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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurrelieder [115:46]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Symphony No 3 in G minor, Op 42 [23:55]
Tove - Marita Napier (soprano); Waldemar – Jess Thomas (tenor); Waldtaube – Yvonne Minton (mezzo-soprano); Klauss-Narr – Kenneth Bowen (tenor); Bauer – Siegmund Nimsgern (baritone); Speaker – Günther Reich (baritone)
BBC Singers; BBC Choral Society; Goldsmith’s Choral Union; London Philharmonic Choir (men’s voices)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (Schoenberg), New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Roussel)/Pierre Boulez
rec. 1974/1975, West Ham Central Mission, London; Manhattan Center, New York. ADD
Texts not included
DUTTON EPOCH 2CDLX7367 SACD [69:37 + 70:04]

Dutton have reissued a number of recordings from the LP era, remastered for SACD; this is the first to come my way.

Pierre Boulez’s recording of Gurrelieder has been previously issued on CD but not, I believe, on SACD; it’s a version of Schoenberg’s massive cantata that I’ve not previously heard. I see that when Seiji Ozawa’s 1979 recording appeared on CD back in 2015 my colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey made reference to a few recordings from the same era. Writing of this Boulez version he said that it “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” (review).

You can hear evidence of the second part of Paul’s comment right from the start. The extended orchestral Prelude is rendered with great clarity, both by Boulez’s conducting, I’m sure, but also by the engineers. It’s as if the aural equivalent of a spotlight has been shone on the music. There are gains and losses: the amount of detail and the sheer presence of the sound is welcome but against that you may feel that the Romantic glow and a sense of magic is compromised. Initially, I missed the magic but after a while I came to feel that on this occasion there are compensations for any such lack.

One thing that I quickly came to appreciate was the conducting of Boulez. This recording was made during his time as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971-1975). I remember that at the time much was made of the analytical clarity of his conducting and some people took this further and accused him of coldness in his approach. Here, he shows that to have been a fallacious judgement. To be sure, he never allows the performance to become mired in opulence of texture – and that’s a good thing – but he doesn’t compromise the romantic richness of the scoring and he conducts with a notable sense of the music’s drama. He’s not afraid, either, to be spacious and in this opening Prelude he allows the music the time and space that it needs in order to make its effect. Having heard this performance of Gurrelieder, I think it’s unsurprising that Boulez was invited to conduct ‘The Ring’ at Bayreuth in 1976.

The American tenor, Jess Thomas (1927-1993) took a number of leading roles at Bayreuth in the 1960s and 1970s, though I’m not sure that he ever sang there for Boulez. Here, he’s a stalwart Waldemar, making a positive impression right from his first solo. The strenuous demands of the role hold no terrors for him, as he proves, for example, in the short Part II – where Boulez’s conducting as Waldemar rages against God, is very dramatic and full-blooded. Thomas also does well in the more lyrical passages: he and Boulez perform ‘So tanzen die Engel’ with warmth and ‘Du wunderliche Tove!’ is also a success. Overall, though I have heard more mellifluous assumptions of the role, I was pretty impressed with Thomas’s performance.

I was less sure about Tove. I can’t recall that I’ve previously heard the South African soprano, Marita Napier (1939-2004). She certainly has a big voice, which is not surprising since I understand that her repertoire included Brünnhilde and a number of other heavy Wagner and Verdi roles. Her first solo sets the tone for what is to follow. She sings expressively and the voice has significant amplitude and plenty of character. However, some may find the vibrato over-generous and in her second solo, ‘Sterne jubeln’, I had the impression that her singing, though suitably impassioned, was a bit squally at times. Later, in her final contribution, ‘Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick’ she delivers the vocal line with feeling but the voice seems less than ideally focussed to me.

The Australian mezzo, Yvonne Minton, is a singer who I’ve often admired and there’s much to appreciate in her singing of the Wood Dove’s solo, even if she doesn’t match the searing intensity of Brigitte Fassbaender on Riccardo Chailly’s recording. Minton’s performance is very committed, although it seemed to me that her singing wasn’t always ideally steady – something which surprised me. However, she and Boulez really bring out the drama of this part of the work and once Miss Minton has finished singing Boulez mixes precision and intensity in the powerful orchestral postlude.

Siegmund Nimsgern deploys his big, imposing voice in the cameo role of Bauer in Part III and shortly afterwards it’s good to be reminded of the voice of the Welsh tenor, Kenneth Bowen (1932-2018). He and Boulez give us a sharply-pointed performance of Klauss-Narr’s solo. The other soloist is Günther Reich (1921-1989), who is erroneously identified in Dutton’s documentation as a tenor. As we can plainly hear, he was a baritone. He was also a frequent collaborator with Boulez, not least in the music of Schoenberg. Here, he’s a vivid and expressive Speaker and Boulez’s acute ear is a decided asset as together they give a clear and involving performance of ‘Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd’.

Gurrelieder lasts for nearly two hours and Schoenberg demands substantial choral forces, only to use them very sparingly. The first time we hear the choir – male voices only – is in Part III when Waldemar’s men greet him (‘Gegrüsst, o König’). Here, the male voices do very well. They offer full-throated singing and, judiciously assisted by the engineers, I’m sure, they are never swamped by the orchestral tumult. Later, however, the men have a very different assignment in the subdued, spooky passage ‘Der Hahn erhebt den Kopf zur Kraht’. Here, the mercilessly close scrutiny of the microphones demonstrates how taxing the writing is, especially for the first tenors. The various vocal parts aren’t ideally balanced against each other and the singers sound somewhat strained. Schoenberg only uses his massive SATB forces at the very end and for slightly less than five minutes. Three choirs, including the professionals of the BBC Singers, were involved, reinforced by the men of the London Philharmonic Choir. That led me to expect a huge choral sound but, unfortunately, the results are rather disappointing. I don’t know whether the engineers balanced the choirs rather backwardly or whether the singers were insufficiently powerful – probably a combination of the two – but you don’t get the big, ecstatic choral sound that one finds in several other recordings, such as those by Rattle, Gardner or Abbado. Instead, it’s the orchestra that grabs the listener’s attention. Despite the efforts of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then, the conclusion to this performance of Gurrelieder isn’t as overwhelming as it needs to be.

I’m conscious that I’ve made several references to the way Pierre Boulez conducts the score without making specific reference to the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. By the time this recording was made they’d worked with Boulez for some years and it certainly shows. The playing is tremendously accurate and, where Schoenberg requires it, incisive. Elsewhere, though, the richness of the scoring is conveyed marvellously by the orchestra. Several leading orchestras have recorded this work with excellent results: I don’t think the BBCSO of 1974 need fear the comparisons.

There are some vocal shortcomings to this performance, as I’ve indicated, but overall, I think it’s a fine achievement with the Waldemar of Jess Thomas, the excellent conducting of Pierre Boulez and the playing of the BBCSO all significant factors in its success. What of the sound? The engineering was in the hands of Bob Auger and he had a huge task on his hands to translate into the domestic listening format a vast work such as this, which really needs a large hall in which the sound can expand and breathe. I indicated earlier that some may find the sound puts the performance unduly under the microscope and that’s true. On the other hand, I found that my ears swiftly adjusted and I found myself revelling in the impact, presence, detail and, frankly, sheer “oomph” of the sound. There’s also a good sense of the space of the hall around the orchestral sound – Waldemar’s ‘Herrgott, weisst du was du tatest’ (Part II) offers a prime example. It defies belief that this analogue recording is nearly 46 years old. I listened to it using the stereo option and obtained excellent results.

Actually, the quality of Auger’s recording is rather well demonstrated by the ‘bonus’ item. At the same time that he was working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boulez was also Chief Conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1971-77) where he had the unenviable task of following Leonard Bernstein. The recording of Roussel’s Third Symphony was one of the products of his New York tenure. I must confess that I’ve never entirely warmed to Roussel’s music, though there’s a great deal to admire about this symphony. Boulez brings his incisive style to the music and he obtains playing from the NYPO that is often razor sharp. Compared with the London recording of Gurrelieder, the sound that the CBS engineers obtained in New York is much brighter and up-front, I deliberately listened without making any alteration to the controls on my system after Gurrelieder and the New York sound is much more hard-edged. That may reflect, at least in part, the scoring of the work and the venue used for the sessions. Perhaps the sound suits Boulez’s bracing performance of the symphony but I didn’t enjoy the sound per se as much as the recording of Gurrelieder.
I ought to say a word about Dutton’s documentation. In the booklet they reproduce the notes that were written for the original releases of these recordings. The essay by Jack Diether about Gurrelieder is extensive and particularly valuable. They also reproduce a number of photos taken at the Gurrelieder sessions. There are two regrettable omissions, though. One is the obvious one of texts and translations. The other concerns the remastering process. These recordings were originally made in Stereo/Quadraphonic sound. Quadraphonic was a phenomenon that passed me by completely in the 1970s: I couldn’t have afforded the equipment, even if I’d wanted it, and so far as I can recall Quad sound fairly soon fell by the wayside. I learned from the Dutton website that these recordings have been remastered from the original analogue tapes, but that’s all. It would have been nice if Dutton’s documentation had included just a brief note about the technical aspects of the revival of these performances for SACD.

The release of these recordings in the enhanced form of SACD under Dutton’s auspices is very welcome.

John Quinn

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