Monday 26 September 2022

Edward Gardner & the LPO's Autumn season opened in spectacular fashion with Schoenberg's Gurrelieder; composer Florence Anna Maunders was there

Schoenberg: Gurrelieder - Edward Gardner, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)
Schoenberg: Gurrelieder - Edward Gardner, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder; David Butt Philip, Lise Lindstrom, Karen Cargill, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 24 September 2022

A spectacular opening concert for the Autumn season as chief conductor Edward Gardner explored the rich treasures of Schoenberg's iconic late-romantic work

Arnold Schoenburg's colossal Gurrelieder formed the entirety of this spectacular opening concert of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Autumn season at the Royal Festival Hall – a vastly ambitious cantata which, in addition to one of the largest orchestras required by any piece, calls for five soloists, a speaker, three male voice choirs and a mixed chorus. Here we had chief conductor Edward Gardner directing the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, David Butt Philip, Lise Lindstrom, Karen Cargill, James Creswell, Robert Murray, and Alex Jennings. With such large forces marshalled, even the large stage of the Royal Festival Hall began to appear rather full – a capacity matched by the audience.

But this vast array of musicians was not there to bludgeon the audience with a wall of noise. One of the challenges facing any conductor of this work is the sheer variety and density of the orchestral textures. Rather than piling instruments on top of one another in massive homophony, Schoenburg creates complex interplays and counterpoints between huge ensembles of soloistic lines, passing rapidly between timbres and sonorities. One of the great strengths of Edward Gardner's conducting was the way in which he drew the listener on a line which picked its way sure-footedly throughout, as if turning over a great mound of treasures, each of which was allowed to glint and shine for a moment, before with swift sleight of hand another was shown to the audience.

Schoenberg: Gurrelieder - Lise Lindstrom, Edward Gardner, London Philharmonic Orchestra - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)
Schoenberg: Gurrelieder - Lise Lindstrom, Edward Gardner, London Philharmonic Orchestra - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

The story of the cantata deals with the doomed love affair between King Waldemar (the heroically yearning voice of the exciting tenor David Butt Philip) and Tove (a luxury casting of the internationally renowned Wagnerian soprano Lise Lindstrom, sounding completely at home in this work). After a shimmering orchestral prelude, rippling with harps and celesta and intertwined bird songs, the two lovers alternate in ten passionate songs, forming a seamless block of the lushest imaginable music. A particular highlight was the fine control of the rising frustration & excitement in the third song, as Schoenburg vividly depicts the galloping of Waldemar's horse, urged on to ever faster speeds by the love-struck king. The orchestra continually threatened to overwhelm the voices, but Gardner's close management kept everything clear, without losing any of the music's heaving, roiling romanticism, allowing Butt Philip to longingly soar, and dramatically snarl.

After another orchestral interlude of radiant translucence and intensity, Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill came on to sing one of the two arias at the heart of this work. In the role of the wood dove, who observed everything, she sang of the death of Tove, her funeral procession, and, in a dramatic, forceful final denouement, the hand of Queen Helwig in her death. Cargill demonstrated a fantastically broad emotional and tonal range, delivering her part from memory and directly to the audience with intensity, character and flawless dramatic timing.

In the second half of the story, David Butt Philip showed the other side of Waldemar. In a short, but furiously angry outburst, he challenged God, and called down his curse – to ride forever in an endless wild hunt, which was vividly, explosively and violently depicted by the men of both choruses and the massed brass and percussion. A procession of shorter pieces followed – cameo roles for the bass James Creswell, the peasant who witnesses the hunt passing by, and for tenor Robert Murray as the king's fool, Klaus, bringing a spot of wit and humour to the unrelenting drama of the rest of the evening.

But the climax of the work was perhaps the most memorable part. Alex Jennings, a familiar face to many from the world of the small screen, appeared in the role of the Speaker – the first example of Schoenberg's technique of Sprechgesang – something between spoken text and sung lyrics. Delivered with confidence and clarity, Jennings declaimed a new rhyming English translation by Jeremy Sans of the original text, which led, eventually into a kind of hymn to the rising sun, all the choruses combined with the vast orchestra together in a blazing, stupendous, exulting finale. 

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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