Waldemar Stephen OMara (tenor)
Tove Melanie Diener (soprano)
Wood-Dove Jennifer Lane (mezzo-soprano)
Peasant David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
Klaus-Narr Martyn Hill (tenor)
Speaker Ernst Haefliger
Simon Joly Chorale
KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS KIC-CD-7542 (2 CDs)
Recorded 16-20 October 2001, Colosseum, Watford, England
Waldemar Thomas Moser (tenor)
Tove Karita Mattila (soprano)
Wood-Dove Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Klaus-Narr Philip Langridge (tenor)
Peasant & Speaker Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Ernst Senff Chor Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
EMI CDS 5 57303 2 (2 CDs)
Recorded September 2001, Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: November 2002
CD No: KIC-CD-7542 & CDS 5 57303 2
Gurrelieder, that colossus of a work which seems to be saying a long farewell to romanticism and yet, in its latter stages, greeting the new soundworld of expressionism, has been remarkably lucky on disc especially in the last few years. Despite its gargantuan forces or perhaps even because of them record companies have not been reluctant to preserve interpretations by such conductors as Abbado, Chailly and Sinopoli to name but three of the comparatively recent versions.
These recordings by Robert Craft and Simon Rattle have appeared within a relatively short space of time, the latter much heralded and lauded, with the former in danger of being overlooked as a result. EMIs web-site is proud to declare that the Berlin version was recorded live. The booklet and CD case simply state that it was recorded in association with Berliner Festwochen. I mention this for the very simple reason that Karita Mattila seems not to have taken part in the live performances. It would appear that EMI preferred her star name to appear in conjunction with that of Rattles. Post-concert recording and dubbing and some editing trickery has taken place to effect what we have.
The two interpretations under discussion are quite different, as perhaps might be expected. In an interview with Rattle contained in EMIs booklet, the conductor speaks of the chamber-music quality of much of the work and that it should be very transparent. He also advised the orchestra that they wouldnt be going too far wrong if they approached the work as if it were Ravels Daphnis et Chloë. There is indeed an impressionist feel to much of Rattles performance, with light and airy textures, but one consequence is the loss of much detail; a factor possibly not aided by the resonant Berlin Philharmonie acoustic.
Craft is much clearer, delineating features of the scoring that pass Rattle by. But this is not in any way to suggest that Crafts approach is merely clinical or analytical far from it.
Part One begins with one of the most effective evocations of nature and sunset in all music, with undulating woodwind and rippling strings and harp which lead to sensuous phrases on the strings. Alongside these the trumpet and bass trumpet give out important melodic motives. Here I found Rattle rather restless and particular instruments (the horn, for example) unduly prominent in the balance. Craft is gentler, with glittering colours and the swellings in strings and brass not exaggerated. The warmth of the lower strings is also commendable, as is a hint of foreboding for the tragedy to come.
That tragedy is the illicit love King Waldemar has for Tove. Waldemars wife has the latter killed, as a consequence of which the King curses God and is condemned for ever Flying Dutchman-like to ride through the skies searching for redemption. In essence, this is a typical medieval folk-story with hints of ancient myth. It drew from Schoenberg as it might have from Wagner some of the most remarkable, sensuous and dramatic music he ever wrote. He was only 25 when embarking on his epic composition and had written nothing for orchestral forces before.
After the scene-setting prelude, we are introduced in a series ofalternating songs to Waldemar and Tove declaring their pining and love for one another, and their frustration at being apart.Stephen OMara (Craft) never allows one to forget that Waldemar is a king. He has a heroic voice, steady throughout all registers, with particularly firm notes at the bottom and top of his range. I first encountered OMara in a concert performance of Act One of Wagners Siegfried a few years ago. The promise he displayed on that occasion is fully demonstrated in Gurrelieder a true Heldentenor as the score requires. Thomas Moser (Rattle), on the other hand, often sounds like a tenor struggling for the notes, as well he might in this cruelly written part. There is a sense of strain perhaps inevitable, given the live circumstances of Rattles performance especially on high notes, where the voice needs to ring out unflinchingly. Moser is at his most convincing in gentler, more reflective passages, where he reveals warmth of tone and responsiveness to the text. Waldemars songs run the whole gamut of emotion his second is particularly interesting in its depiction of the Kings urging his horse ever-onward to meet his beloved. Agitated figures in the orchestra include trills for the horns suggesting the horses neighing Craft ensures we hear these details, which go for very little in Berlin.
Tove is initially the typical lovelorn maiden of the romantic imagination. Mattila conveys vulnerability and an almost dream-like character. As ever, her engagement with the words is variable, yet her sheer beauty of tone is a thing of admiration. But her rise to the climactic top B of her final song sounds effortful and does not arise naturally as a culmination of what has gone before. No one currently on disc matches Jessye Norman, with Ozawa (Philips) at this ecstatic moment. Melanie Diener commands more variety of vocal colour than does Mattila, making much more of an impression as a dramatic character. She suggests greater variation of mood regretful, impatient and yearning. She is better integrated into the performance than Mattilas dubbed-on contribution.
The next soloist to be encountered is the Wood-Dove whobrings the news of Toves demise. Anne Sofie von Otters is the lighter voice (Rattle), but good with diction. Jennifer Lanes darker colouring seems more appropriate to the sombre atmosphere, and Craft builds to the climax with more implacable sense of menace. Neither singer, however, is as searing in intensity as Brigitte Fassbaender with Chailly (Decca).
The short Part Two concentrates on Waldemars cursing God for his loss. Again, OMaras is the more powerful portrayal and there is a curious change of perspective in Rattles recording when the voice enters the Berlin Philharmonic suddenly sounds much more distant. This is not an isolated occurrence, and it happens most noticeably just before the entry of the final chorus.
The first half of the final part of Gurrelieder introduces the chorus or to be more precise, three mens choruses who depict Waldemars followers. This is a most exciting passage, recalling the summoning of the Vassals in Act Two of Wagners Götterdämmerung, and generating music of considerable energy hitherto absent from the score. Rattles combined choruses are much larger than the Simon Joly Chorale for Craft, but the former are disadvantaged by the acoustic, making impact difficult, and orchestral detail is obscured in the mêlée. On Koch, we can hear how ingeniously Schoenberg passes phrases between the chorus and various sections of the orchestra.
Preceding this is a short but important bass solo for the Peasant who looks on in awe as Waldemars disciples pass overhead. David Wilson-Johnson, for Craft, really spits out his words, whereas Thomas Quasthoff, intelligent and sensitive artist though he is, is too soft-grained in tone. Hard to beat, though, is Siegmund Nimsgern for Boulez (Sony) who sounds positively manic in his moment of terror.
The Kings jester Klaus-Narr offers ironic comment. Philip Langridge points his words effectively, but Martyn Hill is not outclassed, and there is more light and shade in his delineating of character and in Crafts piquant accompaniment.
The concluding section is entitled The Summer Winds Wild Hunt and here we catch glimpses of Schoenberg the Expressionist, with extremes of orchestration piccolos and tubas at the top and bottom of their ranges respectively and the introduction of a speaking voice, reminding that the world of Pierrot Lunaire is not far away. It is clear that Schoenberg intended a separate speaker for this part, and so Quasthoffs doubling is not ideal. Furthermore, he ignores most of Schoenbergs notation for the part, which is that hard-to-define Sprechstimme, a mixture of speech and song. Ernst Haefliger is much more accurate, although there are one or two places where he slips into song. Most poignant of all on disc is Hans Hotter (with Chailly and on Mehtas Sony taping).
The Speaker leads into the final chorus, with the first and onlyappearance of womens voices. The respective merits of the two versions under consideration should now be apparent Crafts chorus and orchestra are well balanced, with Rattle somewhat more diffuse. Both conductors add unnecessarily an unwritten top C to the final soprano note at least Crafts chorus is better in tune.
Whilst Rattle boasts the starrier cast and the Berlin Philharmonic is, on the whole, superb, I find that Crafts integrity conveys Schoenbergs youthful masterpiece with greater impact and insight, and he has clearly given inspiration to the forces gathered under his perceptive direction.
So how do these new recordings affect existing recommendations? No one version of Gurrelieder is ideal, but Abbado (DG) and Chailly (Decca) have been vying as prime contenders for a while. The former has the benefit of the Vienna Philharmonic at its most opulent, whilst the latter, overall, has the best line-up of soloists, with Siegfried Jerusalem in heroic form as Waldemar and Fassbaender unsurpassed as the Wood-Dove. I would place Craft alongside these for musicianship and probing insight he is hard to beat. Sinopoli, live on Teldec, is also worth hearing and has Thomas Moser (Rattles Waldemar) in fresher voice. Of older versions, Boulezs mid-price Sony deserves to be heard for his perceptions. He doesnt luxuriate as perhaps he ought and, indeed, might if he records the work again; the 1974 recording now sounds a little cramped. Ozawa (Philips Duo) features Jessye Norman in stunning form as Tove, although James McCracken is less than ideally steady as the ill-fated King. If you have the Chailly, with its splendid team of singers, you might rest content. However, this endlessly fascinating and rewarding score is very well served indeed by Robert Craft and I would have no hesitation in commending his version to anyone setting out to explore Gurrelieder for the first time or who wishes to supplement their existing library.