A performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s titanic cantata Gurre-Lieder always feels like an event. With its massive orchestra, vast choral forces and demanding roles for six soloists the experience of hearing it live is frequently overwhelming and often unforgettable (my first included Jessye Norman as Tove and an 80-year-old Hans Hotter as the speaker). The trick on disc is coming anywhere near that. A good performance needs not only the finest singers of the day, it needs a conductor who can shape nearly two unbroken hours of music drama wedded to world-class engineering. Most recordings fall short in one way or another and this latest, captured live at Semperoper, Dresden is, alas, no exception.

Based on a Danish legend, the work tells how the jealous wife of the medieval King Valdemar IV murdered her love rival Tove. When the bereaved king curses God, he and his men are condemned to ride through the skies by night as the so-called Wild Hunt.

Part One is a series of nine ecstatic love songs for Waldemar and Tove followed by the magnificent Song of the Wood Dove in which the bird (here the mezzo-soprano) recounts the slaying of the king’s mistress. Orchestrations are sumptuously hyper-Wagnerian – this is early Schoenberg – and the three singers need to be not just inside the text but able to ride the musical swell. The conductor needs to be alert to the ebb and flow and especially careful to tease out the colours in a musical canvas occasionally think with paint.

After a slightly hesitant orchestral opening – Rattle and Gardner feel more organic here – Thielemann gets into his stride, crafting Schoenberg’s heaving edifice to good effect.    Staatskapelle Dresden are magnificent – as they are throughout – and early on the recording feels natural and sufficiently detailed. The problems arise with the first vocal contributions. Stephen Gould’s worn tenor sounds carefully managed, wobbling unacceptably as the voice is pushed higher. Perhaps surprisingly he has the demanding top notes where many baritonal Waldemars fall short, but the voice is too unlovely throughout to get my vote.

As Tove, Camilla Nylund is also not on her steadiest form at first although the voice seems to warm up as she goes along. Her soprano is sumptuous enough but a true sense of through line is sometimes missing. Neither singer is a patch on Thomas Moser for Sinopoli, Brandon Jovanovich for Markus Stenz, Jessye Norman for Ozawa or the textually insightful Karita Mattila for Rattle. By the third song – Waldemar’s galloping “Roß! Mein Roß!” – the recording is beginning to sound congested; the bass sounding a little leaden.

Elsewhere, the soloists are excellent. Christa Mayer’s rich-toned Wood Dove spins her story with imagination aided by Thielemann’s deft orchestral pacing. Kwangchul Youn is well-caught as the querulous peasant cowering in fear as the Wild Hunt rides over his home and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s characterful tenor has fun with Klauss, the king’s jester.

Parts Two and Three suffer from the same slightly woolly bass and congestion at the big climaxes, though Thielemann is adept at managing the filigree textures in the spookier sections (Klauss Narr is beautifully sprung). By now though Gould feels thoroughly exhausted, which rather takes the edge off the sense of mounting horror.

The chorus – a combination of the MDR Rundfunkchor and the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden – are generally first-rate, though Thielemann drives them a little hard and the muddy recording simply can’t cope at times. Fortunately, the concluding Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind brings out the best all round with some gorgeous orchestral playing and a commanding and imaginative Franz Grundheber – luxury casting as the Speaker – soaring vocally in the final phrases just like Hotter used to do.

All in all, a mixed blessing then, but worth it for Thielemann and Grundheber if nothing else.

Listen on Apple Music

Schoenberg
Gurre-Lieder
Stephen Gould t, Camilla Nylund s, Christa Mayer ms, Franz Grundheber spk, Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Profil Medien PH20052 (2CD)

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