The Fifth Element #59

There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust me—it's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compelling—a revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.

King Waldemar was passionately and extravagantly smitten with Tove, a young commoner. Part I of Gurrelieder therefore consists of a ravishing orchestral prelude, followed by nine songs for tenor and soprano, in which the raptures of love alternate with premonitions of doom.

Play that orchestral introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the work and they'll have a hard time believing it was written by Schoenberg, who, at 26, had yet to embrace the 12-tone system. I played it for a couple of music-and-audio buddies, one of whom incredulously remarked, "This is Schoenberg? It must have been a good day!" I think most people would guess the composer to be Wagner, Mahler, even late Elgar—the end of Waldemar's "Du wunderliche Tove!" is particularly Elgarian. The orchestration is that deftly confident, with percussion and woodwind accents enlivening the lush, late-Romantic strings. What is truly hard to believe is that Gurrelieder was the young, largely self-taught Schoenberg's first attempt at orchestrating a major work.

Instead of major, perhaps I should say massive. The score calls for five vocal soloists, a narrator, three male choruses, a mixed chorus, 6 trumpets, bass trumpet, 10 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, other brass, 20 each first and second violins, other strings, celesta, and percussion, including glockenspiel, xylophone, and lengths of chain. And it pretty much all holds together, even as it gets hugely loud and as the drama gets chaotic.

The beginning of King Waldemar's first song contains at least two strokes of genius. First, the spare orchestral background is a tone-painting of the words "Now dusk mutes every sound on land and sea." More telling is that Waldemar's part begins in the lower half of a tenor's range and from there steadily descends. Waldemar appreciates nature only insofar as it reflects his beloved, but even as he tells of the beauty around him and urges his senses to rest, the motion is downward. The music is letting us know that this story will not end happily.

Feeling a bit put out, Waldemar's Queen, Helvig, either arranges for Tove's murder or does the deed herself. Unaccustomed to self-criticism, and seeing no good reason to start now, Waldemar first blames God, next calls God a "tyrant," and then threatens the deity. No surprise, then, that much of Gurrelieder is taken up with Waldemar and his undead courtiers nightly rising from their graves to gallop around the castle to no real purpose, except perhaps as a Dark Ages precursor to Groundhog Day.

After the night-ride sequence, a Speaker narrates "The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind." The excellent liner notes make the interesting point that this section can be regarded as an early version of film music, with a voice-over telling the story. The work concludes on a blazing, pantheistic "Sunrise," reminiscent both of the beginning of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra and the end of Mahler's Symphony 2, "Resurrection."

The recording I am so impressed with features Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonia Orchestra at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on February 28, 2009 (SACD/CD, Signum SIGCD173). The dark-toned tenor Stig Andersen, as Waldemar, has occasional moments of borderline brassiness, but I think that actually helps with the suspension of disbelief. This is a middle-aged (or even older) guy, head over heels in love with a girl probably half his age. Soile Isokoski's Tove is radiant. The Philharmonia Voices and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus combine for the massive choral parts.

The fact that this is a live recording of a single performance (I assume they recorded the rehearsals for backup if needed) adds a little extra energy, although Salonen is careful not to peak too early. This is one of the quietest, most intrusion-free live orchestral recordings I have heard, even if the balance favors the stage sound over the hall acoustic.

Concerning the wider significance: As you listen to Gurrelieder, imagine yourself watching a 1930s black-and-white movie in which a handsome young American couple honeymooning in Transylvania has car trouble, and ask for help at the nearest castle. At night. It fits, doesn't it? How about watching a person marooned in the vast reaches of interplanetary or intergalactic space? The theme music from TV's Science Fiction Theatre (1955–57) sounds quite similar to the hook of Gurrelieder's Part I. Slightly overripe Romantic music, ethereal but a little creepy, has been a mainstay of movie music as long as movies have had orchestral soundtracks.