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A SENSIBLE SELECTION,
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This review is from: Schoenberg: Gurrelieder; Verklärte Nacht; Chamber Symphony No.1 &c (Audio CD)
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.