Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurre-Lieder (1900-1903, 1910-1913)
Tove – Alwyn Mellor (soprano)
Wood Dove – Anna Larsson (mezzo)
Waldemar – Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Klaus the Fool – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor)
Peasant – James Creswell (bass)
Speaker – Sir Thomas Allen
Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Edvard Grieg Kor, Orphei Drängar, Students from the Royal Northern College of Music/Håkon Matti Skrede
Musicians from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 8-11 December 2015, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and translations
CHANDOS CHSA5172(2) SACD [102:30]

A new recording of Gurre-Lieder, a darkly Danish tale of love, death and ghostly goings-on, is generally a cause for celebration. If I seem a little hesitant it’s because some recent accounts of the piece have left me distinctly underwhelmed. Among them is Markus Stenz’s for Hyperion, which Geoffrey Molyneux liked much more than I did. For me the stand-out versions include Seiji Ozawa’s classic Boston set for Philips (1979), Riccardo Chailly’s for Decca (1985) and Michael Gielen’s for Hänssler (2006).

Edward Gardner, recently installed as principal conductor of the Bergen Phil, is one of those baton wavers I can’t make up my mind about. For instance his Melbourne recording of the Miraculous Mandarin Suite is top notch, but the rest of that album is rather ordinary. Ditto his coupling of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater and Harnasie: the former is sublime, the latter short on drive and passion (review). And while his orchestral Janáček is similarly uneven – I reviewed Vol. 2 in that series – his recent account of the Glagolitic Mass is immensely assured. The fillers – the Adagio for Orchestra, Ave Maria and Our Father – are a delight, and the recording is superb.

In spite these reservations I approached Gardner’s Gurre-Lieder with a keen sense of anticipation. Generally regarded as Romanticism’s last hurrah this large three-part work looks to both the past and the future. Indeed, Schoenberg wrote it in two distinct phases, so those two worlds – a sunset and a sunrise, if you like – are deeply embedded in the music itself. The dissolving certainties – social, political and musical – are epitomised by Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1908-1909) and his unfinished Tenth (1910), but it’s Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (1908) and Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (1909) that point towards ‘liberation from form and symbols, context and logic’.

Such radical shifts were still some way off when Schoenberg penned the first part of Gurre-Lieder. That said, Gardner’s account of the opening Prelude, beautifully shaped and carefully pointed, is less refulgent than some. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that his is to be a crisp, unadorned performance, with a recording to match. That’s no bad thing, of course, and the rewards in terms of orchestral clarity and colour are indisputable. However, I do prefer a more sensuous line, more of the long, deep swell that makes this section so irresistibly voluptuous. Perhaps Gardner will be more persuasive in the rest of Part 1, where he absolutely must draw the listener deep into the unfolding drama.

Tenor Stuart Skelton, a little too light-toned for my taste, makes an ardent Waldemar, but it’s the soprano Alwyn Mellor who really steals the show. Her Tove, at once passionate and vulnerable, complex and coquettish, is deeply considered and most beautifully delivered. Her diction is good and she’s always secure, whether in reflective mode or when riding the great waves that surge through this magnificent score. Goodness, this is a singer I would love to hear in other Romantic rep. She’s already had glowing notices for her Wagner and Strauss.

I’ve long admired mezzo Anna Larsson, not least for her Mahler, so I was particularly keen to hear her Wood Dove. Some of my colleagues insist she’s excellent in the role, but I was sorely disappointed. She’s always struck me as a bold and imaginative artist, but her voice seems to have lost some of its line and lustre. That said, it’s Gardner who irks me most. He has a habit of spotlighting orchestral details, but he sacrifices momentum and coherence in the process. I much prefer the long view, as taken by Ozawa, Chailly and Gielen on record and the likes of Donald Runnicles and Pierre Boulez in the concert hall.

I suppose it’s all about cumulative power, about building inexorably towards that blazing finale. Alas, such an architectural feat – which Gardner does achieve in the Glagolitic Mass – eludes him here. In that respect he comes across as more of a journeyman than a master craftsman. Some aspects of the recording are problematic, too. For a start I found it difficult to get a realistic balance; turning up the volume in quiet passages just made me uncomfortable in the louder ones. That just contributes to my sense of a fitful, sometimes overdriven performance. Not at all what I want in a work such as this.

In Part 2 Skelton’s ‘Herrgott, weißt du, was du tatest’ is pleasing enough, although he battles to make himself heard at times. As for those jaunty rhythms Chailly springs them more persuasively – more interestingly – than Gardner does. Here and in Part 3 the latter’s reading is perfectly serviceable, but is that enough in such fantastical surroundings? Also, Gardner’s apt to push ahead, only to slacken suddenly, but then that seems to be his modus operandi throughout. No qualms about the massed choirs, though; ably co-ordinated by Håkon Matti Skrede they make a truly splendid noise. Happily, the incisive recording gives them a thrilling edge that steers clear of stridency.

Stirring stuff, to be sure, and Gardner makes the most of the score’s more Wagnerian sonorities. Bass James Creswell is a fine, deftly articulated Peasant and the orchestral accompaniment is always crisp and clear. In spite of these felicities I yearned for a greater sense of atmosphere – of surpassing strangeness – something that others manage to thrilling effect. Tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is a wonderfully animated Fool and, as before, Gardner is meticulous in his orchestral excavations. And when Gardner does tease out those distinctive colours and spooky asides the results seem oddly discrete.

The venerable Sir Thomas Allen clearly relishes his small part as the Speaker, although he’s not quite as hammy as the great Wagnerian Hans Hotter in Runnicles’ memorable Prom some years back. The Bergen Phil play their hearts out for the chief; they’re poised in the sparer passages and they rise – magnificently – to the demands of that pate-cracking sunrise at the close. The engineers turn up the wick as well, and while the performers suddenly seem much closer the overall effect is pretty exciting nonetheless. The choirs and percussionists deserve special praise at this juncture.

Having listened to this performance several times in the space of a week I found myself torn between admiration and disappointment. I revelled in the more intricate details of Schoenberg’s writing, thrilled to Mellor’s effortless Tove and, despite some balance issues, liked the sound. For me, though, the overall experience is compromised by dull stretches. And then there’s Larsson’s disappointing Wood Dove. If you vehemently disagree with me on these things – or they bother you less than they did me – this could be the Gurre-Lieder you’ve been waiting for.

Despite some good things I’m not persuaded by Gardner’s Gurre-Lieder; Alwyn Mellor’s Tove and the massed choirs are stand-outs, though.

Dan Morgan

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