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Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

A survey

Gurrelieder – otherwise Gurre-Lieder, the form of the name which seems to be preferred by native German-speakers - is a cantata of enormous size, running for just under two hours. It could also justifiably be called an oratorio, were it not for the fact that its subject, while presenting explicitly religious themes, is hardly devotional: its protagonist defies and curses God, only to be treated to a kind of pagan apotheosis, rebirth and reunion in the manner of Tristan und Isolde – at least that is the implication.

As with many of Wagner’s works, the story of Gurrelieder is based on Nordic myth or legend; in this case – and here I lift the plot summary from Wikipedia as being perfectly good for my purposes - “the medieval love-tragedy…revolving around the Danish national legend of the love of the Danish king Valdemar…for his mistress Tove, and her subsequent murder by Valdemar's jealous Queen Helvig.” Its German text is translated from a poem by the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen and, as its name indicates, is set in Gurre castle. Both lovers apostrophise Death as the ultimate fulfilment of their love, again in true Tristan und Isolde style. Unlike Wagner’s pair, however, they never duet, perhaps proleptically hinting at the doomed nature of their illicit liaison. The presence of a ghostly horde of vassals is also reminiscent of the crew of Der fliegende Holländer; indeed, the main influences over Schoenberg when he first began Gurrelieder were Wagner and Mahler and in terms of scale and structure, it is a kind of companion piece to Mahler’s contemporaneous Eighth Symphony.

It was composed in two sessions separated by an interval of seven years, evolving from a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano in 1903 into its ultimate, mammoth form, in an orchestral adaptation begun in 1910 then fitfully pursued over the next couple of years. Its premiere was in 1913, three years after the first performance of Mahler’s so-called Symphony of a Thousand, by which time Schoenberg had abandoned tonal music and written Erwartung. For me, both Gurrelieder and Verklärte Nacht are desert island works but I have no time for Schoenberg’s subsequent ventures into twelve-tone and Expressionist works. Far from seeing that as an improvement or, in his words, “an extension rather than a rejection” of his earlier style, I consider it unfortunate that to my ears Schoenberg appeared progressively to lose his musical mind - but I am aware that others will violently disagree with me. At the same time, I can appreciate that Gurrelieder, being the culmination of Late Romantic excess, left Schoenberg with nowhere to go, musically speaking; along with Mahler’s work, it is stylistically the ne plus ultra of its form, as subsequent developments in musical history demonstrated.

The evolution in Schoenberg’s style is clear from a comparison between the two halves; for some listeners there is an incongruous mismatch between the two in the radical shift from the lush, quasi-Wagnerian harmonies in the first and (brief) second parts, where Schoenberg broke off composition in 1903, to the leaner, spikier second half (Part 3), resumed in 1910, featuring the progressive stylistic innovations the composer increasingly embraced. In one sense, that progression adds to the interest of the work as we move further and further away from the former Romantic, grand-scale mode, only for the finale to return to it. For me, despite its innovations, the last part is by no means divorced from the preceding two in terms of style and melody: the more avant-garde music mirrors the dissolution of order while the finale restores it, and thus the dramatic logic remains coherent.

Gurrelieder is written for five soloists, a very large choir (three four-part male choruses and an eight-part mixed choir), an orchestra and a narrator who pioneers the technique of Sprechstimme, whereby the speaker intones the text rhythmically and quasi-musically. Despite the orchestra being twice the size of a normal outfit, with enormous, augmented banks of woodwind, brass (including ten horns four of whom must double as Wagner tubas) and percussion, there are times when the soloists are minimally accompanied, so a successful recording must be able to encompass a very wide dynamic range and alternately convey a sense of both space and intimacy. Wagnerian harmonies and even leitmotifs are employed; no wonder Schoenberg was dismissive of it once he had abandoned all the hallmarks of the genre for the spare acerbities or the lush excesses of his subsequent compositions. He even kept his back to the audience while they enthusiastically applauded Gurrelieder at its premiere, behaviour somewhat at odds with his assertion later that year that he “certainly [did] not look down on this work, as the journalists always suppose.” Maybe its success – the greatest of his career - compared with the understandably frosty, even hostile, reception given to his progressive, experimental works such as the Three Pieces for Piano – inclined Schoenberg to be more appreciative of its appeal – albeit grudgingly, as he viewed it as retrograde. He continued to resent its popularity especially when – understandably, in my view – he was reproached for having abandoned its mode in favour of a new modernity.

Its lopsided structure means that the poor old chorus has nothing to do until the men yell “Holla!!” in the Peasant’s number a full seventy minutes into the piece, heralding the titanic Ride of the Dead, then singing two rousing, roistering numbers - but the women have to wait out literally the whole duration of a performance until a final five minutes of pandemonium. Hardly a chorister’s favourite, then – unless that final Big Sing is all worthwhile - and they are paid for not doing a lot…

Another way of looking at this work is as a glorified song cycle, so while I appreciate that marshalling the combined forces of such an ensemble is vital, for me the single biggest discriminator in a recording is the quality of the solo voices. I realise that you need a technically highly proficient conductor to co-ordinate the forces of orchestra and choir in order to do justice to those massive sonorities, and the final, blazing paean to Nature and the sun has to make its impact, but the emotional core of this rambling, unbalanced, but ultimately fascinating, work lies with the outpourings of feeling from the hero, heroine, two bemused onlookers and, finally, the lyrical recitalist of the poem. Several conductors seem to lose detail in a soup of sound - a problem perhaps exacerbated by the location and the engineering involved in recording a work on such a grand scale - but I can forgive that if the voices are right. However, few works make as overwhelming an impact in their conclusion as in a really full-blooded performance of the final chorus “Seht die Sonne” - which reminds me, albeit incongruously, of the “Hymn to the Sun”, the splendid opening to Mascagni’s Iris.

There are, to my ears, too many rather windy, over-parted tenors who have had a go at the role of Waldemar; it is emphatically a Heldentenor part and usually nothing less will do – unless, as with a couple of the recordings below, the tenor has the rare lyric-dramatic voice-type which enables him to employ a different and cunning technique in order to cut through. Similarly, a soprano of real heft and amplitude of tone is required for Tove - but also a voice which can be fined down to deliver moments of quiet ecstasy when declarations of love are made.

Half a dozen singers below make a really impressive, rich-toned job of the Wood Dove. She has only one, long, central aria – almost a cameo role - but it is crucial to the drama. For the role of the Speaker, Schoenberg specified a tenor and I think a male voice is indeed better; Barbara Sukowa’s two contributions below sound shrill. However, if the manner is correct, it suits any voice-type and is often performed by retired singers or singer-actors with the tonal variety and sense of rhythm to deliver the narration effectively – and some sing snatches of melodic phrase, too. I admit to finding the Peasant’s interjection and Klaus-Narr’s ramblings a bit tedious but they are short interludes and add another dimension to the drama, so they need to be sung well.

This a work that gets under your skin and like many admirers, I can never resist acquiring another version. I am aware of twenty-four recordings of this huge work, and consider twenty of them below. I have excluded two DVD versions not issued on CD and the reduced scoring version conducted by Neuhold, as being of academic interest only to completists, given that much of the impact of the work depends upon its immense scale. I have not been able to hear the live performance Stokowski conducted in 1962 in Philadelphia but do review his two other recordings, neither of which, sadly, and for different reasons, can be recommended as first choices, despite his mastery of the score. Eight of the twenty below are live performances, which, in modern recordings at least, seems to make little difference sonically and can indeed result in considerable dramatic gain.

The recordings:

Leopold Stokowski 1932, live (mono) – Pristine

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Princeton Glee Club, Fortnightly Club; Mendelssohn Club

Waldemar: Paul Althouse

Tove: Jeanette Vreeland

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Rose Bampton

Bauer (Peasant): Abrasha Robofsky

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Robert Betts

Sprecher (Narrator): Benjamin de Loache

This is a remastering of the recording made by RCA Victor onto twenty-seven 78 rpm sides of the third of three live performances in the Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia. The Pristine treatment gives us the best chance yet of hearing its virtues, as snap, crackle and pop have been removed and a much fuller ambience imparted to it; indeed, the improvements Mark Obert-Thorn makes over the original source material is truly phenomenal. Even the choir is reasonably audible and uncongested, if a bit distant. An occasional cough obtrudes but not often.

Stokowski has an all-American cast headed by the sturdy, dependable, powerful and, in truth, rather unexciting tenor Paul Althouse. He has the heft, being the Tristan of his day but he is somewhat laboured. He is partnered with the short-lived Jeanette Vreeland who has something of the swoopy, matronly soprano of its period but plenty of power at both ends of her voice – you may hear how, like Ponselle, she frequently employs a proper lower register. The fine principal trio is completed by Rose Bampton who, in contrast to Vreeland, died just short of her hundredth birthday in 2007. She is here still in the mezzo-soprano stage of her career and singing with magnificent depth, steadiness and richness of tone. Former cantor Abrasha Robofsky is a lighter, more incisive-voiced Peasant than usual and Robert Betts is an animated, clear-voiced Jester. Benjamin de Loache is a similarly lively Narrator who sings as much as he speaks – only his German is not entirely idiomatic.

You can still hear, through the aural haze, the unhurried beauty and expansiveness of Stokowski’s conducting and the responsiveness to it of an orchestra he directed for over a quarter of a century. As a showman, he obviously relished the brash theatricality of the score but also exhorts his artists not to underplay the pathos of the tender or melancholy passages.

This issue also comes with a first track containing Stokowski’s discussion of Gurrelieder, recorded a month later as a filler. While no-one could reasonably make it a first recommendation, even those who do not consider themselves historical recording buffs might concede its merits and listenability.

René Leibowitz 1953, studio (mono) - Vox; Naxos; Membran; Lys

Chorus and Orchestra of the New Symphony Society, Paris

Waldemar: Richard Lewis

Tove: Ethel Semser

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Nell Tangeman

Bauer (Peasant): John Riley

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Ferry Gruber

Sprecher (Narrator): Morris Gesell

Clean, mono sound cannot of course compete with the digital splendour of modern recordings but the listener soon becomes habituated to the narrower sound and this can still be heard with pleasure. There is a reassuringly secure and seductive quality to the conducting of this under-rated conductor and I very much like his flexible approach to rhythm: he employs plenty of rubato and there is a real verve and sweep to the orchestra playing, despite some edge on the violins.

Anglo-Welsh tenor Richard Lewis was better known for his undertaking of lighter lyric roles in Mozart and English music but like another British singer, Alexander Young below for Ferencsik, Lewis uses his voice in a penetrating and economical manner, summoning up surprising reserves of power and defying the idea that Waldemar is a role only for Heldentenors. I cannot tell to what extent he was aided by the recording engineers and a drawback of the mono sound is the distancing of the orchestra in the aural perspective, but he can clearly be heard through the more thickly orchestrated sections – indeed, it is the instruments and not the singers who are the causalities of the aural balance and perspective here. Sometimes I would like more heft from his voice but his interpretation is refreshing and valid.

American soprano (and multilingual translator!) Ethel Semser is more than adequate without being especially distinctive. She is both rather fruity and shrill in alt, occasionally a little breathless in the faster music and her low notes could be weightier, but like Lewis, her voice carries. Another American singer, mezzo-soprano Nell Tangeman, died young at fifty and made only this one recording. She has a warm tone with a slightly fluttery vibrato, singing expressively, without any special intensity and not eclipsing the finest Wood Doves.

For those interested in historical recordings and any of the artists here, this is available cheaply on several budget labels.

Leopold Stokowski 1961, live (mono) - Guild

London Symphony Orchestra; Edinburgh Royal Choral Union

Waldemar: James McCracken

Tove: Gré Brouwenstijn

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Nell Rankin

Bauer (Peasant): Forbes Robinson

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): John Lanigan

Sprecher (Narrator): Alvar Lidell

Stokowski made the first recording of Gurrelieder in 1932 (first above) and performed it regularly, opening the Edinburgh International Festival with it here in 1961. I reviewed

this eight years ago. You would count on Stokowski of all conductors to have the measure of this music and so it proves. Even so, as much as I admire the performance and despite the Guild label’s best efforts to rehabilitate it, I can think of little reason to endure such screechy, boxy sound as we encounter here when you can hear a well-cast, modern recording, and I derive little pleasure from it. There are too many much better recorded versions of Gurrelieder to justify recommending this one unless you are a die-hard Stokowski completist.

There is, however, special historical interest in encountering the under-recorded American mezzo-soprano Nell (not “Nel”, as per the listing) as a lovely Wood Dove. Similarly, British listeners, can hear the celebrated BBC announcer, news-reader and amateur baritone Alvar Lidell as an eloquent Speaker. He intones his verses animatedly in impeccable German. It is a pleasure to hear Gré Brouwenstijn in such thrilling, confident voice as Tove. The chorus is magnificent but often occluded in a mush of sound. Insofar as we can hear it, it is clear that Stokowski brings this mighty, majestic work to a rousing close.

No text is provided, but it is available on the Guild website.

Rafael Kubelík 1965, Live (stereo) - DG; Urania

Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Bavarian Radio Chorus

Waldemar: Herbert Schachtschneider

Tove: Inge Borkh

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Hertha Töpper

Bauer (Peasant): Keith Engen

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Lorenz Fehenberger

Sprecher (Narrator): Hans Herbert Fiedler

I have never heard a recording conducted by Kubelik that I did not like and he has here at his disposal the first-class orchestra he directed for many years, recorded in pleasing 60’s stereo sound. Right from the start, the listener feels in safe hands.

Unfortunately, I am not charmed by the clumsy, wobbly voice of his lead tenor, who is unlovely of tone and pedestrian in delivery. I quickly lose patience with him; there is an almost comical disjuncture between his laboured manner and the smooth sophistication of Kubelik’s control. Vibrant soprano Inge Borkh is much better – especially those laser top notes – but she has a rather plummy, matronly timbre which is not ideally suited to the diaphanous Tove and her vibrato sometimes becomes a flutter. Hertha Töpper has a large, husky, unwieldy voice with awkward top notes. Given the inadequacy of the principal singers, it matters little what the other virtues of this recording are – and obviously they most prominently reside in the orchestral playing. This is for Kubelik completists only.

János Ferencsik 1968, live (stereo) - EMI

Danish State Radio Symphony and Concert Orchestra; Chorus of Danish Radio

Waldemar: Alexander Young

Tove: Martina Arroyo

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Janet Baker

Bauer (Peasant): Odd Wolstad

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Niels Møller

Sprecher (Narrator): Julius Patzak

Revisiting this recording after having just listened to a good few recent digital accounts reminded me that the live analogue sound is bit thin, hissy and distant, but Ferencsik’s grip on the music and the cast list are both such as to make the listener soon disregard any sonic shortcomings. The chief glories here are Janet Baker’s star turn and the sheer amplitude of Martina Arroyo’s wonderful soprano. However, Alexander Young, like Richard Lewis above for Leibowitz, makes an unexpected success of his role, too, simply by treating it quite lyrically and focussing his lighter voice tellingly instead of trying to blast. Furthermore, his tenor has a baritonal tinge to its colouring which is most apt despite his having a smaller instrument than a Big Beast Heldentenor like McCracken or Ben Heppner. He expands nicely into forte without strain.

Arroyo has a dramatic soprano you can simply revel in: large, vibrant, warm and unfailingly lovely of tone. When she opens up you hear her Aida voice, with top notes which expand and ring out – yet she can sing softly, too, without losing body.

Nobody, not even Tatiana Troyanos, begins to approach the depth, strength and variety of colour that Janet Baker brings to her Wood Dove narration. Her voice is awesomely powerful and resonant yet also delicate and moving. She conveys every nuance of emotion in a tour de force of a performance.

The supporting roles are well taken; in fact, Odd Wolstad is among my favourites of all those singers who sing the Peasant and completely avoids the clumsiness which afflicts too many who undertake the role. Niels Møller is amusing as the Klaus, enlivening a part which can pall. Patzak is the voice Schoenberg stipulated, even if he sounds a bit superannuated – he was nearly 70 at the time of recording – but he knows what to do with the text without overdoing it.

This does not have as stellar an orchestra or choir as Ozawa but they still generate plenty of excitement. There is the occasional cough but for the most part this is as good as studio recording of the era.

Pierre Boulez 1974, studio (stereo) - Sony

BBC Symphony Orchestra; BBC Choral Society; Goldsmith’s Choral Union;

Waldemar: Jess Thomas

Tove: Marita Napier

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Yvonne Minton

Bauer (Peasant): Siegmund Nimsgern

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Kenneth Bowen

Sprecher (Narrator): Günter Reich

There are several notable merits to this recording, specifically, the energised contributions from the three massed choirs, the virtuosity of an orchestra minutely trained by Boulez and the mastery of his own conducting. He is famed for his acuteness ear for sonority, texture and intonation and I am simply amazed by the beauty of tone, the subtlety of the dynamic shading and the sheer clarity of Boulez's direction; the BBC Symphony Orchestra can surely have had no finer hour and the engineering here matches that excellence. On the other hand, there is a certain cool control at climaxes when you’d like him to let rip, so the finale lacks the visceral thrill of more unbuttoned accounts, sounding too detached and angelic.

His soloists feature two indubitably famous names in Jess Thomas and Yvonne Minton; South African soprano Marita Napier is less well remembered because she did not make that many recordings, but she was a distinguished Wagnerian who sang in the big houses. She has a big, clear, bright sound but there is a hint of staid matronliness and a plaintiveness of tone about her delivery; she doesn’t set the pulses racing like Arroyo or Voigt.

Thomas’ strong, dark tenor – he was a celebrated Siegfried for Karajan – is especially well suited to portraying Waldemar; his is possibly the beautiful voice in that role. Like Napier, he died while only in his mid-sixties but he is much better represented in the catalogue. The little bleat he injects into the start of phrases might irk some listeners and he doesn’t emulate McCracken in his attack on high notes but neither does he shirk them.

Yvonne Minton is one of the few mezzo-sopranos to rival Janet Baker as the Wood Dove. She is in top form here, her velvety voice with its dusky lower regions and mellow top is ideal for delivering the melancholy news of Tove’s murder on the orders of the baleful Queen Helwig. Nimsgern’s distinctive, rather peculiar timbre is not especially rustic and I hear only Klingsor, not a peasant. Kenneth Bowen, instead of doing what most singers do in the role and channelling Mime, is an unusually delicate, light-voiced Fool, echoing the innocence and vulnerability of his Mussorgskian counterpart; I rather like the novelty of it. Günter Reich is highly expressive while mercifully avoiding exaggeration. As a baritone himself, he has an acute sense of rhythm and an attractive speaking voice – and he concludes by singing the final phrase. He is the best Narrator of all those in this survey.

The analogue sound is somewhat lacking in immediacy and impact but serves the purpose well enough, even if it is put into the shade by later digital recordings.

There is much to admire here but for me it remains a top-rank second choice and does not usurp my favourites.

Seiji Ozawa 1979, studio (stereo) - Philips

Boston Symphony Orchestra; Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Waldemar: James McCracken

Tove: Jessye Norman

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Tatiana Troyanos

Bauer (Peasant): David Arnold

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Kim Scown

Sprecher (Narrator): Werner Klemperer

I was able to attend some Tanglewood concerts conducted by Ozawa in the 80’s but it is not just for nostalgic reasons that I am attached to some of the recordings made by him and the Boston SO in that era; it really was a mini Golden Age and this is one of their best. I started to replay this recording intending just to dip into it to check my responses for the purposes of this survey but soon found myself listening to the whole thing straight through, uninterrupted. One of its greatest assets is the Waldemar of James McCracken in best voice; his first entry sounds as if a bass is essaying the role – but his singing of higher-flying passages soon dispels that illusion. His timbre and attack are close to ideal and he has the right, huge Heldentenor-Otello-voice to portray this frenetic, despaired and desperate character; if only he had attempted to sing more quietly in the more intimate moments. However, it is possible that the close recording is partly to blame for his prominence in quieter passages and this is still a thrilling assumption of the role.

The listener’s joy is compounded by the amplitude of Jessye Norman’s entry. As a soprano Falcon edging mezzo, she always had a slightly “short” top but the rest of her voice is so voluptuous as to silence any criticism.

Completing a superb trio of principal singers, Tatiana Troyanos is one of only two other Wood Doves who can rival Janet Baker for intensity and beauty even if she brings less to key moments such as "Tod ist Tove". Her vibrant, resonant mezzo-soprano with its exciting upper extension was one of the great voices of her time.

David Arnold is a firm, clear-voiced Peasant. Kim Scown makes Klaus-Narr rather mimsy and irritating but I can live with it. Werner Klemperer (yes; the great conductor’s son and, for those of a certain age, Kommandant Klink of Stalag 13 in CBS’ Hogan’s Heroes) delivers a subtle, nervy account of the Speaker’s narration in a restrained half-voice without undue theatricality; it is rather refreshing given that too many actors milk it.

The orchestra is one of the world’s great bands and Ozawa has the music in his blood; he makes this music soar and sing: this is surely one of his finest achievements, securing sensuous, voluptuous playing of the highest order. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, won a Gramophone Award for their contribution here. As I mentioned regarding McCracken, the soloists here are recorded rather too closely but the ambience of the Boston Symphony Hall is kind. The finale is fully energised and really delivers, despite some inevitable congestion.

This is surely a classic account, especially as now, sadly, none of the principal singers is still with us.

Riccardo Chailly 1985, studio (digital) - Decca

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (RSO)

Chor der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale Berlin; Städtischer Musikverein, Düsseldorf

Waldemar: Siegfried Jerusalem

Tove: Susan Dunn

Waldtaube: Brigitte Fassbaender

Bauer: Hermann Becht

Klaus-Narr: Peter Haage

Sprecher: Hans Hotter

There is much to recommend this recording, especially the delicacy and momentum of Chailly’s direction and the elegance of the orchestral playing, but given its deficiencies in the singing– at least as I hear them – I am surprised by its ongoing recommendation by the “official organs” of musical criticism. Although he handles the gentler portions of the score sensitively, Chailly does not provide the same thrills at climactic points as the best versions and Chailly’s soloists strike me as competent but relatively bland - with the exception of the electrifying Brigitte Fassbaender, who is as direct a communicator as ever and thrilling when she plunges into her lower register. I refer you to my description below of Siegfried Jerusalem’s Waldemar in my review of the poor Abbado recording. He is certainly in considerably brighter, sappier voice here a decade earlier but he still isn’t very defiant or heroic and a certain strain and hoarseness of tone become apparent when he is required to give rein to his fiercer emotions. Susan Dunn is pretty of voice but hardly arresting in her delivery; this work is a wild ride, not Debussy, and here it remains a low-voltage account. Hermann Becht is barely audible above the din of the concerted passages and has an odd, groany voice which affords like pleasure. However, I like Peter Haage’s Jester; his clean, humorous delivery of his number puts me in mind of a good performance of David’s diatribe in Die Meistersinger. I enjoy Hotter's declamation here even if he had an inauthentic voice-type for the spoken role, if we are to heed the composer's wishes for a lighter ex-tenor sound. The choirs are excellent but quite distantly recorded in the aural perspective, so the finale does not make the impact of more released versions.

This not a version I reach for when I want to be swept along on a wave of passion.

Herbert Kegel 1986, studio (digital) - Berlin Classics

Dresden Philharmonic augmented by members of the Leipzig Radio Symphony

Berlin Radio Chorus; Leipzig Radio Chorus; Prague Male Chorus

Waldemar: Manfred Jung

Tove: Eva-Maria Bundschuh

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Rosemarie Lang

Bauer (Peasant): Ulrik Cold

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Wolf Appel

Sprecher (Narrator): Gert Westphal

The glory of this recording is Kegel's wonderfully intense, Romantic conducting and the corresponding richness of the Dresden Philharmonic. As some previous reviewers have noted, you will never hear a more masterful realisation of Schoenberg's luxurious score, which emphasises its Wagnerian and Debussian chromaticism; sample the simply captivating Interlude for a taste of Kegel's command - it's overwhelming.

This is worth buying as it is available cheaply and in such superb, warm, digital sound: it is especially successful in coping with the big choral and instrumental climaxes. Neither main soloist here is as good as my favourite recordings, especially the tenor, Manfred Jung sounds to me more like a Mime than a Siegfried and constitutes the only major disappointment, just as Sinopoli’s tenor lets down an otherwise first-rate recording. His voice is throaty and elderly, with a bleat and a blare; what a pity a better tenor could not have been found to suggest true heroism. He isn't as bad as the ghastly Thomas Moser but he is not in the league of Heppner, McCracken or even the more refined Alexander Young for Ferencsik.

Eva-Maria Bundschuh is an artist of whom I was previously unaware, perhaps because of her having worked mainly in the former East Germany, but she is mightily impressive as Tove: steady, powerful and impassioned.

Rosemarie Lang is another singer of whom I had not previously heard and although she is a little matronly, hers is a fine, dignified account of the Wood Dove's lament. Ulrik Cold is more agricultural of voice than even the role of Peasant justifies, I think; it's a clumsy bit of vocalisation. Wolf Appel and Gert Westphal are characterful as the Fool and Speaker respectively, but like so many, their rather over-emphatic inflections and exaggerations outstay their welcome. The three combined choirs are magnificent, matching the energy and commitment of the orchestra; once again, one is grateful for the ability of the sound engineers to capture their splendour in the famous Lukaskirche venue, which lends real atmosphere. I have never before been so conscious of the importance of the choruses in generating tension and excitement. The spine-tingling finale with its grand, chromatic, semitone interval cadences is one big, warm wave of sound.

This is a great but centrally flawed account.

Eliahu Inbal 1990, studio (digital) - Denon

Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt am Main; NDR Chor; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Frankfurt Opera Chorus

Waldemar: Paul Frey

Tove: Elizabeth Connell

Waldtaube: Jard van Nes

Bauer: Walton Grönroos

Klaus-Narr: Volker Vogel

Sprecher: Hans Franzen

This was quite positively reviewed

by David Harbin in 2006 and I agree that it is superbly conducted; Inbal obtains the kind of transparency Rattle was aiming for but with much more inner tension and structural cohesion. He directs yet another of those supposedly second-rank German orchestras which plays magnificently and has one of the best massed choirs on record; the finale, in particular, is monumental. I found the recording level to be low but a twist of the volume control resolves that, as there are no dynamic compression issues.

Paul Frey, now retired, was a Wagnerian Heldentenor with a steady, husky not especially beautiful voice. He swoops and croons a bit but is generally on top of the role without being very interesting – indeed, he is a bit lugubrious. His low notes are too often lost but he has good high notes, with a ringing top B.

Elizabeth Connell is likewise a more-than-adequate Tove with a sizeable voice but, again, is not especially lovely or memorable of timbre, with a bottled tone and without either the warmth or the steel of the best singers in that role. As David Harbin notes, she fails to make her last, climactic high B the highlight it should be, as it is horribly squeezed – which happens live but shouldn’t in a studio recording.

Jard van Nes’ large, warm mezzo-soprano is a known quantity from her many recordings but her top and soft notes are unsteady and she fails to bring to her narration the same intensity we hear from the likes pf Bampton, Baker, Minton or Fassbaender.

Given my reservations about the three principal singers, it matters little what the two other singers and Narrator are like as, whatever they do, their contributions cannot redeem those failings, but, as it happens, Walton Grönroos wobbles, Volker Vogel is a nasal tenorino with top notes which crack and the Narrator mostly fine but his few ventures into singing phrases are effortful.

Despite the excellence of the sound, orchestral playing, choral singing and conducting, the mediocre quality of the soloists compared with the best rules this out from my shortlist.

Zubin Mehta 1992, studio (digital) - Sony; Newton

New York Philharmonic; New York Choral Artists

Waldemar: Gary Lakes

Tove: Éva Marton

Waldtaube: Florence Quivar

Bauer: John Cheek

Klaus-Narr: Jon Garrison

Sprecher: Hans Hotter

Mehta has made more than a few routine recordings, yet the best of his work includes some classics. One immediately notices the beauty of the orchestral playing here, complemented by excellent, digital sound with the dynamic range to accommodate the wide variations. Unfortunately, the balance does the singers no favours – and in the case of Éva Marton, I know that cannot be because her voice is too small. Gary Lakes, on the other hand, hasn’t the heft for Waldemar; he has a steady, attractive voice in its middle area when he is singing more softly, but it isn’t very large, his low notes are lost in the orchestral texture and his top can be throaty – I don’t think he was ever a true Heldentenor.

Marton is in good voice, but I would guess that her vibrato, while not all that obtrusive, will still be too apparent for some tastes and her tone can turn harsh on high notes. As is often her wont, she sounds rather formidable – and an overbearing Tove is not a good foil to a small-scale Waldemar, so they don’t make an especially credible pair of lovers – though fortunately that discrepancy is less noticeable as they never sing a duet.

Florence Quivar sings smoothy and richly as the Wood Dove; her flickering vibrato is attractive, her top notes are secure, and she inflects the text touchingly and passionately; she is, in fact, the best singer here. John Cheek makes a robust, round-voiced Peasant. Hans Hotter repeats his fluent, characterful Narrator but his voice now sounds aged and hollow – he was, after all, in his early 80’s here.

This has its merits, not least Quivar and the great sound and conducting, but it is not a front-runner.

Claudio Abbado 1995, studio (digital) - DG

Vienna Philharmonic

Vienna State Opera Chorus, Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, Slovak Philharmonic Choir Bratislava

Waldemar: Siegfried Jerusalem

Tove: Sharon Sweet

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Marjana Lipovšek

Bauer (Peasant): Hartmut Welker

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Philip Langridge

Sprecher (Narrator): Barbara Sukowa

In my opinion, after thirty years of producing some outstanding work in the studio, in his 60’s – beginning with his stewardship of the BPO - Abbado’s style and affect went into steady decline until he had gone overboard on reduced -scale “period” style and was making music in the Barenboim “sausage-machine” manner, producing recordings of little individuality or distinction. This is just such an anodyne product: there is no electricity in proceedings. Jerusalem has a cloudy tenor which lacks penetration in the declamatory passages and is at least one size too small for the role of Waldemar, just as he was for Chailly ten years earlier. Sharon Sweet is thin of tone and appears to be infected with Abbado’s lethargy - she doesn’t sound the least interested in what she is singing and there is no sense of ecstasy. The beat in her voice on loud, high notes is uncomfortable. Lipovšek is adequate but similarly unmemorable; her top notes are tentative and squeezed. The Peasant is a shouting wobbler. Philip Langridge uses his dry tenor characterfully. Sukowa uses her hoarse, thin speaking voice to make a meal of the Speaker’s bit, trilling and cooing; I much prefer a man’s voice in this role, as the composer himself specified. The gigantic concluding chorus isn’t gigantic enough.

Listening to this soporific account explains why it is almost never mentioned in conspectuses. Moving on…

Giuseppe Sinopoli 1995, studio (digital) - Teldec

Staatskapelle Dresden

Dresden State Opera Chorus; MDR Radio Chorus of Leipzig; Prague Men's Chorus.

Waldemar: Thomas Moser

Tove: Deborah Voigt

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Jennifer Larmore

Bauer (Peasant): Bernd Weikl

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Kenneth Riegel

Sprecher (Narrator): Klaus Maria Brandauer

Sinopoli is more likely than conductors like Chailly to let his orchestra rip - and the Staatskapelle Dresden letting rip is an awesome sound - and is more generous with applying ample rubato.

When it appeared, this recording looked promising – with one glaring caveat – so I metaphorically printed off my checklist, licked my pencil and box-ticked as follows:

Passionate conducting marshalling vast forces skilfully in the person of Sinopoli: tick; a resplendently voiced Tove with gleaming top notes and a breathless, girlish sensuality that cuts through the thick orchestral textures - that's Deborah Voigt: tick; a first-rate orchestra entirely at home in Wagnerian excess and exuding class - that's the Dresdeners: tick; all the advantages of a live performance without any of the usual attendant inconveniences such as coughers, superbly recorded: tick; a Wood Dove with trenchant low notes, of plaintive, plangent voice redolent of the deepest melancholy and possessing a ringing top - that's the young Jennifer Larmore to a T: tick; a tenor with the heft and beauty of tone to suggest a flawed hero enslaved by an illicit passion...Thomas Moser: aargh! Make a cross. His brawny, bleaty blare is a humongous blot on an otherwise glorious recording. Because the lovers never duet, you cannot even be distracted from his baritonal barking by Voigt's crystalline tones – and Waldemar has more to sing than anyone, so I have no choice other than regretfully to refrain from being able to endorse a live performance which would otherwise rival that of James Levine in Munich (next below).The flaw in this otherwise splendid account becomes all the more pitiful when you hear how Sinopoli conjures up a glorious, goose-bump-raising splurge in that last pagan paean, "The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind".

If your tolerance for the tenor is greater than mine, you will be content with this.

James Levine 2001, live composite (digital) - Oehms

Münchner Philharmoniker

Philharmonischer Chor Münchner; Herrenchor der Bamberger Symphoniker

Waldemar: Ben Heppner

Tove: Deborah Voigt

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Waltraud Meier

Bauer (Peasant): Eike Wilm Schulte

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Matthew Polenzani

Sprecher (Narrator): Ernst Haefliger

Many people will not even be aware of this stupendous 2001 recording; I certainly did not know of it until a friend alerted me to its existence and I am glad he did, as it is one of the best I know. The Munich orchestra sounds like the greatest band in the world and Levine performs miracles with them, drawing out the sound monumentally without ever losing tension: the blazing, climactic, last mega-chorus is a lulu. The two main soloists are the most satisfying yet, and Meier is very fine as the Wood-dove, even if she does not eclipse the best exponents of the role of the Wood Dove. The sound is amazingly full and as the recording was assembled from three consecutive live performances, it retains the frisson of a live event with very few coughs or distracting noises.

Levine decisively trumps Sinopoli’s inadequate Waldemar with Ben Heppner, the finest – the only? - Heldentenor of recent times. He sings both heroically and tenderly, delivering the performance of a lifetime as the dazed and baffled Waldemar, who suitably distraught upon Tove's death then spits his rage and despair in the face of God. His voice has precisely the ring which is lacking in so many tenors who ill-advisedly tackle this role. It is that “squillo” that permits even ostensibly lighter-voiced tenors to succeed as Waldemar where supposedly heavier-voices singers fail. His German is pellucid.

Deborah Voigt is in finest form and is worth hearing for her top B at the end of "Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick" (track 10) alone. She sounds both young and passionate. Veteran retired tenor Ernst Haefliger takes the role of the Speaker - he recorded it twice that year, in this and the Craft recording - and gives us a highly stylised, vividly characterised, Sprechgesang account of the poem, but he also sounds too old and quavery for my taste. The other smaller parts are fine, although I confess that I am always a little bored by both the Bauer and Klaus-Narr episodes; the glory of this piece lies in the long-breathed, emotionally highly wrought outpourings of Waldemar, Tove and the chorus, sung to perfection by this distinguished ensemble.

My other little gripe is that despite giving us a fairly fat, thirty-page booklet, there is no libretto; it is instead stuffed with padding like photos, biographies and a mini-history of the orchestra - but that doesn't matter; this is a great performance.

(PS: you may read a couple of absolutely scathing reviews of this recording on which excoriate both this recording and my review of it there – from which this one has been adapted. I am baffled; as my granny used to say, “Well, I’ll go to our ‘ouse”…)

Robert Craft 2001, studio (digital) - Koch; Naxos

Philharmonia Orchestra; Simon Joly Chorale.

Waldemar: Stephen O'Mara

Tove: Melanie Diener

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Jennifer Lane

Bauer (Peasant): David Wilson-Johnson

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Martyn Hill

Sprecher (Narrator): Ernst Haefliger

The strength of this set lies in the coherence and splendour of the choral singing and his control of tension. It also enjoys superb sound but is recorded at a rather low level so the volume has to be increased.

Not that the two leading soloists are poor: Stephen O'Mara is very good, but having heard him live, I suspect that the recording balance here is kind to him, as his voice, however pleasing and musical, in the flesh is not that large. For the purposes of this recording, however, he comes across mostly convincingly and he phrases really beautifully, even if “Roß! Mein Roß!” needs more heft – but he gets the top B safely. Melanie Diener is perfectly adequate as Tove, but rather pale in comparison with sopranos who have larger, more beautiful voices, like Arroyo, Norman and Voigt, and she makes little impact. Likewise, Jennifer Lane has a pleasant voice but is disappointingly listless, bland and ineffective.

David Wilson-Johnson is a tremulous and effortful Peasant. Ernst Haefliger repeats the feeble-voiced, superannuated Narrator he gave Levine the same year in that live recording but he is undeniably expressive.

Revisiting this recording for this survey modified my initial, more positive response and I wonder whether part of that disappointment is that I now find that Craft, in comparison to other, more energised direction, is often too relaxed. The contributions of O'Mara and the terrific chorus apart, this does not make the grade because it cannot measure up to the required standard of solo singing and conducting in the finest versions.

(The track-listing names and numbers for CD2 are mixed up in the booklet: the Peasant’s number is track 3, not 4; track 4 is first men’s chorus. The Narrator’s part is within track 9 and does not begin at track 10 – that is the chorale finale. Is it so hard to get these things right?)

Simon Rattle 2002, live composite and overdubbed (digital) - EMI

Berliner Philharmoniker; Berlin Radio Chorus; MDR Radio Chorus of Leipzig; Ernst Senff Choir

Waldemar: Thomas Moser

Tove: Karita Mattila

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Anne Sofie von Otter

Bauer (Peasant): Thomas Quasthoff

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Philip Langridge

Sprecher (Narrator): Thomas Quasthoff

On first listening, I immediately found myself irritated by the perkiness of Rattle’s direction; then subsequent perusal of the notes supplied the key to his approach, as Rattle is quoted as saying in interview that Gurrelieder is “in fact the world’s largest string quartet…the most gigantic chamber music ever written and should be very transparent.” To which, I can only reply, “Really?” Of course, the BPO can play this superlatively in their sleep and the love music towards the end of Part 1 goes very well, being played in a warm, relaxed manner – but too often the spark which illumines and enlivens the music is missing – and Sir Simon’s constant grunting doesn’t help. Not can I say that his supposedly forensic approach brings any great gain in detail or impact; the EMI sound is rather distant, too (see below).

It is ironic that as the best singer here by far, Karita Mattila was not actually present at the two performances from which this recording was gleaned. Presumably her contributions were recorded elsewhere and subsequently over-dubbed to fulfil EMI’s desire to feature a star name to match their conductor. To be fair, whatever post-performance editing trickery was employed by the engineers, the grafting on of Mattila’s voce is hardly noticeable – unless it is the wisdom of hindsight or auto-suggestion which makes me hear her voice as rather more closely miked. Anyway, she sings very well, being passionate and sensuous, with that shimmering quality shared with another great Finnish soprano, Soile Isokoski, whereas I think it a pity that EMI didn’t apply the same policy to their tenor, as Thomas Moser, having blighted Sinopoli’s 1995 recording, goes on to do much the same here. He is dry and strained, struggling for all his high notes and often obscured by the huge orchestra. His gentler, low volume passages are better, but that’s not where the meat of the role lies and his voice lacks heroism.

Von Otter sings the Wood Dove’s narration, very well, finding a much more contralto-ish timbre in her voice than I expected, even if other singers have more heft and depth. Philip Langridge repeats the slightly laboured Klaus-Narr he recorded for Abbado. Having the great Thomas Quasthoff double up roles is undoubtedly another big advantage; his sonorous speaking voice and verbal acuity light up the text – only some may find that he is too prominently spotlit by the engineers. The glorious finale redeems the earlier, tamer moments.

The very resonant, cushioned acoustic of the Philhamonie does not complement Rattle’s avowed aim of imparting a lighter, airier, more Impressionistic atmosphere to the music; the sound is a bit mushy and the huge choir, in particular, sometimes sounds obfuscated. Nonetheless, were it not for the lead tenor’s contribution, I would be far more inclined to endorse this for the beauty of the singing and playing.

Michael Gielen 2006, studio (digital) - Hänssler

SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg

Bavarian Radio Chorus, MDR Radio Chorus of Leipzig

Waldemar: Robert Dean Smith

Tove: Melanie Diener

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Yvonne Naef

Bauer (Peasant): Ralf Lukas

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Gerhard Siegel

Sprecher (Narrator): Andreas Schmidt

Here we have yet another fine German orchestra playing splendidly, in accordance with Michael Gielen’s expert direction, He was the master of large, complex scores and this one unfolds beautifully, encompassing the range of moods from a sweet, dreamy sound in the lyrical sections to providing real punch for the dramatic climaxes. The finale is inevitably something of a wash of sound but really exhilarating; the massed choir sounds as floatily angelic as the heavenly host in the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele - wonderful!

Robert Dean Smith is a fair Waldemar. He can manage the tessitura but hasn’t the most resonant or beautiful of tenors and it turns windy on loud, high notes, then becomes unsteady when he attempts to sing softly. Melanie Diener repeats the touching, slightly low-key assumption of Tove she gave for Robert Craft’s recording (above). Her voice is a bit lost at times, especially in its lower reaches. Yvonne Naef is rich and expressive as the Wood Dove – one of the best alongside Baker, Troyanos, Fassbaender, Larmore and Quivar – with a lovely note of plangent melancholy in her contralto. Ralf Lukas is a lumpy Peasant; Gerhard Siegel effectively brings his Mime-voice to the Fool.

Andreas Schmidt had already retired early – his elegant baritone just seemed to blow out. He is not what Schoenberg asked for, but that is the case with several narrators here and he is very effective, bringing a singer’s sensibility to his phrasing and intonation without being excessive and sometimes breaking into proper singing before defaulting to speech. The balance is just right and he is one the best I have heard in this strange part. The sound the men’s chorus makes is especially impressive but in some ensembles there are some co-ordination problems resulting in a kind of spray of unsynchronised sibilants.

So much about this recording - Gielen’s fluid conducting, the superb orchestral playing, great choral singing, a superlative Wood Dove and the expressive Speaker - is right and admirable but better casting of the two principal roles elsewhere means that this cannot be a prime recommendation.

Esa-Pekka Salonen 2009, live (digital) - Sigmund Records

Philharmonia Orchestra; Philharmonia Voices; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

Waldemar: Stig Andersen

Tove: Soile Isokoski

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Monica Groop

Bauer (Peasant): Ralf Lukas

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Andreas Conrad

Sprecher (Narrator): Barbara Sukowa

Salonen paces his direction very carefully here, beginning in swooning, Romantic fashion with a hint of restraint but gradually loosening up and progressively letting go at the several climaxes, before delivering a really overwhelming finale. The Philharmonia Orchestra is first class but the Royal Festival Hall, although newly renovated, cannot offer the same combination of clarity and resonance as venues with a more grateful ambience, so the sound remains a tad dull but still good enough. There is absolutely no audience noise in this live recording.

Danish Heldentenor Stig Andersen was in his late fifties when he sang Waldemar in the Royal Festival Hall but doesn’t sound it, as any wobble is minimal and he has plenty of stamina – especially for a live performance - even if he is a bit short on tonal effulgence and is occasionally swamped by the orchestra – a fate borne by most tenors in this role. Like so many of them, he is taxed by the high-flying passages and doesn’t nail the top B on “widerhallen!” in his second solo “Roß! Mein Roß!” but that is a pardonable and passing flaw (McCracken for Ozawa nails it). Soile Isokoski has an unusual voice to make a success of Tove, which generally requires a dramatic soprano but I like it very much; she shares her predecessor Gundula Janowitz’ gift of maintaining a light, shimmering sound which nonetheless pierces any orchestral veil and carries in satisfying fashion. Hers is not the upholstered sound of creamier-voiced sopranos like Arroyo but nor does she ever sound stretched. Isokoski’s fellow-Finn (such a musical nation!) Monica Groop as the Wood Dove sings out fearlessly in a straightforward, full-voiced manner, employing a dark lower register. She might not be as textually detailed or nuanced as some mezzos but her singing falls very pleasantly – and dramatically – on the ear; she has large voice and the melancholy import of her narrative makes an impact.

Ralf Lukas is another rather lumpy-voiced bass-baritone but he sings with conviction. Andreas Conrad is an excellent Jester, coping manfully with the punishing declamatory passages of his outburst (which always remind me of Mime’s ranting in the opening scene of Siegfried, so perhaps Schoenberg had not so much distanced himself from Wagner by this stage of his career). I do not like Barbara Sukowa’s over-acted manner in her earlier recording for Abbado and I like it even less here, when she is older and more inclined to shrillness. Why not trust the composer and follow his instructions?

That and Andersen’s struggle with high notes apart, the excellence of everything else in this recording makes it highly recommendable as a modern, digital alternative to older, classic accounts…unless, as I do, you favour the next one…

Markus Stenz 2014, studio (digital) - Hyperion

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; Netherlands Female Youth Choir; Domkantorei Köln; Männerstimmen des Kölner Domchores; Vokalensemble Kölner Dom; Chor des Bach-Vereins Köln; Kartäuserkantorei Köln

Waldemar: Brandon Jovanovich

Tove: Barbara Haveman

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Claudia Mahnke

Bauer (Peasant): Thomas Bauer

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Gerhard Siegel

Sprecher (Narrator): Johannes Martin Kränzle

This set has already been extensively reviewed on MusicWeb by three colleagues and you may peruse their (conflicting) opinions here:

For my part, my regular readers will know that every survey I do turns up a pleasant surprise – and for me this is it, so I disagree with Dan Morgan and come down very firmly on the side of those colleagues who respond positively to this recording. I don’t say this is by any means the best sung or played of all, but the rarity of really apt voices for these roles among modern versions makes this especially valuable, especially as the sound, transferred at high volume and permitting huge dynamic range, makes extraordinary impact.

I have one problem with it and that is the slight over-prominence of Barbara Haveman’s vibrato, which I know will be a deterrent for some. However, she has a large, powerful, juicy voice and is matched by the flexible, baritonal tenor of the American Brandon Jovanovich. He really is as good as almost any a Waldemar in this survey. He has a big, virile, tonally beautiful sound which is even throughout its range and his vocal acting is convincing. So many tenors sound strained or windy in the more strenuous sections of Waldemar’s music, such as “Herrgott, weisst du, was du tatest”, but Jovanovich is up to it; his top B flat on “Heute ist Ausfahrt der Toten” (Today the dead ride abroad) is stunning. After, McCracken and Heppner, his was the first voice which really made me sit up and indeed he most resembles the former in heft and timbre – and he, too, nails the top B. We hear Claudia Mahnke’s Wood Dove; she might not quite be the equal of the best of her predecessors in terms of dramatisation but she sings with great expressivity and also beguiles the ear with her lovely, full, even voice. Her top notes are splendid and she has a proper lower register.

I presume the producers could not resist casting the aptly and eponymously named Thomas Bauer as the Peasant. He has the heft to cope with his explosive “aria” and displays nice legato, even under pressure. Gerhard Siegel repeats the lively, emphatic Court Jester he recorded for Michael Gielen, bringing a much stronger voice to the role than the usual comprimario tenor. Johannes Martin Kränzle is a celebrated character baritone, Beckmesser and Alberich being among his most prominent roles, and he brings a consummate actor-singer’s timing, expression and melodious speaking -voice to the role of the Narrator, semi-singing the lyrical passages.

The orchestral playing and choral singing are flawless: highly detailed, free of the “aural mush” which so often afflicts the soundscape in recordings of this huge work. We should not be surprised, given its pedigree, that the Cologne orchestra is so virtuosic but it’s not usually accounted to be a first-rank outfit. On this showing, it should be.

The booklet contains full notes and the German text with an English translation. It must be said that this is currently an expensive set: 108 minutes of music for which you will generally pay at least £20 and even £25, although you might do slightly better on Amazon. If that is no obstacle, this is well worth acquiring.

The booklet contains useful notes and an informative essay, artist biographies and of course the text in German and English.

Edward Gardner 2015, live composite (digital) - Chandos

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and members of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm Bergen; Edvard Grieg Kor; Orphei Drängar;

Students from the Royal Northern College of Music

Waldemar: Stuart Skelton

Tove: Alwyn Mellor

Waldtaube (Wood Dove): Anna Larsson

Bauer (Peasant): James Creswell

Klaus-Narr (Klaus the Jester): Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke

Sprecher (Narrator): Sir Thomas Allen

Excellent sound with transparent orchestral textures permits the listener to hear the various instrumental lines despite the density of the scoring. I have long admired Edward Gardner’s energy and versatility as a conductor and he coaxes and exhorts the Bergen Philharmonic to produce sumptuous sound which still retains Nordic clarity (if I am not being too fanciful in projecting that quality upon them). However, some of his direction is fitful and too concerned with point-making to suggest coherence over the long span of the work.

The soloists have robust voices; I have never much enjoyed Stuart Skelton’s tenor, finding him to be rather coarse of tone and manner, although at times here he reminds me of James McCracken – which I mean as a high compliment. However, he is rather unvarying and when he does try to sing softly his sound turns throaty; he also strains at high notes and delivers some clumsy phrasing. Alwyn Mellor has a strange voice: large but hoarse and matronly of tone, reminding me of Leonie Rysanek before she has warmed up. She isn’t really my ideal Tove; I need more youthful-sounding purity of tone. Veteran Swedish contralto Anna Larsson is a quite good but there is a hint of flap in her line and he has lost some tonal effulgence since her prime. Bass James Creswell is sonorous and the exotically-named tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke sings neatly. Sir Tom Allen makes a guest appearance to display his prowess as a linguist, sounding engaging and idiomatic without over-doing the expression – and also surprisingly light of tone. The chorus is enthusiastic but, as is so often the case when engineers try to cope with this unwieldy music for massed choirs, sound rather distant and opaque.

“Based on live recordings made in Bergen in December 2015” presumably means a recording compiled of the best extracts from several live performances possibly supplemented by takes from rehearsal and some subsequent patching.

I can’t get excited about this recording in the light of the alternatives.

Dan Morgan has previously reviewed this and, like me, did not find it to be a front-runner, but we disagree on the merits of Alwyn Mellor:


It often happens when I review a major work that I conclude by admitting that we are spoilt for choice but that is not so much the case here. Very few of the recordings reviewed above are superlative in all departments and some are outright duds, ruled out by poor singing or – as in the case of the 1961 Stokowski – inadequate sound. It is usually a deficiency in the role of Waldemar which does the damage for me, but fortunately there are several tenors who emerge from that trial unscathed and even triumphant.

I have long found myself returning to Ferencsik, Ozawa or Levine for their combination of sterling solo performances, fine conducting, choral singing and orchestral playing all capped by good to excellent sound, but the new Stenz recording must join that elite band, especially as it has the best sound of all to complement the artistry of the performance. In my estimation, those are the four recordings which vie for the top spot, leaving all the others eating dust. If forced, I would first jettison the Ferencsik, despite regretting the absence of the best Wood Dove in Janet Baker, because I want a truly heroic-voiced Waldemar and best sound; secondly, I would demote Stenz because of my mild reservations about Barbara Haveman’s Tove, leaving two first choices from which you may select your preferred recording according to taste.

First choice equal: Levine 2001 Oehms/Ozawa 1979 Philips

Second choices: Stenz 2014; Ferencsik 1968

Ralph Moore

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