Apart from the Ferensik recording, this was the benchmark in the 1970s. The sound here was superior and the general level of the singers was also finer. The actual recorded sound is warm, big, clear and pretty analytical, given the modest size of the venue. It took lots of sessions and an extra time slot to get right, but right it certainly was. Boulez has the full measure of this fabulous work, and revels in the Wagnerian aspects of the score. The BBC orchestra is absolutely superb throughout, without reservation of any kind. The chorus is also committed an skilful, even the high men's parts, which get pretty exposed at times. Jess Thomas has the heft for Waldemar, and sings well, if a tad grainy at times, but the part does tax a tenor with its range and requirement to be heard over an orchestra of 140! Marita Napier is good, but one wishes for a real dramatic soprano here. She sings musically and with good control, she has all the notes. Yvonne Minton is superb in the Song of the Wood Dove. Beauty and fire make this possibly her finest recorded performance. Nimsgerm and Bowen are very fine in their short parts. Critical is the sprechgesang before the final climax, and it is not possible to imagine a finer and more musical performance than that by Gunther Reich. It is so expressive and "singy" that one hardly notices that he isn't singing actual notes, except when he bursts into song at the very end, effectively, even though not quite what is in the score. If it was good enough for Boulez, it is good enough for me! The bonus of the Four Songs with Minton and Boulez enhance the set, but one buys this for Gurre-Lieder. It is worth noting that this is part of the big Sony box with orchestral works under Boulez very cheaply. I got it that way.
I had been meaning to acquire this recording for a long time, being so very attached to this music, but I already had several other recordings and have for some time been convinced that the Levine recording is pre-eminent.
This 1974 recording from Boulez does not supersede the Levine in my judgement but there are aspects of it which are notable, specifically the energised contributions from the three massed choirs, the virtuosity of the BBC Symphony Orchestra specifically trained by Boulez in this massive work, and the mastery of his own conducting. I was simply amazed by the beauty of tone, the subtlety of the dynamic shading and the sheer clarity of Boulez's direction. He is famed for the acuteness of is ear for sonority, texture and intonation and the BBC so can surely have had no finer hour.
The analogue sound lacks somewhat in immediacy and impact but serves the purpose well enough, even if it is put into the shade by later digital recordings.
Where this version pales is in the contribution of its two protagonists: Jess Thomas is impassioned in his delivery of text but the years of singing Wagner have taken their toll on his tenor and even though he is only in his late forties, his vibrato has loosened, the top notes are secure but a bit windy and his emission sometimes sounds rocky. He is by no means inadequate but the true Heldentenor heft of Heppner is lacking. His Tove, Marita Napier is also good with sufficient heft and stamina, but hers is not as glamorous a sound as Arroyo, Norman or Voigt. The supporting roles are filled in top notch style by a forceful Nimsgern, pre-bleat, a really characterfully and properly sung Klaus-Narr from Kenneth Brown and a superb narrator in Günther Reich, whose lighter tone is better suited to the text than the bass too often used and who caps his narration with a sung, fully voiced last note.
The best singer in the set is the great Australian mezzo Yvonne Minton, who bids fair to rival Janet Baker and Tatiana Troyanos as the Wood Dove; in my view, her rich, velvety tone and steady legato are wasted on the horrible Four Orchestral Songs added as a "bonus" but apparently some people like them!
This double CD from Sony presents one of the classic works from the so-called Second Viennese School of composers of the 20th century. Berg and Webern may be more original in their compositions but they are also less frequently played than works by the master, Arnold Schoenberg. This strictly dates from his tonal period before he embraced 12-tone serialism. Schoenberg began work on this piece in 1900 and had it essentially complete within a couple of years, but by the time of its premiere in Vienna in 1913 he had already written Pierrot lunaire and Erwartung in serial style. Gurre-lieder is a setting of a romantic poem by Jens Peter Jacobsen telling of the love of Waldemar and Tove at the castle of Gurre. This splendid performance is given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Singers and Choral Society conducted by Pierre Boulez. The part of Waldemar is sung by Jess Thomas and that of Tove by Yvonne Minton. Her performance of the `Song of the wood-dove' that ends Part 1 never fails to raise the hackles on the back of my neck - I think it is exquisitely beautiful. The only other interpretation I know well that can compare with this for me is that by Raphael Kubelik with the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra with Inge Borkh as Tove and Herbert Schachtschneider as Waldemar. The latter recording is more operatic, the Boulez more romantic and symphonic with a filler of Four Orchestral Songs by Schoenberg, sung by Yvonne Minton.
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.