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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurrelieder (1901-11) [102.28]
James McCracken (tenor) – Waldemar; Jessye Norman (soprano) – Tove; Tatiana Troyanos (mezzo) – Wood dove; David Arnold (baritone) – Peasant; Kim Scown (tenor) – Klaus the jester; Werner Klemperer (speaker)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus; Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. live, Boston Symphony Hall, April 1979
PHILIPS PRESTO CD 475 455-2 [56.13 + 46.15]

When this Gurrelieder first appeared on LP in 1979, it went immediately to the top of the pile in terms of recommended recordings. Schoenberg’s mammoth score needed stereo to do it any sort of justice, and none of the three previous stereo versions had been anything like ideal. Rafael Kubelík’s version on DG suffered from a recording balance that placed the microphones very close indeed to the soloists, none of whom benefited from such close observation. Janos Ferencsik’s version on EMI had Janet Baker as the Wood Dove, but nothing else to recommend it. Pierre Boulez on CBS equally suffered from a close observation of every strand of the texture, which not only exposed some very unsteady singing but also completely dissolved the rich romantic textures of the score. To hear this Philips version under Seiji Ozawa, on the other hand was balm to the ears, with three superb soloists at the top of their form and a recording balance that fully realised Gurrelieder for what it was, one of the last of the gargantuan romantic scores written in the aftermath of Wagner and Strauss.

Now, nearly forty years later, it still sounds pretty good. Jessye Norman is warm-voiced and sensuous as Tove, bathing her vocal lines in splendour without any sense of strain. James McCracken is mellifluous as her lover Waldemar, with no sense of Heldentenor barking in a role that stretches the voice to its heights. Tatiana Troyanos is tender and plangent by turns in her big narrative ‘aria’ as the Wood Dove. The massive Tanglewood Festival Chorus have all the rumbustious involvement that anyone could require, and Seiji Ozawa irradiates the massive orchestration with a late-romantic glow. This performance is all splendidly realised by the expanded forces of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This won a Gramophone Award for choral recording, and rightly so.

However since 1979 there have been other recordings which have also done full justice to Schoenberg’s score, and the most prominent of these has been Decca’s 1985 studio recording from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly. In those days Decca’s engineering teams were second to none, and they were at the peak of their form on that occasion. They also had the advantage of the most musical of Heldentenors in the shape of Siegfried Jerusalem, who shows some signs of strain on high notes that McCracken avoids but also has the natural heroic resonance which the second and third parts of the work really need. It has to be observed also that Chailly scored over Ozawa in the casting of the minor roles in Part Three, and a speaker in the shape of Hans Hotter in the final section who has considerably more authority than the somewhat thin-toned Werner Klemperer for Ozawa. Chailly also benefited from recording under studio conditions, while Ozawa suffers from the hazards of live performance especially in the somewhat backward balances afforded to both the speaker and chorus. There has also been a raft of later live recordings – those by Sir Simon Rattle, James Levine, Esa-Pekka Salonen and a remake by Pierre Boulez spring to mind among many others – where the greater familiarity of performers with the score has yielded tangible benefits.

In passing I should perhaps mention two small textual points. In the Song of the Wood dove, just before the final climax, there is a single bar omitted which features in Schoenberg’s full score. This is a cut which is made – so far as I am aware – in all recordings, and it seems that the composer may have introduced it at a very early stage in the work’s performance history. The bar in question is a repetition of the ostinato which has been building through the preceding passage. I have little doubt that its omission is of benefit; it leads directly from the high B-flat sung by the mezzo into the massive orchestral outburst that follows, without allowing the music to ‘hang fire’. One other episode that can however cause problems is the sustained passage for pianissimo high piccolos just before the final narration and chorus. This is extremely difficult for the players, and in his book Anatomy of the Orchestra Norman Del Mar relates how he found it expedient to obtain the real still quietness that is required here by substituting small penny-whistles for the piccolos at this point. I don’t think that Ozawa, or indeed any other conductor, adopts such a procedure; but his piccolos manage to play very quietly without any obvious sense of strain. Maybe orchestral players nowadays are better able to cope with such extravagant demands than they were back in Del Mar’s day.

In the final analysis, this version of Gurrelieder no longer automatically reigns unchallenged over its rivals as it did at the time of its first release. It is nonetheless very much worth hearing again, and in this new transfer available from Presto Classics it comes complete with the full texts and translations that were supplied at the time of the original release. Also it features in Jessye Norman the most sensual Tove of all, her mezzo-ish tinges giving a sense of romantic involvement to her lines without the slightest suspicion of wobble or strain. It may no longer be a first choice, but it still has a considerable appeal for those who love this score.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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