United Kingdom Schoenberg: Soloists, London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Neville Creed), London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.9.2022. (MB)
Schoenberg – Gurrelieder
Waldemar – David Butt Philip
Tove – Lise Lindstrom
Wood-Dove – Karen Cargill
Klaus-Narr – Robert Murray
Peasant – James Creswell
Speaker – Alex Jennings
The pandemic is not over. But I remember thinking, when some sort of minimal concert life was intermittently starting up again — socially distanced concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields with a maximum audience of thirty, the first and second series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts at St John’s Waterloo, and so on — what resumption of a full range of musical life would entail for me. I chose three examples, which have remained in my mind ever since: a large-scale work by Richard Strauss, a full staging of Die Meistersinger, and a performance of Gurrelieder. Strauss came a little while ago, in a performance of the Alpine Symphony — though I await a Frau ohne Schatten. Meistersinger is yet to come. On this Wagner-and-Strauss-starved island, we should probably not hold our collective breath. Nevertheless, even if accompanied by precious little other Schoenberg, Gurrelieder has returned.
It was, if truth be told, a somewhat mixed performance we heard from Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra: well sung and played, Gardner’s conducting more variable yet growing in stature, with one major, well-nigh catastrophic miscalculation for the closing melodrama. The Royal Festival Hall is far from ideal for this work, yet Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonia performances in 2009 and 2018 (review click here) had seemed far more at home. Contrast was glaring in the opening bars. Both Salonen and Gardner achieved great clarity; whatever the Festival Hall’s shortcomings, it probably helped in that respect. Gardner and the LPO, however, sounded oddly mechanical, as opposed to pointillistic; the strange impression was of oddly balanced strings and flutes out of sync, even when they were not. And even once the music had settled, Gardner imparted an oddly regimented quality to it, moving bar-to-bar rather than via paragraph. There were, though, some inviting, dangerous, Tristan-esque sounds from the LPO that prepared the way splendidly for David Butt Philip’s first entry.
Butt Philip showed himself, without exaggeration, to be one of the finest Waldemars I have heard. His way with words and shaping of vocal lines were beyond reproach. As the first part progressed, his emotional range widened to encompass, as does the work, the impetuous, the angry, and also greater dynamic range. The ardent lyricism as he told of Waldemar’s pride, likened unto that of Christ seated once more next to His father, was an object lesson in dramatic delivery that yet retained a Lieder-singer’s attention to detail. Lindstrom offered a womanly Tove with Nordic steel: no false purity, and again a performance that took its leave from the verse. The LPO generally sounded gorgeous. Earlier on, Gardner might have lingered to advantage. Greater flexibility did come, though, whether in the coital stillness of Tove’s response or the ghostly, again Tristan-like brass of ‘unsel’ger Geschlechter’ foretold, developing via frightening double basses into something more ominous. Waldemar’s words ‘Unsere Zeit ist um’ offered ecstatic contradiction, already tinged with irony concerning fate and the future. Yet the sweetness of the interlude introducing Tove’s last words consoled, as it should. Could Lindstrom’s delivery here have been more lyrical? Probably. Her care for verbal expression nonetheless offered compensation enough, and the climax on ‘Kuss’, her final word, sent shivers down the spine, with credit due to all concerned: soloist, conductor, and orchestra.
The Wood-Dove’s song was, quite simply, outstanding. Karen Cargill’s deep, rich tone furthered an interpretation once more unquestionably rooted in the text. Rising out of the orchestra, this was a forest messenger one knew one could trust, however much one wanted her words not to be true. Gardner here captured to a tee the crucial role of rhythm, not least in relation to harmony. It made for a gripping conclusion to the first part, the strange decision to break for an interval all the more regrettable.
That said, the brief Part Two plunged us, orchestrally and vocally, straight back into the action. Butt Philip showed anger, increasingly blasphemous, without hectoring. Crucially, he continued to sing, never shouting, and in highly variegated fashion too. Gardner communicated well the fulfilment of those early ghostly sounds in the opening of Part Three, Butt Philip and the LPO audibly responding by taking us on a journey to new, more bracingly modernist sounds, though the direction of travel rightly remained unclear, a veritable Götterdämmerung Hallowe’en from male chorus and James Creswell’s Peasant alike highly impressive. Robert Murray’s Klaus-Narr was nicely animated, communicating like Cargill’s Wood-Dove with evident sincerity and truthfulness. Again, this was music that was sung, here in Straussian fashion, albeit more grateful for the tenor. Meistersinger-ish tendencies in the orchestra were welcome and revealing, preparing the way for that extraordinary experience in the prelude to the Speaker’s appearance of material transformed before our ears, almost against our (even Schoenberg’s?) will. History’s demand, the material’s, or the drama’s? Why choose?
And then, talk about spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. The Speaker entered, perversely miked, and in English translation. One can perform Gurrelieder in English, I suppose, but then it should surely be the whole thing. The ‘effect’ was alienating in quite the wrong way, exacerbated by laboured, ac-tor-ly delivery on the part of Alex Jennings. The idea, it seems, was Gardner’s own; someone should have dissuaded him. For however sardonic, at times even vicious, the LPO sounded, this was a conceptual miscalculation that torpedoed the performance as a whole. How I longed for the inimitable Barbara Sukowa, icing on the cake for both of Salonen’s performances (as well as Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording). Even the strange, choral climax, sincere in its way yet knowing that such tonal sounds can no longer truly convince, failed through no fault of the chorus to salvage matters. A great pity indeed.