Arnold Schönberg Gurrelieder (Philharmonia Orchestra, feat: cond. Esa-Pekka Salonen) Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

An exhilarating journey, from illicit love to redemption with plenty of colour and range.

Andrew McGregor 2009

Arnold Schöenberg’s Gurrelieder started life in 1900 as a song cycle for two voices and piano, but within a year it was turning into a massive cantata for five soloists, narrator, three four-part male choruses, and a huge orchestra. And by 1911, when Schöenberg finished this neo-Wagnerian epic, his musical language was already embracing atonality.

Gurrelieder is the apogee of his late-romantic writing, and a vital transitional work, which isn’t often performed or recorded. This is the live performance with which Esa-Pekka Salonen launched the  Philharmonia Orchestra’s ‘Vienna: City of Dreams’ season in 2009, and you can hear why it was critically acclaimed for the quality of the soloists, the impact of the choruses, and above all the playing of the Philharmonia – from transparent impressionistic textures to vast, bone-crunching climaxes.

The pacing of those climaxes turns out to be vital to Salonen’s reading: he doesn’t peak too soon, so that despite the excitement of the wild hunt in Part 3, there’s plenty left in the tank for the radiant Hymn to the Sun. As the doomed lovers Waldemar and Tove, Stig Anderson and Soile Isokoski are passionately committed, and Monica Groop’s Song of the Wood Dove is poignantly delivered. Anderson captures Waldemar’s pain and anger, railing against the heavens, while as his jester, Klaus the Fool, Andreas Konrad chatters crazily while the ghostly hunt surges about him. Barbara Sukowa makes an excellent narrator for nature’s renewal, before the chorus welcomes the concluding sunrise.

It’s an exhilarating journey from illicit love to redemption, and the sense of live adrenaline only increases the impact of Schöenberg’s score. The only reservation concerns the recording itself: there’s plenty of colour and dynamic range, but the boxy ambience of the Royal Festival Hall in London robs it of the rich sonic halo the performance deserves. There’s a touch more air to be had if you’re able to listen in surround from the SACD layer, and there’s no doubt that a real occasion has been captured here, great value at mid-price for the two hybrid SACDs.

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