on 31 July 2011
We are now in the fortunate situation of having a plethora of Gurrelieder recordings to choose from, starting with Ozawa's pioneering account from the late 1970s by way of Chailly's wonderful recording (which is still highly recommendable) through to more modern interpretations by Robert Craft, Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Whilst all these recordings are very good in their own ways, let me draw your attention to Abbado's account from 1995.
In my opinion this recording has been unfairly neglected in favour of those by Chailly, Craft and Rattle. The lack of any reviews on both the UK and US Amazon websites is somewhat puzzling, as I believe this is one of the most accomplished recordings of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder ever committed to disc. The one great advantage here is the sumptuous sound of the Vienna Philharmonic and I can assure you that they are on top form. From the ultra-Wagnerian textures of Part 1 to the waspish, highly colourful (and extremely virtuosic) writing in Part 3, the Viennese players provide all the nuances and burnished tone that you could ask for.
With such a huge work conductors tend to take one of two possible approaches - either you treat the piece in a very transparent, light, almost chamber-like manner in the way that both Rattle and Salonen do, or you unashamedly luxuriate in the romantic writing, having more time to focus on details (like in Craft's recording). Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages of course, but all I would say is that Abbado manages to steer a very intelligent middle path between these two views and as a result creates a wonderfully cohesive and engaging performance that is epic and highly romantic in Part 1 and incredibly energetic and propulsive in Parts 2 and 3.
For Part 1 to succeed you really need voices that are suited to the parts of Tristan and Isolde in order to convey the nocturnal ecstasy and delirium that Schoenberg generates in the music. Siegfried Jerusalem is in fine voice as Waldemar, moving from introspection to overwhelming passion with such beauty of tone that I really can't think of any other tenor who could surpass this performance. Sharon Sweet is equally good as Tove, singing with an appropriate amount of passion and world-weariness. Perhaps occasionally her tone is a little bit strained on the highest notes and her attention to the text isn't always as clear as it could be, but it is nevertheless a highly accomplished performance. Marjana Lipovsek is incredibly intense as the Wood-Dove, using her dark-hued voice to great effect. I would say that she is in a similar league to Ann Sophie von Otter's thrilling account for Rattle, but perhaps von Otter's pacing is more appropriate - Lipovsek has a tendency to peak a bit early in her effort to convey an intense atmosphere.
The orchestral playing in Part 1 is of the highest order - the prelude sparkles and the important melodic lines in the trumpet and cor anglais aren't overly prominent (they are given just the right amount of weight to tell). As you would expect, the strings are ravishing as the writing becomes more and more Wagnerian. As we move into Parts 2 and 3 the burnished tone is still there but Abbado gets his players to inject a wonderful variety of colour and tone into the music. From the frenetic cry of Waldemar's 'Herrgott, weisst du, was du tatest' to the incredibly virtuosic and cartoonish music in Klaus-Narr's 'Ein seltsamer Vogel ist so'n Aal' and what I believe is one of the eeriest sections of the whole piece - the Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind. Here the tone in the woodwind is so still you can really sense the chill blowing through the music.
Hartmut Welker as the Peasant is perhaps the only weak link in the chain - his voice has the right amount of heft but it all feels a bit plain and unimaginative. Fortunately his part only lasts three minutes, so I wouldn't let it spoil this wonderful recording - it is practically inevitable that there will always be one weaker soloist in such a huge work. However, Philip Langridge makes an ideal Klaus - biting, sarcastic and extremely imaginative. He still gives us more of the pitches than some soloists have done in the past and his extensive operatic experience really shows here. The Wiener Staatsopernchor are thrilling as Waldemar's Men, creating a chilling effect through their flawless ensemble and biting sound. Depending on whether you prefer a female or male Speaker, Barbara Sukowa is her usual controversial self, bringing a highly colourful sense of theatre to her part which some people will find overdone but others, like me, find it quite refreshing and extremely imaginative (if a bit shouty in places...!).
Then at last we have a truly spectacular final chorus. Unlike in Rattle's recording, where the choirs are somewhat suppressed in the sound balance, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Slovak Philharmonic Choir are much more upfront here and you can really sense the inspiration that Abbado has instilled in them. Put together, the orchestra and choirs produce a thrilling sound towards the end.
One other advantage with this recording is the superior sound quality. It is extremely difficult to balance all the players, soloists and choirs in such an epic work, but Deutsche Grammaphon manage these forces very well indeed. All the orchestral details are there in the sound, but there is also enough air around the ensemble to create a more atmospheric quality - this is especially effective in the more intimate moments, where the space around the instruments adds to the luminosity of the scoring.
Personally I believe that this recording is one of the strongest out there. If you want to hear a slightly different take on Gurrelieder, one that is equally impressive, try Salonen's recent live recording with the Philharmonia. Amongst recent efforts, Abbado, Salonen and Rattle are my top choices for now, with a preference for Abbado's finely crafted account which has an ideal combination of epic, dynamic sweep and attention to detail in the more colourful passages. For a mere £11.99 (as a download), I would grab this while it is still around.