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Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, July 2011

A Gurrelieder performed for the 60th anniversary of Bavarian Radio

Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder has such an implacably dark heart that it’s possible to feel—even in a performance as fine as this one—that its fervently upbeat ending, hailing a new dawn after so much death and despair, is a mistake. But that would probably be another mistake. Gurrelieder thrives on contrasts and confrontations, most fundamentally in managing to combine an opulently late-Romantic, Mahler-celebrating extravaganza with an expressionistic declaration of war on the Wagner-Brahms tradition.

One consequence of this is that performances like those conducted by Pierre Boulez (Sony, 12/93 – nla), which aspire to coolness and detachment without downplaying the darkness, can be especially persuasive. This is not Mariss Jansons’s style; yet he achieves a no less persuasive effect through moulding and integration. The core of this superbly well-balanced reading is as passionately dramatic an account of the “Song of the Wood Dove” as you could hope to hear, with mezzo Mihoko Fujimura marvellously incisive and engaging. Alongside her, Stig Andersen and Deborah Voigt as the doomed lovers project the high-Romantic style to perfection, even if Voigt’s German diction has a few strange inflections. Then, as usual, Schoenberg’s curious idea of having the introduction to the final section declaimed in “speech-song” risks pushing the whole enterprise into expressionistic modernity, only to have its more basic Romantic roots reasserted by the life-affirming chorus.

A brilliant performance, then. But do we want to see as well as hear it? Brian Large’s vast experience with tele-filming concerts pays off in that viewers should never feel DVD & Blu-ray reviews nudged into noticing things which might better pass them by. At the same time, we’re given vivid evidence of the large forces involved—four harps, four piccolos, two double bassoons, drums galore, chains to be rattled. The choruses of Munich and Leipzig are also out in force, rather staid in demeanour given their material but effective agents of the musical drama in Jansons’s supremely eloquent hands. We’re given a brief glimpse of Christian Thielemann and Anne-Sophie Mutter in the applauding audience at the end: it was one of those occasions, memorable enough musically, to merit preservation.

Arlo McKinnon
Opera News, July 2011

In reminiscing about the earlier years of his career, Arnold Schoenberg recollected more insults than praise. His sextet Verklärte Nacht was declared not to be music, because in one instance he used a fourth-inversion ninth chord, then regarded as a musical impossibility. His second string quartet, with its decided break from traditional functional harmony, and Pierrot Lunaire, with its use of Sprechstimme (a vocal utterance halfway between speech and singing) and shocking texts, caused major uproars among the public and the press. However, Schoenberg acidly commented that with the premiere of Gurrelieder in 1913 and the later publication of his theory text Harmonielehre, critical opinion shifted from the view that Schoenberg was an ignoramus who didn’t know what he was doing to the view that he was a highly accomplished composer who was just crazy for writing in such an incomprehensible style. 

Indeed, Gurrelieder is among the greatest of late-Romantic works, on a par with the symphonies of Mahler and the tone poems of Strauss. The primary reason that it is performed with less frequency is the enormous size of the orchestra required. With a running time of about two hours, Gurrelieder features luscious orchestral coloring and highly lyrical vocal settings of fin-de-siècle poetry by Danish poet Peter Jacobsen. 

This DVD release is taken from live performances given in late 2009, featuring the Bavarian Radio Orchestra under the direction of its chief conductor, Mariss Jansons. It is a joy to hear such fine music-making as this. Jansons shows complete command of the score, inspiring the orchestra and choruses to vivid heights of musicality. 

The production is graced with a stellar cast of soloists. Deborah Voigt gives a sensuous rendition of the music of Tove, a young maiden who loves the Danish king Waldemar. As Waldemar, Stig Andersen gives a remarkable performance in music that makes significant vocal demands. He is tender while addressing Tove, yet fierce in his blasphemous denunciations of God. For most listeners, the musical and dramatic high point of the entire oratorio is “The Song of the Wood Dove,” here marvelously presented by mezzo Mihoko Fujimura. In this scene, the Wood Dove relates the murder of Tove at the hands of Waldemar’s jealous queen, then goes on to describe Tove’s funeral. Fujimura delivers this music with a stunning combination of accusation and compassion. Herwig Pecoraro gives a delightful performance as the court jester, a humorous meditation on how he and those of equal righteousness will enjoy an eternal banquet consisting of the souls of the damned. Michael Volle gives a fine sung performance of a peasant describing the nightly hauntings by the ghosts of Waldemar and his henchmen. Volle also gives us the Sprechstimme tale of the summer wind. This is the most forward-looking part of the entire work, and Volle’s rendition is magnificent. He captures the tone perfectly and in so doing helps set up the ecstatic choral finale.

Director Brian Large and his crew deserve kudos for the excellent camerawork and editing of this performance. The DVD includes a seven-minute documentary about Gurrelieder and its creation, but alas it lacks subtitles. Those viewers who are not versed in German will still enjoy some of the segment’s rare photos.

Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, February 2011

This seldom-performed behemoth has, in terms of production costs, truly given frugality the finger. After all, any self-respecting choral/orchestral work written in Wagnerian style is going to require at least four choruses, six timpanis, four Wagner tubas, and a set of iron chains, and Gurrelieder does not disappoint. (In the spirit of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, the patient chorus does not even see any action until the third and final Teil.) Though it was originally conceived in 1900 as an entry for the Vienna Music Society’s song competition, Schoenberg did not complete Gurrelieder until 1911. Because he’d begun composing the work early in his career, this story of unrequited love is infused with enough Romanticism to have sold tickets that bore the name “Schönberg,” for by the time Gurrelieder received its acclaimed premiere in 1913, his overall adherence to Western tonality had all but disappeared and the public was not thanking him for it. (In case you’re wondering, Castle Gurra was the residence of 14th-century heroine Tova, the soprano soloist in this work.)

This October 2009 performance was held and recorded in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and is the only recording of Gurrelieder available on DVD. Due to various illnesses, the five vocal soloists cover six roles is this production, with Michael Volle acting as the narrator in addition to his role as the peasant, and tenor Stig Andersen having filled in at the last minute for the substantial role of Waldemar. Deborah Voigt soars as Tova, though her character does not live past the first part. The disc includes documentary footage and interviews in German. Though you may someday have the good fortune to attend a live performance of Gurrelieder, this one is a fine and guaranteed opportunity.

Robert Benson, January 2011

This live performance of Schönberg’s massive Gurrelieder gives us the opportunity to view the huge forces involved, which include 10 horns, 6 trumpets, 7 trombones, 4 harps, a huge complement of percussion with 6 timpani and “large iron chains,” more than 80 strings, 5 vocal soloists and several choruses. This is the only DVD currently available taped during concerts that took place October 22/23, 2009 in Munich. Along with his other major position of music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orcherstra, since 2003 Mariss Jansons has been chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. His rapport with them is obvious in this splendid performance of Schönberg’s gargantuan cantata. All of the soloists are first-rate, particularly Michael Volle’s impassioned Speaker. Video is excellent and engineers have provided a rich sonic tapestry of remarkable clarity considering the vast army of performers. Vocal soloists are a bit too prominent. Text is provided in German and English, but, a major debit, there are no subtitles. The dubious “bonus,” an introduction by Michael Beyer, is in German with no translation.

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