Next month Sir Simon Rattle takes up his post as the London Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Conductor, and if any doubts remained of this being a perfect match, then Saturday night’s Prom will have dispelled them.
Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder rarely gets an outing, largely because of the massive forces involved (it’s in the Mahler 8 bracket: Saturday night’s performance involved 150 instrumentalists and over 300 singers), but also because Schoenberg’s name isn’t necessarily guaranteed to attract an audience, who fear the challenge of a serial piece. The work, however, was written over thirteen years, and, despite Schoenberg having developed the twelve-tone system during that period, its musical language is pure late-Romantic, putting it alongside works by Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss.
Rattle exerted a perfect control of the piece, and the LSO responded – squeezing out every drop of its lush orchestration and Romantic sensibility: the scintillating harp-and-woodwind opening; the sumptuous string passages accompanying the early song-cycle; the magnificently solid brass throughout; the hauntingly muted chorus of Wagner tubas before Part 3; the spooky rattling of chains for the Wild Hunt; the tricksy twitchy woodwinds for Klauss’s ravings; the lacy meanderings during the Sprechgesang section; and the cataclysmic orchestral/choral sunrise-finale – surely a contender for six of the best minutes in all music.
With such a large orchestra behind them, it is a challenge for all six soloists; needless to say, the women, with their ringing harmonics, fared better than the men. Eva-Maria Westbroek has a massive voice – it is full-blooded and creamy by turns – and it worked supremely well against the vast forces – the final notes of Tove’s ‘Sterne Jubeln’ were magnificent. Karen Cargill’s mezzo is smooth and sumptuous – the sound of velvet – and it added a splendid cooing quality to the Wood-Dove’s ‘Tauben von Gurre’. Christopher Purves’ Peasant, and Peter Hoare’s Klauss were both excellent, the former sonorously hefty, the latter giving a mercurial, almost-Loge account of the part. Thomas Quasthoff’s Sprechgesang in the penultimate movement was spot-on – full of quirky rises and falls, portraying the fickle fairy quality of a dreamy summer night. Most of the solo work, however, falls to Waldemar, and the demand on the singer is enormous – not least in that in not a few of his numbers, he has to compete with orchestral brass. Simon O’Neill has a wonderful Heldentenor tone to his voice, and it was a delight to listen to in ‘So tanzen die Engel’ and ‘O Wunderliche Tove’, where the orchestra is relatively subdued, but, alas, when the brass kicked in in ‘Ross! Mein Ross!’ and other louder numbers, he didn’t have the power to prevail, and was somewhat swamped (doubtless, though, the BBC sound engineers will have created a more balanced broadcast).
It is a pity that the choir gets so little to do in the work – a couple of Wild-Hunt men’s choruses half way through, and the last full-choir movement – but the trio of Simon-Halsey-directed choirs (CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus and the Barcelona-based Orfeó Catalá) on Saturday made a tremendous impression. The alarming ‘Holla’ of the Wild Hunt rising from their graves and the sibilance of ‘Hier ist das Schloss’ were satisfyingly chilling, and – despite the distance between sections of the choir (they were fully ranged in the choir seats either side of the organ) – their co-ordination of the complex internal rhythms of ‘Seht die Sonne’ was exemplary. Just when you felt that the last held note of the piece couldn’t get any louder, the choir’s final increase in volume assured a breathtaking end to an outstanding performance.