Graham Rickson
August 2015

Schoenberg's vast Gurre-Lieder began life in 1900 as a modest song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano, its texts drawn from Danish poetry. He suspended work on the piece in 1903, returning to it in 1910—by which time his musical style had radically changed. As had the scale of the piece, which ideally needs between 300 and 400 performers, six vocal soloists and over 100 minutes. Not forgetting the ratchet and some iron chains. The extravagant forces are used with admirable restraint, and performances remain an expensive rarity. Schoenberg was dismayed by the cantata's positive reception when it was first performed in 1913 and refused to face the audience—understandably irked that it was received more positively than his more radical later music. Economics dictate that most modern recordings are made live. Not here—this radiant new Gurre-Lieder was recorded over four days in June 2014. The gains are immense; Markus Stenz's theatrical nous never lets things sprawl, and the playing and singing are faultless. Crucially, no-one ever sounds on the point of collapse, and the closing chorus blazes.

Schoenberg's prelude, seven minutes of delectable minimalist twinkling, is extraordinary. Brandon Jovanovich's and Barbara Haveman excel as Waldemar and Tove, and there's a wonderful cameo from Claudia Mahnke as the Wood Dove at the close of Part One. Part Three's rattling coffin lids are judged to perfection, and there's a nice turn from Thomas Bauer as the Peasant. Stenz's male chorus, often a weak link, are heroic. The final melodrama's modernism is startling, taking us from early Mahler to expressionist, mature Schoenberg. It’s some of the spookiest music ever composed. Johannes Martin Kränzle's sprechtstimme is neatly handled, before the unexpectedly radiant final minutes. All judged to perfection, and Hyperion's sound has impact, warmth and plenty of detail. Essential listening if you've a weakness for late-romantic blockbusters, and this recording, along with Chailly's, is among the best.