Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder – Susan Dunn, Soprano – Brigitte Fassbaender, Alto – Heikki Stukola, tenor – Hermann Bechtm bass – Horst Heistermann, Teno – Boris Carmeli, Speaker – The Berlin Radio Symphony conducted by Riccardo Chailly – May 27, 1985 – Sender Freis, Berlin –
Something special this week – a performance by the Berlin Radio Symphony and a stellar galaxy of soloists, all led by Riccardo Chailly in this concert, recorded by Sender Fries, Berlin on May 27, 1985 – and recorded a few days later with the same cast and location for release by Decca Records in 1990.
In case you were wondering, no this isn’t the recording that wound up being issued – you could call this the dress rehearsal. But there’s nothing trivial about Arnold Shoenberg or The Gurre Lieder, one of the astonishing achievements in 20th century music. This was the live concert, the one where a stunned audience sat transfixed for what seemed like an hour before the applause started.
Gurre-Lieder is a large cantata for five vocal soloists, narrator, chorus and large orchestra, composed by Arnold Schoenberg, on poems by the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen (translated from Danish to German by Robert Franz Arnold). The title means “songs of Gurre”, referring to Gurre Castle in Denmark, scene of the medieval love-tragedy (related in Jacobsen’s poems) revolving around the Danish national legend of the love of the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag (Valdemar IV, 1320–1375, spelled Waldemar by Schoenberg) for his mistress Tove, and her subsequent murder by Valdemar’s jealous Queen Helvig (a legend which is historically more likely connected with his ancestor Valdemar I).
In 1900, Schoenberg began composing the work as a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano for a competition run by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Verein (Vienna Composers’ Association). It was written in a lush, late-romantic style heavily influenced by Richard Wagner. According to Schoenberg, however, he “finished them half a week too late for the contest, and this decided the fate of the work.” Later that year, he radically expanded his original conception, composing links between the first nine songs as well as adding a prelude, the Wood Dove’s Song, and the whole of Parts Two and Three. He worked on this version sporadically until around 1903, when he abandoned the mammoth task of orchestrating the work and moved on to other projects.
By the time he returned to the piece in 1910, he had already written his first acknowledged atonal works, such as the Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 and Erwartung, Op. 17. He had also come under the spell of Gustav Mahler, whom he had met in 1903 and whose influence may be discernible in the orchestration of the latter parts of the Gurre-Lieder. Whereas Parts One and Two are clearly Wagnerian in conception and execution, Part Three features the pared-down orchestral textures and kaleidoscopic shifts between small groups of instruments favored by Mahler in his later symphonies. In Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd, Schoenberg also introduced the first use of Sprechgesang (or Sprechstimme), a technique he would explore more fully in Pierrot Lunaire of 1912. The orchestration was finally completed in November 1911.
Grab a seat and hit the play button and just sit back. There’s about 8 minutes of explanation and readings until it gets down to music, but if you aren’t already familiar with the piece, it’s a good introduction. If you are already familiar, fast-forward a little past the 7 minute mark and you should be okay.
Enjoy either way.