Arnold Schoenberg's great anomaly (for him) Gurre Lieder has been unbelievably fortunate on record. Perhaps it requires such an enormous amount of talent, money and effort to program this gigantic work that all involved are inspired to their greatest heights.
It also, undoubtedly, has to do with the fact that this work contains from start to finish some of the most purely gorgeous sounds ever composed. The sheer size of the orchestral and choral forces overshadows even the hugest Wagnerian demands, which would probably be The Ring cycle. Gurre Lieder is unquestionably scored for the largest orchestra imaginable. Add to that 6 vocal soloists and you've got quite a stage full of performers. Not every orchestra can do this piece simply because of the size of stage required for a successful attempt at its execution.
I first fell under the spell of this stupendous composition as a music student many years ago. It was Rafael Kubelik's fine version from Munich with the great Inge Borkh as Tove and Herbert Schachtschneider as Waldemar. Both, along with Herta Töpper's searing Waldtaube, are still competitive, to say nothing of Kubelik and the forces of the Bavarian Radio. The DG sound is splendid, as it always was in those fairly early days of stereo recordings. DG was always hors concourse back then. I still listen to those old lps from time to time and they have held up very well over the years considering the number of times they have been played.
Then came Seiji Ozawa's excellent set on Philips with the Boston Symphony and the great Jessye Norman as Tove. Though a bit short at the top of her voice her refulgent tone and powerful enunciation of the words make hers a great assumption of the part. And James McCracken was a stentorian and slightly rough Waldemar, not very romantic sounding but dramatic to be sure. Tatiana Troyanos was a very effective Wood Dove but her intrusive vibrato tends to detract from the impact of that great song.
Then came a recording that topped them all, Riccardo Chailly from Berlin in 1985 with possibly the greatest lineup of soloists, including the wonderful Tove of Susan Dunn, the nonpareil Waldemar of Siegfried Jerusalem and, most glorious of all, Brigitte Fassbaender's emotionally obliterating Wood Dove.
Other recordings intervened, Eliahu Inbal from Frankfurt, Claudio Abbado from Vienna, Giuseppe SInopoli from Dresden and James Levine from Munich. All had excellent soloists for the most part, most notably Waltraud Meier's magnetic, scorching Wood Dove for Levine.
Now we have perhaps the finest of them all, if you have to make comparisons. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra from London just last year, 2011. His soloists are superb though not quite up to Chailly's unbeatable team. What makes this recording so stunning is the conductor himself and the way he shapes every line without coming off as overly-controlling or pedantic. Salonen is an astringent conductor most of the time but here he shows us a romantic side of himself that surprised me over and over as I listened to this performance unfold. The feeling of a live event adds a rapturous commitment from all involved.
Stig Andersen may not have the most beautiful voice as Waldemar but he is deeply romantic-sounding and dramatically saturated in the part. He does not tire at all, nor does he bleat or wobble in what is an extremely long and difficult part. He sings 9 songs over the course of 112 minutes. I certainly prefer him over James McCracken and the beautifully sung but dramatically bland Ben Heppner for Levine. Siegfried Jerusalem (Chailly) is the benchmark in this part. A gorgeous voice and a Hamlet-like tragic demeanor throughout.
Tove is a difficult part to pull off because she must have a voice with a fair amount of flexibility and still possess a near-Isolde-like volume at times. The fabulous top notes should ideally ring out over the huge orchestra, especially in the last of her four songs.
Of all the sopranos who have recorded this part, Soile Isokoski, in this recording, comes near to being ideal, though she is once or twice near-swamped by the enormous sound washing over her. It also sounds like the recording engineers in this otherwise great recording have favored the orchestra over the soprano and tenor soloist. Though, interestingly, Monica Groop's splendid Wood Dove sounds immediate and right in the center of the sound world.
Part Three of Gurre Lieder has always rather lost me. IE, I lose interest because most of the time it comes off as a huge choral wash of sound that can grow muddy in the louder sections. Here, Salonen and Simon Halsey's City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Aidan Oliver's Philharmonia Voices, have managed to reveal every crystalline detail of this amazing vocal composition.
To top it all is Barbara Sukowa's vivid portrayal of The Summer Wind's Wild Ride at the very end before the stunning final chorus See, the Sun. The final bars of this performance are hair-raising and emotionally over-whelming.
The orchestra and chorus and soloists play and sing note-perfect, which is an astonishing thing in a live performance of this very difficult composition.
In conclusion then, I'd say this new Gurre Lieder from Salonen on Signum Classics is the one to get if you only want one recording of this monumental masterpiece. But I can't imagine wanting only one version of this piece. You should also have the Chailly, at least, as a change of pace, and for Fassbaender's Wood Dove and Jerusalem's Waldemar. But for the ultimate experience I have to give the nod to this fine recording from London.