Review: Gurre-Lieder / Isarphilharmonie

Isarphilharmonie, Munich, 19 April 2024

Arnold Schönberg: Gurre-Lieder

Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder stand as a monumental work of late Romanticism, bridging the lush harmonic language of the 19th century with the daring innovations of the early 20th century. With its sprawling orchestration and sweeping vocal lines, this gargantuan cantata tells a story of love, longing and tragedy against the backdrop of medieval Danish legend and the wildly romantic fairy tale poem by Jens Peter Jacobsen. Gurre-Lieder remains with its rich orchestral colours and emotionally charged melodies a captivating journey through the depths of human emotion and the vastness of musical imagination.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO), Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder was the perfect choice. This monumental work, which calls for over 300 performers including a huge orchestra, choirs and soloists, has only been performed three times in the history of the BRSO: in 1965 under Rafael Kubelik, in 1988 under Zubin Mehta and in 2009 under Mariss Jansons (to mark the orchestra’s 60th anniversary). For the orchestra’s current chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, Gurre-Lieder is an old childhood favourite, which he describes as “sexy, elegant and sensual“.

On friday evening, Sir Simon Rattle navigated the expansive score with precision, bringing out the rich textures while maintaining clarity and coherence. Rattle’s interpretation showed a passionate commitment to both the musical and dramatic aspects of the work, and his extraordinary direction, with its focus on dynamics and phrasing, captured the full scope of Schönberg’s vision. The BRSO showed in all its sections why it is regarded as one of the absolute best orchestras in the world. However, a performance of Gurre-Lieder requires a meticulous balance between the grandeur of the orchestration and the intimate expression of the vocal lines, but the performance was not so well balanced; as much as Rattle’s immense passion for the work shone through the performance, the orchestral enthusiasm was often far too overwhelming, and both choruses (especially sopranos and altos) and soloists struggled with the massive orchestral sound.

Unfortunately, the cast of soloists was not ideal, with only Thomas Quasthoff as the Narrator (Sprecher) able to reach enough intellectual and emotional depth, although Peter Hoare (Klaus-Narr) and Josef Wagner (Bauer) both gave convincing vocal performances. Soprano Dorothea Röschmann has a beautiful warm voice, but it is far too soft for the part of Tove, and Jamie Barton (Waldtaube) gave an intense interpretation that sounded more like Amneris or Eboli – completely out of place in Gurre-Lieder. The weakest link in the cast remained tenor Simon O’Neill – who has already ruined Rattle’s ongoing Ring cycle with the BRSO singing Siegfried instead of Mime – and his ‘Charactertenor’ (not a ‘Heldentenor’, as many seem to believe) is also unsuited to Waldemar in Gurre-Lieder: his voice sounds extremely narrow and nasal, and lacks the natural volume and nuances to convey the rich emotional palette of the character.

But all in all, this was the orchestra’s night, and its performance under Rattle could not have been better.

Photo: BR / Astrid Ackermann

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