Vienna in the early decades of the 20th century was a hotbed of invention in music, literature, politics and the visual arts.
The achievements of that period are being celebrated in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s ambitious new series, City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935.
The nine month series, the first under the Philharmonia’s new Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, involves concerts in 18 cities across Europe as well as partnerships with galleries and museums in London and Vienna.
Opening the series was this performance of Schoenberg’s cantata, Gurrelieder. Schoenberg’s music isn’t renowned for its mass market appeal, but a performance of Gurrelieder is nonetheless a special event and the Royal Festival Hall was filled to capacity for this concert. The work requires five soloists, a narrator, three male choruses, a further mixed chorus, and hugely expanded orchestra. Amazingly enough, Schoenberg was just 25 in 1900 when he commenced this enormously ambitious piece. Along with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony of 1906, it represents the greatest extent to which musical forces were expanded in the late romantic era.
The music of Gurrelieder is set to texts by the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen, themselves based on Danish medieval legends, telling the story of the lovers King Waldemar and Tove. When Waldemar’s wife Queen Helwig discovers the affair, she has Tove killed. Waldemar curses God and is punished for his blasphemy, but the lovers are eventually reunited in eternity.
Part 1, written when Schoenberg was under the influence of Wagner, includes a series of songs for Waldemar and Tove in a lush, romantic style. Under Salonen’s baton, the orchestral response was excellent, combining passionate yearning with powerful climaxes. Unfortunately, Stig Andersen’s tenor voice had insufficient heft and resonance for difficult role of Waldemar, while Soile Isokoski was somewhat anonymous as Tove. The quality of the singing picked up, however, with Monica Groop’s portrayal of the Wood Dove, which had both projection and character.
In the remainder of the work, Salonen emphasised the expressionist modernity of Schoenberg’s writing, notably the anguished orchestral outbursts of Part 2 and the vivid orchestral textures of Part 3 (some splendid playing here from the large percussion section). The Wild Hunt was especially exciting, helped by the superbly articulate tenors and basses of the Philharmonia Voices.
Strong solos were provided by Ralf Lukas as the Peasant and Andreas Conrad as Klaus. The most interesting performance, however, was Barbara Sukowa’s characterful portrayal of the Speaker, a part requiring a Sprechstimme delivery. Sukowa has long experience of the role, having recorded it with Abbado as long ago as 1995.
With the addition of the sopranos and altos of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, the work closed in ecstatic diatonic splendour. Whatever the flaws elsewhere, the orchestral and choral contributions were outstanding, and all concerned were awarded a standing ovation.