Seen and Heard
Interntaional Concert Review
Arnold Schönberg: GURRELIEDER,
John Treleaven, Tenor (Waldemar); Angela Denoke, Soprano (Tove);
Lilli Paasikivi, Mezzo-Soprano (The Wood Dove); Christopher Maltman,
Baritone (Peasant); Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor (Klaus-Narr); Barbara
Sukowa (Speaker); Los Angeles Master Chorale (Grant Gershon, Music
Director), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor,
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California February 6, 2005
This performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master
Chorale and soloists, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen of Arnold Schönberg's
massive choral cantata Gurrelieder was at times vocally
under powered, somewhat jarring in its choice of a soloist for the
part of the Speaker (as well as the decision to amplify her), but
otherwise expertly interpreted. Since every recorded version (except
the one by Pierre Boulez with BBC forces [Sony]) is of a "live"
performance, I do not think making comparisons can be considered
The choice of vocal soloists for the two main roles cannot be said
to have been totally satisfactory. John Treleaven's Waldemar and
Angela Denoke's Tove failed to measure up to, much less surpass,
memories of Karl-Walter Böhm (Zubin Mehta's Waldemar) and Jessye
Norman (Tove for both conductors). These magnificent performances
with the Philharmonic took place on April 15, 1977 (Mehta) and February
24, 1990 (Schwarz). The part of Waldemar (the only character who
appears in all three parts) is the driving and unifying force behind
the work and as such, requires a true heldentenor. Mr.
Treleaven possesses a very pleasant voice; however, he failed to
project it as forcefully as James McCracken did for Ozawa, Siegfried
Jerusalem for both Claudio Abbado [DGG] and Riccardo Chailly [Decca/London]
or Thomas Moser for both Giuseppe Sinopoli [Teldec] and Sir Simon
Rattle [EMI]. Ms. Denoke's Tove was not much more compelling, the
orchestra completely drowned her out at the words ersterbend
im seligen Kuss! ("dying in a rapturous kiss!"),
which conclude her part.
Before Lilli Paasikivi's stunning performance of the Song of
the Wood Dove, which concludes Part I, I thought perhaps the
acoustics of the hall had prevented the other two singers from projecting
sufficiently, but that was not the case. Although Ms. Paasikivi
did not totally erase memories of either the late Tatiana Troyanos
[Ozawa/Philips] or Dame Janet Baker [Janos Ferencsik/EMI], her ability
to cut through the thick orchestration as well as her obvious knowledge
of the meaning of the words made for a powerful performance.
After intermission, in the very brief Part II and throughout Part
III, Mr. Treleaven still could not be heard adequately in the climaxes
even though these two parts are less heavily orchestrated in the
solo vocal passages. This is due to the fact that the composer took
up their orchestration in 1911 after having put it aside for ten
years. In the interim, his palate had matured as his experience
Excepting the spectacular finale to Part III, Hymn to the Sun,
all of the choral music in Gurrelieder is sung by the 3
4-part men's choruses (Waldemar's vassals). "The Wild Hunt",
as the third part is called, begins as Waldemar nightly calls his
men from their graves to join him in a grisly chase through the
forest searching for his beloved Tove. The Los Angeles Master Chorale's
performance could not have been bettered. Even the full force of
the massive orchestra could not blur their clear, concise singing.
Ever since they were formed in 1945 as the Roger Wagner Chorale,
they have been a world-class ensemble and continue that tradition
to this day thanks to the excellent leadership of Grant Gershon,
who has been their music director since July of 2001.
During the conversation between Waldemar and his men, two of them,
Christopher Maltman's Peasant and Anthony Dean Griffey's Klaus-Narr
sing songs that are on the one hand terrifying, and on the other,
impertinent. Both men performed with alacrity and aplomb, especially
Mr. Griffey, who not only managed the vocal demands, but imparted
the humorousness of the text admirably.
There are at least fourteen different recordings of this work available
and with two exceptions (one [from 1992] with Barbara Sukowa and
Berlin Philharmonic forces conducted by Claudio Abbado (and currently
out-of-print except in Germany) the other [from 1979] with Seiji
Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (who employed the actor
Werner Klemperer), none of them uses soloists for the role of the
Speaker who are or were not either tenors or (bass-)baritones. Some
singers like Hans Hotter (for Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Chailly)
and Ernst Haefliger (for Robert Craft [Koch International Classics
& Naxos]) were brought out of retirement to perform the part.
According to the program notes, Ms. Sukowa has performed other classical
works requiring a speaker or narrator. The role of Joan of Arc in
Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher is, after all,
a woman. No one minded when Hermione Gingold narrated Prokofiev's
Peter and the Wolf . However, to be fair, some eyebrows were
raised when Leonard Bernstein chose a boy soprano to sing Das
himmlische Leben ("Heavenly Life"), the finale of
Gustav Mahler's 4th symphony [DGG]. The notes did not, however,
say how the decision to amplify her performance was arrived at.
I've decided to stop trying to find out since a request for further
information on the subject from the Philharmonic were referred to
Ms. Sukowa's agent and, in all likelihood, will be unsatisfactory.
A small audio speaker was placed beside the conductor's podium and
the sounds which emanated from it resembled the squawking of crows
rather than speech of any kind. It was shrill, totally unmusical
and slightly over modulated. The decision to cast the part with
a woman must be said to be unusual although apparently not unprecedented.
In comparing the various recordings, most conductors opt for an
interpretation of the Speaker's part, which is not written
in, but only resembles sprechstimme as "speech-song"
and not "speech-shouting", which is what I heard
at this performance. However, this point of interpretation is admittedly
rather fuzzy. Sir Simon Rattle's version with Berlin forces combines
the parts of the Peasant and the Speaker by using bass-baritone
Thomas Quasthoff who definitely gives note values to many of the
words. My personal preference is for a more vocalized approach and
many of the other versions exemplify this perfectly. My favorite
is the previously mentioned Boulez performance whose Gunter Reich
truly intones the part, even vocalizing the final lines to magnificent
effect. Jess Thomas (Waldemar), Marita Napier (Tove) and Yvonne
Minton (Wood Dove) contribute to this version with stellar performances.
What superlatives have not been used to describe the conducting
(and composing) talents of Esa-Pekka Salonen? He is one of the brightest
stars in the world's musical firmament. His interpretation of the
purely orchestral parts was sublime (especially the orchestral Prelude
and the Interlude preceding the Song of the Wood Dove).
The sensitivity he displayed to the needs of the singers was equally
exemplary. It is unfortunate that, for whatever reason, the Philharmonic
did not engage better singers for the two principal roles and chose
to disregard tradition with regard to their choice for the role
of the Speaker.
Since attending the performance, I've decided to create my own "dream"
composite recording featuring Siegfried Jerusalem as Waldemar(Decca/London:
430321), Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos as Tove and the Wood
Dove (Philips: 412511 & 464040), Philip Langridge and Thomas
Quasthoff as Klaus-Narr and the Peasant (EMI: 57303), Gunter Reich
as the Speaker (Sony: 48459), and the New York Choral Artists and
Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta in the choral parts, orchestral
preludes and interludes (Sony: 48077).
Gregory W. Stouffer