on 6 July 2007
The first of many modern performances and still the bench mark! I fist heard this absolute masterpiece of late romantic vocal and orchestral brilliance on a double LP with I think Janet Baker as the wood dove among others but the recording was live and not terribly good and like all my LP's was dumped in 1991.
Then along came this Decca/London recording under the indomitable Chailly. A masterpiece indeed in his hands and with excellent soloists to boot. Susan Dunn is not a name you find in many recordings but the voice has the right weight and lovely tone for the part of Tove and Siegfried Jerusalem is in very fine vocal form here! So too is Hans Hotter as the speaker. If I had quibbles it was always with the second part of the work and Chailly does little to soften the tonal changes Schoenberg gives us here, but quite rightly so, the final blast of the wind blows the turmoil away splendidly!
Now this is on a Decca Double its an absolute bargain, typical Decca full frequency sound displays fine orchestral playing as well as the voices, soloists and choirs! 10 out of 10, no hesitation.
This 2-disc set has so much going in its favour that it seems slightly shabby not to award the full five stars, but for me it’s the recorded sound (much praised elsewhere, to be fair) that is not quite as I want it. I mean the sound in the Gurrelieder – in the two smaller works I have no problem with it. The Gurrelieder uses an enormous orchestra, and the sound-technicians seem to have played safe. The sound is admirably clear and well balanced, but I want it socked to me in a way this recording strategy seems afraid to do. A little boosting of the sound-control helped up to a point, but there’s only so much to be achieved by that. I could make it louder, but I couldn’t bring it closer.
Otherwise it’s pluses all the way. Music-lovers still hesitant about Schoenberg could find this set a very considerate introduction. The first work on the first disc is actually the most ‘difficult’ – the First Chamber Symphony. Even there, get over the first few chords and you may find the rest quite easy to come to terms with, especially as the work is a little lighter of foot than much of Schoenberg. That occupies 20 minutes of the total 150; and at the end the final 30 are taken up by the famous Verklaerte Nacht. This started life as a string sextet, but the arrangement for string orchestra is what we are given here. Chailly’s performance strikes me as excellent, but let me admit that I don’t much care for the piece. Like Schoenberg’s bigger tone-poem Pelleas et Melisande it goes in for too much unremitting intensity and hand-wringing, and I find the effect rather tedious in any performance. Again, these are personal views, so rather than protract the discussion of the pros and cons of these fillers accounting for only one-third of the total music, let me propose as an alternative an excellent disc of Verklaerte Nacht (again in the string orchestra version) together with the two Chamber Symphonies from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Holliger. A review of the present set should focus on the Gurrelieder. Presumably few if any of its purchasers will have bought it mainly for the two fillers which are easily obtained elsewhere if they are not to anyone’s taste as presented here.
The Gurrelieder form a cantata. Before we even get to the music, the story is an absolutely gripping one, deriving apparently from a Danish saga. In a review I shall not give away the details of this weird tale of love, death and the supernatural, but to any listener new to the Gurrelieder I say be sure to read the text first. There is nothing weird about the music, which is perfectly tonal in the late romantic manner. It all comes to a gigantic final choral climax in something like the manner of Mahler VIII or Delius’s Mass of Life. However the text is not philosophical like those and is more a Nordic tale similar to the story in Mahler’s Klagende Lied. There are five soloists, all excellent, and the stars are (as they should be) the Waldemar of Siegfried Jerusalem and the Tove of Susan Dunn. These are not household names, (at least not in my household), but they outperform the singer who is all of that, Brigitte Fassbaender as the Wood Dove. One famous name appears in an odd role – Hans Hotter as the speaker reading the poem that abruptly changes the perspective of the story just before the big closing chorus. He must have been in his 80’s when this recording was made in 1990, but his voice is youthful and his enunciation is crystal-clear. He is admirable here, and if I may say so that compensates me for a good deal of his singing.
The choruses are powerful, the orchestra acquits itself very well too, and I have said all I propose to say about a certain backwardness in the recording. You may need to read pages 2 and 3 of the liner more than once to understand which orchestra is playing in which works. If I have got it right, members of the Concertgebouw perform the Chamber Symphony but the string players in Verklaerte Nacht are drawn from the Berlin orchestra which brings us the Gurrelieder. The liner does its job very well for the most part. The full text of the Gurrelieder is provided with English translation – both absolute essentials. I just regretted a couple of absurdities that I noticed: ‘Extraordinary Tove’ is an extraordinary greeting from an infatuated lover; and ‘Gurre-on-Sea’ makes one think of Bexhill. The background small essay is not bad either and it need not have been anonymous, unlike many I have seen that would have been better that way.
When I last looked the set represented very good value, and I hope it stays that way. Even the recorded sound has a lot to be said in its favour, I have no criticisms worth mentioning in any other respect, I am delighted with all the performances and not just that of Gurrelieder, and I think many will also be.
I hadn't realised just how many recordings of this monumental work there were out there until I started a little research and I can claim to be familiar with only four -although I have listened to some excerpts of others. The other odd thing my investigations revealed was just how many totally contradictory opinions you can glean from a trawl through the Amazon reviews, both US and UK.
OK; in the end you can only tell it as you see - or rather hear - it yourself. My departure point and single biggest discriminator is the quality of the soloists. I realise that you need a wonderful conductor, orchestra and choir to do those massive sonorities justice and the final, blazing paean to Nature and the sun from combined forces has to be right, but the emotional core of this overlong, rambling, unbalanced, but ultimately fascinating, work lies with the outpourings of feeling from the hero, heroine, two bemused onlookers and, finally, the recitalist of the poem. I agree that several conductors seem to lose detail in a soup of sound - or maybe that is as much a location and recording problem - but I can forgive some of that when the voices are right. (Gielen's relatively new recording sounds to my ears to be serious undercast, although Diener repeats her touching, slightly low-key assumption of Tove.)
First, I will not budge on one fact (i.e opinion!): nobody, but nobody, not even Troyanos, begins to approach the depth, strength and variety of colour that Janet Baker brings to her Wood Dove narration. Her voice, in the rather elderly and hissy live, Danish recording conducted by Ferencsik, is awesomely powerful and resonant yet also delicate and moving. She conveys every nuance of emotion in a tour de force of a performance. Troyanos is good but just compare key moments such as "Tod ist Tove". Everyone else, barring Troyanos (and perhaps Fassbaender on the Chailly set) is an also-ran in this part - and some are quite disappointing - particularly Jennifer Lane in the Craft performance.
Regarding Waldemar, there are, to my ears, a lot of rather windy, over-parted tenors who have a go at this role; strangely enough, Alexander Young, Baker's and Arroyo's partner, makes a success of it simply by treating the role quite lyrically and focussing his lighter voice tellingly instead of trying to blast. O'Mara, on the Craft, is very good; having heard him live I suspect that the recording is kind to him, as his voice in the flesh is not that large, however pleasing and musical. No; for me McCracken in the Ozawa set is close to ideal in timbre and attack - if only he had attempted to sing more quietly in the more intimate passages. However, his is still a thrilling assumption of the role and the right, huge voice for this frenetic, despaired and desperate character - and it is possible that the close recording is partly to blame for his prominence in quieter passages.
I need a soprano of real heft and amplitude of tone as Tove - but someone who can fine down her large voice from the more ecstatic moments to accommodate the declarations of love. Arroyo (Ferencsik -again) and, of course, Jessye Norman for Ozawa, have huge, beautiful voices and their competitors,such as Melanie Diener, while being perfectly adequate, rather pale in comparison.
The strength of the Craft set lies in the coherence and splendour of the choral singing and his control of tension - but the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, too, won a Gramophone Award for their contribution to Ozawa's recording. The soloists in Ozawa'a performance are, as I mention above, recorded rather too closely but the ambience of the Boston Symphony Hall is kind. The Ferencsik does not have as stellar an orchestra or choir as Ozawa but they still generate excitement and depth of sound. The best overall sound is to be found on the Craft (formerly Koch, now Naxos).
So, ultimately, I find myself returning either to Ferencsik or Ozawa for the sterling solo performances and it is the latter that I would cling to at a push - while always regretting that it was not Baker who sang for Ozawa. I don't think that Chailly provides the same thrills; his soloists (Fassbaender apart) strike me as competent but bland - though I do enjoy Hotter's declamation even if he had an inauthentic voice type for the spoken role, if we are to heed the composer's wishes for a lighter ex-tenor sound.
P.S. Having since discovered the superb Munich recording on Oehms (see my review), wonderfully played and conducted by Levine and impressively sung by Heppner and Voigt, I unhesitatingly recommend that one even above the other versions I recommend above. The buyer is spoilt for choice.