Expectations were very high for an evening of art, enlightenment and passion (full disclosure: after all of these years sitting in the dark listening to concerts around the world, this was the first live performance of Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder yet heard).
Sadly, it took just a few measures to realize that conductor David Zinman had bitten off more than he could musically chew.
With his head largely buried in the complex score, the music-making barely scratched the surface of one of the most magnificent scores to touch down on planet Earth.
Too many ensemble and balance problems gave the impression more of a dress rehearsal than a polished performance. In fairness, with so many forces involved, rehearsal time was likely at a premium, but the music doesn’t care about the economic realities of twenty-first century concert production. In any event, the goal of reaching the finish line still standing wasn’t enough to justify the enormous effort from so many individuals.
The visual metaphor of the men’s/mixed chorus being unable to rise or sit as one (all it takes is a single gesture from the podium) foreshadowed the soon-to-be-heard consonant cacophony and unintelligible (except when lightly accompanied) text.
Thank goodness for the soloists.
Christine Brewer was a compelling Tove, searing through her ill-fated role with a surety of pitch and varied dynamic range that made every phrase memorable.
Despite a tendency to push much of the time (less is always more, but that would also require commensurate cooperation from the podium), Stephen Gould delivered a full-blooded Waldemar infused with conviction and drama (“Herr, du solltest wohl erröten— “Lord, you should be ashamed”—spoke volumes).
As Waldtaube, Petra Lang tore into the music and wouldn’t let go—much to the obvious delight of the crowd and the best personification of Schönberg’s cast: a more impassioned “Wood Dove” is hard to imagine.
Stephen Powell was resplendent in the brief but essential mood-changing part as the Peasant (unfortunately introduced by somewhat “untogether” strings).
Andreas Conrad (the Jester) used his flexible voice and wide-ranging visage to great effect, but couldn’t buy a chuckle from the surprisingly dour patrons.
Playing the Speaker, Wolfgang Schöne was superb in his Sprechstimme, notably “Hu! wie’s schaurig (“Ho! Eerie sounds waft over”) and “um Leben und Sonnenschein” (“to make a lively dance in the sunshine”).
Here’s to a future remount with the same, dedicated forces but with one important change of leadership to bring a much more cohesive result. JWR