Recording of August 2002: Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder
Karita Mattila, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Moser, Philip Langridge, tenors; Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, speaker; Gentlemen of the Ernst Senff Choir, Berlin Radio Chorus, Leipzig Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Simon Rattle
EMI 5 57303 2 (2 CDs). 2002. Stephen Johns, prod.; Graham Kirkby, Andy Beer, Mike Cox, engs. DDD. TT: 110:14
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Arnold Schoenberg began work on Gurrelieder in 1900 but kept finding himself interrupted, mostly by his need to earn money, which he did by orchestrating operettas. He worked on the cycle on and off through 1903, then put it aside entirely until 1910; it was finally completed in 1911. By the time it was premiered in Vienna in February 1913, he had already composed Pierrot Lunaire and Erwartung, music that had gone in a direction so new that it literally had caused a revolution in the way people listen.

The first performance of Gurrelieder was a great success, but, as Schoenberg wrote much later, in 1937, he was not happy at its triumph: "I foresaw that this success would have no influence on the fate of my later works. I had, during those 13 years, developed my style in such a manner that to the ordinary concertgoer, it seemed to bear no relation to any preceding music. I had to fight for every new work; I had been offended in the most outrageous manner by criticism...and I stood alone against a world of enemies." In other words, the sheer late Romanticism of Gurrelieder, which was met with such great approval, was seen almost as an apology for his lunges into atonality—a fact that he found appalling.

But, like it or not, the work does owe a great deal to Wagner—the use of leitmotifs, the orchestral prelude which can't help but remind one of the start of Das Rheingold, if at the other end of the tonal spectrum—as well as Mahler, with some of Richard Strauss's palette thrown in as well. And, through it all, Gurrelieder remains unique.

If you've ever wondered what effect—outside of Mahler's Eighth Symphony (and more successfully, to my ears)—a huge complement of strings, eight flutes, four piccolos, ten horns, seven clarinets, four harps, and a percussion section that includes "large iron chains" can have, particularly when three four-part men's choirs, an eight-part mixed chorus, and soloists are thrown in, Gurrelieder will answer your question. But as conductor Simon Rattle says in an interview in the accompanying booklet, Gurrelieder is "the world's largest string quartet"—indeed, it is a huge piece of chamber music. In a way, he's right: there are far more sections of slim scoring and quiet playing than there are of wild bombast. And this performance emphasizes the intimacy, both in its leadership and its engineering.

What we're dealing with in terms of "plot" is the following: King Waldemar (tenor) places his beloved, Tove (soprano), in his castle at Gurre. Waldemar's jealous queen has Tove killed. (We learn about the murder in the last song of Part One from a Wood Dove, sung by a mezzo-soprano.) Waldemar curses God (Part Two), and after his death (Part Three), he and his followers must rise from their graves and ride at night, commented on by a Peasant (bass-baritone) and a Fool (tenor). Near the end (the final 15 minutes), in Sprechstimme, we hear of the heterogeneity of nature, and eventually a "Hymn to the Sun" erupts and all ends triumphantly, with all forces at full throttle.

From the very first notes of this reading, a dreamlike intimacy is clear, and the story unfolds. Throughout Part One, the gentleness and sadness of the doomed love of Waldemar and Tove are expressive and moving: Tenor Thomas Moser, with the correct dark hue to his tone, sings Waldemar's songs handsomely, rarely having to strain, since Rattle keeps to his theory of Gurrelieder-as-chamber-music. The despondency of the seventh song, in which Waldemar meditates on death, is palpable. Karita Mattila's Tove is womanly and understated, with a climactic B-natural the only note out of place in her final, death-inviting song. Anne Sofie von Otter's Tove is remarkable in its purity and dramatic thrust—an odd combination. Thomas Quasthoff's Peasant is suitably horrified by the goings-on of the dead, and Philip Langridge's Fool keeps an ironic distance. Quasthoff, heard again as the Speaker, is as good as any on CD, and he ends rapturously ("Awaken, awaken, all ye flowers, to joy!"), sounding less foolish than most, and that includes Hans Hotter—some fine competition indeed. The Berlin Philharmonic and various choruses are amazing in this live performance—accurate and energetic.

The engineers have made an interesting choice: Unlike in, say, Chailly's and Sinopoli's recordings, the score's brightness is played down. Giving it all an exquisite matte finish is, again, in keeping with Rattle's sense of intimacy, but it doesn't mean that the big moments are flat. The sound is huge when it has to be, though it won't blow you away viscerally (which it can on other recordings); rather, the effect is of a type of elegant grandeur. So able is Schoenberg's orchestration and EMI's team that every instrument can be heard in the huge patchwork of the work's extraverted moments.

Not everyone will approve of how Rattle and EMI have chosen to treat this very special work, but their arguments will relate to taste rather than quality. Chailly's (on Decca) remains my favorite, but there's room for more than one point of view, and this one is valid.—Robert Levine