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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurre-Lieder (1900-1903 / 1910-11) [102.58]
Alwyn Mellor (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor), James Creswell (bass), Sir Thomas Allen (speaker)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegium Musicum, Edvard Grieg Kor, Orphei Drängar, Students from the Royal Northern College of Music/Edward Gardner
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 8-11 December 2015
5.0 Surround and 2.0 Stereo, reviewed in surround
CHANDOS SACD CHSA5172 [56.12 + 46.46]

The hyphenated version of the title Gurre-Lieder is used by Chandos. A look at the original published score by Universal Edition AG in Vienna (1920) supports their decision, one that is also supported by some of the recorded competition and by Wikipedia. I will treat that as settled. Schoenberg set a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold of the original Danish Gurresange by Poet and Botanist Jens Peter Jacobsen. Jacobsen is one of a handful of Danish writers remembered internationally from the 19th century - two others being Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. The strange nature of the Songs of Gurre is Jacobsen's alone, Schoenberg sets the entire text unchanged save for his use of the German language. Jacobsen, claimed by Rainer Maria Rilke to be his spiritual mentor, was, as well as a poet, a noted scientist and indeed was responsible for translating Darwin's Origin of Species and Descent of Man into Danish. With this background, the extensive nature imagery in Klaus’s the Jester monologue and especially in the strange melodrama, The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind, which ends Gurre-Lieder is quite understandable. The poet knew what he was writing about from both the scientific and poetic points of view. Why, however, the Tristanesque story of Waldemar and Tove (loosely derived from history, but mostly myth and folklore) is interrupted by a ranting Klaus, and why the entire work ends with a huge section of natural description and no further reference to the lovers, is less easily explained. What it did was give Schoenberg an opportunity to display his command of massive orchestral, vocal and choral forces using a huge range of musical expression from post-Wagner to pre-serial writing. The composer had great difficulty in finishing the piece when he came back to it after a seven-year break, because he had moved on. We should be glad he did finish the job, because this massive work (one writer refers to "hypertrophy in tonal resources"!) does try to express as many layers of meaning as are in the strange original text.

Massive the forces are, as shown in the booklet where the Grieghallen stage is packed to the very edges with musicians. Schoenberg uses the entire forces only at the very end and is mostly quite restrained, employing delicate textures to paint the events and, mostly, the powerful emotions, evoked. When the music is loud, it is very, very loud. Setting the volume so that the quietest parts are clear to the finest detail is the only way to listen. One then needs a well-detached home or headphones (but then stereo only) to get the most from Chandos's superb recording. The casting is luxurious, especially considering that most of them have little to sing. Anna Larsson is her usual glorious self as The Wood Dove, Stuart Skelton gives his all to the large role of Waldemar, James Cresswell is a powerfully voiced peasant and Sir Thomas Allen 'sings' the Speaker's part, a sprechgesang role. The important part of Tove, present for the first two-thirds of part one only, is sung by Alwyn Mellor whose rather wide vibrato is less easy to listen to. The choirs have little to do but end the piece. The orchestra, greatly augmented, is up to its usual high standard.

Chandos provides extensive background documentation and a full parallel translation of the text, accompanied by a track-by-track commentary on the music. This is all very useful in a work of such dimensions and not without its difficulties for the listener. There are several alternative performances, including a new staged version on Opus Arte Blu-ray from the Netherlands Opera which, going by the video trailer, will do nothing whatever to clarify events. It is unlikely that any of the audio recordings will be better than this Chandos set in terms of performance quality and sound. The rear channels give the home listener a great sense of space.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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