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The GREATEST recording of Gurrelieder,
This review is from: Gurre-Lieder (Audio CD)
When I first heard Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, in 1980 the impact of hearing this massive score was quite overwhelming, even for someone who knew Mahler's symphonies. At this time it was played very infrequently and recordings rare. This was a piece at the time that sounded like no other, an impression only enhanced when I heard this remarkable recording by Boulez made during the heyday of his tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At the time, there was no orchestra anywhere that played Schoenberg as well as the BBCSO under Boulez so it is no surprise to find that Boulez wanted to record Gurrelieder with the BBC rather than with the New York Philharmonic of whom he was then chief conductor.
Somehow a conductor has to capture the world of late, hyper-romanticism which is bordering into the early modern. A cycle of 20 songs and chorus structured around significant development of Wagner's leitmotif, it combines the sweeping power of Mahler with the grandiose that out reaches Strauss but has a raw edge that is unmistakably Schoenberg. It is one of the great transitional works and in part 3 Schoenberg wrote some of his most daring and radical orchestration. The danger in Gurrelieder is to treat this piece as an opera without staging and let the singers loose with vocal virtuosity, when that is not really part of Schoenberg's conception. Drama is not the central element here, rather a more abstract concept of the interplay of poems and their moods that should play themselves out in the listeners' mind. This is much more in keeping with what Schoenberg was doing at the time in works like Verklarte Nacht and his smaller songs, and the same compositional processes are to be found in Gurrelieder. This is Schoenberg striking out for the new and we have to remember in 1900 the 140 piece orchestra with its 26 piece brass section and was new.
As an interpretation this performance is without equal. This recording captures Boulez at a time he was performing Schoenberg with the same energy found in his Domaine Musicale recordings of Schoenberg. Schoenberg's most daring orchestral writing is here given the full treatment and that is due entirely to Boulez aiming to be true to Schoenberg's score. The playing of the BBCSO is quite simply superb and shows just what a fine orchestra they had become under Boulez. Although there are many moments of quite breath-taking playing their stunning virtuosity comes through most in the orchestral passage that concludes the Jester's song. The highlight of the whole performance is however Gunter Reich's interpretation of the melodrama, a performance that has never been equalled.
Contrasting some other versions will highlight what I mean. Ozawa places the piece in the nineteenth century with the most strident passages watered down and the narrator's Sprechstimme passage downplayed to the point it is a disaster. Rattle tries to play much of the piece as a giant chamber work and delivers a controlled, wholly unconvincing and lukewarm reading which is neither one thing or another despite the excellent playing of the BPO. Sinopoli indulges in the lush orchestral textures and whilst he obtains quite exceptional clarity of texture, there is a lack of a certain rawness that is needed to bring this music fully to life. Levine's is a good performance even if it does put one more in mind of Wagner than Schoenberg but the balance of his orchestra is far from good with a distant brass section too much of the time. Perhaps the best of the others is Ferencsik but even here, there needs to be a far greater sweep to the orchestral sound.
The technical problems of recording this piece in the 1970's where enormous. We take it for granted today the largest pieces can be rendered with near perfect sound quality. When this recording was done, it was pushing the limits of the technology in a venue that was inadequate in size and sadly it wasn't quite up to handling the very largest sections of Schoenberg's score with what we would expect today. That said it is still a remarkable achievement and in the context of this performance such issues do not stay in the mind for long. What I find to be the most important thing in this performance is Schoenberg's music and the concept he had for the cycle and that is what Boulez and the BBCSO realise and why this recording is still the benchmark more than 35 years after it was done.
An added bonus is the fabulous performance of the 4 Songs Op. 22. These pieces are hard enough to come across at the best of times and to have them in such a good performance should not be missed.