More is More
Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder
Andrea Gruber (soprano), Birgit Remmert (mezzo), Jon Fredric West (tenor), Franz Mazura (speaker)
Philadelphia Singers Chorale
David Hayes (director)
Simon Rattle (conductor)
In their distinguished 100 year history the Philadelphia Orchestra boasts an impressive list of world and American premieres but none is so remarkable as the Western hemisphere debut of the gargantuan Gurrelieder of Schoenberg conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1932. The event was widely disseminated over short wave radio and led to the first ever recording of the work shortly thereafter. Stokowski was a great champion of contemporary music and the centennial season of this great ensemble is focusing on his magnificent legacy. The original cast included the amazing contralto of Rose Bampton, a woman I am fortunate to know personally and who, well into her eighties, is still as lovely a person now as she was back then. The recording is an historic document and also a great performance but it can in no way measure up to the new standard of choral performance now set by Sir Simon and the fabulous Philadelphians. Starting my narrative at the end, I have never witnessed such a reception at any Carnegie Hall event as I did last evening, the sold out crowd not satisfied to give the huge forces a standing ovation, but prolonging it for many successive curtain calls.
Like the Ring, this huge conception was written in two distinct periods in its composer's life with a long interval in between the two parts during which the harmonic language of the author evolved rapidly. In some senses the Gurrelieder seems like a throwback to the nineteenth century and yet it is a truly adventurous work, exploring the hidden corners of traditional harmony and peeking over the edge into pantonality. Schoenberg as a poor student used to stand listening outside the opera in Vienna every evening that a Wagner work was performed and then rush home to play what he had just heard on the piano, staying up all night to bask in the glow of the meister. Certainly this huge song cycle/oratorio/cantata has many echoes of Tannhaeuser in its evocation of the medieval world, but I hear more of Goetterdaemmerrung, especially the scene of Hagen and the vassals' chorus. The work is so huge (over 110 instrumentalists as well as soloists and a very large male chorus) that at the premiere in 1913 Franz Schreker, the conductor of this historic evening, had to order specially long music paper so that he could read all of the parts. For the Carnegie Hall performance the stage had to be expanded out into several rows of seats to accommodate the vast forces and one could barely walk to one's place down the narrow front aisle.
I won't beat this dead horse too hard, but what a shame it is that Rattle did not choose to take the job in Philadelphia. He is a magician of motivation, getting this already fine ensemble to give 110% throughout this exciting evening while being sensitive to the needs of his singers and keeping the orchestra in check during their accompanying passages, only to unleash them the more for their powerful tuttis. Never have I heard such emotion in this work and I've heard every conceivable performance of it as I am a self-confessed Schoenberg addict.
Special praise goes to Jon Fredric West, a last minute replacement for an ailing tenor, who sang a particularly heroic heldentenor throughout. Andrea Gruber was also powerful as Tove and the minor male roles were well done. Franz Mazura, a veteran Schoenbergian, quite unusually but correctly emphasized the sprechstimme qualities of the demanding role of the speaker and this cuts to the heart of the matter, as by the 1911 revisiting of the composer to the work he had become a radical progressive in the search for a new harmonic language. The crowning achievement was the magnificent greeting of the sun, when it seemed like half of the dress circle rose to sing in praise, for that was where the women of the chorus were secretly sequestered until this wonderful ending paean. The effect of so many angelic voices directed by Sir Simon from below was visually and acoustically inspiring on a level at least equal to the end of Mahler's Resurrection. This was a performance that will remain in the memory for many years to come.
Of course, discerning carpet buyers will tell you that all of the great Persians have a sewn in imperfection since only Allah is pure. We were reminded of this philosophy by Birgit Remmert, whose quavering mezzo was much too unsure of its bottom line to convey the intense power of her role (the big number goes to her). I sometimes wish that I knew anything at all about fashion because I would love to report to my readers about some of the gowns that I see in these extravaganzas. Suffice it to say that Ms. Remmert looked like Papagena at a formal state funeral and it occurs to me that if you are going to dress so conspicuously, you jolly well ought to be able to sing your part satisfactorily. But I won't dwell on this minor irritation as this performance was the finest orchestral experience that I have had this season and I just want to relish it for a while. It is a fortuitous circumstance that I have no full scale concerts for a couple of weeks so that I can keep this sound fresh and paramount in my mind's ear for a time. It will be a great personal joy.
As frequent concert-goers we have to kiss a lot of frogs before we find our prince. Last night he was there for us, living at the castle Gurre.
Frederick L. Kirshnit