CD Review: Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

Philharmonia Orchestra/Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Soloists/Salonen (Signum)

7 January 2012 4 stars

Julia LezhnevaThe South Bank’s 2009 series City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935 offered a great opportunity to hear two rarely performed large choral works: Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Schoenberg’s monumental Gurrelieder.  Mahler’s eighth symphony, composed at around the same time regularly gets an airing, and I think Gurrelieder – in many ways the more interesting piece – ought to be heard at least as often.  It seems, though, that by the time he completed the work in 1911, more than ten years after its conception, Schoenberg didn’t even like it himself.  He was given a standing ovation in appreciation of the sumptuous late-romantic harmony at the premiere, but he turned his back on an audience that had shunned his more recent atonal work and applauded the efforts of the musicians instead.  There was also a deserving standing ovation at the original concert when this live recording was made and, happily, the high level of music making, as well as the buzz of the evening, has been successfully transferred to disc.

One of the reasons that Gurrelieder is so little performed is the sheer size of the forces required: a 150-piece orchestra (including 10 horns, four doubling as Wagner tubas and a battery of percussion), male chorus, mixed chorus and five soloists, including a speaker.  The text comprises, in German translation, a selection of poems from Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobson’s Songs of Gurre, based on a medieval legend.   And, with its themes of dead lovers reunited through the redeeming power of nature, Schoenberg was clearly still under the influence of Wagner.  The difference is that, while Tristan and Isolde shun the day and crave the night, King Waldemar, having lost his lover Tove to his wife’s jealousy, suffers tormented nights and longs for the renewal of spring – heralded at the end of the cantata by the dawning of a new day.

In the orchestral prelude, representing the sinking sun as well as hinting at the supernatural events to come, the chief selling point of this disc is immediately apparent: the sound of the orchestra.  The recording itself is immaculate, there is a beautiful transparency to the playing and everything is balanced perfectly.  The glittering jugendstil soundscape scored for 8 flutes, violins divided into 20 desks and 4 harps, is clean and clear, with all the instruments so well delineated that it is possible to make out all the intricate details of Schoenberg’s scoring.  And yet, against this mosaic, the solo trumpet emerges as the melody bearer without overpowering everything else.   This is not just flawless playing that has been recorded well, however, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting gives an edge to the proceedings. The brass fanfare at the beginning of Part III, which calls the dead to life, is terrifying, as is the laser-sharp brass that alternates with soft woodwind in the short Part II.  He also brings a welcome touch of late romantic sentimentality to many passages, like the interlude in Part I after Waldemar has lamented his lost love.

In my review of the original concert I singled out Monica Groop as Waldtaube (the voice of the Wood-Dove – echoing the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried) as the soloistic highlight.  Nothing has changed here: her rich, mellifluous sound is a joy to listen to.  The other two minor soloists are also good: Ralf Lukas as the peasant is suitably expressive in the slower passages; and Andreas Conrad as Klaus-Narr (a fool) manages to strike a jocular tone without sounding ridiculously manic, as some interpreters do.  The singers who take the roles of the two lovers, Stig Andersen as Waldemar and Soile Isokoski as Tove, sound slightly stretched, as if they are struggling to be heard above the orchestra.  Even so, in songs like ‘Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick’, Isokoski in league with Salonen still manages to whip up a moving climax.  And later on, in ‘Herrgott, weißt du, was, du tatest’ the single poem in Part II, the angry mood seems to suit Anderson better. 

As for the speaker, here we learn the lesson that what works in the concert hall doesn’t necessarily make for a good live recording.  The actress Barbara Sukowa was amplified, giving her performance a feeling of intimacy in the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall.  It seems that the engineers have had to record the amplification, rather than directly through the microphone, and the result is not only shrill and unpleasant but the warm, almost conversational tone has been lost, replaced by something that sounds overdone.

Out of the nearly two hours the piece lasts, the poor choruses have to sit doing nothing for almost all of it.  But the 10 minutes or so they do have are as exciting as anything in the piece.  At the climax of the work, when Waldemar is forced on a demonic wild hunt with the ghosts of his dead vassals, Salonen’s conducting again bristles with energy.  Some may complain that in these two sections the orchestra is too much in the foreground, sometimes seeming almost as if it is the choir that is doing the accompanying.  But I for one enjoy being able to hear what the orchestra is up to here, which is difficult to make out in the mêlée of sound in many other recordings.

In a work of this complexity there are enough things that can go wrong to make it unlikely that there will ever be a perfect performance.  However, there is much to recommend this recording above its competitors, not least the transparency and clarity of the orchestral sound, not to mention the emotional impact of the conducting: drive and excitement one minute, giving way to a bit of good old late romantic sentimentality in the next. 

By Marc Brooks