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PROMS 2002

PROM 13: Schoenberg , ‘Gurrelieder’, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus Philharmonia Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles, RAH, 28th July 2002 (AR)


Christine Brewer - Tove
Jon Villars - Waldemar
Petra Lang - Wood-Dove
Philip Langridge - Klaus
Peter Sidhom - Peasant
Ernst Haefliger - Speaker

Gurrelieder is a hybrid work combining elements of opera, oratorio and cantata. Premiered in Vienna in 1913, the work shows influences by Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. The name ‘Gurre’ is an onomatopoeic allusion to the cooing of doves that inhabit the King’s castle, and this rarely performed work had the majority of the Promenaders engrossed in their programme libretto with a sea of pages turning in unison.

The work is based on an old Danish folk legend which recounts the love of King Waldemar for the maiden Tove.  Waldemar’s jealous Queen, Helwig, discovers the love affair and has the girl killed. Waldemar grieves and curses God in his anguish; after his death, his impiety is punished and he and his followers are doomed to ride abroad at night for eternity.

Schoenberg’s sumptuous musical colouration reminded me of the shimmering, vivid palettes of the composer's artist contemporaries Kandinsky and Jawlensky, currently on show at the Royal Academy in the exhibition Masters of Colour.  The composer calls for huge forces: seven clarinets, eight flutes, three bassoons, two contra bassoons, seven trombones, four harps, celesta, eleven percussion, a huge body of strings as well as five solo singers, a speaker, three four-part male voice choruses and an eight-part mixed chorus. However, the composer uses these huge forces sparingly for greater impact and intensity in the climaxes.

Donald Runnicles conducted Gurrelieder as if it were a chamber symphony for a large orchestra, and kept tight control of these massive forces. His tempi were broad and measured but never dragged; he sustained a pulse that allowed the score to breathe revealing great orchestral detail which is all too often swamped and smudged. Clarity of textures and the handling of climaxes were perfectly judged, lending the work a translucent delicacy completely lacking in the recent recording by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The BBC SO were in excellent form, particularly the woodwind section with their seductive sound and perfect phrasing. What made this beautifully prepared performance all the more remarkable was that it was given on the hottest night of the year, transforming the Royal Albert Hall into a high-Victorian Turkish bath.

Turning to the evening’s soloists, Jon Villars‚ Waldemar was curiously passionless and totally lacking in presence; his performance could have been phoned in. By contrast, Christine Brewer was well suited to the maiden Tove - warm, sensitive and passionate with a broad range of colour and emotion. Petra Lang’s Wood Dove could best be described as definitive; she sung exquisitely with total assurance - a perfect fusion of artist and role.  Philip Langridge put great personality and authority in to the character Klaus the Fool and Peter Sidhom was a perfect sounding Peasant.

The small but important Sprechgesang role of Speaker was excellently delivered by veteran Ernst Haefliger.  The old boy got extra enthusiastic applause. The three choirs acquitted themselves magnificently from sotto voce to con belto.

Confronted by these huge forces and a daunting score, Donald Runnicles nevertheless kept his nerve and delivered a powerful performance whilst retaining discipline, precision and sensitivity. All in all, a sublime if somewhat sweaty experience.

Alex Russell

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