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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurrelieder (1900-11)
Stephen O’Mara (tenor), Melanie Diener (soprano), Jennifer Lane (mezzo-soprano), David Wilson-Johnson (bass), Martyn Hill (tenor), Ernst Haefliger (speaker)
Simon Joly Chorale
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
Rec. The Colosseum, Watford, England, 16-20 October 2001 DDD
Previously released on Koch International Classics
NAXOS 8.557518-19 [66.48 + 51.00]

Notes and Text/Translation Link

In many respects the Gurrelieder was Schoenberg’s most ambitious project. Certainly it represents his most conscious and direct attempt to match the large-scale works of the late-romantic masters whom he so much admired: not only Mahler and Strauss but also Pfitzner and, by implication, Wagner. Requiring five solo singers, one spoken voice, mixed chorus and a large orchestra, the work occupies a time-span of two hours and justifies its scale without difficulty.

Composed around 1900, immediately after the string sextet Verklärte Nacht, the orchestration occupied Schoenberg across a further ten years. His attention to detail was painstaking and there is a case to be made for the best music being the most refined and restrained aspects of the score. Jens Peter Jacobsen’s poem is evocative in itself, though the lack of text and translation here denies the purchaser the chance to find out, and the longer term rewards of ownership of this set need therefore be compared with the short-term gain of the cheaper bargain price.

The pace of the work, as so often with the late-romantic style, is basically slow, the mood of longing deeply expressive. The story concerns the love of King Waldemaar for Tove, his despair when she dies, the wild hunt and the transfiguration of the later stages replete with the imageries of resurrection. Inspired by this ambitious range, Schoenberg creates a wide variety of musical approaches: solo song, complex choral textures, melodrama (speech over music), and powerfully scored orchestral passages which at once enhance the drama and add another expressive dimension. The musical language is diatonic rather than atonal or serial.

Robert Craft is a seasoned campaigner as far as conducting Schoenberg is concerned, having already recorded many of the composer’s orchestral and choral works across several decades, usually for CBS. While the present performance will gain a wide currency in this Naxos incarnation, it was actually recorded for Koch International, and enjoyed a short period in the catalogue under that banner.

The opening sequence is among the highlights of the score and it has probably never sounded better than it does here. Craft’s pacing and shaping of the music are beautifully judged and the Philharmonia Orchestra plays supremely well. Schoenberg’s complex textures make this achievement far from easy to realize, but every detail plays its part in the effect of the whole.

There follows an extended love scene intended to move towards an ecstatic climax. And so it does, although the slower tempo chosen by Craft compared with, for example, Riccardo Chailly (Decca 430 321 2) misses the final degree of ardour, as well as causing the singers some extra pressure. The soprano Melanie Diener, while otherwise excellent, shows signs of strain here.

The most famous part of the score is The Song of the Wood Dove, and Craft handles it sensitively, showing a keen regard for the music’s special personality, a personality that seems to anticipate the modernism of the composer’s later style.

The recorded sound is admirably balanced and often refined, but in the final analysis it lacks the richness of the rival Decca version when it comes to the powerful climactic statements.

Terry Barfoot

Bruce Hodges has also listened to this recording

This reissue originally appeared on Koch, and not so very long ago (c. 2002), which must say volumes about the state of affairs of the distribution of classical music. Whatever the official reason for bringing it back, it deserves to be in the catalogue. There are now a number of excellent versions of this piece in the catalogue, by Chailly, Abbado and Rattle, all of which are blessed with starry casts, excellent conducting and top-flight recording to match. Even if none of these serves as the "ideal" recording, it is great to have this mammoth vision in a number of versions. I have also heard this work live several times: in 2000, with Rattle and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in 2001 with James Levine and the Met Orchestra, both at Carnegie Hall.

The impact of this late-Romantic masterpiece is totally overwhelming, especially for those listeners inclined toward its florid, broadly painted washes of sound. And anyone who might be shy of Schoenberg in general should reconsider this particular work, which is more in the vein of Richard Strauss or Zemlinsky, with long, arching vocal lines and sensuous colors, thanks to a huge orchestra. In the Rattle performance I saw at Carnegie Hall, the stage had to be extended by ten feet to accommodate all the personnel onstage.

The story concerns King Waldemar and his love for Tove, which is thwarted when she is murdered. He sets out searching for her, and eventually discovers her in Nature. The piece ends in a gloriously large display of sheer orchestral sound. Schoenberg’s vast structure has Waldemar and Tove singing in alternating takes, with other characters entering for relatively brief moments. Meanwhile, brilliant orchestral interludes are interspersed between the vocal sections. This is not a work for everyday listening, but its utter majesty and scope make a compelling experience when one is in the mood.

So back to this CD, which is if nothing else a spectacular-sounding recording. Robert Craft recorded this just one month after September 11, 2001, and the forces assembled sing with such ardor that I wonder if they found inspiration in the almost unimaginable tragedy at hand. If Craft’s tempi are somewhat slower than in the recordings cited above (caveat emptor) some listeners may prefer his more stately approach. I won’t speculate on his artistic intentions, but I know that I liked what I heard here.

As Waldemar, Stephen O’Mara is heroic and declamatory, with Wagnerian strength, yet lyrical tone and sweetness. As Tove, Melanie Diener sounds lovely, especially in one of my favorite sections, "Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick". Jennifer Lane’s Wood Dove has little more than twelve minutes on the entire recording, but they are memorable and end the first CD with rapture. Ditto for David Wilson-Johnson, whose fine bass voice appears for only three minutes, for "Deckel des Sarges klappert," but he also makes a fine impression. Martyn Hill uses his mellifluous tenor to nice effect in "Ein Seltsamer Vogel ist so’n Aal", and even the speaker in the penultimate section, Ernst Haefliger, makes the most of his interlude.

The Philharmonia Orchestra fairly roars through the score, in the best sense, combining passion with an enormous dynamic range. Craft seems to encourage them to ever-greater heights. The Simon Joly Chorale is sparingly used, with the tenors and basses having few minutes to themselves as Waldemar’s men in "Gekusst, O König" before the entire ensemble fairly explodes in the final "Sehte die Sonne" ("Hymn to the Sun"). This dazzling sequence gave me a bit of the shivers, in a good way. All of this is expertly captured by engineer Arne Akselberg in Watford Colosseum, with corresponding clarity and majesty and a huge sense of occasion. The physical sound of the recording is sumptuous, with as mentioned before, a very wide dynamic range. I doubt any listeners will have any complaints. Listen to it loud, but be prepared for the climaxes that may shake the walls of your home.

My sole disappointment is that no translations are included in the otherwise fine booklet. The libretto in German (only) can be found on Naxos’s website (I found the link but no text or translation is provided. An alternative link is provided above. Ed.). But otherwise, this is not only recommended but a bit of a bargain as well.

Bruce Hodges


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