Those who vilify Arnold Schönberg for championing 12-tone music and teaching its principles to such devoted followers/composers as Anton Webern and Alban Berg, have probably never heard Gurre-Lieder.
Largely written in 1900 (originally as a song cycle) before expansion and orchestration (1911-1912), the 1913 première in Vienna (conducted by Franz Schreker) must have been a spectacular revelation to all fortunate enough to be in the room (the composer was unable to attend due to his duties in Berlin; frequently, his “spare time” composing was interrupted by the far more lucrative chores of orchestrating fluffy operettas).
This 1965 recording brings the carefully constructed/coloured work to a spectacularly dramatic life. Rafael Kubelik is at one with the composer’s intent and leads a totally committed performance that still sounds fresh and vigorous nearly half a century later. The rapt attention of the audience (courageously, a live performance where, given the complexity of the score and huge number of forces involved, other conductors would prefer the security of a studio) finds its way into the mix, adding a welcome feeling of shared experience, albeit once removed.
The Bavarian players give their all only coming up a bit short in the quiet moments for brass and the vagaries of the oboe’s slim cane. But when full cry is needed, the speakers overflow with tone and texture, all incredibly balanced by the two ever-capable hands of the Czech maestro.
The male choristers are also totally engaged, with just a few errant consonants spoiling the clarity and cleanness of Robert Franz Arnold’s translation of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s magical tale of illicit love, vengeful murder and a celestial quest for justice. The full complement of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks helps ensure that the final music (“Seht die Sonne”) is the most blindingly brilliant depiction of a sunrise in the repertoire. With all of the menacing doom and gloom that preceded, Schönberg’s “Ode to Joy” completely belies the reported inability of the Viennese composer to create art that speaks directly to the soul.
Tenor Herbert Schachtschneider gives a beautifully passionate, nearly pitch-perfect portrayal of Waldemar. His damnation of God (“you are a tyrant, not a king”) is an emotional highlight. Soprano Inge Borkh also convinces as the love-struck Tove, yet her somewhat too-vibrato robs the lines of full-blown naïveté. Mezzo-soprano Hertha Töpper is ideally cast as the Voice of the Wood-dove, sharing the news of Tove’s sudden passing with just the right blend of an artist’s angst and a narrator’s disinterest.
Lorenz Fehenberger employs his flexible tenor to hilarious effect as Klaus the Jester (the opening of which confirms Schönberg—like Paul Hindemith—as a composer’s composer with the cartoon music that leaves no doubt about who’s coming on stage next!). Bass Kieth Engen infuses his contribution as the Peasant with a well-rounded tone and ability to switch moods instantly, notably—in pointed contrast to the desperate Waldemar whose wife has caused Tove’s demise—when speaking to his Maker. Anticipating rappers by decades, the Speaker’s role (brilliantly rendered by Hans Herbert Fiedler whose excellent diction and sense of rhythm effectively combine to create a memorable characterization) adds still another distinct colour to the riot of sound that makes every moment of this truly fantastic tone poem a continuous pleasure. JWR