DOUBLE PLAY: Getting even with God

Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder Sharon Sweet, Siegfried Jerusalem, Marjana Lipovsek, Philip Langridge, Barbara Sukowa, Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Claudio Abbado (DG 439 944-2; two CDs)
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The Independent Culture
King Waldemar loves the maiden Tove. Unfortunately the Queen finds out and has her discreetly eradicated. Waldemar swears to get even with God for this, and after his death, he leads his spectral hordes in an assault on heaven. Then the sun comes up, there's a tremendous hymn to nature, and the ghosts vanish without so much as a whimper.

It's a strange, dramatically lop-sided story but, in a good performance of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg's fabulously inventive music can warm every detail to life, and somehow that end makes perfect sense. One can defy God, but who can argue with a sunrise?

So is this a good performance? There are some good performances in it. Philip Langridge is on sparkling form as the King's ghostly Fool; Marjana Lipovsek finds a suitably ominous note in the Wood-dove's lament; and, although a female Speaker may take a little getting used to at first, Barbara Sukowa throws herself very convincingly into Schoenberg's idiosyncratic use of "speech-song".

The amplified Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra provides some sumptuous moments, and the combined choirs at the end are truly uplifting - the highlight of the recording for me. Somehow it doesn't quite cohere, though, and the love music in Part 1 was a big let-down: Siegfried Jerusalem is pleasing, though not stirring, here; Sharon Sweet makes a fine, full sound, but her long phrases remain earth-bound.

Somehow Abbado and the orchestra fail to carry it through: there's a lack of what the Germans call Schwung (somewhere between "swing" and "ardour") - perhaps the one thing this music needs most of all. Satisfying moments then, but not a satisfying whole.


Nature surrenders to a night of love, and the rustle of Schoenberg's dusky texturing grows iridescent. Abbado makes real chamber music of it. His innate sense of refinement is everywhere. With Tove's first confession of love comes the palest and tenderest of clarinet solos, with the "rapturous kiss" of her climactic high C comes that voluptuous alliance of Vienna strings and horns. At times like this, it's the most fetching sound in the world.

Sharon Sweet's Tove is good, happier in full cry than in her many moments of intimacy, where sweet nothings must float on a mere breath of air. Siegfried Jerusalem can still manage such endearments in his lovely head voice, but the top is tired now and he's starting to resort to falsetto tricks. Philip Langridge has a few of those up his sleeve with Klaus, the Jester, and I don't think I've ever heard the splashy, cartoonish brilliance of his music more sharply characterised than it is here.

And then cynicism gives way to supreme delicacy in the ensuing "Wild Hunt" melodrama, a new dawn casting its healing light over everything. Abbado brings an actress, Barbara Sukowa, to the Speaker's role, and her keening sprechgesang brings a foretaste of Pierrot Lunaire into the equation. But, for now, it's the rising of the sun and not the moon that makes for saturating C major and Abbado draws us towards the final chord as if it were the very last in the whole culture of musical romanticism. Thrilling sound.

Would I choose it over Riccardo Chailly's Decca recording? Probably not. Brigitte Fassbaender's Wood-dove (more penetrating than Lipovsek is here) and Hans Hotter's Speaker are reasons enough for going with Chailly. But we are now spoilt for choice, that's for sure.