Philharmonia O./ E-P. Salonen
SWRSO / M.Gielen /
J.Levine / Munich Phil
G.Sinopoli / Staatskapelle Dresden
Schönberg’s Gurrelieder is a daunting work, alright, but less so for the listener, who is bathed in some of the most alluring romantic lather any such oratorio has to offer. It’s daunting for the organizer who has to assemble the orchestral and choral forces that are every bit as massive (=expensive) as those for Mahler’s 8th Symphony, but without the guaranteed sell-out crowd of a Mahler 8th—because the name is Schönberg. And Schönberg is box office poison in any conservative town. That is why a performance of the Gurrelieder is often part of an occasion special enough to merit the expense and risk of assembling 25 winds, 25 brass players (a wall of ten horns, alone), four harps, six timpani, various other percussion instruments, a celesta, 84 strings (why would anyone score for less than 12 double basses?), three men’s choirs, one 8-part mixed choir, and six vocal soloists. Employment of the vocal forces would madden any accountant for its inefficiency, too: The soprano is killed off before half-time, the men’s choirs don’t enter until after the third part, and the full chorus doesn’t sing until the last few minutes.
The occasion on October 22nd was the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the BRSO, and the work may in part have been a gift to Mariss Jansons, the BRSO’s fifth music director after founder Eugen Jochum, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Colin Davis, and Lorin Maazel. (Music Director-designate Kyrill Kondrashin died before he could start he tenure.) Sudden sickness of the scheduled Waldemar, Burkhard Fritz, nearly scuttled the plans, but Stig Andersen was able to fly in from Rome (where he had rehearsed Tannhäuser the night before, the morning of the performance. He’s still got the part fresh in his memory from performing it with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and for jumping in at such extremely short notice, his performance was very respectable.
The other dropout was actor Daniel Morgenroth, whose speaking part was simply taken over by Michael Volle who already sang the part of the Peasant. The excellent result reminded that Volle’s wonderful Wozzeck had been just around the corner. His Peasant wasn’t much less impressive; Volle is one of those rare, lucky singers who will—even at 80 percent—outshine most colleagues. Mihoko Fujimura brought her Kundry-experienced mezzo to the Wood Dove and made herself heard—which is an achievement in itself in the acoustic of the widely loathed Philharmonic Hall. Herwig Pecoraro delivered a superbly nuanced account of the Klaus-the-Fool and Deborah Voigt, tanned and blonde and awfully cute, made much of Waldemar’s to-be-murdered lover, Tove. Like her royal inamorato, she was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, but less so. The last time she sang this in the Gasteig Philharmonie (with James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic), she offered a little more power.
But quibbling about individual contributions isn’t really what Die Gurrelieder is all about. As a grandiose piece of over-the-top romanticism that meanders from a smooth Wagnerian orchestral blend to a fine-grained, pixilated style with all orchestral colors differentiated and faintly reminding first of Mahler, then of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, it’s about sheer mass intended to impress the pants off an audience stunned into uncritical awe. The rousing choral finale is not just supposed to be loud, it’s supposed to be overwhelming. As far as Schoenberg and the BRSO are concerned: the evening’s mission was accomplished with style.
* Gurrelieder was composed in 1900 and its orchestration finished in 1912—well before his emigration and spelling-change to “Schoenberg”.