Gurrelieder from Craft and Rattle

0 of 5 stars


Waldemar – Stephen O’Mara (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
Philharmonia Orchestra
Robert Craft



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)

Rundfunkchor Berlin
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 it’s 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. EMI’s 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 Rattle’s. 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 EMI’s 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 wouldn’t be going “too far wrong” if they approached the work as if it were Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë. There is indeed an impressionist feel to much of Rattle’s 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.

KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS KIC-CD-7542Craft is much clearer, delineating features of the scoring that pass Rattle by. But this is not in any way to suggest that Craft’s 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. Waldemar’s 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 O’Mara (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 O’Mara in a concert performance of Act One of Wagner’s 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 Rattle’s 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. Waldemar’s songs run the whole gamut of emotion – his second is particularly interesting in its depiction of the King’s urging his horse ever-onward to meet his beloved. Agitated figures in the orchestra include trills for the horns suggesting the horse’s 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 Mattila’s dubbed-on contribution.

The next soloist to be encountered is the Wood-Dove whobrings the news of Tove’s demise. Anne Sofie von Otter’s is the lighter voice (Rattle), but good with diction. Jennifer Lane’s 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 Waldemar’s cursing God for his loss. Again, O’Mara’s is the more powerful portrayal and there is a curious change of perspective in Rattle’s 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 men’s choruses – who depict Waldemar’s followers. This is a most exciting passage, recalling the summoning of the Vassals in Act Two of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and generating music of considerable energy – hitherto absent from the score. Rattle’s 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 Waldemar’s 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 King’s 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 Craft’s piquant accompaniment.

The concluding section is entitled “The Summer Wind’s 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 Quasthoff’s doubling is not ideal. Furthermore, he ignores most of Schoenberg’s 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 Mehta’s Sony taping).

The Speaker leads into the final chorus, with the first and onlyappearance of women’s voices. The respective merits of the two versions under consideration should now be apparent – Craft’s 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 Craft’s chorus is better in tune.

Whilst Rattle boasts the starrier cast and the Berlin Philharmonic is, on the whole, superb, I find that Craft’s integrity conveys Schoenberg’s 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 (Rattle’s Waldemar) in fresher voice. Of older versions, Boulez’s mid-price Sony deserves to be heard for his perceptions. He doesn’t 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.

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