PERFORMER: Stig Andersen, Soile Isokoski, Monica Groop, Ralf Lukas, Andreas Conrad, Barbara Sukowa; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus; Philharmonia Voices & Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 173 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Schoenberg’s huge cantata, which makes formidable demands on all its vast number of participants, has done astonishingly well on disc. Not only have there been far more recordings of it than one might expect, beginning in 1929 with Stokowski (still available), but they have all been at least good. It seems more than usually invidious to make comparisons at this level of excellence.
This new contender, recorded live last February, is exciting, lucid, wonderfully well-proportioned, and recorded in stunning sound; the final hymn to the rising sun would lift the most morbidly lethargist out of their chair. Whether you buy this rather than Craft’s wonderful account on Naxos, or Rattle’s, or Chailly’s, or Abbado’s, is largely a matter – cost to one side – of preferences among the soloists.
For me Chailly (on Decca) has the finest team of soloists, including Hans Hotter, overwhelming as the Speaker. That role, normally taken by a man (Schoenberg suggested ‘a retired tenor’), is given to an actress on this recording, and she makes less impression.
As the two lovers, Stig Andersen and Soile Isokoski are committed, ardent, but while she sounds youthful he does sound past his best. In the impassioned Song of the Woodbird Monica Groop would make more impact if her words were clearer, but she too shares in the conviction which permeates the whole performance, enormously contributed to by the two choruses.
It is Esa-Pekka Salonen, restraining his forces at first but then unleashing them with masterly control, who makes this a memorable performance. Michael Tanner