schoenberg gurrelieder warner

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2002 and the recording is still available.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Tove – Karita Mattila (soprano)
Waldtaube – Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Waldemar – Thomas Moser (tenor)
Klaus-Narr – Philip Langridge (tenor)
Bauer, Sprecher – Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
 Rundfunkchor Berlin
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Ernst Senff Chor
Chorus Director Simon Halsey
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
rec. September 2001, Philharmonie, Berlin
Originally reviewed as EMI Classics 5573032
Warner Classics 5573032 [2 CDs: 110]

Anyone who has read the article by Stephen Pettitt in the April issue of BBC Music Magazine will be familiar with the incredible backdrop to this concert recording. To begin, it was less than a week since the tragedy of September 11th and Andrea Gruber, booked to sing the part of Tove, was stranded in the USA. Into the breach steps Elizabeth Whitehouse although the decision has already been taken at EMI to employ the services of Karita Mattila for the recording itself, a point to which I shall return later. After the concert Rattle is to sign a new contract with EMI, securing his future with the company for the next seven years and even more exciting, the following day, after what seems like an eternity of political wrangling, Rattle is to eventually sign his ten-year contract as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Berliners, both in terms of the orchestra and the public, seem to have adopted Rattle as one of their own and the celebrations surrounding this long awaited concert would have made it special in its own right. The fact that the horror and images of the previous week’s events in New York were still so vivid in people’s minds added an unforeseen dimension that for all the wrong reasons rendered the circumstances truly extraordinary.

That the circumstances had an impact on the music making is never in doubt, the atmosphere being immediately palpable from the opening orchestral prelude. Rattle gives several clues to his interpretational stance on Gurrelieder in an interview in the accompanying booklet with Holger Erdman. Comments such as “It is the most gigantic chamber music ever written and should be very transparent” and “I said to the orchestra that if they play it like Daphnis and Chloé they won’t be too far wrong” say much about the performance. The glistening arpeggios of the prelude certainly have a crystal like clarity to them and in the manner of Rattle’s Mahler recordings, there is a feeling that every gesture and nuance of Schoenberg’s often highly sophisticated scoring is given the most scrupulous attention. The series of love songs between Waldemar and Tove that form the heart of part one are sung with the most sensitive advocacy by Thomas Moser and Karita Mattila. The quality of Moser’s singing is immediately evident in Waldemar’s first song, the eloquence of his expression at the words “Rest, my senses, rest!” (2:19) utterly captivating. Mattila too, in her responses to Waldemar’s words of love, is never anything other than beguiling. Rattle captures a genuine sense of perspiring urgency in the third song as Waldemar anxiously journeys by horseback to be with his beloved Tove at Gurre and here we have the first true demonstration of the magnificently wide ranging dynamics of the recording with Waldemar’s triumphant declaration “Volmer has seen Tove”, and the ensuing orchestral passage that transports us into Tove’s rejoicing at Waldemar’s arrival in the fourth song. The sudden darkened mood that accompanies Waldemar’s premonition of death is chilling in its impact and it is difficult to imagine finer orchestral playing to accompany Waldemar’s ominous prophecy. Schoenberg’s development of the principal themes from the love songs in the orchestral interlude that precedes Song of the Wood Dove is ravishingly played, the orchestra responding to Rattle as if he had been at the helm for years (try the wonderful passage from around 3’10″, the strings showing that they have lost none of their renowned beauty of tone). Yet after all of this Anne Sophie von Otter still succeeds in bringing more delights in Song of the Wood Dove, delivering the narrative with consummate artistry and musicality. The closing paragraphs from around 10’16″ literally had me had me gasping in admiration, the slow tread and descent into the depths of despair powerfully evoked.

Waldemar’s condemnation of God that forms the brief second part, leads us into part three and The Wild Hunt. This startlingly vivid picture of Waldemar’s rampage with his vassals is extraordinary in its orchestration and Rattle brings out not only the apocalyptic nature of the music where appropriate but the myriad detail that Schoenberg brings to his scoring, the creaking of coffin lids opening, the clank of chain mail and the clash of weapons. Thomas Quasthoff’s first appearance as the terrified peasant watching the procession thundering past is finely done although he saves his best for the spoken Melodrama, The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind, later in part three. The huge procession of Waldemar and his vassals itself is captured with miraculous clarity by the EMI engineers, every detail clear despite the huge forces involved. Rattle is obviously in his element here and once again I found myself marvelling at the sheer depth of sound and sonority that he draws from his Berlin forces, impressive even by their standards. Philip Langridge excels as Klaus the Jester, capturing his character with an uncanny reality and with the return of Waldemar’s vassals to their graves at the first sign of sunrise, one can sense the weary sinking of the ghouls into their coffins as the lids quietly close. The concluding Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind belongs to Thomas Quasthoff who attacks his part as the speaker with a dramatic relish and enthusiasm that for this reviewer at least, puts him in a class of his own. By the time Schoenberg came to write the Melodrama some ten years after he had commenced work on Gurrelieder he had already completed the Five Pieces for Orchestra and the sparer, crystalline nature of his later style of orchestration is now very clearly in evidence. Rattle makes no attempt to disguise it, quite rightly so, if anything drawing attention to it yet it is to his credit that the overall effect is seamless and above all natural. The closing evocation of sunrise is quite magnificent, again bearing all the hallmarks of that “Rattle sound” that had been so carefully cultivated during his tenure with the CBSO and an amazing testament not only to the influence he is able to bring to an orchestra but also to the obvious musical embrace that the Berliners have responded with.

The danger of knowing too much about a recording before listening to it is a very real one and if anything was likely to detract from my enjoyment of this disc it was the knowledge that Karita Mattila was not present at the concert recording, the engineers carrying out some nifty dubbing later (incidentally EMI make no reference to this fact in their booklet note). Initially the tendency is to listen for any tell tale signs of the engineers work but I can honestly say that I defy anyone to spot anything that gives the game away. Far from it in fact because in reality I found myself so utterly lost in the magic and musicality of the singing that my mind soon drifted away from any technical concerns about the recording. The overriding fact is that this performance will live with me for a long time to come. The standard of the music making is of the highest order, the recording itself vividly realistic, at times shatteringly so.

Extraordinary though the circumstances may have been, if this is an indication of the electricity that is being generated between Rattle and his new orchestra, their future together, artistically at least, seems to be both assured and exciting.

Christopher Thomas

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