Tim Ashley
Classical Source
August 2015

Opinions about Gurrelieder have differed over time. Schoenberg resented its success, concerned that audiences favoured it over his major atonal and expressionist works, and its subsequent detractors —there have been many—have always maintained that it represents a last gasp of a post-Romantic decadence that modernism was soon, mercifully, to sweep away. The argument is specious, since the work, in both subject and style, is in many ways pivotal.

Its source was more familiar to its early audiences than it is now. As with his Maeterlinck-based Pelleas und Melisande, Schoenberg was adapting a writer deemed modern and progressive in his day. Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885) is nowadays little read outside his native Denmark, but at the turn of the 20th-century, his international status was high. Delius's Fennimore and Gerda is based on Jacobsen's novel Niels Lyhne. D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Mann both professed admiration for his psychological subtlety and acknowledged his influence.

Jacobsen's Gurresange dates from 1869 and is based on Danish folklore. It has been described as fashionably Wagnerian: it would be fairer to say that it represents a parallel artistic development on comparable lines, though there are similarities to both Tristan und Isolde, in its depiction of the doomed, adulterous lovers Waldemar and Tove, and to Der fliegende Holländer in its subsequent evocation of the spectral wanderings of Waldemar and his men. Yet in Waldemar's ferocious rejection of God for permitting Tove's death, Jacobsen was also to some extent breaking new ground and steering his poem towards territory more familiarly associated with the agonised metaphysics of Dostoevsky's novels of the 1870s, and with Nietzsche's first bewildering pronouncement of the 'death of God' in 1882. Jacobsen's treatment of the spectral ride itself—observed by a terrified Peasant, and subjected to cynical analysis by Waldemar's former jester Klaus-Narr, one of its many unwilling participants—gazes bleakly forward to the linguistic and stylistic violence of Expressionism.

The score, like the text, is Janus-faced. Schoenberg began work on it in 1900, breaking off in 1903 after the completion of Waldemar's blasphemous imprecations in Part 2, and returning to it in 1910. In between came Das Buch der hängenden Gärten and Erwartung, in which his final move to atonality was effected. Part 3 of Gurrelieder, which remains at the boundaries of tonality without crossing them, has been described as retrogressive, though it would probably not have taken the form it did without the intervening works. The desiccated orchestral landscape of Klaus-Narr's monologue is very similar to that of Erwartung with its comparable themes of futile wandering and near-derangement. The Speaker's narrative, meanwhile, marks Schoenberg's first use of Sprechstimme, ushering in a new soundworld as the lovers' ghosts are finally swept away by the summer wind that heralds a renewal in nature.

The sheer scale of the piece has often been deemed excessive, though chorally, despite the preponderance of male voices, it is no bigger than Mahler's Eighth Symphony and orchestrally it is marginally smaller than Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Record companies largely fought shy of it in the analogue age, which did not prevent Leopold Stokowski (in 1932, on 78s, extraordinarily), Rafael Kubelík (1965), János Ferencsik (1968) and Pierre Boulez (1975) from tackling it on disc. With the advent of digital sound, recordings began to proliferate and Hyperion's new set forms the latest addition to its steadily growing, remarkably distinguished discography.

Conducted by Markus Stenz, it was made in Cologne last year, and comes with an authoritative essay on the work by Julian Johnson and Donna Hewitt's fine translation of the text. The playing is breathtaking, marking the Gürzenich Orchestra out as every bit as good, if not better than its counterparts in Vienna (with Abbado), Berlin (the Philharmonic with Rattle, the RSO with Chailly) or Munich (Kubelík), while the level of detail is often remarkable. This is due in part to the recording itself, which represents state-of-the-art sonics at their most convincing and admirable, and in part to Stenz's way with the score, which combines probing intelligence with almost shocking emotional force.

Stenz carefully surveys Schoenberg's debts to Wagner, Mahler and Strauss, while also suggesting that each is taken as a point of departure rather than imitation. The love scenes, very erotic here, have a silky, sensuous delicacy reminiscent of Don Juan and pre-emptive of Der Rosenkavalier, while the premonitions of foreboding that run through text and score—the phrase “Die Zeit is um” (Our time is done) runs through the poem like a motto—have their roots in Hagen's watch in Götterdämmerung, but twist balefully away from their original point of reference, eventually erupting in the near apocalyptic force of the spectral night ride, which is edge-of-your-seat stuff as Stenz conducts it. Klaus-Narr's monologue and the final narration subjects the work's principal themes to a process of Mahlerian dissolution and their eventual re-creation in a musical world that is uniquely Schoenberg's own.

All this proves utterly compelling, though on a vocal level, things are marginally less consistent. The demand for orchestral clarity at all times results, to begin with, in the multiple choruses being placed too far back. This is no reflection on the singing itself, which is beautifully focused, sensitive and very immediate: the men are particularly good in 'Der Hahn erhebt der Kopf zur Kraht,' in which Waldemar's retainers, held by the curse that dogs him, long harrowingly for extinction. But the placing affects the big set pieces. The night ride terrifies thanks to the almost manic energy of Stenz’s conducting, but not because the sheer weight of decibels pins us to our seats as it should. The final hymn to the sun is beautiful, but could do with a bit more grandeur.

Stenz's cast is for the most part strong. He has a handsome-sounding Waldemar in Brandon Jovanovich, pushed in a couple of high notes, but but nicely delineating the way sexual desire twists to obsession, and grief turns catastrophically to existential rage. Tove is played by Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman. A mezzo edge in her lower register makes the love scenes very voluptuous. But the climatic top B at the end of 'Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick' is approached from below, a bit awkwardly. And she doesn't quite make nearly as much of the words as Inge Borkh (on the Kubelík set), still the benchmark performance of the role, though Kubelík's belting Waldemar (Herbert Schachtschneider) and indifferent Wood Dove (Herta Töpper) preclude its being a first-choice recommendation for the work in its entirety.

Stenz's Wood Dove is the young German mezzo Claudia Mahnke, who is going from strength to strength, and whose beautiful, intense singing makes her very much the equal of Brigitte Fassbaender (Chailly) and Janet Baker (Ferencsik) in the role. Gerhard Siegel makes a very Mime-like Klaus-Narr, effectively suggesting near madness, while Gerhard Siegel sounds genuinely distraught rather than melodramatic as the terrified Peasant. Singers and actors have both essayed the Speaker over the years: Stenz's choice is baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle, who gives us the notes more accurately than some, without straying into full voice.

Recommending a single version of Gurrelieder is not easy. If pressed, I would probably opt for the tragic dignity of Chailly's beautiful Decca set, but would also not want to be without Kubelík's blazing conducting, though the vocal inequalities of his recording are a serious drawback. Stenz's performance, however, is a fine achievement, which, despite minor reservations, takes its place among the best, and demands to be heard, for its conducting and playing above all.