Classical music: Ring the bells for the Kirov

Parsifal Royal Albert Hall, London Sounding the Millennium Westminster Cathedral, London Northlands Festival Thurso and Wick
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The Independent Culture

When I was small, the prospect of the Russians coming fell somewhere between a schoolboy joke and a distant threat. These days the Russians come by daily charter flight: every opera, ballet and symphonic company from Krasnodar to Kiev is en route to Western Europe in pursuit of hard cash. Most of them are not so wonderful. Those that are tend to be so exhausted by touring that what they offer is compromised.

When I was small, the prospect of the Russians coming fell somewhere between a schoolboy joke and a distant threat. These days the Russians come by daily charter flight: every opera, ballet and symphonic company from Krasnodar to Kiev is en route to Western Europe in pursuit of hard cash. Most of them are not so wonderful. Those that are tend to be so exhausted by touring that what they offer is compromised.

But one exception to that rule is the Kirov Opera, which seems to live out of a suitcase but somehow, time and again, delivers the goods. Its secret weapon is the driven and determined leadership of Valery Gergiev. The Kirov was back in Britain at the Albert Hall last week, to deliver a strong concert-performance of perhaps the most demanding score in opera repertory: Wagner's immense and daunting Parsifal.

In all the Kirov's previous trips to London, it had never brought any Wagner. The reason is that the once-great tradition of St Petersburg stagings disappeared during the Soviet years. But we know from Gergiev's freelancing with our own Royal Opera that he can do this repertory. And on home territory he has been gradually reintroducing it to his Kirov forces. There's a Ring cycle scheduled to tour to London next year. If this prefatory Parsifal is any indication, it should be a magisterial event.

From the first chords of the prelude, it was clear that Gergiev had the measure of the piece. Rich but not saturated, with a golden halo round the string sound, it was a perfect response to Wagner's stage directions for the first scene: "a forest, shady and solemn, but not gloomy". The legato playing was immaculate if something of a mystery, given that Gergiev's left hand shakes with feverish agitation as he shapes his beat. The entire orchestral performance was so accomplished that it took pride of place in this hearing, with the singers all but sidelined to supporting status.

But it was still a cast of quality - led by a Parsifal (Victor Lutiuk) whose vulnerable top notes only slightly compromised an otherwise refined performance. In comparison with John Tomlinson's epic reading of Gurnemanz for the Royal Opera last year, Gennady Bezzubenkov was understated, but eloquent and assured. And I liked both Kundry (Larissa Gogolevskaya) and Amfortas (Fyodor Mozhaev), despite the watery after- echo that these voices left in the resonance of the hall.

The only thing I didn't care for in the whole show was the bell effect, which was synthetically anaemic when it should be awesomely impressive. But then bells don't seem to register with Gergiev. During the first interval of the performance he gave a press conference (I can't think of any other conductor with the stamina or the sang-froid to contemplate such a thing). He was calmly discussing future plans when the five-minute bell rang for the next act. Come the three-minute bell he was still talking. The one-minute likewise. "I don't think", he said, "they start without me".

The BBC has just started a Millennium concert series - not to be confused with all the others although its name, "Sounding the Millennium", doesn't exactly set it apart. The idea is to programme music from the last thousand years in buildings of distinction throughout the country (mostly cathedrals) with meaningful juxtapositions between ancient and modern repertory. It began on Wednesday at Westminster Cathedral with a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony that was so close on the heels of Simon Rattle's Prom performance with the Vienna Philharmonic to be tempting fate. Rattle was an impossible act to follow. And though Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony approached the piece from a different perspective, comparisons were inevitable and invidious. For all the effervescent energy that Davis packs into performances, this one lacked muscular control. Details were blurred. And at glancing speeds, the great events of the score were largely reduced to skirmishes.

There was more joy in the first half of the programme, in which the BBC Singers offered a self-contained lesson in the continuity of musical tradition. They began with plainsong, demonstrating its development into polyphony with divided voice-parts: a fixed chant in the bass, with embellishment in the treble. Then we heard how Perotin, the so-called first modern composer, reworked that divisioninto the first motets. And then we jumped eight centuries to a new pieceby Judith Weir which reworked Perotin into music of our own time. All the Ends of the Earth was a BBC commission. And with its use of Perotin's motet Viderunt Omnes as a drone-like underlay to busier, ecstatic figuration in the upper voices, it sounded like de-mystified John Tavener. Which is to say, the method brought his music to mind, although the hard-edged clarity and brilliance was more Brittenesque. It went down well.

The farthest north you can go in mainland Britain brings you to two small towns, Thurso and Wick, which are closer to Norway than to London. And not just in miles. The temperament and culture of these parts gives you the sense of being in some territorial satellite of Scandinavia - especially during the Northlands Festival which runs here annually and reinforces the idea of Thurso-and-Wick as a floating province accidentally come adrift from Reykjavik or Bergen.

Almost everything I heard during this homely, welcoming but windswept festival was Scandinavian in origin or subject matter. There were great quantities of traditional singing - partly Scottish (supplied by a formidable housewife-chanteuse called Sheena Wellington who looks as though she ought to be cooking on television) but largely from the north of Norway (the hypnotic, curdled ululations of the Sami cult-star Mari Boine) and from Inuit Greenland. The last is a more limited tradition, as evidenced by a lady Inuit who chanted the same snatch of semi-melody for prolonged periods, accompanying herself by beating what appeared to be a saucepan- cover with a sharp stick. A sensation.

There was also a close-harmony group from Denmark (who were good but came with a Danish sense of humour that should be prohibited beyond the confines of the Eurovision song contest) and a staggeringly versatile Norwegian brass ensemble called the Brazz Brothers who ought to be playing big international venues. Give them time.

Northlands venues ranged from school halls to a moving train (the Thurso to Scotscalder non-express) and a bus depot (home to a community opera based on Nordic myths by Will Todd), and this was one of the most charmingly eccentric and inventive little festivals I've known. Though not all the events fell into the mainstream of "serious" music, those that did were notable, including the debut of a new soloists' ensemble drawn from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Osmo Vanska, they gave a resolute performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde that triumphed over its brittle-boned chamber reduction by Schoenberg. Their female soloist, the Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasakivi, was a voice with star potential. You'll be hearing it further south, I'm sure. But for the moment it's a northern treasure.

'Sounding the Millennium': further information on 08700 100 300

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