SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder; Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4 – James McCracken, tenor/ Gre Brouwenstein, sop./ Nel Rankin, mezzo-soprano/ Forbes Robinson, bar./ John Lanigan, tenor/ Alvar Lidell, speaker/ Edinburgh Royal Choral Union/ London Sym. Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild GHCD 2388/89, (2 CDs) TT: 2:15:32 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
The Stokowski performance of 20 August 1961 at the Edinburgh Festival of Arnold Schoenberg’s epic romantic cantata Gurrelieder (1900-1903), based on poems by the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, finds a sumptuous presentation from Guild. The lyric saga tells of King Valdemar’s love for his mistress Tove, and her subsequent murder by jealous Queen Helvig, and the Tristan-like themes of love and fatal passion engendered an appropriately post-Wagnerian treatment from the composer. Although Schoenberg had abandoned the orchestration after 1903 until c.1910, the added parts, thinner textures, and intricate polyphony in the manner of late Mahler managed to maintain the integrity of the conception as a whole.
The massive work is set in three parts. The orchestral songs in Part I set forth Waldemar’s love for Tove, ardently rendered by American tenor James McCracken (1926-1988) and soprano Gre Brownstein (1915-1999), whose sweet voice causes us to lament for strictly musical reasons Tove’s early demise. Martha Lipton (1913-2006), who sings “Tauben von Gurre!“ at the end of Part I, an announcement of Tove’s death and Waldemar‘s deep grief, recorded this same impassioned piece with Stokowski in New York in 1949. With Tove’s death, the bereft Waldemar offers the one aria that comprises Part II, his impatient “Herrgott, weisst Du, was Du tatest,” in which he, with assistance from a huge orchestral force, questions God’s providence, accusing God of unjust cruelty.
In Part III, into which Schoenberg incorporates the economy of his later style, we see Gothic elements emerge, since Waldemar raises a horde of dead vassals into his service, who engage in a restless and savage hunt that intimidates a local peasant (Forbes Robinson). The power of the men’s chorus and of Schoenberg’s natural vocal gifts assert themselves in “Gegruesst, O Koenig” (Hail, O King), in spite of some distant miking. Waldemar’s plaintive aria, “Mit Toves Stimme fluestert der Wald,“ Schoenberg proffers a vocal line that could have easily influenced Carl Orff. Klaus the Fool (James Lanigan) becomes an unwilling participant in the macabre proceedings, and his grotesque interlude invests a moment of comic relief. The rising sun drives the dead back to their graves, invoking the same moment from Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain. The music then proceeds to a phantasm called The Summerwind’s Wild Hunt that features narration in a fluttering but exact Sprechstimme by Alvar Lidell (1908-1981) that leads to the apocalyptic final chorus, “Sehet die Sonne!”
The commercial RCA recording (LM 1739) of Verklaerte Nacht (rec. 3 September 1952) reminds us that Stokowski stood virtually alone in conducting nearly all of Schoenberg’s orchestral music whilst the composer lived. Stokowski’s “Symphony Orchestra,” mostly New York Philharmonic and NBC string players and mixed professionals, here in silken collaboration in “the Stokowski (string) Sound.” Seamless transitions carry us through Schoenberg’s response (via architecture gleaned from Schubert and Liszt) to the dark program of Richard Dehmel’s poem of perceived sin and redemption, D Minor’s intricate metamorphosis into D Major. Altogether a fabulous collation of two Romantic works by a seminal genius of 20th Century music, who had passed away 13 July 1951, ever piqued and perturbed that his later work perennially stood in the shadow of the atavistic early masterpieces.
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