Schoenberg’s splendidly unclassifiable ‘Gurrelieder’ was both an attempt to beat Wagner at his own game and a declaration that the game was over.
It’s by turns a song-cycle, a cantata, and a Gothic melodrama with ghosts and grotesques, and though it’s strictly unstageable, it cries out for theatrical presentation. And it makes huge demands on its performers who must include, in addition to a brass-heavy symphony orchestra, three men’s choruses, an eight-part choir, five solo singers, and a speaker.
Its opening section consists of nine love-songs between King Waldemar of Denmark and the maiden Tovelille, and for these to work we need big voices which can reflect the oceanic emotions of the libretto, and also hold their own against the orchestra in full spate. This the soprano Angela Denoke, as the beloved, managed resonantly to do, but tenor Simon O’Neill’s Waldemar sounded thin and colourless; only when mezzo Katarina Karneus appeared as the doom-prophesying Wood-Dove did the drama spark into life. But since the other side of the drama lies in the detail of the orchestration, and since Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were in fine form, the work was to that extent honoured, as it was by the four big choirs. Anyone wanting to use the BBC’s ‘listen again’ facility is recommended to start with Karneus, then to skip on to Jeffrey Lloyd-Robert’s Klaus the Fool, and to the extraordinary Sprechgesang of Wolfgang Schöne.
Over the past few years the violist Lawrence Power has become Britain’s more than adequate answer to Russia’s Yuri Bashmet, acting as many composers’ player of choice when a new work is to be premiered. Thus it was that he came to be giving the UK premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s ‘Remnants of Songs... An Amphigory’. This translates as ‘a piece of nonsensical writing in verse’, which is as little help as the literary references she also drags in. But it needs no such crutches: this continuous five-movement work comes across as a radiantly clever exercise, where what seems at first like musical entropy is in fact a brilliantly organised interplay of textures, colours, and motivic ideas. Called on to inhabit the stratospheric realm of harmonics rather than that of ordinary notes, Power performed with effortless virtuosity; under Susanna Malkki’s direction, the Philharmonia Orchestra played like virtuosi themselves.