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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurrelieder (1900-1913)
Tove – Elizabeth Connell (soprano)
Waldtaube – Jard van Nes (mezzo)
Waldemar – Paul Frey (tenor)
Klaus-Narr – Volker Vogel (tenor)
Bauer – Walton Gronroos (bass)
Sprecher – Hanz Franzen (bass-baritone)
Chor des NDR Hamburg
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Opernchor der Stadtischen Buhnen Frankfurt
Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt/Eliahu Inbal
rec. May 1990, Alte Oper Frankfurt, Germany. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 8156 [62:58 + 42:97]
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Key comparisons
Kubelik/BRSO DG 477 583-8 GOM 8 [part of a 8 CD box set]
Rattle/BPO EMI 7243 5 57303 2 9
Sinopoli/SD Teldec 4509-98424-2


Pity the doomed lovers! King Waldemar has an extra-marital fling with the beautiful young Tove. In her final song Tove sings ecstatically of "dying in a rapturous kiss", whilst soaring to a breathtaking high B. This is German Romanticism so no prizes for guessing what happens next. Tove is murdered by jealous Queen Hedwig, her demise recalled by a wood-dove. Waldemar curses God’s perceived injustice so his spirit, together with ghostly vassals, is damned to ride across the night skies in a desperate wild hunt.

Gurrelieder is fairly conductor-proof with many styles throwing light on Schoenberg’s monumental canvass. Only Robert Craft (Naxos) seriously disappoints (but see reviews): I could not get through his leisurely Part I and Craft’s choral sunrise is distinctly underpowered. Sinopoli (Teldec) is also slow in Part I but this controversial conductor has a sense of the fantastic, throwing light on Schoenberg’s rich orchestral colours. Sinopoli also moulds rich Romantic phrases so his Part I sinks into a world of night and dreams before arising to more conventional tempi by the orchestral interlude and it’s crashing crescendo. Kubelik (DG) is also alive to Gurrelieder’s Romanticism but his structure is far clearer than Sinopoli.

Much of the success of this Gurrelieder, re-released from Denon CDs, is due to Inbal’s superb conducting. Inbal’s achievement is to marry Romanticism, structural grip and transparency of colour through conducting which is naturally poetic. The ravishing string crescendo at the close of Tove’s final song, the march in the wood-dove’s final verse, the propulsive opening to the Speaker’s music slowly opening toward the Romantic choral outpouring are all here. I was amazed how much more orchestral detail comes alive under Inbal than Rattle, despite the latter’s recognition that "Gurrelieder is in fact the world’s largest string quartet".

Paul Fey is an effective Waldemar, blessedly steady with an attractive hint of huskiness, if lacking Thomas Moser’s warmth and response to text. Part I are songs of love after all and Moser injects more gentleness into his voice when required. Elizabeth Connell has Tove’s combination of Isolde-like youth and Wagnerian heft. How disappointing then that Connell’s final climatic B sounds narrow, even squeezed out, hardly hit forte. And Connells’ tone is not always easy on the ear. She is too hard, lacking the richness of Karita Mattila or even Deborah Voigt’s shining steel. Kubelik’s Inge Bork has an astonishing mezzo-ish chest voice and her intensity of expression and acting from the text are special. The great US soprano Christine Brewer sang Tove in a 2002 Prom concert with ideal burnished metallic tone, resonance and lyric attention to text. Brewer’s final line seared into the evening sky on golden wings and it is imperative her Tove is recorded one day.

Franzen’s Speaker is preferable to Thomas Quasthoff’s (Rattle) wide-eyed approach (compare "Ach, war das licht und hell!"). I can imagine Franzen as Schoenberg’s thoughtful biologist, although he does not match Hans Hotter’s gathering wonderment in the final lines. Jard van Nes begins as a lighter forest bird, reminding me of Rattle’s von Otter, but deepens impressively in tragedy. I enjoy Jennifer Larmore (Sinopoli) for her dark colours and searing attack in her final lines. Volker Vogel’s beautifully sung Klaus cannot match Philip Langridge in bringing the jester to life.

What really distinguishes Inbal’s Gurrelieder is the daring Denon engineering. I half-dread broadcasts and recordings of this great work as engineers faced with the gigantic orchestra and multiple choirs tend to manipulate the sound, hedging crescendi and throwing undue light on Schoenberg’s often delicate instrumental lines. I’m guessing here that comparatively few microphones were used: the basic orchestral soundscape is comparatively natural so that the shimmering evocation of a summer evening (glorious flutes and trumpet!) in the opening Prelude are in proper relation to the galloping timps in the third song. You may need to crank up the volume to get the full impact, but that’s OK.

The Berlin Philharmonic sound backward as recorded by EMI, collaborating in Rattle’s carpet-of-sound approach. Sinopoli’s engineering on Teldec is fuller and he has the transparent glories of the Staatskapelle Dresden. However neither matches Denon’s achievement here. Try an A/B comparison with Rattle of the crescendo ending the wood-dove’s song. Inbal’s brass and timps thunder a towering wave behind van Nes. Rattle’s von Otter is miked much too forward so the terrifying impact is lost, although the tonal refinement of the BPO brass is preferable.

Multi-miking horrors in other Gurrelieder recordings become particularly serious once the Speaker appears. EMI bought Quasthoff so far forward he sounds like he could single-handedly take on the resulting sunrise, ruining Schoenberg’s theme of individual human concerns being subsumed within the overwhelming force of nature. Chailly’s recording on Decca suffers similarly. Franzen is also forward but better placed in relation to Schoenberg’s radiant finale, which opens thrillingly with all the sheer amplitude from brass, choirs and rolling timps one really wants on CD. At last!

Kubelik and Sinopoli remain my favourites, but for engineering and conducting Inbal’s Gurrelieder is an important supplement.

David Harbin


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