Classical CD Reviews

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder; Verklaerte Nacht – Soloissts/ Prague Philharmonic Choir/ Bertini Israeli Choir/ Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Helicon (2 CDs)

Zubin Mehta and assembled forces address two lushly romantic scores by Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps the culmination of and the farewell to the 19th Century post-Wagner aesthetic.

Published on January 22, 2013

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder; Verklaerte Nacht – Soloissts/ Prague Philharmonic Choir/ Bertini Israeli Choir/ Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Helicon (2 CDs)

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder; Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4 – Daniel Kirch, tenor/ Jennifer Wilson, sop./ Daniela Denschlag, contralto/ Niklas Bjoreling Rygert, tenor/ Alexander Tsymbalyuk, bass/ Itay Tiran, speaker/ Prague Philharmonic Choir/ The Gary Bertini Israeli Choir/ Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Helicon 02-9658 (2 CDs), 56:09; 75:46 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The history of great recordings of Schoenberg’s ecstatic, post-Wagnerian oratorio or scenic cantata Gurrelieder (1901; rev. 1911) has resided with two conductors, Leopold Stokowski and Rafael Kubelik. Zubin Mehta’s Tel Aviv performances of the Romantic side of Arnold Schoenberg, Gurrelieder (July 2011) and Verklaerte Nacht (April 2006), add a new set of classics to the recorded canon, especially the Gurrelieder, which had come to represent for the Schoenberg of 1913 that horrid “Pathos. . .protracted ten-ton scores from erected towers” that he had come to loathe and reacted away from in his new-found aesthetics of the twelve-tone method. Originally a song-cycle conceived after the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885), the music found an enthralled listener in Schoenberg’s teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, who exhorted Schoenberg to expand the short songs into a large orchestral cycle that would embrace the Wagnerian themes of exoticism, supernaturalism, love and death in a musical syntax derived from Tristan and Siegfried.

Dominant among motifs in Jacobsen’s narrative lies the eternal cycle of Nature, which encompasses the three-part melodrama, in which King Waldemar expresses his love for mistress Tove, who suffers assassination at the hands of the Queen’s lover. A Wood Dove announces the tragic fate of Tove, so Waldemar curses God for His cruelty. In Part III the ghosts of Waldemar and his vassals rise from their graves in order to indulge in wild hunts, a ceaseless damnation that finds release only through the Summer Wind, which dispels the past in a refreshed sunrise. Schoenberg employs leitmotifs much as Wagner had; and the harmony – quite informed by Schoenberg’ musical evolution in the years he had put this score aside, as in the Orchestral Interlude in Part I – assumes a daring progressive character as the Flying Dutchman motif of spiritual wandering becomes apparent. The medievalism of the text finds its counter in the erotic harmonic syntax, as representative to the Viennese ethos as the paintings of Gustav Klimt.  The two lovers, Waldemar and Tove, unite in a blissful passion, while the imagery proceeds from an ominous dusk, to the dark of death and blasphemy, to the epiphany of a new sunrise.  That such a pattern, literary and musical, corresponds to several themes in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony is surely no accident.

After a totally luscious, pantheistic orchestral Prelude – more than homage to Wagner’s Forest Murmurs – Waldemar and Tove exchange their troth, surrounded by the magical milieu of their castle of Gurre, near Elsinore. The lyric tenor of Daniel Kirch intones the role of Waldemar with a secure sense of pathos and erotic sincerity. His “sorgenlos” (free of care) at the end of his first song rings with sensual bliss. Tove responds, courtesy of lyric soprano Jennifer Wilson, with a moon-struck vision of “reflected glory from God’s dreams” to express her own ecstasy.  The pace of longing, lust, and mutual ardor and sensual idolatry increases to the Schoenberg equivalent of Wagner’s liebesnacht, in which “torches glow and burn so with delight.” The conceits increasingly resemble those of metaphysical poet John Donne, in which sexual love paradoxically claims an Original Innocence: “So let us drain our golden goblets in a toast to Him, mighty, adorning Death (“verschoenenden Tod”): for we go to the grave, like a smile, dying in a rapturous kiss.” The Wood Dove’s (Daniela Denschlag)  extended proclamation of Tove’s death ends Part I, a glowing dramatic vehicle for this contralto.

Part II, abbreviated as it is, has tenor Kirch call God the eternal tyrant and malefactor, for having deprived Waldemar of his beloved Tove. So Waldemar will don “the jester’s cap” in order to rebuke God for His shame. Part III, The Wild Hunt, invokes the Apocalypse, both Waldemar and a Peasant (bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk) describing – with appropriately imagistic music – an unholy uprising of dead warriors and their steeds, the imagery reminiscent of the Cazalis poem used by Saint-Saens for his own Danse Macabre or from the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. Only the Peasant’s innate Christian faith protects him from unholy menace. The Chorus of Waldemar’s Men intones a hunt-scene worthy of our contemporary “undead” films with Sam Raimi special effects. In the midst of spiritual pandemonium, Waldemar wishes to raise the specter of his beloved Tove. Klaus the Jester (Niklas Bjoerling Rygert), in a manner after Loki in Wagner and the more sarcastic elements in Mahler, laments that he, too, must participate in Waldemar’s obsessive quest; and this ruthless hunt has destroyed Klaus’s notion that death brought “perfect rest.” Waldemar, in his last utterance, affirms his conviction that he and Tove will re-unite, that he and his wild horde will, if need be, invade heaven itself. With the crowing of the cock, Waldemar’s unearthly army returns to the grave, hoping to rest in peace.

In some manner reflective of the Liszt Faust-Sinfonie or Scriabin’s First Symphony, the Gurrelieder ends with an orchestral “Prelude: The Summer Wind’s Wild Hunt” that announces a (first through a speaker-narration) a vision of rebirth. In Scriabin, the re-awakening occurs through Art. In Liszt, the “Eternal Feminine” of Goethe delivers transcendence. Here, the Speaker’s (Itay Tiran) semi-sprechstimme incantation of “transient” creatures of earth and air – perhaps an analogue of Ariel or Caliban – transform the “clear mirror of a lake” into sunshine and life. Was Schoenberg’s fertile imagination already dazzled by Moonstruck Pierrot? The annunciation of Radiance, however ironic, our collective worship of the Sun, ends with a pantheistic chorus we might have heard in the film The Egyptian, with its own celebration of the Sun God. Brilliant recorded sound, courtesy of Eitan Shamai.

For the full orchestral string version of Verklaerte Nacht, after the Richard Dehmel poem, suffice it to say that Mehta’s may be the first performance I’ve heard with the IPO since the Kletzki rendition two generations ago. Though few interpreters have rivaled Mitropoulos in this music, Mehta and his responsive forces fill out the original sextet texture with a lush, slowly evocative erotic presence. This score, too, inverts our usual notions of redemption, something like Massenet’s Thais, in which the man’s faith in love restores to innocence the soul of a fallen woman.

—Gary Lemco




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