Prom 13: Songs of Gurre


Tove – Christine Brewer (soprano)
Waldemar – Jon Villars (tenor)
Wood-Dove – Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
Klaus – Philip Langridge (tenor)
Peasant – Peter Sidhom (baritone)
Speaker – Ernst Haefliger

Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

With its six soloists, massed choirs (albeit used sparingly) and vast orchestra (though at times a few more string desks would not have come amiss), the Royal Albert Hall is the natural venue for Schoenberg’s epic Gurrelieder. The forces assembled for this fourth complete Prom performance were impressive, though the initial impact often verged on the underwhelming.

Part of the problem, at least in Part One, may be felt to lie with the music itself. The succession of love-songs between Waldemar and Tove is predominantly restrained; emotional variety depends on the changing response of the soloists as the sequence moves from expectation to fulfilment and back to anticipation. Tonally sensitive though he was, Jon Villars failed to project Waldemar’s songs with either the emotional force or lyrical intensity required – the breathless surge of the third song and fateful musing of the seventh being particularly lacklustre.

Christine Brewer was more motivated, successfully rising to the challenges of Tove’s fourth and eighth songs, but there was also a generalised feeling that prevented a cumulative sense of intensity from emerging. What was missing was thrown into relief by Petra Lang’s Wood-Dove – maybe not the most subtle (Prommers and Schoenbergians alike will remember Elisabeth Laurence’s assumption with Boulez in 1987) if with a plangent intensity that capped the first part impressively.

Villars found more gravitas in his remaining solos, notably those expressing weariness and defiant resignation as he and his vassals undertook another futile ’night ride’ against God. Peter Sidhom was a more than adequate Peasant, unnerved by the nocturnal goings-on, while Philip Langridge once again stole the show as Klaus the Fool – his witty and wise undermining of Waldemar’s sham-heroism striking a perfect balance between satire and farce.

Reciting from memory, Ernst Haefliger follows in the distinguished line of ’retired’ singers to have taken on the melodrama-narration in which Schoenberg’s musical past and present are vividly reconciled. Haefliger conveyed this in his light touch and detailed response to the words and their ’speech-song’ pitching – a vibrant and memorable assumption. The contribution of the much-divided male choruses was impressively sustained – not least in that marking the return to the grave with its cruelly high-lying tenor part. The full choral panoply then opened out impressively for the ’Sunrise’ to close Gurrelieder with a thrilling emotional surge that rightly avoided grandiloquence.

With a track record second-to-none among present-day interpreters of Wagner and Strauss, Donald Runnicles would seem ideally suited to Gurrelieder. Yet, particularly in Part One, his care for balance and bringing out detail inhibited the emotional contours of the music to an excessive degree. The ’Sunset’ prelude sounded a shade self-conscious, while the orchestral interlude was comparatively tepid. Yet the performance gained notably in intensity in Parts Two and Three – Runnicles capturing the sepulchral feel of the ’Wild Hunt’ music and the lightning-fast changes in texture that mark out the melodrama’s orchestral prelude as a musical as well as an existential rebirth.

The performance was given with no formal interval – at 115 minutes it presented a challenge to concentration which the audience generally met with dedication. For if not incandescent, this was still a sympathetic and frequently absorbing account of Schoenberg’s unwieldy but blazingly assured statement of intent.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday, 31 July, at 2.05pm

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