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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurrelieder (1911) [106:59]
Waldemar - Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor); Tove - Sharon Sweet (soprano); Wood Dove - Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo); Peasant - Hartmut Welker (baritone); Klaus the Jester - Philip Langridge (tenor); Speaker - Barbara Sukowa
Konzertvereinignung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Slowakischer Philharmonischer Chor Bratislava
Wiener Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, May 1992, Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria. DDD
ELOQUENCE 480 7055 [59:50 + 47:09]

There are quite a number of recordings of Gurrelieder in the current catalogue, several of them very fine. I particularly admire two: Riccardo Chailly’s 1985 Decca version, in which, as here, Siegfried Jerusalem sings Waldemar and Simon Rattle’s 2001 recording for EMI (review). I don’t believe that we reviewed this Abbado recording on MusicWeb International in its original incarnation but I noticed, in trawling through reviews of other versions, how often in the past it had been cited admiringly by colleagues. Now that I’ve heard it for myself that doesn’t surprise me.
Everything about this recording impresses. Siegfried Jerusalem is on top form as Waldemar. He seems able to encompass all aspects of the role. He’s ideally equipped for the Heldentenor passages, such as ‘Herrgott. Weiβt du, was du tatest’ to which, in impassioned rage, he brings real Wagnerian strength. However, he’s also willing and able to fine down his voice and to deliver the more gentle pages, such as his opening solo or ‘Du wunderliche Tove!’ with lyrical refinement. Opposite him as Tove is Sharon Sweet. She too has a big voice yet she’s equally capable of more intimate singing in a rounded portrayal of Waldemar’s beloved. So, for instance, she sounds eager and excited in ‘Sterne jubeln, das Meer, es leuchtet’ while she begins ‘Nun sag ich dir zum ersten Mal’ with wonder and gentle rapture, building the ecstasy as the solo unfolds.
The other soloists have less extended roles. Hartmut Welker is good as the Peasant: he’s suitably rustic. Philip Langridge, who was to reprise the role of Klaus-Narr for Rattle, sings his solo in a very characterful way. However, even more excellent than the gentlemen is Marjana Lipovšek, who gives an utterly compelling performance of the Wood Dove’s lament. She’s tremendously expressive from the start and, later on, from ‘Den Sarg sah ich auf Königs Schultern’ her narration is very dramatic. She brings searing intensity to the closing moments, starting at ‘Wollt’ ein Mönsch am Seile ziehn’. This is an absolutely outstanding account of the Wood Dove’s music, one of the most gripping that I can recall hearing.
Before leaving the singers I should just say that the relatively limited choral passages - only about 15 minutes in a score lasting over 105 minutes - are done extremely well.
One more female soloist is involved. Uniquely in my experience, Abbado uses a female artist as the Speaker. This is the German actress, Barbara Sukowa. We’re more accustomed to hearing male singers - or retired singers - in this role, such as Hans Hotter (Chailly) or Thomas Quasthoff (Rattle) while the BBC announcer, Alvar Lidell was a somewhat unconventional, though successful, choice for Stokowski’s 1962 Edinburgh Festival performance (review). There is no reason of which I’m aware - other than custom - why a female voice should not be heard in this role and in the very useful booklet note we learn that a lady took this role in a performance in Leipzig as early as 1914. In fact, I think the female voice works pretty well in many respects, not least in underlining the kinship with Pierrot Lunaire. I was convinced by Miss Sukowa; she’s admirable in the many passages that call for delicacy though her voice doesn’t have the weight and amplitude to bring off the final ecstatic cry of ‘Erwacht, erwacht, ihr Blumen, zur Wonne!’
Complementing all this very fine solo work is the magnificent playing of the Wiener Philharmoniker. Starting with a beautifully spun account of the Prelude, their playing consistently adds lustre to Schoenberg’s scoring. All the late Romantic ripeness, especially in Parts I and II, is sumptuously delivered and they’re just as adept in delivering the more ‘advanced’ accompaniments, to Klaus-Narr and the Speaker. The expansive Interlude before the Wood Dove’s lament sounds wonderful with rich, sumptuous sound at the start giving way later to an abundance of orchestral power. That’s just one example in a fabulous account of Schoenberg’s orchestral score.
I’ve no doubt that the orchestral response was heightened by having a conductor like Abbado on the podium. The word ‘great’ tends to be applied too readily to artists these days but surely Abbado is one of the great conductors of his generation and to this score he can bring his tremendous expertise in both modern music and in the music of the late Romantics such as Mahler. He marshals the vast forces with consummate skill and his fastidious ear is a great asset in the many stretches of the score where Schoenberg requires playing of chamber-like delicacy.
This is a tremendous account of Gurrelieder, which I’m sure is one of the foremost versions in the catalogue and it’s great news that Eloquence have restored it to the catalogue. The timing is especially apt given that Claudio Abbado celebrated his eightieth birthday earlier in 2013. The DG engineers did a great job in taping the live performances from which this recording is taken. The only disappointment is that no texts and translations are supplied. Many collectors will have other versions on their shelves which will enable them to access the text but newcomers to the score won’t be so fortunate. That drawback is not sufficient, however, to prevent this reissue being accorded the warmest of welcomes.
John Quinn