Sunday 20 August 2017

Large-scale beauties: Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the BBC Proms

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in rehearsal at the BBC Proms (photo courtesy of London Symphony Chorus)
Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in rehearsal at the BBC Proms (photo courtesy of London Symphony Chorus)
Schoenberg Gurrelieder; Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Thomas Quasthoff, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 19 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Schoenberg's outrageous masterpiece in a performance which brought out the beauties of the work's orchestration

With its gargantuan forces and rather outrageous sense of heightened Romanticism, Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder seems an ideal work for the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. On Saturday 19 August 2017, Sir Simon Rattle brought the London Symphony Orchestra (whose artistic director he becomes next month) to the Proms to perform Schoenberg's late-Romantic masterpiece (a work that the orchestra would be unlikely to be able to perform in the confines of their regular home, the Barbican Hall). Rattle and the LSO were joined by three choirs, the London Symphony Chorus, the CBSO Chorus and Orfeo Catala (all three have Simon Halsey as director/chorus director/principal conductor) and soloists Simon O'Neill (Waldemar), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Tove), Karen Cargill (Wood-Dove), Peter Hoare (Klaus the Fool), Christopher Purves (Peasant) and Thomas Quasthoff (Speaker).

Schoenberg started the work in 1900, intending a song-cycle setting Jens Peter Jacobsen's verse sequence Gurresange in the recently published German translation. The work still has the feel of a song cycle, albeit in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde mode, even though Schoenberg decided to vastly expand the work and set the whole verse sequence (as well as adding an extra Jacobsen poem for the final section). Between 1900 and 1901 he drafted it all in short score, but it was not until 1910 that he completed the orchestration of the final part, and the work did not get its premiere until 1913. By the time he came to complete the orchestration, Schoenberg's style had changed radically, and the final section has a very different feel with greater fleetness and a far sparer use of the orchestra. These changes, owing to the work's long gestation, are akin to what happened to Stravinsky with Les Noces, which was conceived for large-scale Rite of Spring forces, but eventually orchestrated with a far smaller ensemble.

Not only does Schoenberg use large forces, but he is almost determinedly cavalier in their deployment. The women of the huge chorus only sing in the final number (the men's chorus has two numbers on their own), whilst many of the soloists have a single number (albeit a meaty one).

Though Rattle drew large scale sounds from his forces where necessary, with a resounding climax and some thrilling moments on the way, he was also determined to bring out the beauties of Schoenberg's orchestral writing, often paring the sound right down. It was beauty, transparency and elegance of the orchestral playing which really impressed. Given his huge orchestra, Schoenberg showed his mastery in the way he used the forces flexibly, and Rattle and his players brought this out.
That said, Schoenberg does not make it easy for the soloists. Simon O'Neill was stylish and tireless in the taxing role of Waldemar, singing with great elegance of line and much heroic ardour. There was no denying, the way Schoenberg really pushes the tenor to the limits, and meaning that romantic ardour and beauty of tone sometimes had to give way to more heroic timbres. We were sitting at the side of the stalls, and it seemed as if Rattle, for all his concern for the details of the orchestration, could sometimes have been kinder to the soloists but the balance might have been different in the centre of the hall. I did wonder what the effect of the stage performances of the work might be, something that happened at Netherlands Opera in a production by Pierre Audi (see review on Bachtrack), the orchestra being in the pit would certainly help balance.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was richly ardent as Tove, but her tone was too often dramatic with a strong vibrato and sense of the music's strenuousness when what I wanted was a more sensuous beauty to the performance. It was Karen Cargill, as the Wood-Dove who showed how to combine beauty of tone, elegance and expressivity with dramatic power in her account of the Wood-Dove's solo, which made it one of the highlights of the piece.

The other soloists were strongly characterised, with Peter Purves as a bluff peasant, and Peter Hoare in brilliantly incisive form as Klaus the Fool. Thomas Quasthoff projected the tricky spoken part from quite superbly.

When the finally came in (at the beginning of Part Three) the mens chorus (around 180 of them, I think) fully matched Rattle's concept of the work producing a wonderfully focussed sound. And the final chorus was glorious.

Gurrelieder is one of those works which spans the 19th and 20th centuries, building on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde yet indicating a path along which it would be difficult to go further. Magnificent though Gurrelieder is, you can understand why composers turned away from this style as the 20th century progressed.

The concert is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

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