Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Chorus, Soloists/Salonen

Royal Festival Hall, 3 March 20094 stars

Esa-Pekka Salonen

By opening his six-month journey through the music of early twentieth-century Vienna with Schoenberg's rarely performed Gurrelieder, Esa-Pekka Salonen chose fittingly to begin at the end.  The mammoth forces – an orchestra enlarged to twice its usual size, four choirs and six soloists, and the superannuated Wagnerian tropes of love and redemption mark the work out as the last serious attempt to say anything worthwhile in an exhausted romantic idiom.

The fact that tickets were still available right up to the last moment for this rarely performed work is evidence, perhaps, of its falling in between two stalls.  For the hard-headed modernists, the sumptuous late nineteenth-century musical language is too self-indulgent.  On the other hand, many who would flock to see, say, Mahler 8 associate the name Schoenberg with some rather unpleasant noises they were forced to listen to at school.  But, as Julian Johnson was keen to stress in the pre-performance talk, this piece allows us to see how Schoenberg's later ascetic style grew directly out of an over-blown late romanticism.  There is, consequently, music to appeal to both camps.

Although the work was not semi-staged there were surtitles and lighting effects.  Gurrelieder is uncategorizable, part cantata, part symphony, part song cycle, but it is not an opera: the characters do not interact dramatically.  The surtitles, then, just ended up being an annoying distraction.  The lighting looked good and would have been successful if it had been used to follow the couleur locale of the poem, going as it does from dusk, through midnight, to dawn.  Instead, it was used simple-mindedly: pink when the word 'rose' was mentioned, for example.  The glorious yellow that accompanied the sunrise was spoiled by the fact that we'd already seen the same effect ten minutes earlier when it was still supposed to be dark.

Despite a shaky start – Schoenberg's sparkling Jugendstil figuration was a little untidy and there was some questionable woodwind tuning on sustained chords – conductor and orchestra were soon able to acquire some forward-driving, if occasionally a little impatient, momentum.  The first part, a Tristan and Isolde-esque alternation between the two lovers King Waldermar (Stig Anderson) and Tove (Soile Isokoski), only gave us a hint of the full power of the orchestra, although they were still able to obliterate the soloists at some points.  We were able to experience that in the third part: the orchestra is joined by an all male choir voicing the risen dead who join Waldermar for a nightly hunt, his punishment for cursing God following the death of Tove.  An augmented brass section – seven each of trumpets and trombones plus ten horns – and a battery of percussion, including two large iron chains, let us hear how the apocalypse might really sound.

The 25 year-old Schoenberg who started the piece was very different to the 36 year-old Schoenberg who eventually completed it by scoring the final part.  In the intervening decade Schoenberg met Mahler and become acquainted with his symphonies and this is evident in his orchestration.  He borrowed from Mahler the ability to view the orchestra as a source of infinitely variable chamber ensembles.  It is in these sections, particularly the penultimate two with Klaus the Jester and then the Speaker, that the orchestra was at its best with the individual players giving fine performances.  It was also a treat to hear some exotic instruments like the trio of Wagner horns or the contrabass trombone being given chamber-music prominence.

The undoubted stars of the evening were Monica Groop as Waldtaube and the German actress Barbara Sukowa as the Speaker.  Groop's beautifully rich mezzo-soprano tone was perfectly suited to the sorrowful lament that her character sings for Tove.  And somehow she was miraculously able to compete with Schoenberg's uncompromising orchestration.  The speaker, which uses Schoenberg's Sprechstimme, is usually taken by a man, but there is nothing in the text to prevent a woman taking the part and it turned out to work extremely well.  Sukowa is by profession a stage and film actress and her thespian skills brought a vibrant energy to the role.  She is not a trained opera singer so her voice was amplified.  I still have awful memories of the production of Candide at ENO last year when all the characters wore microphones: it was almost unbearable because the quality of the speakers was so low.  Fortunately the equipment at the Royal Festival Hall is better and she used the microphone to her advantage, modulating her voice and even use her breathing for an intimately expressive effect.

In the end the hall was full and, judging by the euphoric cheering and the very un-English standing ovation at the end, the message of rebirth on a higher plane following death and destruction was much appreciated in these gloomy economic times.  'Cheering', 'standing ovation' at a Schoenberg concert?  It'll never happen again.

By Marc Brooks


SalonenRelated articles:

Preview of the current Royal Festival Hall season
Review of Daniel Barenboim conducting Schoenberg at the Proms
Review of Valery Gergiev conducting Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony

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