ENDNOTES, 21st September 2017

Edmund Blair Leighton – God Speed

ENDNOTES, 21st September 2017

Edward Gardner conducts Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder for Chandos Records, reviewed by STUART MILLSON

Several works proclaim the creed of the late-romantic period – in particular its transition into the world of early modernism: Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and his ‘Resurrection’ symphony; Havergal Brian’s Symphony No. 1, ‘Gothic’; and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder – the latter appearing in a dazzling, deeply-felt new recording on the Chandos label, conducted in Bergen by Edward Gardner, and supported by soloists of the calibre of Stuart Skelton, tenor, and Sir Thomas Allen.

Berg, Schoenberg and Webern, the Second Viennese School, and those of their predecessors, Wagner and Mahler, are often viewed in terms of a musical progression or evolution: the mysterious, melancholic, descending phrase at the opening of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde taking symphonic and operatic music beyond mere “storm and stress” to a darker, or to some, more brilliant horizon. In this supercharged musical closure to the late-romantic era, dissonance and chaos began to grind against established harmonies: the vast orchestral scores of the period breaking free from all hitherto normal frameworks. Like a painting exploding out of its own physical boundaries, the music of Schoenberg brought music into an entirely new dimension.

How apt, then, that in this farewell to romanticism, Schoenberg chose a story which Wagner himself might have set: the tale of Danish King Waldemar of Gurre and his obsessive love for a maiden called Tove. But it is a love which ends in tragedy: Tove, sung on this CD set by soprano, Alwyn Mellor, is found dead, a discovery which brings torment and derangement to Waldemar (a Heldentenor role, delivered passionately by Stuart Skelton) – the King’s subsequent defiance of God unleashing in the now deathly atmosphere of Gurre and its surroundings a supernatural chain of events, not least the appearance of an army of phantoms, sung with biting, raw fervour by male choirs, brandishing clanking, rusty weaponry in their monarch’s name.

The work – in a physical setting perhaps reminiscent of Gormenghast, or a castle from The Lord of the Rings, or possibly even a Gothic Hammer Horror film set in Transylvania – Gurrelieder, the text based upon the writings of 19th-century Danish botanist and mystic, Jens Peter Jacobsen, demands massive orchestral and choral forces, including four harps, ranks of brass and percussion players, and multiple choirs – all of which fill the stage of the Grieghallen in Bergen, where this live performance was recorded, to capacity. Yet the piece grew from more modest beginnings, a gestation period which included work on the score from 1900 to 1903, and subsequently in 1910, through to the world-premiere performance in Vienna in 1913.

The drama begins with an orchestral introduction – flutes playing a dotted, innocent yet intricate pattern over a growing swell of strings, with a lone trumpeter possibly signifying Waldemar’s appearance in the radiant, yet end-of-day woodland setting. Surrounded by such verdant beauty, the King seems to be in a state of ecstatic feeling, and longs to be reunited with Tove. From over-ripe lushness (Schoenberg’s technicolor romanticism verging on decay), the score’s direction suddenly changes, to music which could easily have come from Die Walkure – as Waldemar now urges his thoroughbred horse to gallop home to Gurre’s now moonlit battlements with all haste. The orchestral writing starts to hint at what is to come – with music which begins to hurtle along, to fall over itself with an energy and congestion which an augmented Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra manages to absorb with great steadiness. A series of rapturous declarations of love then follow between Waldemar and Tove – but the growing intensity of it all is shattered by Tove’s death, the cause of which – at the hand of Waldemar’s murderously jealous wife, Helwig, is related in the famous ‘Song of the Wood Dove’. The gentle creature – although sung by a full-bodied operatic mezzo-soprano, the superb Anna Larsson – is a witness to Tove’s fate; the stark truth and accusation of this scene brilliantly and terrifyingly concluded by a massive, sinister, sustained brass chord, and slow, portentous strokes on timpani.

Following the song of the Wood Dove, the short Part ll of Gurrelieder begins with an equally terrifying and stormy passage in which Waldemar shakes his fist at heaven, singing:

“Herrgott, ich bin auch ein Herrscher…” [Lord God, I, too, am a ruler… The course you pursue is wrong which means you are a tyrant, not a king.]

With a powerful, Bruckner-like drive to it, Waldemar’s song of defiance leads to the unleashing of the ‘Wild Hunt’ of his warriors – drums and a massive brass fanfare summoning the phantom army from creaking graves. Yet another Brucknerian touch precedes this overwhelmingly sinister and dramatic passage: a doleful tune, evoking the brooding phrases of trombones and Wagner tubas from the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony. The theme appears, once again, at the end of the Wild Hunt, played this time on the deep, rich cello section of the Bergen Philharmonic.

But no sooner has the composer established the story and characters (all except Queen Helwig, who never makes an appearance) than the “sense” of the work changes – partially forsaking late-romanticism and entering the sound-world with which most people associate with Schoenberg the modernist, or Berg or Kurt Weill.  A jester – Klaus – a ghostly relic of the old court at Gurre – tells us (accompanied by bizarre, quirky tones from the orchestra) of an old mad king who worships a girl, long-since dead; and then after having heard the final statements and melting away into nothingness of the tragic, defeated Waldemar and his warriors, a narrated sequence introduces a paean to Nature – although, again, with many surprises.

Here, Thomas Allen – the ‘Speaker’ – describes the ‘Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind’, an encounter with shooting stars, a spider – fiddling and weaving a web, “Sir Goosefoot, Lady Amaranth and Sir Glow-worm – with his fire-red tongue”, but not before we close our eyes and enjoy an orchestral introduction of simple, even primitive sustained phrases on high woodwind suggesting the gradual, radiant opening of a summer day. Like the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony, or the sparing, astringent sounds in early sections of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Schoenberg’s writing suspends us in time. To quote the libretto – an “exquisite dream” of “transient summer” is all around us (Gurre’s death and insanity, at last, cleansed and wafted away); but in describing these beauties, the Speaker addresses the audience, not in the language and atmosphere of Schubert’s lieder or Mahler’s Rhine legends, but in the half-speech, half-rhyming style of German Expressionism – Sprechgesang – as if we are looking at a pastoral scene through a strange distortion of refraction. A peculiar, angular, hypnotic intensity – part-way between a scene from the master of ceremonies in ‘Cabaret’ and an over-emphasised reading from a Grimm fairy-tale – “gazes upward at the sun” and urges all flowers – all the world, in fact – to “Awaken, awaken to joy”.

And finally, we come to the seismic, Zarathustra-like conclusion of Gurrelieder, where the sun rises in ineffable glory – the massed choirs unleashed by Edward Gardner’s impassioned direction as the fiery sky appears “out of the night tides”. Waldemar and all that happened at the beginning of the saga seem a distant memory – almost part of a different work – as the voices of the Bergen Philharmonic and Edvard Grieg Choir (with the Choir of the Collegium Musicum, Orphei Drangar and singers from the Royal Northern College of Music) combine to hail the light of the new day.

An ambitious programme for any orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic gives its very best performance for this memorable Chandos CD – which has certainly tested the company’s sound engineers, Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Couzens, supported by Jonathan Cooper and Gunnar Herleif Nilsen from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. Capturing both the delicacy and the vast sonority of Schoenberg’s visionary score is a challenge for all concerned, especially when such a piece really demands a performance space equivalent to the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.

The CD booklet contains some extremely interesting photographs of the rehearsals and final performance – and it is a marvel to see just how packed the Norwegian hall was (stage and auditorium) for this extravaganza. My only criticism is that the CD fails to give us the response of the audience. At the end of the monumental sunrise, I expected to hear a roar of approval from the concertgoers at the Grieghallen. But this caveat aside, herewith one of the best CD issues of the year.

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review

Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and choirs conducted by Edward Gardner. Catalogue number, CHSA 5172(2) 

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