Classical / Gurrelieder Usher Hall

There was a gigantic calm about Claudio Abbado's performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, which was at odds with the hysterical and surrealistic content of the work. Only here and there was composure ruffled; Marjana Lipovsek's singing of the Wood-Dove, for example, was darkly coloured, grimly elegiac, the voice full of pain and horror. And there was a kind of slow panic in Hans Hotter's Speaker, the voice edged with surprise and fear that shifted occasionally out of Sprechgesang into true song, the great artist's voice still compelling in spite of the amplification.

But in most respects, one was struck by the smoothness, the expertness, of this Usher Hall performance on Wednesday. The young musicians of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester are supremely able. They throw off everything with a cool proficiency that takes all the risk out of the massive and complex textures, and they are equally able to etch the half-light of the work's opening, full of sporadic murmurings, as the overwhelming climaxes. Like a great professional orchestra, they reliably field players of maturity and real personality in this piece with its many string solos. And they can play very quietly, even the huge brass section sounding sometimes distant and ghostly.

Naturally, they know Abbado's ways, since he created the orchestra. This Italian musician is an uncanny master of the Viennese style, with its catch of breath in the beat, its lingering in mid-phrase, its animal warmth. Together, orchestra and conductor present an image of gloss and polish, quality music-making for the CD age.

But it makes you wonder what became of Schoenberg the expressionist. It would make little sense to perform Erwartung in this de luxe style. The vocal soloists abetted the impression. Jane Eaglen as Tove was her superb, all-embracing self, combining breadth with brilliance, making everything into a lyric evocation; and Thomas Moser (Waldemar) sounded imperturbable, singing through the consonants in a handsome, level tone, ably suggesting Siegfried the lover, never Siegfried the hero.

Kurt Azesberger, deputising for Philip Langridge who was ill, sang the part of the Jester in a simple, almost childlike style, without projection or overacting. In the small part of the Peasant, Franz Grundheber was more massive and rhetorical.

The Festival Chorus and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir provided the right kind of clamouring uproar. But this work goes beyond mere passion into magic and madness; its subject is the unhinged mind. All hinges were in order in this impeccable performance.

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