Gurrelieder [text by Jens Peter Jacobsen, translated from the Danish into German by Robert Franz Arnold; sung in German with English surtitles]
Waldemar – David Butt Philip (tenor)
Tove – Lise Lindstrom (soprano)
Wood-Dove – Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Klaus the Fool – Robert Murray (tenor)
Peasant – James Cresswell (bass)
Alex Jennings (speaker)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 24 September, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
You may well describe Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder as one of the last contractions of late and excessive romanticism, but that doesn’t really embrace what a singular work this song-cycle/oratorio/opera hybrid is. And, while it has awesome monster-status – there were about 330 performers, including ten double basses, four harps, Wagner tubas, twelve percussionists – in the concert hall you see the scale of the behemoth more than you hear it, especially in the first part, and the large chorus is extravagantly under-used. You couldn’t fault the LPO’s ambition in this season-launching concert.
The flavour of the work is odd as well, a sequence of nature poems in the first part relating the illicit love between King Waldemar and Tove, with the lovers separately sharing their passion with the audience rather than with each other; then, after Tove’s death (via Waldemar’s jealous wife), he rails against God and, rather like the undead Flying Dutchman, is condemned to ride the skies with his ghostly vassals, all reported third-hand, like Greek tragedy, by the Wood-Dove; and in the final section there is Shakespearian comic relief from a bemused Peasant and a court-jester when Gurrelieder gets closest to straightforward drama, not to mention the Sprechstimme episode. Perhaps the original Danish text is a mythic Scandi-noir prototype?
The skill Edward Gardner deployed drawing these oblique strands together was always enthralling, and he kept a restraining hand on the love-music in the first half before giving the more visceral second half its head. He also clarified Schoenberg’s design of potent, melodic and self-contained earworms that set the tone of rapture and doom. As well as deferring to Wagner – the opening of Part Three owes a lot to the start of Lohengrin’s Act Two – there were times when the music sounded almost cinematic – it was written between 1900 and 1913, when the composer’s style was radically evolving – and it tells the story more cohesively that the libretto does.
Gardner paced the serene start to Part One with a chamber-like delicacy, which you wouldn’t think is in the work’s remit, but steering clear of any pressurised emotionalism, worked beautifully, and the LPO was sensational in the Wild Hunt of Waldemar’s ghostly army. David Butt Philip was present throughout the work as Waldemar and anchored the work heroically. His voice isn’t in the Heldentenor league, but he was ardent, consistent and always alluring, surfing the orchestral surges without being obliterated. Lise Lindstrom had all the range, power and presence you could want from Tove, but her steely soprano lacked vital warmth.
Karen Cargill was magnificent as the Wood-Dove, completely at home with the post-Wagner idiom. Her substantial lower register should be listed as a National Treasure. Robert Murray and James Creswell brought characterful dramatic relief in the cameos of Klaus the Fool and the Peasant. Jeremy Sams provided an English translation of the Speaker’s ‘Herr Gänsefuss’ poem (both in German and in English an overblown paean to summer that leads Waldemar to redemption), which added nothing in terms of comprehension. It was recited (amplified) by the actor Alex Jennings and was more Sprechstimme rather than Sprechgesang – that is, it was spoken in rhythm rather than in pitch – and had none of that bizarre sense of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire getting homesick for tonality. It flowed well into the glorious final peroration to the sun, where the whole massive point of Gurrelieder came into focus.