Waldemar – Stig Andersen
Tove – Soile Isokoski
Wood-Dove – Monica Groop
Peasant – Ralf Lukas
Klaus the Jester – Andreas Conrad
Barbara Sukowa (speaker)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Saturday, February 28, 2009
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Notoriety as a result of its size used to hamper a proper appreciation of Schoenberg’s early masterpiece “Gurrelieder“ (Songs of Gurre). True, it is scored for very large forces – as indeed are three of Mahler’s symphonies -- and it has a huge expressive range, but as in Wagner’s inescapably influential “Tristan und Isolde“, the means are completely justified. Indeed, you could argue that Waldemar and Tove’s tragic love story is ‘what Tristan and Isolde did next’.
I cannot remember a finer realisation of this last, huge exhalation of late German romanticism, and it was a magnificent opening to the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935” series of concerts, a major reappraisal of Schoenberg, Mahler and Berg, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Schoenberg started work on “Gurrelieder” in 1900 soon after “Verklärte Nacht” (in its string sextet version), but didn’t finish it until 1911, by which time he had the white-hot, expressionistic tone poem Pelleas und Melisande and the stream-of-consciousness, atonal monodrama “Erwartung” under his belt. They all find inspiration in the veiled, sexually potent dreamworld of nature at its most Freudian and shadowy, with sex and death inextricably coiled round each other.
The most memorable aspect of Salonen’s performance was the finesse – not a word normally associated with this period of music – with which he brought out Schoenberg’s developing style, especially in the third part, ‘The Wild Hunt, where you really begin to hear the composer sampling “air from other planets”, when an extraordinary musical abyss yawned before us in the orchestral prelude. In the first part, the lovers Waldemar and Tove have a sequence of nine increasingly passionate songs, here sung by Stig Andersen and Soile Isokoski.
Isokoski’s voice, more Straussian silver than Wagnerian gold, was possibly a bit light for the more extreme moments in this opulently Wagnerian score, but, this fine singer gets to the heart of the music. The role of Waldemar, present in all three parts, carries the work, and Stig Andersen was heroically tireless, managing the change in style from the relatively static first part to the operatic high drama of parts two and three with great conviction. There was a fine Wood-Dove from Monica Groop, and the Peasant (Ralf Lukas) and Klaus the Jester (Andreas Conrad) were both vividly characterised.
The other big innovation in “Gurrelieder” is the use of Sprechgesang (notated speech) in the final section. It is always comes as a surprise, and it is a bit of a cliffhanger whether or not the Speaker can deliver something that can sound so strange and yet doesn’t compromise the impact of the glorious closing chorus. It can be a scene-stealing moment, and Barbara Sukowa achieved it wonderfully.
Salonen’s conducting was an achievement too, unfailingly flexible and guiding us through the score’s ravishing romanticism in a performance of overwhelming commitment, with the huge orchestra and the combined City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Philharmonia Voices responding magnificently.