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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874 – 1951)
Gurre-Lieder (1900-1911)
Stephen O’Mara (Waldemar, tenor); Melanie Diener (Tove, soprano); Jennifer Lane (Wood Dove, mezzo-soprano); David Wilson-Johnson (Peasant, bass); Martyn Hill (Klaus-Narr, tenor); Ernst Haefliger (spreaker); Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft
Recorded: The Colosseum, Watford, October 2001
NAXOS 8.557518/9 [66:48 + 51:00]

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It is a long time since I last heard Gurre-Lieder; and, truth to tell, I have long considered it verbose and overblown; definitely not the Schönberg that appealed to me. Reviewing this re-issue of a fairly recent recording, previously released on Koch International Classics, provided a timely and really welcome opportunity to re-appraise this important, large-scale milestone in Schönberg’s output.

Gurre-Lieder was composed in 1900-1901 and orchestrated in 1911. By that time Schönberg had already completed the Chamber Symphony No.1 Op.9 (1906) and – more importantly – his Five Orchestral Pieces Op.16 (1909) and Erwartung Op.17 (1909). It is a hybrid piece: part oratorio, part dramatic cantata on a very large scale indeed. It stands in striking contrast when compared to the later works mentioned above. Moreover, at the time of completing the orchestration, Schönberg had made considerable musical progress, so that the work may be regarded as the culmination of Schönberg’s post-romantic period rather than a contemporary of his first major mature works. Musically speaking, the idiom is heavily indebted to the influences of Wagner and Richard Strauss, but also to French Impressionism. The latter suffuses the beautifully atmospheric orchestral prelude and some of the purely orchestral music.

It is difficult to know what may have drawn Schönberg to set Jacobsen’s long poem, which is definitely closer to a Wagnerian libretto than to the expressionist, if by now somewhat dated texts of Pierrot Lunaire Op.21 (1912) or of Erwartung. The epic, heroic tale of Waldemar and Tove may have appealed to Schönberg as well as to the premiere’s audience. The large-scale structure and the lushly Romantic music of the piece may also have proved quite impressive to the audience. The first performance was a huge success and probably one of Schönberg’s greatest public triumphs, as Richard Whitehouse rightly mentions in his short, but interesting insert notes. (Incidentally, Whitehouse’s notes do contain one minor mistake, when they remark that "Webern’s musical language had advanced considerably in the interim", i.e. between the completion of the short score and its orchestration.) Indeed, Gurre-Lieder is still one of his most popular pieces, at least as far as recordings are concerned.

Among the recordings still available, those of Chailly and Ozawa may boast more glamorous casts; but, as far as I can judge, the one assembled by Robert Craft is quite successful indeed. It also includes the celebrated tenor Ernst Haefliger in the spoken part of the Poet’s voice. This spoken part may in fact be the work’s weak point as well as the stumbling block in any performance of the piece. The Poet’s voice is conceived as some sort of Sprechgesang, i.e. neither real spoken words nor sung phrases. In his letter to a Mr Johnson who planned a performance in February 1951 (reprinted in full in the insert notes), Schönberg admits that "the question of the speaker is a little more difficult... finally [I] found out the best thing is to give it to a singer who no longer has the necessary beauty of voice to sing great parts", although he goes on mentioning some performances in which the Poet’s voice is spoken by actors rather than singers. Schönberg’s comments are a bit rough in this case (and I hope that Haefliger has never been aware of them!); but they clearly emphasise the problem posed by this part in the work. In any case, Haefliger does a fine job here, although the question about the success (or lack of success) of the part is still open.

I must say that this performance washed away my long-standing doubts about the piece; and I see this as ample proof of its global quality. There is much fine singing throughout as well as much superb orchestral playing (just try the orchestral prelude [track 1]). So, if – like me – you had or still have doubts about Gurre-Lieder but are ready to give it another chance, then this performance is warmly recommended, especially at Naxos’ bargain price.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Terry Barfoot and Bruce Hodges

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