You might expect Arnold Schoenberg, that pillar of modernist composition, to be characterised by weird (for the time) atonal stuff; the kind of music that lots of people pretend to like, but struggle to genuinely enjoy. So that’s what I was expecting when Gurre-Lieder landed on my doormat. You might also point out my naïveté – that’s fine – every day’s a school day. Consequently, on first listen, I was (happily) surprised to be greeted with what sounded like a Wagner opera and was secretly relieved to review something where I could tell if the notes were in the right place.
Written during 1900-03, when Schoenberg was in his mid-20s, Gurre-Lieder is a song cycle in the romantic tradition, completely unaware the horrors of the Great War just around the corner, which would precipitate the modernist movement and completely screw up the classical canon for most of the 20th century.
We are greeted immediately with a full orchestra, well recorded but restrained. It’s a pleasant listen but nothing more. Things begin to perk up by track four (Ross! Mein Ross!), which startlingly interrupts this otherwise bland endeavour. I read the inlay: Gurre-Lieder is a love story in which the Danish king Valdemar’s mistress, Tove, is murdered by the king’s angry wife, Queen Helvig. Cursing God, Valdemar is condemned to an afterlife of dramatic operatic struggle (the titular ‘Gurre’ refers to the castle in which this takes place). All the ingredients of an epic opera.
The recording space is just so that the sudden stops and tumbling notes aren’t drowned in reverb and a crispness remains despite the evidently large concert hall. The ups and downs continue throughout part one; a rollercoaster of plunging sopranos, pouncing tenors and all the angst and torment you could expect from anything coming out of Germany 50 years prior. In spite of the swooping dynamics this is far defter than one might expect from a 26-year old. That said, the cycle developed from a relatively simple piano piece into a large-scale orchestral work over several years.
Weighing in at 1h40m, this is perhaps a bit short for opera status, but the ensemble is massive (150 players and 200 singers). These are deployed carefully, each section getting its piece of the limelight without sounding tokenistic (there are occasional shades of Prokofiev). The cautious delineation of sections, pacing and a sense of space, mean that the highs are that bit higher – giving this an edge over many contemporary pieces.
Deckel des Sarges klappert (disc 2, track 3) really emphasises the sound of the concert hall, going from roomy and intimate to spacious and grand assisted as much by the architectural space as the musical architecture. This segues neatly into Gegrüsst, o König, an unparalleled piece of male choral work that reminds the listener of the otherworldly post-death place we’re now in.
Overall, this wasn’t something I’d have necessarily chosen (early work by a composer primarily known for a completely different style). It could have sounded undeveloped at best, or histrionic – like second-rate Wagner – at worst. Instead, it stands exquisitely in its own right and for that alone, it is valuable addition to the canon.
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