Customer Review

11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good - but not the best, 1 April 2008
This review is from: Schoenberg: Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht, Chamber Symphony No. 1 (Audio CD)
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.
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Location: Bishop's Stortford, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 34