CLASSICAL: Sunrise in C major

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder

BBCSO/Andrew Davis, RFH, SBC, London

Now that Gurrelieder is widely accepted as one of the ripest plums of musical late-romanticism, isn't it time someone tried to work out what on earth (or wherever) it's all about? Part 1 is relatively clear. King Waldemar has a mistress, Tove, whom he loves deliriously. His Queen, Helwig, understandably unsympathetic, has Tove killed - somehow. In the brief Part 2, the grief-maddened Waldemar decides that God is in need of a good dressing-down.

It is with Part 3 that things become murky. Waldemar (now dead) leads his ghostly horde on a wild ride, and contemplates storming Heaven. A peasant worries about the effect of all this supernatural activity on his livestock; the King's Fool asks tetchily why he's caught up in it all. The cock crows, the ghosts return to their graves. A narrator compares the summer wind to a wild hunt. Then the sun comes up - a radiant C major for chorus and full, vast orchestra - and it's all over. Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau made more sense of that closing narration than anyone else I've heard. "Earth's transient summer dreams are long since dust!" Yes, one could see how that related to the passing but indescribably beautiful love music in Part 1. This must have been the most musical speech-song ever heard on a London stage: how Fischer-Dieskau seemed to ache to burst into song! Listening to the final chorus one didn't simply witness a sunrise, one lived it. But what a bizarre conclusion. Does human love and longing really count for so little?

A thoroughly inspired, splendidly executed performance can at least temporarily silence nagging doubts. This wasn't all splendour and inspiration. Tension, and orchestral polish wilted a little before the final narration. But the playing of the expanded BBC Symphony Orchestra was generally magnificent and spirited, and Andrew Davis's direction had the grand sweep the music needs. Kurt Azesberger (tenor) was on fine form as the Fool, though perhaps humour is not Schoenberg's strong point. As the doomed Waldemar, Jon Frederic West (tenor) was solid, except at the extremes of his range, but not quite captivating. Some members of the audience plainly enjoyed soprano Julia Varady's Tove more than I did. There were a few lovely moments, but a lot more of it sounded effortful.

By contrast, Ann Murray (mezzo) made the Wood-dove's monologue deeply touching, and ultimately chilling. Every word counted, every phrase was sensitively shaped. Then Part 1 came to its astonishing conclusion: a minor chord slammed down by brass, fading to coarse woodwind, then soft strings, drums and deep bass brass tolling beneath.

Whatever the passing grumbles, this Gurrelieder was full of such thrills. If you want to know what a C major sixth chord sounds like played by 25 wind, 25 brass, percussion, four harps, chorus and a platform full of strings, tune in to the Radio 3 broadcast tomorrow at 7.30pm.

Stephen Johnson