book for Friday night had "Great Performers" printed on the cover. Inside it said "Great British Orchestras". But the most potent reason for the large audience was Sir Simon Rattle conducting a substantial chunk of Wagner for the first time in London, ancillary to his performance of the whole of Parsifal at Netherlands Opera this season. The Prelude to Act I - an expository piece that lines up the themes to be developed in the drama, though that has never stopped conductors treating it as a concert item - allowed a few latecomers to slip into their seats before Act III began. The three male soloists sat, or stood, immediately under Rattle's eye. This was not a semi-staged performance, and anyway, action in the usual sense is confined to the central Act of Parsifal, while the drama in the outer ones consists mainly of religious processions and ritual, shockingly disrupted though the latter is by the desperate agonies of Amfortas.

Yet Kundry was nowhere to be seen, at least not from my seat, and after she emerged she exited having delivered her single abject line. Who could blame Jennifer Mason if she sang it with more vocal health than dramatic truth? (She is meant to sound broken.) Parsifal without its central act is a man's world, and however vital the youthfulness of the title role, it's an old man's world at that. Robert Lloyd as Gurnemanz, a figure like Simeon, who can die in peace having seen the young saviour (in this case, the saviour of the cult of the Holy Grail), was in good, even sumptuous, voice. He was quite properly benign, but not very plausibly elderly. Concert performances often encourage singers to put ripe sound first. Still, in his culminatory monologue he was, for a brief while, drowned by the orchestra banked around him, which seemed pretty well inevitable at that point.

Parsifal was the Danish tenor Poul Elming, who isn't the only singer whose voice has got higher during his career. He started as a baritone. After anointing Kundry, he greeted the spring not only with clean pitch but also with delicate feeling, and on presenting the holy Spear, managed not to crack on his perilous top note. Not that he was noticeably careful with his voice, he just didn't push it. Ideally, he didn't sound quite open, frank or innocent enough for the part, but whoever has?

Wolfgang Schone's Amfortas, on the other hand, was well sung but hardly eloquent of his unremitting suffering, so vividly suggested in the slow chromatic agony of the orchestral music. This was played with great vibrancy by the CBSO, whose double basses and cellos were placed on the audience's left, behind the first violins. There seems no end to novel seating plans. Well, it worked. Rattle kept his cool when those horrid electronic bells faltered, and the various choruses were as strong, and as faint, as required. Act III of Parsifal can hardly have its fullest effect without the preceding Acts, and in particular the second. Yet sheerly in musical terms, this was as ardently committed, and also as immaculate, a performance as you're likely to hear live.

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