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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurre-Lieder (chamber music arrangement by Hopffgarten and Kroger)
Martin van Hopffgarten (cello and piano)
Clemens Kroger (piano)
Michael Ransburg (speaker)
Rec. Hamburg, September 2003 and March 2004, DDD
BELLA MUSICA ANTES EDITION BM-CD 14.9006 [63:39 + 52:52]

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Yes, you did read the heading correctly, though you might not believe it. To be honest I thought someone was having me on until I played the CDs, when I discovered they were not. So, forget Schoenberg's opulent late-romantic scoring for vast orchestra, three four-part men's choir and an eight-part mixed choir, five soloists and speaker, as you know it. This is a somewhat slimmer version and one that is mercifully less taxing on a recording company's budget. What we have here is something that raises questions - principally along the 'why' and 'what' line; how successfully it answers them will be down to individual tastes and preferences.

Why arrange Schoenberg? Well, to be fair, this is not the first time Gurre-Lieder has been reduced, by which I do not mean arranged. Alban Berg produced a piano reduction, which would in itself be interesting to hear and was consulted in producing this arrangement. My view is that arrangements usually prove unsuccessful in some crucial respect. There are exceptions though. This does not mean that listening to such a vast behemoth of a work in bare bones form cannot be interesting. It aims to get back to the essence of the thing, which presumably was the aim here.

It is interesting that the performers note their inspiration for the project as a visual source, the Schoenberg etchings of Ernst von Hopffgarten (spot the connection here). One of those etchings is reproduced in part on the cover - suitably elemental and sparse. Schoenberg as a painter himself - a fact not often recognized; this aspect of his creative work remains under-explored - might well have approved of the intervention of the visual stimulus in such a project. However his musical intelligence would have turned at once to the outcome.

The outcome we have is a scoring for one piano, cello (occasionally doubling as second piano) and a speaker. The booklet states that performing difficult arrangements such as this has become the trademark of the performers. It is easier to see how it might work on recording, where edits and takes are possible, than in live performance. One of the pianos at least is prepared to give additional sonorities and effects where required.

All of this I have so far surmised from the notes - fulsome on the plot of the original Gurre-Lieder and thin on the arrangement. Why so? Surely a vocal work with the words stripped from it has little need for a plot synopsis? I see this not so much as an attempt to reduce the work but as divorced from it, a gargantuan cello and piano duet (largely), whose thematic material draws upon Schoenberg as a reference. Pointing out in the notes the fact that compromises had to be made is like stating that it is warm when the sun shines.

What of the lack of voices, and choirs? What of the orchestral parts, for that matter? To be honest, it was the voices I missed most. Assigning the parts mostly to the cello proved only partially successful. I missed the text, obviously, the interplay of registers and the passion associated with the thing as a whole. Even an instrument like a cello, as vocal as it can be, registers its limitations all too readily here. As for the piano taking on everything else, seemingly with an interest in effect and prominence of parts within the structure, the result can become dense and overtly solid. To be fair though, the recording is somewhat to blame, along with pianist and instrument.

What of the one voice we do get - the speaker? This is, in any performance of Gurre-Lieder, one of the great moments to be looked forward too. Having heard Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Ernst Haefliger live in this part, I have a sense of how it can be deployed musically to aid the impact of the words. Michael Ransburg takes a very actorly approach, ignoring musicality altogether. To my ears he misses the heart of the matter.

Whilst all three performers bring enthusiasm to their endeavour they fall some way short in convincing me of the validity of the outcome, or of satisfactorily answering the questions the recording sets up for itself.

One final question though, and it's a tough one: why buy this recording? If it's another distinct take on a great work you are after - like Hans Zender's arrangement of Schubert's Winterreise - then this is self-recommending. However, for most this will probably be at best a curiosity, seldom, if ever revisited. With the competition for full versions of Gurre-Lieder tougher than ever these days, there seems little point in avoiding the real thing. Take your pick of Chailly, Ozawa, Boulez, Rattle and co; for me it is Robert Craft's keen yet caring reading that hits all the right buttons. With Naxos now offering it for around ten quid you can hardly go wrong.

Evan Dickerson

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