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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurre-lieder (1900-1903, 1910-1911)
Tove - Barbara Haveman (soprano),
Waldemar - Brandon Jovanovich (tenor),
Waldtaube (the Wood Dove) - Claudia Mahnke (mezzo),
Klaus-Narr - Gerhard Siegel (tenor),
Bauer - Thomas Bauer (baritone),
Speaker - Johannes Martin Kränzle
Netherlands Female Youth Choir; Domkantorei Köln; Männerstimmen des Kölner Domchores; Vokalensemble Kölner Dom; Chor des Bach-Vereins Köln; Kartäuserkantorei Köln;
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Marcus Stenz
rec. 2014, Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne. DDD
German text and English translation included
HYPERION CDA68081/82 [59:21 + 48:43]

It seems hard to credit now that the origins of Gurre-lieder lay in a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano. That concept eventually evolved into a composition on a vast scale, playing for over an hour and a half and requiring not just the originally envisaged pair of soloists but also three more singers, a large eight-part SATB chorus and a huge orchestra. And there is one further soloist: a Speaker, who plays the key role in the final part of the work, ‘Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd’ (The wild hunt of the summer wind). The Speaker declaims his part in Sprechstimme and that fact illustrates how far Schoenberg had advanced by the time Gurre-lieder was completed. When he began it his musical language was still essentially Romantic and tonal, albeit he was already testing the boundaries of tonality to the limits. He then set the work aside for several years and when he returned to it, largely to score it, his musical style and vocabulary had moved on significantly.

Marcus Stenz has a well-established pedigree in contemporary music and he’s also well versed in late-Romantic repertoire, not least the music of Mahler, so he comes to Gurre-lieder with impeccable credentials. He led the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln from 2003 until 2014 and I fancy that this recording was his final assignment with the orchestra. It was recorded in the same venue and by the same team that produced his Mahler symphony cycle, each instalment of which I reviewed for MusicWeb International. In choosing Gurre-lieder he certainly left Cologne with a Big Show – I imagine concert performances preceded this studio recording. I’m mildly surprised that this recording hasn’t been issued on the Oehms label; after all, they brought out all Stenz’s Mahler recordings. However, he and the Cologne orchestra have partnered with Hyperion at least once before: a couple of years ago a fine Richard Strauss disc came out on this label (review).

For comparisons with this new Stenz performance I turned to two long-admired recordings: the 1985 version in which Riccardo Chailly conducts the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Decca 430 321-2) and Sir Simon Rattle’s September 2001 recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker for EMI. Both of those recordings were made in Berlin; Chailly’s was set down in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin while Rattle’s was made in the Philharmonie. Incidentally, the Rattle set was made before he became Chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker; he took up that post exactly a year later and, as Christopher Thomas relates in his review, Rattle actually signed on the dotted line at the time these sessions took place.

Key to the success of any performance of this work is the tenor who essays the hugely demanding role of Waldemar. Here the part is taken by the American tenor, Brandon Jovanovich. He makes a good initial impression. In the very first Waldemar solo Schoenberg takes his tenor right down to the lowest depths of his register; Jovanovich reveals a firm, focussed tone on these low notes. Later, as the solo progresses, Jovanovich opens up his voice well and sings expressively. Siegfried Jerusalem, who sings for Chailly, doesn’t sound quite as firm in his lower register but overall his delivery of this solo is rather more relaxed and less overt than Jovanovich. Thomas Moser, for Rattle, is the most expressive and subtle of the three and that’s of a piece with his conductor’s approach; in this section Rattle obtains some wonderful soft playing from the Berliners and his accompaniment of the singer is inspired.

Later on in the eloquent solo, ‘Du wunderliche Tove!’ Jerusalem impresses with lovely lyrical singing and, where required, ardour. Moser is very expressive and Rattle’s accompaniment is a thing of wonder. Jovanovich, too, is very convincing though he doesn’t quite equal Moser’s lyrical expressiveness. Mind you, he certainly has the heft for “Tove, deinen Busen”. Stenz and Chailly do the following orchestral interlude well, their respective orchestras keenly responsive. But no one approaches Rattle here; the Berliners’ rendition of the music is voluptuous and passionate. Having admired Moser a lot so far I’m not wholly convinced by his Part II outburst, ‘Herrgott, weist du’. He seems to be taken to his limits here and under some vocal pressure. In fairness, he’s back on form for the rest of Waldemar’s music. Jerusalem, on the other hand, shows no sign of discomfort; in this solo his voice has a bitter ring to it which is thrilling to hear. Jovanovich’s rage at God for the loss of Tove is excellently done - and strongly supported by Stenz; the American tenor brings vocal heft and presence to these pages. Overall, I found a great deal to admire in his portrayal of Waldemar.

Waldemar’s ill-fated lover, Tove, is sung for Stenz by the Dutch soprano, Barbara Haveman. I’m not sure I’ve encountered her before but I liked what I heard here. In her first solo I was struck by the lustre of her tone; her singing is sensuous. She’s equally impressive later on in the rapturous solo ‘Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick’, especially in the passage that begins “Und wenn du erwachst”. Rattle has Karita Mattila whose tone in her opening solo is gorgeous. Here and elsewhere she brings a wholly appropriate Straussian style and sound to the soprano part. I like the eagerness she brings to the second Tove solo, ‘Sterne jubeln’. Mattila is a very fine Tove. Susan Dunn sings for Chailly and she’s very good also.

The second female soloist appears but once but, my goodness, the Wood Dove solo is a seminal element in the work. I’ve not heard Claudia Mahnke before but she offers a committed and dramatic assumption of the part in the Stenz recording. Her voice commands attention and I admire the feeling she imparts to the passage beginning at “Wie zwei Ströme waren ihre Gedanken”. The last few pages of the solo, from “Helwigs Falke”, bring a particularly intense response from her and Stenz backs her to the hilt. Anne Sofie von Otter (Rattle) sings very well indeed but is less overtly passionate; she sounds sorrowful rather than grief-stricken. I had the sense that she is an observer of the events rather than someone who is caught up in the narrative in the way that Mahnke is. That said, she’s magnificent at the close of the solo and the horns of the Berliner Philharmoniker ring out with great power in the bars leading up to “Helwigs Falke”. Chailly has the luxury of Brigitte Fassbaender and she brings a unique intensity to the whole solo; the last two or three minutes are particularly searing.

The other two singing roles are strongly taken on all three sets. Thomas Bauer sings vividly for Stenz while Thomas Quasthoff excels for Rattle. Stenz has a good tenor in Gerhard Siegel but I think that Philip Langridge (Rattle) takes the palm when it comes to characterising the role of Klaus-Narr.

Stenz’s Speaker is the German baritone, Johannes Martin Kränzle. He does very well indeed; he’s vivid in his declamation of the first part of his solo and expressive in the second section, from “Still! Was mag der Wind nur wollen?” Thomas Quasthoff doubles up for Rattle, taking the Speaker’s part as well as the role of Bauer. He’s lighter of timbre than Kränzle and in many ways that’s an advantage. I should also say that of all the three conductors it’s Rattle who brings the most light and shade to the accompaniment in the second part of the Speaker’s solo. Chailly has the great Hans Hotter as his Speaker and as you might expect he displays great artistry.

The choral contributions on all three recordings are excellent. Stenz’s male choir sings very powerfully in the guise of Waldemar’s men though Rattle’s men are a fearsome bunch, offering potent, incisive singing. The somewhat overblown closing chorus goes extremely well in each performance.

All of which leaves two questions to consider: the conducting and the recorded sound. All three conductors display a great command of the score and all of them get fine playing out of their respective orchestras. However, time and again I found myself admiring little touches and insights in the Rattle reading and he draws superb playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker; it’s salutary to remember that this recording took place before he began to work with them really closely in the Chief Conductor role. Some people criticise Rattle for alleged micromanagement of scores. I prefer to think of it as great attention to detail. In a hugely complex score such as this such attention to detail pays rich dividends. As it happens I have an off-air recording of him conducting Gurre-lieder in 1989 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – when, incidentally, the Speaker was Hans Hotter. The playing in that performance is similarly detailed and marvellous. Yet while paying scrupulous attention to all the matters of detail Rattle has the Big Picture in his sights too. But even if Rattle has the edge in the conducting stakes it should be said that Chailly and Stenz also conduct very well indeed, though there were a few instances, such as in ‘Du wunderliche Tove!’ when I wished that Stenz had let himself go and been a bit more expansive.

We listened to part of this recording recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. On that occasion we listened to Waldemar’s solo ‘Du wunderliche Tove!’ and the orchestra interlude that follows. We noted that Brandon Jovanovich’s voice is forwardly placed, though not excessively so, we felt. We agreed that the orchestra sounds realistic and we all liked the recording. Having now had the opportunity to listen to the whole recording in more detail and to compare it with two others I still feel that the sound of Stenz’s orchestra sounds realistic. However, I’m slightly more thoughtful about the forward placing of the soloists. The impression I have is that on the Stenz recording the soloists are appreciably closer than on the Chailly or Rattle recordings. I had the sense of being a few rows back in the stalls. After a while the somewhat close nature of the overall sound and the placement of the soloists in particular becomes a bit tiring. Rattle’s recording is less close in all respects. It may sound a bit distant heard immediately after Stenz but you get more sense of perspective in the hall and the soloists aren’t as up-front, Chailly’s is somewhere between the two though closer to Rattle. I think that the older Rattle and Chailly recordings allow a bit more space around the music, without loss of detail, and I welcome that. However, there’s no denying that the Hyperion recording has great impact and reveals an abundance of detail and that’s very important in this work.

I don’t think that the newcomer shakes my allegiance to Rattle. Chailly, too, has a great deal to offer. One of the pleasures of this assignment has been to remind myself how good those two recordings are. However, even if I can’t quite place Stenz as first choice there’s a great deal to admire in his performance and I doubt very much that anyone investing in it will be disappointed. I should add that Julian Johnson’s notes for the Hyperion release are very good.

John Quinn

Another review ...

If there was one piece of music I would love to hear more than any other live in concert it would be this one, but the large forces demanded ensure it’s only brought out on occasion. When it opened the 1994 season of the Proms it was accorded the epithet ‘blockbuster’ by Bayan Northcott of The Independent, to be mentioned in the same breath as Richard Strauss’ choral ballad Taillefer, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Havergal Brian’s Gothic. Last year I did, however, get the opportunity to experience an electrifying performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester with the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic combining forces – another ‘blockbuster’.

Gurre-Lieder started life in 1900 as a song-cycle for soprano, tenor and piano for a competition run by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Verein (Vienna Composers' Association). Schoenberg was unable to meet the competition deadline, and the work began to take a different direction than was originally intended, evolving into a more expanded conception – a cantata deploying a colossal orchestra, five soloists, a speaker and multiple choruses. Schoenberg ordered 48 stave paper for the task. Parts 1, 2 and much of Part 3 were completed in 1900. In August 1901 he started orchestrating, but set the project aside to work on other things in November 1903. The work was completed between July 1910 and November 1911. In the intervening years, the composer’s style had radically changed. One of his problems was to match the earlier lush, late-Romantic style, very much influenced by Wagner, of Parts 1 and 2 with the sparser orchestral textures, influenced by Gustav Mahler, of Part 3. He also introduced Sprechgesang (Sprechstimme), a technique he would later use in Pierrot Lunaire (1912).

Schoenberg drew on the poems of the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, translated into German by Robert Franz Arnold. The poems relate the fourteenth century legend of the Danish king Waldemar 1V, who falls in love with Tove, whom he ensconced in Gurre Castle. His wife Queen Helwig, on discovering her husband’s infidelity, has Tove murdered in a fit of jealousy. At the end of Part 1, the Wood Dove laments Tove’s murder. In the brief Part 2, the king curses God, and Part 3 relates his punishment for the blasphemy. Together with his ghostly vassals, who he has summoned from their graves, he is condemned to ride across the night sky for his departed lover. In the final section ‘The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind’, the narrator echoes the new life and renewal brought about by the summer wind. This ushers in the final chorus.

The love songs in Part 1 are here beautifully rendered with sensitivity and allure. Whilst I am drawn to the beauty and range of Brandon Jovanovich as Waldemar, I do prefer the more lyrical timbre of Siegfried Jerusalem in the Chailly recording (Decca 430 321). He brings more warmth and ardour especially to the opening Nun dämpft die Dämmerung jeden Ton von Meer und Land. He also has more colour and richness in his voice, employed to great effect in the impassioned and dramatic Ross! Mein Ross! Jerusalem also sings the role of Waldemar on the Abbado recording (DG 480 7055). The soprano Barbara Haveman, who sings Tove, gives an outstanding performance. There is tenderness and warmth in her voice, yet tinged with an underlying vulnerability.

The wonderful German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke offers a sensitively etched rendition of the Song of the Wood Dove, poised and exquisitely phrased. Both Gerhard Siegel and Thomas Bauer give characterful performances, with Siegel portraying a suitably crazed jester, against some masterful orchestration. You couldn’t get much better than Johannes Martin Kränzle as the Speaker, achieving the perfect balance between speech and song. All the diaphanous textures of Schoenberg’s luxurious orchestration at this point, are ravishingly realized by Stenz and his players.

With the 2013/14 season, Markus Stenz ended his tenure with the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne. This recording emanates from performances given in the Kölner Philharmonie between 1 and 4 June 2014. He is clearly a capable hand at dealing with the gargantuan forces required, and secures an idiomatic performance. He’s also a charismatic conductor, who inspires his singers and players. He points up and highlights the array of colours of this rich orchestral tapestry, and paces the work well. I am disappointed, however, that the choir suffers in the balance, sounding distant and recessed, with consequent loss of detail. This rules this recording out as a contender for the top slot. For me, it is the Chailly recording that I want to return to every time.

As is the norm with Hyperion, the liner notes, here by Julian Johnson, are excellent in every way, and there are French and German translations. Full German texts and English translations are included.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous reviews: Geoffrey Molyneux and Dan Morgan



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