It is so rare to hear the Gurre Lieder live that most of us are acquainted with it only on record – in memorable interpretations by Rafael Kubelik, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly, Claudio Abbado and others. The work employs a vast orchestra and chorus for an unbroken duration of ninety minutes, much of which occupies a zone of uncertainty as to whether what we are hearing is ancient or modern.
Schoenberg began composing the cycle in Wagnerian modalities in 1900, abandoned it three years later, finished it in 1911 as a provocative atonalist, and achieved the greatest triumph of his life at its 1913 Vienna premiere, turning his back on the cheering audience and acknowledging only the participant musicians. Austere Arnold was not cut out for popular acclaim.
Despite his breakaway from tonal harmony, Gurre-Lieder is late-romantic in style and sentiment, a knight-and-girl saga. The influence of Gustav Mahler is considerable and there is reason to suspect that Schoenberg was motivated to resume the work by his mentor’s tremendous success with his Symphony of 1,000 in September 1910 and his death in May 1911.
Comparisons with Mahler’s eighth symphony are, however, superficial. Musically, Schoenberg is located here somewhere between Richard Wagner and Gothic folklore. He is telling a story of a king and his mistress, who got murdered by the queen. It is almost a Tristan, but with a narrator – Sir Thomas Allen in this set – instead of a dramatic pulse and scarcely any singer interaction.
The three main protagonists – Alwyn Mellor, Anna Larsson and Stuart Skelton – are superb and the Bergen Philharmonic orchestra and choirs, conducted by Edward Gardner, sound utterly pumped up for the performance, captured live at two home concerts. The sound, mastered by Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Couzens, is exemplary in colour, detail and balance. This is as fine a Gurre-Lieder as you will find anywhere, saving only my affection for the 1965 Kubelik set (with Inge Borkh), which may never be surpassed.
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