More than a century after its first appearance, Arnold Schoenberg’s name on a concert programme still sends concertgoers fleeing in confusion and dismay – irrationally, since Schoenberg was essentially a conservative composer with a powerful urge to engage. If you know anyone who is afflicted with Schoenberg phobia, play them Gurre-Lieder and you won’t have to wait very long for 'oohs' and 'aahs' of unadulterated pleasure.
Begun in 1900, as a low-budget song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano, Gurre-Lieder wound up a dozen years later as an orchestral score for 150 musicians, five soloists and six choruses, almost two hours long. What happened in between? Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, that’s what. Schoenberg was overwhelmed by Mahler’s personality and vision and shattered by his death in 1911. Achieving a work that was as vast as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony while maintaining the innocence of his early Klagende Lied proved an irresistible challenge to a penniless, embattled composer. Gurrelieder, like Mahler’s Eighth, is a game of unequal halves, neither oratorio nor opera, yet oddly gripping.
The story is banal. The king has a fling. The queen kills the girl. The king goes riding with ghosts. More Wagner than Mahler, the score surges with unresolved Tristan chords and pent-up sexual frustration (Schoenberg was having domestic issues at the time.) It requires a top-notch orchestra and a conductor with micro-tight control.
Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra fits the bill, with glorious lower strings and searing woodwind solos; conductor Markus Stenz keeps the passion simmering, never lets it flag. Brandon Jovanovich sings a wistful king, Barbara Haveman a much-wronged queen; the choirs are tremendous and the concertmaster, Ursula Maria Berg, has a way of shifting the narrative that is rare in a work of this size.
On record, nothing matches Rattle’s 2001 all-stars—Mattila, Moser, Langridge, Otter, Quasthoff—but the Cologne sound is warmer than Berlin’s and the tempi more fluid and sympathetic. Don’t hesitate.