SCHOENBERG:  Gurrelieder
Karita Mattila, soprano (Tove); Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano (Waldtaube); Thomas Moser, tenor (Waldemar); Philip Langridge, tenor (Klaus-Narr); Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone (Bauer, Sprecher); Rundfunkchor Berlin; MDR Rundfunkchor, Leipzig; Ernst Senff Chor Berlin; Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.

EMI CLASSICS 57303 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT:  59:46 & 50:28

An era of gigantism in Western music that began after the defeat and final exile of Napoleon lasted nearly a century. The choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (with instruments borrowed from the opera pit as well as vocal soloists and large four-part chorus) opened Pandora's Box. Berlioz took up the cause - most spectacularly in Grand messe de Morts but by no means exclusively there. His closet disciple was Wagner, whose operas after The Flying Dutchman got longer and more prolix, culminating in Tristan, Parsifal, and those four challenges to one's kidneys and bladder, Der Ring des Nibelung. The banner was taken up most notably by Mahler, whose contribution was the Eighth Symphony (promptly nicknamed "A Symphony of a Thousand"). By 1900, however - six years before Mahler's first sketches for this symphony - Schoenberg had embarked on Gurrelieder, which he put aside until 1910, the year Mahler premiered his Eighth. Schoenberg's evolution during that decade included speech-song (Sprechstimme) hand in glove with pan-tonality (as he preferred it be called rather than "atonality," a label that has stuck ever since). Thus the third and final part of Gurrelieder, a Wagnerio-Mahlerian song cycle up to that point, becomes a preview of Pierrot Lunaire, with a humongous C-major coda in praise of the Sun.

Meanwhile, quite apart from Schoenberg but indubitably influenced by Mahler, Richard Strauss tried the water with Salome in 1905, then followed with Elektra in 1908 - massively scored for any opera pit. But the good burgher from Bavaria evidently terrified himself. He backed away from the Dark Forest of ambiguous and dissonant tonality where Schoenberg was cutting a path, and retreated to tonality. Yet Strauss had one last burst of gigantism in him, in spite of having ignored the orchestra per se for almost a decade after Symphonia Domestica (finished on New Year's Eve, 1903, and roughed up by the critics thereafter). Re-reading Nietzsche, who had died a nutcase by then, Strauss began thinking about An Alpine Symphony, and finished it in short score during1913. By 1915 he filled in details for an immense orchestra including 20 horns plus 6 each of trumpets and trombones. Meanwhile, Stravinsky completed his original version of Le Sacre du printemps in 1913 for quintuple winds, 18 brass (including 2 Wagner tubas) and lots of percussion.

World War I put a sudden end to gigantism abroad, although in the U.S. Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives still wrote for massed forces until the Great Depression. With everything tallied, Gurrelieder was longer by 20 minutes than than Mahler's Eighth, and demanded the largest orchestra before or since (not counting those monster aggregations in 19th-century America conducted by Jullien, Offenbach and Johann Strauss Jr., which were aggrandized doublings). Including a percussionist to rattle chains, Gurrelieder required an orchestra of 157, three male choruses, a mixed chorus of several hundred, five vocal soloists and a pre-Pierrot Speaker. (Universal of Vienna, who published it, subsequently commissioned a reduced version from Erwin Stein "for normal-sized orchestra".) Franz Schreker conducted the original at Vienna on February 23, 1913 to great acclaim - the greatest triumph in Schoenberg's career. But sheer size, plus World War I, plus the opprobrium that attached to his "12-note method," militated against frequent further performances, although Artur Nikisch conducted it at Berlin before his death in 1922, and the composer himself led performances at Vienna, Leipzig, Amsterdam, and a BBC broadcast at the Queen's Hall in 1928. Despite the yelps of a Depression-bedeviled Board, Stokowski introduced it stateside with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the New York Metropolitan House on April 8, 9 and 10, 1932, which RCA Victor recorded on 28 sides. Schoenberg did not like the reading or the changes (including cuts) that Stokowski made when he heard the discs (which Pearl has remastered for the curious to sample on CDs).

Gurrelieder languished stateside until Thor Johnson gave the U.S. premiere of what Schoenberg wrote in toto on February 2-3, 1951, in the Music Hall at Cincinnati. I worked that season for the orchestra and can testify to Johnson's passion, painstaking preparation, and fidelity. As conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra's annual choral concerts during the Ann Arbor May Festival at the time, Johnson interrogated several surviving players from 1932 who confirmed not only cuts but a considerable reduction in orchestral numbers. 120 is still a horde, but Schoenberg wrote for 157. London Records wanted to release a Voice of America broadcast tape of the Cincinnati production on LP, but the Musicians' Local objected to the use of "non-professional" (i.e. non- unionized) choristers, and priced the orchestra's services beyond London's budget.

I don't know if there was a performance between that one and Seiji Ozawa's in 1979 at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which Philips recorded but didn't release on CD until 1985.  Abroad, however, Boulez had made a muscular version at London for Sony, even before Ozawa, and DGG published a live Bavarian Radio performance by Rafael Kubelik. Since then Gurrelieder has been multiply recorded: in Berlin by Riccardo Chailly for Decca; by Eliahu Inbal at Frankfurt for Denon; by János Ferencsik at Copenhagen for EMI; by Herbert Kegel for Berlin Classics with both the Leipzig and Dresden Philharmonic orchestras (date unknown); by Zubin Mehta for Sony at New York in 1992; by Claudio Abbado that same year at Vienna, taped live by DGG, and by the late Giuseppe Sinopoli at Dresden in 1995 forTeldec. And as I write, Music Masters has announced a new one conducted by Robert Craft. Before proceeding, let me say that I know only the Ozawa, Boulez, and Chailly versions (the latter from a stereo broadcast).

Now comes Simon Rattle on EMI, in a highly-touted performance from the Berliner Festwoch of 2001, most of it recorded "live." However, soprano Karita Mattila was detained in New York by the events of 9/11, and her substitute was not satisfactory by Rattle's (or, presumably, EMI's) standards. Mattila taped her four songs later and they were interpolated seamlessly. Her voice is ample enough and beautiful, without effacing the memory of Jessye Norman with Ozawa. But I found diction sacrificed to vocal production. Several times I needed to consult the text to see what exactly Mattila was singing. But then no Gurrelieder, based on reviews of the recordings I have not heard, has had an altogether satisfactory cast.

For those unfamiliar with the work, based on Danish poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen, Part I contains10 songs - five for a tenor who sings King Valdemar IV, and four for Tove Lille, his adored mistress whom he ensconsed in Gurre Castle. But Valdemar's jealous wife Hedwig has Tove poisoned, and in the tenth (and longest) song the Wood Dove laments Tove's murder. Part II lasts less than five minutes; Valdemar curses God, and vows to hunt through the night with his vassals. The King, his men, a terrified peasant, and "Klaus-Narr" - a sardonic jester denied peace in his grave because of Valdemar's night hunts - carry on until the Speaker importunes Nature to rejoice in life and the sun's light. The work ends affirmatively after Valdemar and his vassals return exhausted to their graves.

The first part, until the Wood Dove's lamentation, suggests both Tristan and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The brief second part is an almost operatic curse. But the wild hunt, the Peasant's terror, Klaus-Narr's sarcasm, and the Speaker's resolution are progressively Schoenbergian - altogether gripping in their Expressionistic impact. This is no longer Kansas, Toto, not even the concluding C-major paean. As for Rattle's performance, it is deliberately underplayed in greater part; he is reputed to have told the Berlin Philharmonic to perform Part I "like Daphnis et Chloč" because it really is string-quartet music. Does this work? Not often enough. The best of his soloists is Thomas Quasthoff, who doubles as Peasant and Speaker - we hear character and commitment as well as vocal authority. Philip Langridge, a veteran of Second Viennese School music, is admirably aging as Klaus-Narr. However, despite her eminence as an interpreter, Anne Sofie von Otter's voice really is too light for the Wood Dove's tragic outcry - I can still hear the short-lived Nell Tangeman's horror-stricken performance more than 50 years ago in Cincinnati's rehearsals and performances. Thomas Moser is reputed to have sung Valdemar more smoothly in Sinopoli's recording seven years ago, although Lohengrin-weight tenors are currently an endangered species. All four choruses perform with a unity befitting Abbado's wonderfully elegant Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan's weighty wake, despite the rush of some Britcrix to proclaim it Rattle's; but then, with Colin Davis in his mid-70s, they need a standard-rep podium hero.

Recorded sound disappoints. Even on Bob Benson's Surround-Sound Wonder, choral placement lacked spaciousness; and startlingly there was no real bass until R.E.B. switched back to conventional stereo. My vindicated vintage rig was able to make a great noise in the curse and hunt sections (a different Britcrik found the sound laid-back?!). But the Philharmonie is a tricky place to record, with or without an audience. In other words, this performance - despite numerous merits - makes me want to hear the Gurrelieder of Abbado and Sinopoli, as well as Chailly's discs (not just a broadcast of them).

R.D. (July 2002)

In my long review of Simon Rattle's Y2K recording, I misdated the release of both Kubelik's version and Ozawa's first performance. Stephen Hillyer wrote me that the Kubelik on DGG was a Bavarian Radio broadcast from the early '60s at Tanglewood. Mr. Hillyer was kind enough to burn a CD from from a open-reel tape of a Boston broadcast -- a production that featured Phyllis Curtin as Tove, James McCracken as Valdemar (in finer voice than his1979 recording with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony), and Lili Chookasian as the Wood Dove. It has an immediacy of expression - in one sense a thrill of discovery by Ozawa - that had softened some by 1979, although I prefer both to Rattle, now that I've listened again to EMI's production from Berlin. This may have the slickest playing you'll ever hear of the music, but too much of his reading, reheard, strikes me as bordered on effete. Mr. Hillyer also reminded me that the first Gurrelieder after Stokowski's was by René Leibowitz, in ca. 1959 mono with French forces, which Dante Lys announced for future release. But Lawrence Kasimow advises that Dante Lys is out of business, as so many recording companies now are, world-wide.

R.D. (Aug. 2002)