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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 (GS)

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 inappropriate.

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 had broadened.

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



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