Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Suite for String Orchestra
Martina Arroyo (Tove); Alexander Young (Waldemar);
Janet Baker (Wood-dove); Odd Wolstad (Peasant);
Niels Møller (Klaus the Fool); Julius Patzak (Speaker)
Chorus of Danish Radio and Danish State Radio Symphony & Concert Orchestras conducted by János Ferencsik.
* Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar
Reissue of recordings first published in 1974 (Gurrelieder) and 1965 (Suite for Strings)
EMI CZS5 74194 2CDs [137:25]


The audience at the première of Schoenberg's gigantic Gurrelieder, in Vienna, on 23 February 1913, loudly applauded the work and demanded to see him onstage. Schoenberg reluctantly he appeared; bowed to the conductor and the performers but ignored his audience. Later he was to claim that these were the people who had refused to recognise the worth of his other works; works like the Five Orchestral Pieces and Pierrot Lunaire that had baffled critics and audiences alike. Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, unlike the aforementioned pieces poses few, if any difficulties; it is firmly tonal and looks back to the Late Romantic tradition with a strong Wagnerian influence. It is in this work that Schoenberg scales the pinnacle of Late Romanticism not Mahler nor Richard Strauss.

Schoenberg chose as the text for these orchestral songs, 'Songs of the Gurre' (Gurrelieder) by the Danish poet and novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-85) (much favoured by Frederick Delius). The story, related in the songs, concerns the 12th century King Waldemar of Denmark who lived in the castle of Gurre on the Danish coast, and who fell in love with a beautiful young maiden called Tove. Blindly infatuated, he took her to live with him in the castle. Unsurprisingly, his Queen was madly jealous, and she murdered Tove. Grief-stricken, Waldemar cursed God for his loss. As punishment for this blasphemy, Waldemar, and his vassals, were condemned to ride the sky forever in a vain search for the late lamented Tove.

For his Gurrelieder, Schoenberg uses huge choral and orchestral forces including four flutes, four piccolos, five oboes, seven clarinets, three bassoons, ten horns, seven trumpets, seven trombones, one tuba, six timpani and a massive battery of percussion (including some large iron chains), four harps, celesta and a more than substantial string section. Gurrelieder is set in four parts; the final part is known as the Melodrama: The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind.

Part One consists of twelve sections with nine songs (four for Tove, five for Waldemar) that tell of their burgeoning love, preceded by an orchestral Prelude. The music of this Prelude is magical. It glitters and shimmers, suggesting the splendour of a sunset over the Danish coast and Waldemar's castle, and the sweet languor of romance until shadows fall and the gathering darkness has a foreboding… Waldemar's first song is hushed and softly lyrical, the orchestra offering a gentle lilting accompaniment that seems suspended in boundless space as if to imply the promise of eternal love. Alexander Young tenderly floats his affirmation of love and Martina Arroyo responds serenely in her first aria in similar ecstatic mood before ominous clouds gather so that Waldemar's second aria is troubled and dramatic. Great turbulent orchestral forces are unleashed evoking thwarted passion and stormy seas with huge surging waves. The following songs for Waldemar and Tove alternate between the wild and passionate, and calmer more poignant episodes. Alexander Young may not be in the front rank of Wagnerian Heldentenors required for the ardent, then anguished, then deranged Waldemar, but he is expressive enough. Arroyo does not convince very much, she sounds too matronly for Tove. Susan Dunn on the rival Decca set (with Siegfried Jerusalem as a most heroic Waldemar) has youth, freshness and purity.

Waldemar's 'Es ist Mittersnacht' is very atmospheric with Young communicating ardour and foreboding well, and the orchestra conjuring ghoulish nocturnal figures as well as tenderness. Another huge orchestral interlude contrasting romantic yearning and ecstasy with demonic material and mountainous, battering seas, precedes the eleven-minute Song of the Wood-dove - perhaps the best-known section of the work. The wood-dove tells of the death of Tove, of the love she shared with Waldemar, of the funeral procession, and how she, herself, was killed by the Queen's falcon. Janet Baker as the wood-dove is very affecting in her mournful and accusatory cries. This is very definitely the highlight of this set.

Part II is very brief consisting of one song: Waldemar's curse. Part III commences with Waldemar summoning his vassals to join him in the wild hunt through eternity for Tove. Lower strings brood as Waldemar mourns; then, as he stirs himself into action, the orchestra bursts into imposing fanfares summoning the vassals. The Wagner of Tannhäuser seems to be recalled here. There follows a highly colourful evocation of the frightful ride over the treetops and across the sky with skeletal, spectral figures as men rise from their graves to join the riders. A terrified peasant observes their progress and Klaus the Fool (Niels Møller excellent in the role), sounding very much like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, complains of being dragged from his grave for the pointless chase. The men's chorus sounds frenzied and undisciplined suggesting the reckless insanity of their mission. Nevertheless, a demented Waldemar urges them on.

Part IV, The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind, begins with a glistening evocation of the warmth and glow of summer, with breezes slowly fluttering and gathering momentum. As the wind gathers force and grows shriller, the Speaker declares another hunt has begun that of the summer wind. Then, in the final song a mixed chorus sees the sun rise and sings to it a life-affirming hymn bringing Gurrelieder to a triumphant conclusion.

The Danish orchestra's playing is splendid. Clearly, for such a huge work it would be difficult to realise the perfect interpretation, and although Janet Baker and to a lesser extent Alexander Young make this a sterling set, the recommended choice is the DG Abbado version. This set has Sharon Sweet, Marjana Lipovsek and (as in the Chailly's version for Decca, that comes highly recommended) Siegfried Jerusalem as Waldemar.

The filler item on this EMI set is Schoenberg's Suite for Strings in G major, written when the composer had settled in Los Angeles. It was first performed in a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1935. Equally accessible, it is based on the old dance forms of the Baroque period and is characterised by complex contrapuntal writing with many interesting effects. The textures are both dense, yet transparent, and relatively thin with material for solo instruments and small groupings. Del Mar is alert to all its shadings and subtleties and his reading has intensity and delicacy, and clarity. The rather sombre Prelude has menace, pathos and something of the hymnal that makes one wonder if Schoenberg was concerned about the dark events developing his homeland. The dance rhythms of the Prelude try to gain a foothold but they have a bitter edge and they are soon weighed down by sorrow. The Adagio begins tentatively, discretely, the mood is quiet, with pathos as well as elegance. The music grows warm and sentimental, even slightly mystical before it is brought down to earth with some strumming figures and restless material. The Minuet, Gavotte and Gigue are sunnier less troubled movements, the Gavotte's opening sweet coyness being admonished by a stricter solo violin and swept away by strutting violas and chattering lower strings. The music has charm and refinement. The concluding Gigue is lively and high-spirited with much use of cross-rhythms and fluctuating tempos.

Again, I find I must criticise the lack of substantial documentation. If the super-budget labels can comply, why is it always the 'majors' that fall down in this important department? The texts of the songs are omitted. I realise to do so might have added extra bulk (not to mention expense) that would have made this one-jewel-case-2-CD-set difficult if not impossible. Yet with a bit of imagination, surely a synopsis of the content of each individual song could have been included especially for Part I. This is doubly important when one reflects that these bargain CDs are supposed to attract new audiences - the very people who need the texts the most!!

Nevertheless, a strong performance of the Gurrelieder; and a confident, if not a first recommendation.

Ian Lace

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: - The UK's Biggest Video Store Concert and Show tickets
Musicians accessories
Click here to visit