How fitting that the opening concert of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonia series “City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935” should conclude with the mightiest wake-up call in all music.
Fitting because an awful lot of night music emerged from those fertile years. It was a time not just for dreams but expressionist nightmares. And for all that it ends in a C major sunrise, that’s essentially what Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder is, too.
At the Royal Festival Hall they’d even devised a rudimentary light show to spirit us into eventide. I’m not sure that said a great deal for the audience’s ability to use its own imagination and let Schoenberg dictate the mood. But doubtless Salonen was in agreement that it made for a more subdued atmosphere as he and the Philharmonia unveiled the composer’s diaphanous and highly sensory soundscape. Part one of Gurrelieder is essentially a love duet waiting to happen. That it never does lends a whole new dimension to the Tristan und Isolde-esque concept of a union consummated only in death. Enduring ecstasy in isolation were the lovely Soile Isokoski and heldentenor stalwart Stig Andesen, neither with quite what it takes to ride even Schoenberg’s chamber-like deployment of his vast orchestra. Isokoski, in particular, lacked the vocal girth to carry word-colour deep into the hall. Not her fault, just wishful casting. Even the rapturous kiss of her top C was barely audible.
The soulful contralto of Monica Groop faired far better in the Woodbird’s sorrowful song bringing an evocative plangency down among the string basses and bass clarinet with the words “Tove is silent”. Her vibrant top made much of the dramatic pay-off – “Helwig’s falcon…has slaughtered Gurre’s dove” – with Salonen eliciting a great roar of anguish from the orchestra.
Indeed, the more radical Gurrelieder became the better he liked it. Part two’s “Wild Hunt” rose from muted Wagner tubas (the eeriest sound in music) to the all bones and chain rattling rampage of the undead (Schoenberg’s surreal take on the summoning of the vassals from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung) to vivid effect while the “Klaus, the Jester” episode – Schoenberg’s scoring at its most fantastical – was despatched with great virtuosity.
The composer might even have endorsed the quirkily disembodied effect of amplification on Barbara Sukowa’s sing-songing Summer Wind melodrama and as for that mighty awakening, I doubt even he could have imagined a crescendo of quite such magnitude on the final C major chord.