For me Gurre-Lieder is one of the most beautiful works ever composed. From the moment the music gently begins to swell, I am in heaven. The music, like a Dybbuk, takes hold of me completely and there is no escape possible.
Not that I mind. Feeling completely immersed in something, identifying with something, will give you a surreal feeling of being set afloat. A bit scary, yes, but also a bit like an initiation. Love, murder, an immense sadness that drives you mad, the fight against God, the power of nature: everything is there and it is fully integrated into the music.
The famous Viennese critic Julius Korngold called the work “a flowering cactus”. A beautiful metaphor.
In ‘Sehnt die Sonne’, the last piece of the cantata, Schönberg achieves something truly unprecedented, although he does not (yet) know it himself: he is building a bridge between past and present. Think of the finale of Iris by Mascagni. And think of Schönberg’s own masterpiece, A Survivor from Warsaw, composed after the war.
Below, ‘Sehnt die Sonne’ in the performance of the (not discussed here) Berliner Philharmoniker olv Simon Rattle:
The premiere, on February 23, 1913, in Vienna, was conducted by Franz Schreker, with 757 musicians participating. The Dutch premiere, conducted by Schönberg himself, took place in March 1921. The idea of performing the work scenically did come up; apparently there were plans for it as early as 1927, but Schönberg has always resisted the idea.
It’s a cliché, I know, but you must hear the Gurre-Lieder live at least once in your life. No recording, no matter how great, can match the overwhelming power of a live concert.
LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI 1952
The very first commercial recording, as far as I know, is from 1932. None other than Leopold Stokowski conducted the American premiere of the work on April 8 that year. It was recorded by RCA and with a bit of a search you may be able to find it (though I did not succeed).
In 1961, Stokowski took the Gurre-Lieder to Edinburgh, where it caused a sensation. The performance was recorded by radio and later released on Guild (GHCD 2388/89). His affinity with the work is clearly audible, it is as if it were his love child: his approach is caressing, stroking, cuddling, but with justified outbursts of anger when the child wants to be unruly. I think that is wonderful, really wonderful.
Gré Brouwenstein is a good Tove. Nice voice, although I find her a bit distant at times. James McCracken is a bit of a heavy Waldemar, but he never degenerates into roaring, something that later marred many of his recordings. Personally, I prefer a voice that is more agile, but Stokowski’s lyrical approach also transfers to his soloists, including McCracken.
The concert begins with the announcement of the BBC presenter, after which ‘God save the Queen’ is given. Quite nice and adding to the atmosphere.
Below the Prelude, followed by Waldemar’s first song (James McCracken):
SEIJI OZAWA 1979
In 1979, Mc Cracken was long past his prime. A pity, because it is the only blemish on an otherwise splendid performance by Seiji Ozawa (Philips 4125112).
The young Jessye Norman could do anything she wanted with her voice, and her dark soprano with its enormous width is very sensual. A little dominant, it is true, not really an innocent lady, but I like it.
Jessye Norman sings ‘Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick’ :
Tatjana Troyanos is a very heartfelt Waldtaube. The whole was recorded live at the Boston Symphony Hall.
RICCARDO CHAILLY 1985
I find the rendition by Riccardo Chailly (Decca 4737282) somewhat disappointing. It is a ‘studio’ recording (recorded in 1985 in Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin), but the sound does not really come across. I also find Chailly a bit noisy, with few nuances.
Siegfried Jerusalem just sounds Wagnerian, and that is, in this case, not a compliment. Also Susan Dunn (Tove), at the time a Chailly protégé, is not really adequate, sometimes it seems as if she does not know what she is singing. But then Brigitte Fassbaender (Waldtaube) comes along and any doubts are gone!
ESA-PEKKA SALONEN 2009
In 2009, Esa-Pekka Salonen (SIGCD173) caused a sensation with his performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London. And rightly so. The performance is really sizzling and the soloists, with foremost Soile Isokoski as the most beautiful Tove ever, are fantastic.
Stig Andersen is certainly a good Waldemar and Monica Groop a heartbreaking Waldtaube. Unfortunately, the recording is abominable. There is no sound balance whatsoever, you have to adjust your volume buttons all the time. I do not have a SACD player, but my speakers could not cope with it. A pity.
MARKUS STENZ 2014
The performance recorded in June 2014 under Markus Steinz for Hyperion (CDA68081/2), is in my opinion among the best available. The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln evidently feels like a fish in water in the late Romantic idiom and – reinforced by the six different choirs – they do not shy away from any means of getting through to the listener and his heart. The “Zemlinsky years” of James Conlon are apparently in their genes forever…..
The, in itself, warm mezzo of Claudia Mahnke (Waldtaube) unfortunately has some sharp edges. For me, I would have liked it to be a bit more lyrical – less Wagner and more Zemlinsky, so to speak – but her performance is more than impressive. A real voice actress.
The Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman is a very sensual Tove, but best of all is Brandon Jovanovich. As Waldemar, he is pushing his limits, but he never oversteps them. Very masculine and at the same time very fragile. For me, his performance is more than sensational.
The baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle is a fantastic speaker. His presentation is devoid of any mannerisms, something many performers of this role are guilty of (Sunnyi Melles in Amsterdam!).
REINBERT DE LEEUW 2011
Before I reveal my absolute favourite (we all like a bit of suspence, don’t we?), a word about Reinbert de Leeuw’s performance, recorded by KRO on March, 26, 2011 in a sold-out Dr Anton Philipszaal in The Hague. The orchestra was “halved”, there were “only” 356 musicians. I did not really like the soloists , but it is still a homegrown document. The Internet offers enough (pirate) recordings. Otherwise, just search for it on youtube.
Reinbert de Leeuw speaks about the Gurre-lieder:
AND THE WINNER IS: RENÉ LEIBOWITZ 1953
René Leibowitz. Have you ever heard of him? In the 1950s, he was one of the best conductors, the ones who put their own stamp on everything they undertook. In 1953, he conducted “Gurre-lieder” in Paris. When I received the CD (Preiser 90575), I thought: interesting, let it come… Well… a few hours later I knew: better, more beautiful, more moving than this does not exist, at least not for me. With Leibowitz you can even hear the flapping of the dove’s wings!
Richard Lewis sings a Waldemar as I have always wanted to hear him: sensitive and delicate. Ethel Semser (Tove) was well acquainted with Schoenberg’s oeuvre; she had already recorded his Pierrot Lunaire.
Nell Tangemann (Waldtaube) remains a great unknown, despite the roles she has created: Mother Goose, for example. Or Dinah, in the world premiere of Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti”. Ned Rorem has also composed a few things for her. Unfortunately, no recordings of this exist, so you can consider the Gurre-lieder as a document and a tribute to the unknown mezzo-soprano who honestly deserved better.
An absolute must.
A curiosity: Schoenberg conducting his ‘Lied der Waldtaube’, here sung by Rose Bampton. The recording dates from 1934: