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
Recorded 28 February 2009 in Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: October 2009
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
SIGCD173 (2 SACDs)
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
Does one ever forget one’s first “Gurrelieder”? Owing to the sheer magnitude of the forces that it requires, live performances come along relatively rarely, and thus they tend to etch themselves on the memory. In addition the huge orchestral sound needs space to resonate and therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that many available recordings are of live performances and they tend, like this one, to have a palpable sense of occasion about them.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interpretation is admirable for its relative restraint and lack of show. It revels in the dense and luxurious Wagnerian moments whilst avoiding the danger to make the music seem overblown – and then as strands of the composer’s other developing compositional styles start to emerge it positively tingles with excitement and a sense of a adventure into the ‘unknown’.
The performance was recorded in the tricky acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall and detail emerges with extraordinary clarity; some of the woodwind-playing is absolutely top class. The solo voices sound close, too, and here some may wish that a little more bloom might have been lent to a slightly less dry acoustic and exaggerates the occasional imperfections and unsteadiness that would not have registered otherwise. This is not to say the singers are not extremely accomplished – one can hardly complain as they make a very balanced team.
Waldemar needs a Wagnerian tenor capable of some lyrical tender singing as well as dramatic outbursts. Stig Andersen certainly possesses the heft and heroics needed and the force to override the dense orchestration he has to compete with. However, like many tenors before him, he is taxed at times – notably at that impossibly difficult high note at “Muss in Gurres Hof dein Weihern fröhlich widerhallen!” in his second solo where he ducks into a rather underpowered register. His third solo demonstrates his ability to sing lyrically and to ratchet-up the tension as the emotional temperature is raised. He’s great as the reckless, haunted manic hero of the later sections of the work.
As his lady-love, Tove, we have the silvery-voiced Soile Isokoski. She’s not as extrovert as some of her predecessors nor as vocally voluptuous (Karita Mattila and Martina Arroyo spring to mind), but there’s something very appealing about the restraint of her singing. As one would expect with Isokoski, there’s little sense of strain and no concern that she’s pushing her voice beyond the limits. The same is true of Monica Groop’s Wood-Dove. Here is a part upon which many great Lieder singers such as Janet Baker, Brigitte Fassbaender and Anne Sofie von Otter have lavished their considerable artistry. Groop is very different from all of these in that her voice is a shade lighter. By deft use of tonal changes and judicious pointing of the text she makes a wonderful narrator of the tale of Tove’s death at the hands of the jealous queen, and of the subsequent funeral procession. Once again, reserve is the order of the day and it brings its own dividends.
With Parts Two and Three the performance really takes off, Salonen keeping the tension and momentum up and unleashing a spectacular account of the Wild Hunt. The male chorus is suitably raucous and matched by all the clatter and metal of the orchestra in full throttle. Ralf Lukas characterises the terrified peasant observing the passing of Waldemar’s forces vividly, and later Andreas Conrad makes a suitably mocking jester.
The end of the work brings Schoenberg’s most dazzling finale, which combines the compelling combination of Sprechstimme narration set against some of the most complex contrapuntal writing he ever produced; the settling into that extraordinary affirmative blaze of C major remains one of music’s great sonic resolutions. The role of the narrator has usually been assigned to a male performer, and more often than not great singers (usually Wagnerians) coming out of retirement to deliver very operatically delivered interpretations – sometimes even with some brief singing to match. Latterly the part has also been entrusted to female artists including the actress Barbara Sukowa. Indeed, this is her second recorded performance, a compelling and extremely individual contribution.
This release is a worthy memento of a very strong performance, and Salonen’s sure-footed pacing and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s assured playing are very persuasive. It’s certainly a performance one could return to with enjoyment.