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Low-fat Schoenberg

With orchestral and choral forces that could outnumber a small European village, Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder is a composition designed to overwhelm. The young composer was intent on cashing in on the pre-World War 1 fad for gigantism that spawned such works Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and on exploring a full palette of human emotions and natural wonders in a single evening. His fin-de-siècle oratorio deploys upward of 300 performers and contains a kitchen sink of effects, including trombone glissandi, percussion with chains and a surreal spoken “melodrama” about the transformative Nordic wind.  

The bloat is the only thing shallow about the work, something Schoenberg understood when he sanctioned a version for conventional-sized forces nine years after the 1913 premiere to get wider play. Recorded for the first time by Günter Neuhold and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao on Thorofon, this three-quarter scale edition dials down the dramatic spectacle to better reveal the intriguing broth of fleeting moods and visions drawn from the 19th century Danish poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen that Schoenberg set to music.

While you miss the wash of instrumental colors and lush chromaticism, the leaner textures and more clearly defined musical lines illustrate how a composer in his 20’s simultaneously embraced Romantic tradition and rebelled against it by exploring new means of expression.

The work’s mythical tale of forbidden, unattainable love invites obvious comparisons to Tristan und Isolde, though some have noted it could pass for a parody of Wagner and his notions of redemption. The story revolves around the medieval King Waldemar, his paramour Tove and the jealous Queen Helwig, who has Tove killed (in one telling of the legend, by roasting her in a locked sauna).

The emotionally shattered king summons a pack of ghostly henchmen to help him search for an eternal reunion—a nightmare that ends with the crowing of a cock and the narrator describing how nature sweeps away tragedy with a new day filled with blossoming flowers, prancing horses and dancing crickets. The Nietzschean faith in eternal return makes the piece similar in spirit to Das Lied von der Erde.

For the reduced version, Schoenberg turned to his one-time pupil Erwin Stein to thin out the orchestration, transpose some high-lying choral parts down an octave and alter polyphonic passages that he no longer believed were necessary. The changes in some ways defeat the composer’s goal of giving each of the work’s three sections its own distinct sound but tidy up cacophonous moments such as the end of Tove’s second song, “Steme jubeln,” when blaring horns, trombones and trumpets collide with timpani and bass drum thwacks.

By preserving an orchestra of about 100 and a battery of choirs, Stein, who also did a slimmed-down adaptation of Wozzeck, left enough sumptuous sound to make moments such as the Straussian conclusion of Waldemar’s “Ross! Mein Ross!” exhilarating.

Danish tenor Stig Andersen has made Waldemar something of a calling card, recording the original version with Esa Pekka Salonen and Mariss Janssons. More a big-voiced lyric tenor than a true heldentenor, he’s at his finest in the first section’s love songs, using tasteful phrasing and pleasant soft singing to describe the peaceful twilight in “Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung.” The dramatic passages are more paint-by-the-numbers: Andersen could summon more grief and rage cursing God in the critical scene after he learns of Tove’s death, when the tenor should sound one breath away from spontaneous combustion as the music turns more tonally unstable.

Soprano Anne Schwanewilms takes a vigorous, at times even hard-edged approach to Tove’s music, with a strong connection to the text and a penetrating tone that easily slices through the orchestra. The emotional peak of the first section, “Nun sag ich dir zum ersten Mal,” was by turns tender and dramatic, with a steely edge.

Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi’s Wood-Dove is dignified and otherwordly, delivering the news of Tove’s death with heavy, dark tones that are a highlight of the performance. In the smaller roles in the final section, bass-baritone Fernando Latorre is earthy and pointed as the terrified peasant who describes Waldemar’s hunt with the horde of spirits. Tenor Arnold Bezuyen is convincingly nutty as Klaus-Narr, the sarcastic court jester, who reveals the king’s harsh and unjust side and is forced to join Waldemar’s creepy night ride. Jon Frederic West intones the speaker’s lines in a sprechstimme that anticipates the composer’s Pierrot Lunaire.

Most impressive are the Neuhold and the Bilbao orchestral forces, who deliver a confident account of the unfamiliar score. Because much of the vocal accompaniment comes from small clusters of instruments, there’s a premium on strong ensemble playing and chamber music-like textures. The prelude has a Wagnerian shimmer, and the interlude leading into the spoken melodrama is nicely balanced with burbling woodwinds, harps and celesta. The grotesque accompaniment to the jester’s song has just the right amount of bite.

Though the three local Basque choirs enlisted for the performance don’t exactly shake the earth in the concluding C major paean to the sun, they keep the dense music moving forward and bring out Schoenberg’s skilled use of counterpoint. The sound is consistently bright and delineated.

Those who consider Gurre-Lieder an important specimen of early 20th century modernism will probably find manifold rewards in the Stein edition, even if it’s not absolutely essential to a recording collection. Listeners attracted to the original’s raw power and grandeur may come away disappointed by the way the miniature demonstrates this work has more head than heart.

17 comments

  • Feldmarschallin says:

    Great review and cannot wait to hear this recording since I love the work.

  • Camille says:

    So do I, Feldmarschallin. What is popping up in dem Garten this Monat, by the way?

    This is very interesting to me as I really love a great deal of this unwieldy work, and am particularly relieved to hear Die Waldtaube’s aria is well-done, always a highlight for me.

    Speaking of lo-cal Arnie, there is also this, which I remember discussing with kashania, some time ago:

    Ensemble Inter Comtemporain as conducted by Pierre Boulez and sung by La Jessonda.
    It takes some adjustment to get used to but after a while it became of interest to me, and even if the tweety parts had a kazoo-like effect. It is, all in all, interesting to hear the bones bleached dry on this one.

    Thanks for your reviewing of this as I look forward to tracking it down. Stig Anderson, at this point, I really don’t know about—but La Schwanny should make a meal of it. Jon Frederic West sang Waldemar in a concert quite a few years back with Sir Simon and the Berlin Phil, which playing was truly grandiose and exquisite, as I now recall. That one was filled to the brim with Schlagobers!

    • Feldmarschallin says:

      My tomatos are growing in pots on the windowsills and am about ready to be planted outside now. I start them from seeds. The peas, radishes, spinach and Feldsalat are coming up. Next go in the carrots and beets and cucumbers and squash and I have one Aubergine called Camille. :)

      • Camille says:

        What most interests me is your mention of lemons. How do uou manage to make them grow so far north? By keeping them inside most of the time?

        Ha! Is the aubergine that long thin kind, like the Japanese ones, or is it the big apple-shaped one? Are there any recipes in Süd-Bavarisch Kuchen that employ aubergine? I always think ratatouille or caponata—which is just too much trouble to make and so difficult a balance between agrodolce. At any rate, gut Essen!

        • Feldmarschallin says:

          The lemons and tiny oranges I take in shortly before Christmas and then out again in Feb. With the Aubergines I slice them then take garlic, bread crumbs and finely sliced parsley and turn them and fry them in olive oil. Or you can take layers with mozzarella and tomato sauce and stick the whole thing in the oven for about an hour.

    • kashania says:

      Here’s part two of the “Lied der Waldtaube”. It’s a tease to hear just part one and not that fabulous climax at the end. :) A great piece.

  • redbear says:

    One of the top events of the current Parisian season was the electric performance of this work with Essa-Pekka Salonen and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. It was a remarkable evening!

    http://concert.arte.tv/fr/les-gurre-lieder-de-schonberg-diriges-par-esa-pekka-salonen

  • DeepSouthSenior says:

    Last month on Digital Concert Hall, I watched the Gurrelieder from October 2013 with Rattle & Berlin Phil. Soloists were Soile Isokoski, Karen Cargill, Burkhard Ulrich, Stephen Gould, Lester Lynch, and Thomas Quasthoff.

    When I’m in a “Gurrelieder mood,” I want my sounds super-sized. I don’t want to wade in, but bathe, luxuriate, and wallow in it.

  • kashania says:

    Around 12-13 years ago, I heard Gurrelieder (twice!) with the Toronto Symphony. The performances were unforgettable. On the hand, it does need to be heard live to be fully appreciated. On the other, the orchestration is so heavy at times that I imagine only Melchior could be heard above the orchestra in a live performance.

    When I heard it, Heppner was Waldemart and Andrea Gruber (remember her?) was Tove. Paasikivi was a moving Waltaube. And an 80-some year-old Ernst Häfliger gave an exhilarating sprech-stimme account of the speaker’s lines.

    The Ozawa recording (with Jessye as Tove) has been on my list for a long time.

    • papopera says:

      Montreal did it too about that time, full orchestra (all 8 flutes and piccolos, 10 horns and Wagner tuben, 7 clarinets of all size etc….) I favour the original massive score. Amazing.

  • DeepSouthSenior says:

    After reading the review again, I’m more interested in hearing this new recording. I confess to never paying much attention to the text, which has always seemed so much delightful gibberish (or turgid nonsense, depending on how carefully you read). Sounds like transparent textures and reduced scoring might be a net plus in drawing us into the narrative, such as it is. On the other hand, you can always crank up a conventional recording for a chemical-free high.

  • PushedUpMezzo says:

    Just a reminder that Amsterdam promises the first staged version of Gurrelieder in September

    http://operaballet.nl/en/opera/2014-2015/show/gurre-lieder

    • Feldmarschallin says:

      Yes but you forgot to mention that Emily Magee is singing in it. :(

      • PushedUpMezzo says:

        Not a problem for me if she sings as well as she did recently in the Covent Garden FROSCH. Just so long as they don’t have Anna Larsson (Waldtaube) flying in on wires.

        • MontyNostry says:

          … or dropping from the flies, as the Falke did at one point in the recent Covent Garden FroSch. Or rather, one of the three Falken that featured in the production(soprano, dancer and small prop).