Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Gurrelieder
PERFORMER: Thomas Moser, Karita Mattila, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philip Langridge, Thomas Quasthoff; Ernst Senff Chorus, Leipzig Radio Chorus, Berlin Radio Chorus, Berlin PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 5 57303 2

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Simon Rattle’s keenly awaited Gurrelieder for EMI is here at last and a magnificent achievement it is, too. Clearly the live performance in the Berlin Philharmonie was a memorable occasion, though it has not been captured with complete success and it is only after a good deal of heart-searching, and with some reservations, that I make this my new benchmark. We tend to think of Gurrelieder, with its massive forces, as the apotheosis of late-Romantic gigantism. Rattle, with more than a touch of hyperbole, calls it ‘the world’s largest string quartet’. He means that its textures need to be transparent and this is the key to his meticulously calibrated, exquisitely refined reading, which never allows the work’s immensity of scale to overwhelm its sublimely expressive, transfiguring quality. Thomas Moser is an impassioned but secure Waldemar, while Karita Mattila brings her great artistry to bear on the role of Tove, proving less girlish than Susan Dunn for Chailly on Decca, but also less well-upholstered than Jessye Norman for Ozawa on Philips. Anne Sofie von Otter’s fine Wood Dove is on a par with Yvonne Minton’s for Boulez (Sony), but no match for the searing account of Brigitte Fassbaender for Chailly. Philip Langridge as Klaus the Jester and Thomas Quasthoff as both Peasant and Speaker are beyond praise. My big reservation about this set is the occluded, distanced recording, which fails to deliver either the climactic moments or the intricate detail with the impact they demand. Chailly’s classic recording is gloriously spacious by contrast, but its very brilliance puts an orchestra slightly inferior to Rattle’s BPO – namely the Berlin RSO – under a spotlight it cannot always withstand. Abbado’s DG recording is powerful yet refined and eminently recommendable, if let down by some of its vocal performances. Boulez’s account from 1975 is still a strong contender: superbly conducted, arguably the best Waldemar (Jess Thomas), impressive sonics and all at mid-price. Rattle’s deeply thoughtful reading, its textures blended with consummate mastery, though compromised by the recording, should not, however, be missed.