SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder – Stig Andersen (Waldemar)/ Soile Isokoski (Tove)/ Monica Groop (Waldtaube)/ Ralf Lukas (Bauer)/ Andreas Conrad (Klaus-Narr)/ Barbara Sukowa (Sprecher)/ Philharmonia Voices/ City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus/ Philharmonia Orchestra/ Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor – Signum multichannel SACD 173 (2 discs), 108:30 ***** [Distr. by Naxos]:
Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder is something that was first conceived in the composer’s mind in 1903, and was originally a conception for one voice and piano! This changed rather rapidly, and it was to occupy him over the next nine years, a time period wherein his style was to change drastically. In fact, by the time we get to the latter half of part II of this gargantuan work, many of his twelve-tone compositions had already made their appearance, and this latter part of the work is stylistically somewhat different than the first part, albeit Schoenberg still kept to its basic post-Romantic premise.
Since it is a work painted on such a vast canvass, it does not get a lot of live performances, and when they happen they are likely to be as highly anticipated as a Mahler symphony. This present issue by Salonen and his Philharmonia forces is just such an occasion, and everyone involved lives up to the expectations of the event.
The main protagonists are two lovers, King Waldemar and Tove, actually involved in an illicit relationship as the King is married. They are discovered, and the Queen has Tove killed. Waldemar is compelled to ride every night on a wild hunt with the ghostly figures of his dead vassals due to his blaspheming God by accusing him of being a tyrant for letting Tove die. This is Romantic stuff indeed and quite the fodder for Schoenberg’s evocative and highly-charged music, a score which makes use of narration, speech-singing, and some absolutely glorious brass music.
There have not been a lot of satisfactory recordings to this point. I grew up with the Boulez/Columbia set that is still available, but most critics agree that the 1985 Decca set with Chailly and the Concertgebouw to be the best thing going, and it is a superb recording. I have not heard the Hanssler/ Gielen reading which has gotten good reviews and is also in SACD (the only other one besides this one). But I cannot imagine a better effort than this, captured in fabulous surround sound with the orchestra at the top of its game, and a perfect choice for a conductor like Esa-Pekka Salonen. Top it off with great choral singing, a sterling effort by Stig Andersen and the best-ever Tove in Soile Isokoski, and you have a release not likely to be beaten anytime soon. Despite the fact that it is live the performances are as neat and clean as the best studio effort with the addition of the excitement of a concert. I will keep Chailly, but when I am in the mood for Gurrelieder this is the likely recording I will be reaching for. The Super Audio surround sound is spectacular.
— Steven Ritter
A great vinyl upgrade of a jazz icon’s blues album.