Rattle kneels for the Wagner Sacrament

<i>Parsifal </i>| Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3
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Promenade standees were not, as far as I know, granted special dispensation to kneel. The faithful (and others) congregated at 4pm and re-emerged at 9.45pm, cleansed, refreshed, exhausted, uplifted, sceptical, stunned, overwhelmed, reborn, mystified. Some or all of the above. Such is the Parsifal experience. Not so much an opera, more a religious ceremony. A purgation.

Promenade standees were not, as far as I know, granted special dispensation to kneel. The faithful (and others) congregated at 4pm and re-emerged at 9.45pm, cleansed, refreshed, exhausted, uplifted, sceptical, stunned, overwhelmed, reborn, mystified. Some or all of the above. Such is the Parsifal experience. Not so much an opera, more a religious ceremony. A purgation.

One grows up expecting to hear the motif of the Sacrament emerging from the deep and penetrating silence of a darkened auditorium wherein, behind closed curtains, strange rituals await. But as strings first, then a solo trumpet, like a single shaft of light radiating through myriad violin arpeggios, illuminate our path, it really doesn't matter where you are. Or when. Inner light and inner darkness are written into the fabric of Wagner's extraordinary score.

Be it fully staged or a "concert performance", as here under Simon Rattle (conducting his first complete Wagner opera in the UK), the drama, the magic and the mystery are implicit. As the lengthy prelude wrestles with its conscience, there is a moment where string basses on the bottom of the universe seem to tremble for the sins of mankind. In the midst of so much silence and sostenuto, it's a sound like an open wound. Amfortas's wound. Sadly, shyly, the cor anglais offers the sacrament. Not a word has been sung, but already the drama precedes itself.

Rattle and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, their nine string basses ranged across the rear of the platform, made much of this and every such moment. When Wagner's orchestra is brought out into the light, as it were, and all the world is suddenly a concert platform, you begin to understand how integrated the singers are into Wagner's great aural cycloramas. The aural logistics of this performance had been thoroughly thought through, the arrival in the temple of the Grail as wondrous as I've ever heard it, with extra brass and antiphonal choirs situated way up in the dome of the Albert Hall and the problematic pitched bells almost perfect (a little deeper and they would have been), ringing as if from an invisible cathedral in some parallel universe. A moment or two of this and you're ready to take vows. "Time here becomes space," says Gurnemanz to Parsifal. He was, of course, speaking of the Albert Hall on Sunday night.

Gurnemanz was Robert Lloyd, experience and authority in every word of his lengthy narrations. World-weariness marked out Wolfgang Schöne's Amfortas, and contemptuous consonants were the poison of Sergei Leiferkus's Klingsor. Petra Lang's wonderfully sung Kundry might have found more vocal distinction between her duality as fallen angel and seductress, but she rose thrillingly to her soul-baring Act Two confrontation with Poul Elming's subdued, vocally slight Parsifal. At least that's the effect that the hall had on his performance; size does matter when the orchestra is out in the open like this.

Which brings us back to Rattle. His instinct for the pulse and rhythm of the score meant that this Parsifal took as long as it took: not a moment more or less. Wagner's heroic apostrophes were perfectly placed, the key revelations "religious" in the broadest sense. Such rapt pianissimos as those preceding the unveiling of the Grail in Act One (solo cellos) or the coming of spring and the promise of new beginnings (wonderful solo oboe) in Act Three are generally imagined not heard.

Not even the inevitable mobile phones or the insensitive idiots who just can't let the sound die away before screaming their approval could erase those memories.

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