Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Schönberg’s mighty Gurrelieder opens the LPO season with thrilling results

24 September 2022

Size really does matter when it comes to Schönberg’s colossal choral work at the Royal Festival Hall.

(Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

There can be few works in the standard repertoire that match Schönberg’s Gurrelieder for size, audacity and complexity. This is why it’s so seldom heard in the concert hall, as it not only requires a huge orchestra – think Wagner on steroids – four harps, eight flutes, eleven horns (four doubling on Wagner tubas), seven trombones, but also two choirs, five soloists and a speaker. Put simply, it’s one of the most ambitious choral works ever written, making exacting demands on everyone involved.

Scheduling this gigantic work was certainly a statement of intent on behalf of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and its Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner. Having been deprived of works of this size over the last couple of years, Schönberg’s lush, late-romantic retelling of the old Danish legend of Gurre Castle filled the hall with a torrent of sound, the likes of which we haven’t heard here in quite some time. 

Keeping such colossal forces in check isn’t easy, but Gardner – who knows this score well, and has recorded it to critical acclaim with his Norwegian forces – recognises the challenges it presents and met them head on. Achieving the right orchestral balance in order to avoid drowning out the soloists in such a densely orchestrated piece is no mean feat, but Gardner skillfully managed to ensure they were audible at all times.

That’s not to say his role was solely one of ensuring decibel levels never got out of control. On the contrary, as his conducting was attuned to every nuance in the piece. There is plenty of filigree delicacy in Schönberg’s scoring, which Gardner was keen to highlight, no more so than in the evocative Prelude with its shimmering strings and languorous trumpet solo. Alert to every quicksilver change in the score, his command of such a rich orchestral tapestry was never in question. The playing of the augmented LPO was exemplary – every section covered themselves in glory from start to finish. 

“…it’s one of the most ambitious choral works ever written…”

Alex Jennings (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

Without a set of soloists up to the gargantuan task required of them, the overall impact of the work can feel diluted. Not so here, as you’d be hard pushed to find a more keenly balanced, thrillingly voiced lineup than had been assembled on this occasion. David Butt Philip was as good a Waldemar as you’re likely to encounter these days. For a part that demands the stamina of a Tristan, and the lyricism of a Lohengrin, Butt Philip managed to combine the two in a performance that was at turns declamatory, yet warmly voiced. And thanks to Gardiner’s sensitive support, he never had to push the voice – he made this fiendishly difficult part sound effortless. He was vividly involved in the German texts – his diction was exemplary – and cemented his position as one of the most exciting dramatic tenors this country’s produced in years. He takes on the roles of Walther (Meistersinger) in Vienna, the Prince (Rusalka) in London and the Emperor (Die Frau ohne Schatten) in San Francisco this season – proof that his star is most certainly in the ascendent.

Lise Lindstrom, freed from the shackles of Puccini’s icy princess, was heartbreaking as Tove. For a singer whose repertoire includes most of the dramatic soprano roles she brought a rare tenderness and voluptuousness to the role. Yes, she had the necessary volume to ride the orchestra when required, but it was in the more reflective passages where her artistry really shone. As the Wood Dove, Karen Cargill imparted her tragic news with refulgent warmth, her tone full of sadness and pity. She was in sovereign voice, and infused her singing throughout with a wide range of colours, and pointed the text impeccably.

There was notable support from Robert Murray as Klaus the Fool and James Creswell as the Peasant – both making their mark. One of the crucial parts is that of the Speaker who, through sprechstimme, narrates the introduction to the final chorus. In order to achieve more immediacy, Gardner wanted this performed in English, so a translation was commissioned from Jeremy Sams. As always, when translating from the original language there are losses and gains. Yes, actor Alex Jennings’ delivery was forthright, even if at times he didn’t quite capture the essence of the sprechstimme, but the guttural alliteration of the German words was lost. Given the English text was also projected on the surtitles, sticking to the original might have been the better option.

Both choirs launched into the final, life-enhancing chorus with thrilling vigour, producing a wall of sound that pinned you to the back of your seat – that final, seemingly unending ecstatic C major chord that brings the work to a close never fails to bring a lump to the throat, and had the desired effect here. This was a hugely satisfying start to the season, and an evening of fine music making that will live long in the memory.

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