Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Suite for String Orchestra
Martina Arroyo (Tove); Alexander
Janet Baker (Wood-dove); Odd Wolstad (Peasant);
Niels Møller (Klaus the Fool); Julius Patzak (Speaker)
Chorus of Danish Radio and Danish State Radio Symphony & Concert Orchestras
conducted by János Ferencsik.
* Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar
Reissue of recordings first published in 1974 (Gurrelieder) and 1965 (Suite
EMI CZS5 74194 2CDs
The audience at the première of Schoenberg's gigantic Gurrelieder,
in Vienna, on 23 February 1913, loudly applauded the work and demanded to
see him onstage. Schoenberg reluctantly he appeared; bowed to the conductor
and the performers but ignored his audience. Later he was to claim that these
were the people who had refused to recognise the worth of his other works;
works like the Five Orchestral Pieces and Pierrot Lunaire that had baffled
critics and audiences alike. Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, unlike the aforementioned
pieces poses few, if any difficulties; it is firmly tonal and looks back
to the Late Romantic tradition with a strong Wagnerian influence. It is in
this work that Schoenberg scales the pinnacle of Late Romanticism not Mahler
nor Richard Strauss.
Schoenberg chose as the text for these orchestral songs, 'Songs of the Gurre'
(Gurrelieder) by the Danish poet and novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-85)
(much favoured by Frederick Delius). The story, related in the songs, concerns
the 12th century King Waldemar of Denmark who lived in the castle of Gurre
on the Danish coast, and who fell in love with a beautiful young maiden called
Tove. Blindly infatuated, he took her to live with him in the castle.
Unsurprisingly, his Queen was madly jealous, and she murdered Tove.
Grief-stricken, Waldemar cursed God for his loss. As punishment for this
blasphemy, Waldemar, and his vassals, were condemned to ride the sky forever
in a vain search for the late lamented Tove.
For his Gurrelieder, Schoenberg uses huge choral and orchestral forces including
four flutes, four piccolos, five oboes, seven clarinets, three bassoons,
ten horns, seven trumpets, seven trombones, one tuba, six timpani and a massive
battery of percussion (including some large iron chains), four harps, celesta
and a more than substantial string section. Gurrelieder is set in four parts;
the final part is known as the Melodrama: The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind.
Part One consists of twelve sections with nine songs (four for Tove, five
for Waldemar) that tell of their burgeoning love, preceded by an orchestral
Prelude. The music of this Prelude is magical. It glitters and shimmers,
suggesting the splendour of a sunset over the Danish coast and Waldemar's
castle, and the sweet languor of romance until shadows fall and the gathering
darkness has a foreboding
Waldemar's first song is hushed and softly
lyrical, the orchestra offering a gentle lilting accompaniment that seems
suspended in boundless space as if to imply the promise of eternal love.
Alexander Young tenderly floats his affirmation of love and Martina Arroyo
responds serenely in her first aria in similar ecstatic mood before ominous
clouds gather so that Waldemar's second aria is troubled and dramatic. Great
turbulent orchestral forces are unleashed evoking thwarted passion and stormy
seas with huge surging waves. The following songs for Waldemar and Tove alternate
between the wild and passionate, and calmer more poignant episodes. Alexander
Young may not be in the front rank of Wagnerian Heldentenors required for
the ardent, then anguished, then deranged Waldemar, but he is expressive
enough. Arroyo does not convince very much, she sounds too matronly for Tove.
Susan Dunn on the rival Decca set (with Siegfried Jerusalem as a most heroic
Waldemar) has youth, freshness and purity.
Waldemar's 'Es ist Mittersnacht' is very atmospheric with Young communicating
ardour and foreboding well, and the orchestra conjuring ghoulish nocturnal
figures as well as tenderness. Another huge orchestral interlude contrasting
romantic yearning and ecstasy with demonic material and mountainous, battering
seas, precedes the eleven-minute Song of the Wood-dove - perhaps the best-known
section of the work. The wood-dove tells of the death of Tove, of the love
she shared with Waldemar, of the funeral procession, and how she, herself,
was killed by the Queen's falcon. Janet Baker as the wood-dove is very affecting
in her mournful and accusatory cries. This is very definitely the highlight
of this set.
Part II is very brief consisting of one song: Waldemar's curse. Part III
commences with Waldemar summoning his vassals to join him in the wild hunt
through eternity for Tove. Lower strings brood as Waldemar mourns; then,
as he stirs himself into action, the orchestra bursts into imposing fanfares
summoning the vassals. The Wagner of Tannhäuser seems to be recalled
here. There follows a highly colourful evocation of the frightful ride over
the treetops and across the sky with skeletal, spectral figures as men rise
from their graves to join the riders. A terrified peasant observes their
progress and Klaus the Fool (Niels Møller excellent in the role),
sounding very much like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, complains of being
dragged from his grave for the pointless chase. The men's chorus sounds frenzied
and undisciplined suggesting the reckless insanity of their mission.
Nevertheless, a demented Waldemar urges them on.
Part IV, The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind, begins with a glistening evocation
of the warmth and glow of summer, with breezes slowly fluttering and gathering
momentum. As the wind gathers force and grows shriller, the Speaker declares
another hunt has begun that of the summer wind. Then, in the final song a
mixed chorus sees the sun rise and sings to it a life-affirming hymn bringing
Gurrelieder to a triumphant conclusion.
The Danish orchestra's playing is splendid. Clearly, for such a huge work
it would be difficult to realise the perfect interpretation, and although
Janet Baker and to a lesser extent Alexander Young make this a sterling set,
the recommended choice is the DG Abbado version. This set has Sharon Sweet,
Marjana Lipovsek and (as in the Chailly's version for Decca, that comes highly
recommended) Siegfried Jerusalem as Waldemar.
The filler item on this EMI set is Schoenberg's Suite for Strings in G major,
written when the composer had settled in Los Angeles. It was first performed
in a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1935. Equally accessible, it
is based on the old dance forms of the Baroque period and is characterised
by complex contrapuntal writing with many interesting effects. The textures
are both dense, yet transparent, and relatively thin with material for solo
instruments and small groupings. Del Mar is alert to all its shadings and
subtleties and his reading has intensity and delicacy, and clarity. The rather
sombre Prelude has menace, pathos and something of the hymnal that makes
one wonder if Schoenberg was concerned about the dark events developing his
homeland. The dance rhythms of the Prelude try to gain a foothold but they
have a bitter edge and they are soon weighed down by sorrow. The Adagio begins
tentatively, discretely, the mood is quiet, with pathos as well as elegance.
The music grows warm and sentimental, even slightly mystical before it is
brought down to earth with some strumming figures and restless material.
The Minuet, Gavotte and Gigue are sunnier less troubled movements, the Gavotte's
opening sweet coyness being admonished by a stricter solo violin and swept
away by strutting violas and chattering lower strings. The music has charm
and refinement. The concluding Gigue is lively and high-spirited with much
use of cross-rhythms and fluctuating tempos.
Again, I find I must criticise the lack of substantial documentation. If
the super-budget labels can comply, why is it always the 'majors' that fall
down in this important department? The texts of the songs are omitted. I
realise to do so might have added extra bulk (not to mention expense) that
would have made this one-jewel-case-2-CD-set difficult if not impossible.
Yet with a bit of imagination, surely a synopsis of the content of each
individual song could have been included especially for Part I. This is doubly
important when one reflects that these bargain CDs are supposed to attract
new audiences - the very people who need the texts the most!!
Nevertheless, a strong performance of the Gurrelieder; and a confident, if
not a first recommendation.